My Maternal Adoptive Grandmother

1989 among the Missouri Azaleas

I spent the afternoon yesterday reading through a thick stack of letters that I wrote to my grandmother. When my grandmother died, for whatever reason, when my mom found these, she thought to send them to me. I wondered why but now I understand. My grandmother adopted my mom from Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society’s Memphis branch. I find it amazing that she kept all of these letters from me but they are very detailed about my marriage in the early days, what living in Missouri was like for me and what we were doing to promote our home-based business than I would have imagined. I wonder that I had that much time to write so much to her but then, there is only one, maybe two, in any given month and not even one for every month.

I could have been given up for adoption as my mom conceived me when she was only a junior in high school and not wed. My dad had graduated from the same high school the year before and had only just started attending the University of New Mexico at Las Cruces. I tend to credit his parents (he was adopted also) for preserving me in the family but as everyone who would know is now deceased, it is only a guess on my part. That is the reason I was born in Las Cruces and not El Paso Texas where my sisters were born.

I had the good fortune to chose to be born on this grandmother’s wedding anniversary. In January back in 1994, I acknowledged a memory she shared with me in a letter from her (I haven’t kept most, if any of hers to me). It was a “special memory” of hers about the sunlight shining upon me while she held me in her arms and some beautiful thought she had at that moment. It seems to have been a sign from God meant just for her and since I too believe in signs of that sort, I understood. I am now married to the man that I am because I received a physical, unmistakable sign to give him a bit more attention than I might have otherwise. Of course, discernment is very important when it comes to trusting the signs one notices.

In fact, it is quite clear in re-reading these very old letters from the early 1990s, that I was closer to this grandmother in my spiritual understandings than anyone else in my family. My dad’s parents were very conservative, traditional Church of Christ adherents. My mom was very much Episcopal and my dad wasn’t at all a church goer until all of us girls had left the home and then, he said to me that he went to “keep my mom company.” After she died, when I was there helping him with life in general, I went with him because he continued to go to their little church alone or with my youngest sister who was assisting him so he could remain in his home.

These letters are full of the most amazing details of my early marriage and life here in Missouri. I could share these things with this grandmother because she grew up in Missouri in a house much like the one I live in and an environment that is very similar. In one letter, I write – “I truly love the woods, hills and streams of my home here in the Missouri Ozarks. Knowing that you grew up nearby gives me the feeling that I came back home.” (I had grown up in the desert of El Paso Texas, where my grandmother spent most of her own life and where she eventually passed away.) I also shared a lot with her about our efforts to promote and grow our fledgling business.

When I found this thick packet, I wondered why my mom sent it to me and didn’t simply throw it away. I don’t know if she bothered to read all of these letters or not – I can’t ask her since she died in Sept of 2015 – but I’m glad to have them today. Only a few of them can I even bear to throw away but the details of our early business are as precious as gold and I hope we can preserve them in protective sleeves in a binder. Maybe someday, our sons will enjoy reading about our adventures before we decided to become their parents.

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

Motherless Child

I was listening to an African-American group called Sweet Honey in the Rock sing acapella the old spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and read it dates back to the days of slavery when children were often sold off away from their parents and siblings.  My heart ached listening.

These lyrics caught my attention –

I’m a motherless child,
I can hear my mother calling me,
I can hear my mother’s voice calling me home.
Across the waters, come on home across the waters.

Of course, my thoughts immediately went to adoption and I guess not surprisingly to my own mother.  She yearned to find and connect with her mother.  She had a complicated relationship with the woman who adopted her.  Never felt like she quite measured up to the expectations.

She felt the loss keenly.  Especially when she learned the Georgia Tann story.  She never could reconcile the fact that she was born near Richmond Virginia but had been adopted in Memphis Tennessee as an infant.  She always believed that her adoption was somehow “inappropriate” as she politely worded it in a letter she wrote to the State of Tennessee trying to get her own adoption file.  She was denied on more than one technicality and although some years later a law was passed to allow her to receive that file, that information never reached her.

