The Tragic Story of Lizzie Lou and Frances Irene

My grandmother with her second husband

I’m realizing a day late that yesterday would have been my maternal grandmother’s birthday. Her father died on Christmas Day in 1953, one year before I was born to his first grandchild, who he never even knew. I can imagine Christmas was not the usual kind of holiday for my Stark family but then I don’t really know. My mom was adopted away from them when she was 7 months old.

Relinquishing a child has lifelong consequences for women and for adoptees. Between 13–20% of birth mothers do not go on to have other children. For those in an era of birth control, a few may consciously feel that to have another child would be to betray the first child which they lost to adoption. For many, and especially in my grandmother’s generation, there was either no known reason for infertility or something about their life circumstances precluded having more children.

After receiving the adoption file from the state of Tennessee that they had previously denied my mother, only breaking her heart and motivation to search by informing her that her birth mother had died several years before, it took me forever to make real contact with one of my grandmother’s remaining family members – this one is a niece. She would actually be my mom’s cousin, that same generation of descendants. She is the warmest person and gave to me the gift my heart was yearning for, some intimate, personal memories of my grandmother along with this picture of her with her second husband.

In some belated post-Christmas communication with her today, I felt compelled to correct the seeming misperception that my mom was the child of the couple in this blog. Here was my reply –

My grandmother never had another child. My mom was her only child (and this is not uncommon among women who lose their first child in such a tragic manner). Her father appeared to have abandoned them, at least to my grandmother’s perception of events, though a super flood on the Mississippi River in early 1937 must have been a factor. My cousin that shares him as a grandfather with me, believes he cared deeply about family. So why did he not come to Memphis to rescue the two of them ? There is no one alive now that can answer that question for me and so, there it sits forever unanswered. Of course, once Georgia Tann knew about the precarious situation my mom and grandmother were in, she swooped in to acquire yet another human being to sell. Awful but a definite truth of it all. I am happy that my grandmother found happiness with her second husband after the divorce between her and my maternal grandfather occurred (and it didn’t happen until 3 years after they first married and my mom was already permanently beyond the reach of her original family). 

She later corrected that “seeming” misperception, of course, she knew my mom was not this man’s child.

It is a tragic story. Why my grandfather left her after only 4 months of marriage, causing her to be sent away to Virginia to have my mom, there is no one left alive to tell me. Why my grandfather didn’t respond to the letter from the Juvenile Court at Memphis when my grandmother came back with her baby, there is no one left alive to tell me. My grandmother was so desperate to find a way to stop my mom’s adoption that she called Georgia Tann’s office 4 days after being pressured into signing the surrender papers, under a threat of having Tann’s good friend, Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley, declare my grandmother an unfit mother (which she absolutely was not !!). Then, she took a train to New Orleans to prove to Miss Tann that she did have friends there who would take the two of them in resolving at least the issue of stability, even if only temporarily. Everything she tried to do, including taking my mom to Porter Leath orphanage for temporary care – FAILED tragically.

I have all of my original grandparent’s birthdates on my yearly calendar now. I wasn’t able to know them in life but I don’t forget them in death. Maybe someday in the nonphysical realm to which my grandparents (and adoptee parents) have all gone, I will meet them once again and receive the answers my heart cannot acquire in life.

Family Breakdown

Painting by Mary Cassatt 1889

Some reading I was doing today in a book titled Healing the Split by John E Nelson MD caused me to reflect on my mom’s adoption from a new perspective.

He writes – “While there remains much to learn and study, schizophrenogenic mothers bring a sense of incompleteness to child raising. This is not the same as that mother rejecting her child.”

“Quite the contrary. She regards him as particularly close and significant for her. She needs her child in a distorted way as much as her child needs her.”

This causes me to reflect on my maternal grandfather. His very young mother gave birth to him AFTER her husband, his father, has died. He was her first born (even as my grandmother was her father’s first born and his wife had died but only after the 5th child was born) and remained extraordinarily close to her all her life.

As much as I have blamed my maternal grandmother’s widowed father for not supporting her and my mother, when it appeared that my maternal grandfather (whether this was entirely true or not) had abandoned her at 4 months pregnant – there remains this question in my own heart that can never be answered now. Why did he leave her and why did he not come to her defense when she returned to Tennessee from Virginia after my mom had been born and reached out to him through the Juvenile Court in Memphis.

With the same kind of destructive failure to be supportive that I blame my maternal grandmother’s family for, I do also believe that my maternal grandfather’s mother was not supportive of him. I believe she was not happy he had married my grandmother nor did she want anything to do with the child they conceived while married.

