Why I Celebrate

Birthday Hat, created by my husband

My 67th birthday comes up in 2 days now. The image here is from early in my marriage, before our sons were born. We will celebrate 33 years this June.

There is so much I am grateful for but first and foremost it is that I was not given up for adoption. I could have so easily been lost to this family I grew up within. My mom was a 16 yr old high school student in El Paso TX who found herself pregnant with me and unwed. My dad had just started at the U of NM at Las Cruces that year. They are both deceased now. When I was cleaning out my parents belongings to ready their house for sale, I discovered that my mom had kept every love letter she got from my dad during that time. I also found a note where she was worried about telling him she was pregnant.

Both my mom and dad were adopted. That is why I think it is a miracle I was not given up. My mom’s adoptive parents were well to do, had made a lucky early investment in Circle K just as the stores were beginning and on top of that my adoptive grandfather was a bank vice president. My adoptive grandmother was a socialite. I believe it was actually my dad’s adoptive parents who were always poor, entrepreneurial sorts who made custom draperies for a living, that preserved me in the family and supported my dad in marrying my mom.

Because I was preserved my two sisters were born. Maybe they would have been or maybe my parents would have gone their separate ways but that is not what happened so it is a moot point. I believe I have now fulfilled my destiny in this life. Within a year of my parents deaths (they died 4 mos apart after more than 50 years of marriage), I had uncovered who my original grandparents were. I have met or made contact with an aunt and some cousins for each branch of my grandparents families. I am the only link between them because the four of them went their separate ways.

My maternal grandmother remarried but never had any other children. My maternal grandfather also remarried but didn’t have any more children with his third wife. Yes, he and my grandmother were married at the time she conceived my mom. It will always be a mystery why he left her 4 mos pregnant and why after being sent from Tennessee to Virginia to have (and probably expected to give up) my mom, he didn’t respond when she returned to Memphis and tried to reach him. Her desperation led to Georgia Tann getting her hands on my mom . . .

My paternal grandmother had a hard life growing up. My dad was conceived with the assistance of a Danish immigrant who was married to a much older woman. He probably never even knew about my dad. My grandmother simply handled it as the self-resourceful woman she was. She did remarry twice and had 3 other children. At the time my dad died, her last child (my aunt) was living only 90 miles away, totally unknown to my dad.

I celebrate that I am alive and I am happy to have now become whole in ways my parents (who died knowing next to nothing about their origins) never were. I had to wait over 60 years before that happened for me. It is true that, if my parents had not been given up for adoption, I would simply not exist at all. Even so, there is much wrong about the practice of adoption (I write about that here all the time) . . . including that the state of Tennessee denied my mother access to her own adoption file in the early 90s. No one told her when the law was changed for the victims of Georgia Tann to be given access but because of that law, I now possess all of the documents in her adoption file. In her file there were black and white pictures of my maternal grandmother holding my mom for the last time at Porter-Leath Orphanage. It was to that storied and respected institution that my grandmother, in desperation, turned for temporary care of her precious baby girl. The superintendent there betrayed my grandmother by alerting Georgia Tann to my mom’s existence.

At the Dorchester in London
thanks to a trip with my adoptive maternal grandmother

Is It Really ?

One hears this a lot from people who want to adopt a baby – “I applaud you for your courageous choice to give your daughter a chance at a better future. There are so many women with infertility issues like myself who would love to adopt a child. Please keep me in your thoughts if you know of other women in your situation. I have a lot of love to give.”

One cannot really say if being adopted gives anyone a “better life”. Both of my parents were adopted. They both would have grown up with some degree of poverty had they remained with their original mothers. And the truth of the matter is, my dad still grew up with some degree of poverty. In fact, he actually experienced food insecurity and hunger as a child. We always had more food on our table at dinner than we could eat. My mom told me that was the reason why. And my dad was so obese as an adult, he relished his nickname Fat Pat.

I do appreciate his adoptive parents. My granny was hugely influential in my life. We often spent days and weekends with her. A word from her that was very serious about some issue had the power to change the direction I was traveling in. Having learned my parents more or less full background stories, I believe had it not been for my granny, my teenage mother who conceived me out of wedlock, would have been sent away as so many girls in the 1950s through 1970s were, to have and give me up. I believe my dad’s adoptive parents insisted he do the right thing and quit college and go to work, after quickly marrying my mother so I would be born legitimate. And my nuclear family experienced hardships but we knew we were loved, even though our parents were strangely detached, having had their own familial bonds broken before the age of one year.

And how about my mother ? Her dad was the vice president at a large bank in downtown El Paso Texas. Her mother was a socialite and charity do-gooder. She was also influential in my own life for different reasons than my granny. She modeled for us good manners and good taste in home decor and clothing. However, my mom – while wanting for nothing of a financial basis – struggle with her adoptive mother. My grandmother was always thin and trim (she would starve herself if necessary, her mother and sister were quite rotund) and my mom’s body type was never going to be that – big boned Scottish farm girl stock that she was. My grandmother also dangled her wealth as a carrot and a stick over my mom.