After her death, I did receive that file from Tennessee.  My mom’s belief that a nurse in cahoots with Georgia Tann had stolen her in Virginia and transported her to Tennessee wasn’t quite the true story.  But that kind of story did happen all too frequently with Tann’s baby stealing and selling scandal.

The real story is sad and my grandmother was definitely exploited in the midst of an impossible situation.  Her widowed father still raising some of his children as a poor sharecropper refused my grandmother support with her baby when she returned to Memphis.  She was a married woman.  Why she was estranged from her husband I’ll never know.  I have some theories.

He was WPA and the large hospital project that brought him to Memphis had ended.  He was widowed too and his mother had his children in her care in Arkansas.  His first wife had died 8 months pregnant on a cold and rainy December morning and her baby in the womb died with her.  The image shared with me by my cousin haunts me still.  A Phil Collins song The Roof Is Leaking makes me think of my grandfather. These lyrics caught my attention –

The roof is leaking and the wind is howling,
The kids are crying cause the sheets are so cold.
I woke this morning and my hands were frozen

My wife’s expecting but I hope she can wait
Cause there’s been signs it will be another bad one
But Spring will soon be here.

Too many sad maternal deaths.  My grandmother lost her own mother at the age of 11 with four other younger siblings, including the baby one, in the household at that time.

His employment ended, my grandmother was already 4 months pregnant and due in January.  My heart believes my grandfather feared for her and the baby’s well-being as he had no certain shelter to offer her come winter.  It may be that his own mother wasn’t happy he had married such a young woman, as young as his oldest sons.  She may not have been welcoming either.  Then came the Superflood on the Mississippi River in 1937 (at the same time my mom was born) and he was out shoring up the levees in Arkansas, when my grandmother arrived back in Memphis.

Whatever the real story is, that I can never know, my grandmother went to the Juvenile Court in Memphis trying to reach him.  No response.  Desperate, she took my mom to the storied Porter Leath Orphanage for temporary care.  The superintendent there alerted Georgia Tann to my mom’s presence.  My mom was the blond, blue eyed kind of baby girl that Tann most coveted for her clients.  And so began the pressure on my grandmother to separate her from my mom.

Four days after signing the surrender papers, my grandmother called Georgia Tann’s office trying to get my mother back.  “I have friends in New Orleans who will take us in,” she told them.  It was to no avail because Tann’s paying customer was already on her way by train from Nogales Arizona to pick up my mom.

My image today comes from a Facebook page titled Memoirs of a Motherless Child.  She relates a story about Brooklyn and it’s connection to her own mother there.  After her mother’s death, she writes –

I later blamed myself for never being able to meet her, know her, experience her because I didn’t go look for her, as if that would have done any good. She didn’t want to be found not because she didn’t love me (took me years to realize that but my inner child still can’t accept it wholeheartedly) but because she loved me so much she didn’t want to hurt or disappoint me. My inner child could very well be making that up too in order to spare me more hurt and trauma. What still hurts the most is I’ll never know what part of me was/is that part of you. So I’ll continue to travel this endless journey of uncertainty until our energies meet somehow.

I believe that is how my mom felt too because by the time she tried to find her mother, her mother was only somewhat recently deceased.  That devastated my mom.  Now that my own mom has also died, I believe she was reunited with the mother who never gave up hoping she would see her precious daughter again as well.  So much sadness when a mother and her child are separated.

 

Family Contact Matters

I understand this as the child of two adoptees.  The adoptions for both of my parents were closed and my parents both died knowing very little about their origins or the details behind why they ended up adopted.  Since their deaths, I have been able to recover a lot of my rightful family history.  I now know of genetic relatives for each of the four grandparents.  It has been quite a journey.  It wasn’t easy (though maybe easier for me due to our unique circumstances than for many) and it required persistence and determination to see it through.

Certainly DNA testing and the two major matching sites – Ancestry as well as 23 and Me – were instrumental to my success.  Since the genetic relations I was coming into first contact with had no prior knowledge of me and I am well over 60 years old, seeing the DNA truth that I was related to them, I believe it mattered.  It is hard to refute when it is right there clear and certain.