I can never know this for certain but why didn’t he take her back to Arkansas with him, when his WPA job in Memphis ended ? It could be because he was dependent upon his mother since she was caring for his children after their mother, his wife, had died – so that he could go to work in Memphis.

So, I believe the deck was stacked against both of my mom’s natural parents raising her – by her very own grandparents, their father and their mother, one on each side of the parental equation.

Dr Nelson notes in his book – “Any movement toward autonomy leads him to feel that she cannot survive without him, added to his certainty that he cannot survive without her. For him to individuate would destroy them both.” Just the thoughts percolating in my own mind this afternoon related to my own familial adoption stories.

No, I would not give you false hope
On this strange and mournful day

Oh, little darling of mine
I can’t for the life of me
Remember a sadder day
I know they say let it be
But it just don’t work out that way
And the course of a lifetime runs
Over and over again

~ lyrics in Mother and Child Reunion by Paul Simon

Our First Union

We seek love, because of that very first union we had with another person – our mother.  Of course, at birth, it was necessary for us to separate physically from her, in order to grow and develop further.  Even after birth, and more importantly still, if we are totally separated from her – taken away from her and given to a complete stranger (as in adoption) to raise us – very deep within us, we know her still.

In the womb, we heard her voice, experienced her emotions, tasted the foods she preferred flavoring the amniotic fluid that cushioned us from the blows of a harsh world.  We were ever intimately connected to all the interior sounds, her heartbeat and other organs functioning.  They say a pregnant woman is a totally different gender from the typical male/female divide.

Though we celebrate our mother’s love in May, the month of February is full of constant reminders of the importance of love.  We send Valentine’s to other people, even children do this as they celebrate the day in school and church.  We remember to tell people we love them.

Yesterday was my own mother’s birthday.  I lost her to death in 2015.  The years fly by so quickly.  Most years on her birthday, I called her up on the telephone and we would talk for a very long time.  During a difficult time in my life, I remember going into the darkened kitchen to cry alone in my deep despair.  Suddenly, she was there.  Her maternal sense knew I needed comforting.

My mom was taken away from her mother after a brief visit.  Her desperate mother was struggling to find a way to support the two of them.  The father (she was married) inexplicably did not answer when her cry of distress through the Juvenile Court in Memphis was issued.  I like to believe he didn’t get the message in time to prevent my mom from being taken from her own mother by exploitation and unbearable pressure (surrender your child or be declared unfit by my good friend the Juvenile Court judge said Georgia Tann, the master baby thief, to my grandmother).

Separating a child from their original mother causes deep wounds.  I grieve that our country cruelly does this to migrant children.  It is an abomination.  Truly.

The Loss Of What Could Have Been

In the early 1990s, the Georgia Tann baby stealing and scandal re-emerged into the national consciousness.  She had been dead 40 years and narrowly escaped criminal charges when the complications of cancer took their toll.

60 Minutes did a feature on the scandal.  They introduced a woman named Denny Glad who lived in the Memphis Tennessee area and was doing her best to assist Tann’s victims in relocating the families they had been taken from.  At this time, adoption records were closed and firmly sealed behind the power of the state and kept from even adult adoptees.  My mom did reach out to Mrs Glad and was only able to receive some minimal information which was still more than she had before.

My mom took the next step and contacted the state.  They promised to do everything in their power to locate the parents my mom had been born to.  It was a lie.  There was definitely bureaucratic laziness in their less than motivated efforts.  My mom’s father was 20 years older than my mom’s mother when they married.  He had been dead 30 years at the time my mom made her effort to get her adoption file.

All the state did was inquire of the Arkansas Driver’s License about his status.  In the adoption file, it is indicated that he signed a separate set of surrender papers after a sheriff showed up at his mother’s home in Beech Grove Arkansas with those papers along with a subpoena to Juvenile Court in Memphis for the very next day – not much time to prepare – and anyway, I’m certain he was told the mother had already signed these and if he did too, he would not have to appear in court.

Had the state of Tennessee confirmed he was no longer living when my mom inquired, she would have been given her file.  She had at least 2 uncles and 2 aunts still living on her mother’s side and half-siblings on her father’s side.

My mom was devastated when the state of Tennessee told her that the woman who gave birth to her had died several years earlier.  It ended her hopes and dreams.  My mom was never told when the state of Tennessee decided to release the adoption files to victims or their immediate descendants in the late 1990s.  Thanks to that change in the law, I finally received her adoption file in October of 2017.

Safe Haven Babies

How does one preserve the identity and heritage of a baby dropped off under Safe Haven laws ? Is this a case where adoption is the only recourse ?