My mom’s father was very poor and her mother’s family was also poor. My grandmother lost my mom when she gave birth while separated from her lawfully married husband during a massive flood on the Mississippi River. Unable to contact him for support or reconciliation, Georgia Tann along with her enablers the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley and the Porter-Leath Orphanage supervisor Georgia Robinson (to whom my grandmother turned for temporary care while she tried to get on her feet financially without family support) exploited her financially precarious situation and coerced her into surrendering my mom for adoption. She tried to undo this 4 days after signing the papers but Tann was not letting my mom loose as her soon to be adoptive mother was already on her way from Nogales Arizona by train to Memphis Tennessee to collect her. My grandmother had previously adopted a son from Tann.

One cannot actually say my mom had a “better” life either. The truth about adoption is – the child has a DIFFERENT life from the one they would have had with their original parent(s). Better is a subjective concept that adoptive parents like to believe in order to justify taking a child, due to their own infertility, from another woman. It honestly is that simple.

Barefoot & Pregnant in the Kitchen

Someone in my all things adoption group shared –

So I am in a tag group (about men) and someone posted a meme of some guy spouting off about how as women our goal should be to have and care for kids etc…

Well, I wrote that attitudes like that make infertile people feel as though kids are the be all and end all and can end up negatively impacting families.

And, of course I got comments saying let’s not judge infertile women and how there is nothing wrong if someone can’t/doesn’t want to raise a child because there is always someone else who would love to adopt them.

I’m sorry but I disagree.

Very rarely does it happen that a woman carries a child for 9 months, delivers that baby and then is like “naw, just kidding, I don’t want you.”

More often, mothers are separated from their babies due to poverty.

Now that I’ve become enlightened, I am always going to judge people who know they have a scared poor pregnant person up against the wall.

In contract law, if there is unequal bargaining power, the contract may be voided. So why are adoption contracts even allowed to stand? My desperate maternal grandmother never intended to give my mom up. Georgia Tann exploited her with threats that her good friend, the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley, would declare my grandmother an unfit mother – which she in no way was. She tried to get my mom back 4 days after she was coerced into signing the Surrender Papers but no way were they going to let go of my mom – an adoptive mother was on her way from Nogales Arizona to Memphis Tennessee to pick her up.

There is a clear imbalance of power when a woman or couple are poor, or homeless, or addicted to some maladaptive substance. And to have any woman sign Surrender Papers right after giving birth is clearly criminal.

It leaves many of us honestly wondering why our society always paints adoptive parents as knights in shining armor. Most people in modern society think adoptive parents are saints.

Three Identical Strangers

In the 1960s, a research project into identical siblings, placing them separately for adoption into different classes (poor, middle and wealthy), was done for the purpose of determining the impact of financial resources on their outcomes.  Back in the 1930s to 1950, Georgia Tann had a similar thought – taking babies from poor families and placing them into wealthier homes would lead to better outcomes for the children.

My mom was one of those babies.  She was adopted in 1937.  Both of her parents were very poor and struggling to survive the Great Depression but they were exploited by threats from Georgia Tann that her close relationship with the Juvenile Court judge in Memphis would support any removal of children she suggested.  Sadly.

So, in the 1980s, when these young men were 19 years old and began attending college, they discovered that they had been separated after birth into different adoptive families.  Even the adoptive parents didn’t know there were other genetically identical siblings.  The triplets accidentally found each other when two of them enrolled at the same college and found the third when he saw the story on the news. After the three siblings reunited, they became media darlings for awhile and even met their original biological parents.

It is not entirely a happy story and a suicide trigger warning is justified.  The two surviving triplets carry the DNA, the history, the pain, and the heart of their deceased brother. As the three boys entered adulthood each of them dealt with mental illness and psychiatric care.

The carelessness of the adoption agency that gave the boys away turns out to be something far crueler and more deviously deliberate than possibly imaginable. It is a shockingly true story but not unlike other psychological research from that era. Ethics were just not on the radar yet. People were treated like lab rats.

One woman, now much older, who was involved with the research study is blasé about the whole thing saying it was exciting to mess with people’s lives and noting what’s done is done.

The children who were the study subjects involved will not have access to the findings until 2065, by which time they will likely not be still alive.  This is because our own government funded this study.

This program does show how strong genetics truly are.  Being separated at birth results in life long trauma. All adoption agencies exist to make money. The program suggests that some of the adoptive parents would have happily taken all three boys, if they had known the truth, at the time.

One of the scientists involved in the study interviewed for the program kept laughing, saying inappropriate things, none of what happened was funny.  He said there’s probably at least four people (probably many more) who have no idea they are twins or that they were part of a study.

Currently one of the brothers practices law, the other sells insurance and investments. One of the two is (or soon will be) divorced.  These kinds of mental health and relationship impacts are quite common among adoptees.

Which leaves me with two questions (I have not seen, only have read about this program) – Is science worth keeping secrets and being immoral to accomplish unbiased research ? And how much of who we are is Nature and how much Nurture ? (That second one I’ve been looking at for 20 years.)