My mom had four living half-siblings on her father’s side when she was born.  One died young of a sudden heart failure.  I barely missed getting to meet my mom’s youngest half-sister by only a few months.  I was lucky to connect with her daughter who had all of her mom’s photo albums and possession of a lot of family history, including written accounts.  One afternoon with her and I felt like I had lived my Moore family’s history.  The family photos I now have digital copies of are precious treasures.

Though my Stark family was the first I became aware of and within a month, I had visited the graves of my grandmother and her parents east of Memphis in Eads Tennessee, those living descendants were the last I finally made a good strong connection with.  The reality is that I simply can’t recover 6 decades of not living with the usual family interactions with my true genetic relatives.  All I can do is try and build relationships with whatever time each of us has left.  The personal memories of my grandmother that my mom’s cousins possessed (she was our favorite aunt, they said) made her come alive for me.

The Salvation Army was somewhat forthcoming with information about my father’s birth at one of their homes for unwed mothers in the San Diego California area just walking distance from the beach and ocean.  They were able to give me my father’s full name and the missing piece of how he got from San Diego to El Paso Texas where he was ultimately adopted.  Once I knew my grandmother’s first married name (born Hempstead including my dad, later Barnes, Timm at death) and a cousin did 23 and Me, my discoveries were off and running.  Her mother, my dad’s youngest half-sibling, was living only 90 miles away from him when he died.  Mores the pity.

I thought I’d never know who my dad’s father was since his mother was unwed but the next cousin I met who I share a grandmother with had her photo albums and she left us a breadcrumb.  Clearly she had no doubt who my dad’s father was.  His father, Rasmus Martin Hansen, was an immigrant, not yet a citizen, and married to a much older woman.  So, he probably never knew he was a father and that’s a pity because I do believe my dad and his dad would have been great friends.

I now also have contact with my Danish grandfather’s genetic relatives.  If it had not been for the pandemic, they would have had their annual reunion there in Denmark.  I haven’t heard but I would not be surprised to know it is postponed.  My relative (who I share a great-grandfather with – my dad being the only child of my grandfather) planned to make the Danish relatives aware of me.

To anyone who thinks not knowing who your true relatives are – if the adoptions were more or less good enough, happy enough and loving enough – I am here to tell you that not knowing anything about your family (including medical history) and being cut off from the people you are actually genetically related to DOES matter.  Adoption records should be UNSEALED for ALL adult adoptees at their request.  Sadly over half of these United States still withhold that information.  I know from experience as I encountered this problem in Virginia, Arizona and California.  If my mom’s adoption had not been connected to the Georgia Tann, Tennessee Children’s Home Society baby stealing and selling scandal, I would not have gotten my first breakthrough.

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.

The Grandparent Factor

A topic not always discussed in adoption issue considerations is the lack of support from potential grandparents when a woman finds herself pregnant.  They are often key to why an adoption is taking place.

Regardless of the age of the mother, the grandparents often play a huge role in a decision to surrender the child.  My own mother, an adoptee herself, encouraged my sister to surrender her daughter.

Where is the family that could have stepped in ? Who else is giving up this child ?  In reality, every one related to a child given up for adoption has lost an opportunity to have a relationship with that child.  I lost the opportunity to have relationships with all 4 of my original grandparents and many aunts and uncles.

“I don’t want this child – get rid of it !!”, could be what my maternal grandmother’s own father said to her as he sent my married grandmother far away to have my mom.  I doubt he intended for my grandmother to bring her back to Memphis Tennessee.

My paternal grandmother left the Door of Hope, a Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in Ocean Beach California to go to her cousin’s home for support.  Obviously, that support was not forthcoming because my grandmother went back to the Salvation Army seeking employment, was accepted and transferred to El Paso Texas – which is how my dad ended up there and could be adopted.  Being in El Paso was crucial to his meeting my mom and to my conception and birth.

In my family’s case, both of my original grandmothers had lost her own mothers at young ages.  The lack of a nurturing, supportive older female probably played a huge role in their losing their first born children.  It appears that they didn’t have support from their fathers either.

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