Safe-haven laws are statutes in the United States that decriminalize the leaving of unharmed infants in specially designated places.  The child then becomes a ward of the state.  Safe-haven laws typically allow the original parents to remain nameless in a court proceeding to determine the child’s status.

Some states treat safe-haven surrenders as child dependency or abandonment and a complaint is filed against the parents in juvenile court. Other states treat safe-haven surrenders as adoption surrenders and void all parental rights.

Of course, eventually, the ease of accessing inexpensive DNA tests and the matching sites 23 and Me as well as Ancestry may reunite the child with some member of their original family.

Yet, in the meantime, what to do ?

Critics argue that safe-haven laws undercut temporary-surrender laws, which provide the buffer of time for parents who are unsure about whether to keep or relinquish their children. Supporters argue that anonymity protects infants from potential abuse by their parents.  Fathers can find themselves shut out of the child’s life without their knowledge or consent.

And I still do not have the answer to my initial questions  . . .

 

 

 

 

When A Network Has Been Broken

What can we make of our parents, our grandparents, the network of kin who constitute our tribal past ?

If one is an adoptee, they can’t make anything out of it.

If one is the child of two adoptees, the past is shrouded in mystery.

So learning about my original grandparents was the beginning of a process of interrogating the past. Trying to understand why what happened to my parents had happened.

My dad’s situation is fairly easy to understand. It was the 1930s.  My grandmother had an affair with a married man. Giving her the benefit of my doubts, I doubt she knew he was married when the affair started. However, given the outcome – that she went to a Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers to have him, I’m fairly certain she knew he couldn’t be there for her when she found out she was pregnant. I suspect by then she knew he was married.

My mom’s will forever mystify me with questions that can’t be answered and so I find myself forced to live the questions. Some of the aspects, I have rather solid theories for.

Where it becomes muddied for me is why my grandmother’s husband was unwilling to be there for her. Why did he leave her 4 months pregnant ? Why didn’t he respond when she returned to Memphis, after having the baby in Virginia, and the Juvenile Court sought to inform him of his responsibilities ?

Poverty is certainly part of his equation. A superflood on the Mississippi River that was particularly severe in his home state of Arkansas is likely part of the equation too. Georgia Tann sensing a vulnerable young woman ripe for exploitation certainly put the screws to my grandmother.

At least, I know what my parents died not knowing. At least I know now who my grandparents were.  My own process now has been to re-establish my own tribal kin network.

Motherhood Impossible

The Porter Home – Leath Orphanage

My heart breaks for my young grandmother.  I’ve been delving back into the record of my mother’s adoption in the late 1930s that the state of Tennessee delivered to me in October of 2017.  I’m trying to remember how I felt as I first read through these pages now, as I attempt to craft the story of how I finally found out who all 4 of my original grandparents were, for a book I hope to someday publish.

While the adoption file brought a generous amount of detail into our story, it left me with a lot of questions I’ll never be able to answer.  What caused my grandfather leave my grandmother after they had actually married when she was 4 months pregnant ?  Why did she go from Memphis to McLean Virginia to give birth to my mother ?

It is clear she returned to Memphis with a very young infant of about 6 weeks in age and attempted to reach her husband, my mom’s father, via the Juvenile Court in Memphis that was under the direction of a somewhat controversial and yet highly respected Judge Camille Kelley.

It seemed no one much wanted to help my grandmother – not her baby’s father – nor her cousins who appear to have helped her initially but complained about spending $50 on the young mother and her baby’s needs.  Her own cousin told Georgia Tann that my grandmother lacked sufficient skills to financially support the two of them.

My grandmother turned to Porter-Leath, who started caring for children in 1850, for TEMPORARY CARE of her baby while she looked for employment and a means of making a life for the two of them.  It’s not clear when she left my mother in the orphanage, though within a month or two, the superintendent there alerted Georgia Tann to the cute blond white baby who she believed would soon be available for adoption.

Since Miss Tann had a paying customer that had been waiting for 6 months or longer for just such a baby, she went into high gear to pressure and exploit my grandmother’s circumstances and take the baby away from her.  An effort that she succeeded in as my mother was adopted at Memphis and transported by train far away to Nogales Arizona.  It appears my mom was inconsolable during that trip.

She had been placed in an orphanage for at least a couple of months.  Was briefly reunited with her mother to her obvious joy and then taken away by a complete stranger.  My adoptive grandmother noted in a followup letter to the agency that a doctor had my mom calmed down.  Phenobarbital, most likely.

Unidentified nurse holding
my mom at Porter-Leath