Modern Orphanages

From a generally anti-foster care perspective, a question was asked –

Why did the government move away from orphanages/group homes to children living with foster carers ?  Bottom line is that it is about money.  It is cheaper for the government to give foster carers a stipend than provide for the full needs of children in a modern orphanage or group home.

My mom spent a few months as an infant at Porter-Leath, an orphanage in Memphis TN. Her original mother took my mom there only for temporary care while she tried to get on her feet and estranged from her husband, the father of my mom, who was most likely tied up one state over fighting a SuperFlood on the Mississippi in 1937. He was in Arkansas working for the WPA and that was where most of his own roots and family were. That is how Georgia Tann got involved and my mom ended up adopted.

My family visited Porter-Leath in 2017. It is now an amazingly peaceful place and much changed but still provides some sheltering for runaways who need a safe place to go.

The discussion was not about orphanages of the past though.  It was about facilities that are geared towards children’s best interests. A revamped system. An environment where the kid never has to become someone else to fit in with a family he isn’t related to. One that is very consistent and stable.  That is vital for kids.

And no competition with a foster carer’s biological kids, or being made to feel like a burden or an inconvenience compared to the carer’s biological children. Modern orphanages are really structured.  Everyone there is on the same playing field. It totally eliminates the foster vs biological conflicts. The experience of former foster youth is that biological kids are horrible towards foster kids. Full of disdain and resentment for these strangers being in their homes.

I was intrigued by the mention of modern orphanages, I found a link to an Atlantic article highlighting Palmer Home for Children in Mississippi that is fairly current.

Secrets

Reflecting on another blog I wrote several years ago, I see how it applies to this one. I believe also that those that have something to hide from other people will divert one’s attention away from that secret anyway. However there is a current of support for truth in Life that will “out” what should or needs to be known. That is why secrets can’t be “kept”. Secrets are the answer to the question and the answer will out itself because a secret usually does not exist for any good reason. For some people it is only in the seeking for answers to questions deep within them that they have the courage to go on living. It is as though the impossibility of finding an answer is itself a motivation that keeps them keeping on in vitally alive ways.

Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote – “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

My mom had questions about how she ended up adopted because she did know that the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was the agency and that her conveyance to her adoptive parents occurred in Memphis.  In fact, growing up we all believed she had been born in Memphis.  At some point, she learned she had been born in Richmond VA.  This puzzled her.  How could she have been born there but then adopted as an infant at Memphis ?  She had heard about the Georgia Tann scandal when it broke in 1950 and she was still a school girl.  She worried then that she might have been a victim and her adoptive mother, while admitting that her adoption had taken place through that agency, said my mom was not “one of those” babies.

Life moved on.  My mother gave birth three times, each time to girl babies.  But the questions never really went away for her.  Then in the 1990s, awareness of the Georgia Tann scandal hit the national consciousness 40 years later with features on 60 Minutes and on Oprah facilitating reunions between separated mothers and their children.  My mom learned about Denny Glad in the 60 Minutes broadcast and did speak with her, learned some minimal information and received some advice.  So, my mom requested her adoption file from the state of Tennessee.  Sadly, this was premature in the sense that her inquiry occurred before the state was forced to open it’s files for the victims of Georgia Tann.  They did offer to ask my mom’s original parents if they were okay with her receiving her file.

Sadly, they informed her that her mother had died several years before devastating my mom’s desire to let her mother that she was okay.  As a mother herself, my mom felt her mother would want to know.  She also had a mysterious health condition and no family medical history to assist in revealing whether this was genetic and even what the condition might actually be as a diagnosis was proving hard to come by.

The state had promised to make every effort to contact my mom’s parents.  They did not.  They only sent a minimal inquiry to the Arkansas Driver’s License Bureau to determine if my grandfather had a current Arkansas license.  They replied “no record”.  Of course they had no record.  He had been dead for 30 years.  They could have checked the Social Security Death Index but they never tried.  This really vexed my mom (not that she knew he was dead but he was much older than her mother – my mom did know that much) because they denied her the adoption file on the basis that they were not able to determine whether he was alive or dead.

It is really a shame – these secrets that adoption has forced on it’s victims.  Seeing her adoption file would have answered at least some of my mom’s questions.  The question I can’t answer (since I now do have her adoption file) is why her father left her mother when she was 4 months pregnant because they were legally wed.  I have to live with that question unanswered because there is no one alive who could answer it for me.

St Anne’s in Maryland

Some charitable organizations endure. When I saw this article, I thought of Porter-Leath in Memphis but the outcome for my grandmother (losing her infant, for which she was only seeking temporary care until she could get on her feet) was not so good.

St. Anne’s Center for Children, Youth and Families in Hyattsville Maryland has existed for 160 years. They were originally an orphanage and a maternity hospital.  The organization founded during a crisis has reinvented itself time and again since.  The same could be said for Porter Leath as well.

The organization was created in 1860 to serve women and children during the Civil War and it continued to do so through the 1918 flu pandemic, both World Wars, the Great Depression and now, a new pandemic.

Over the years, it has changed its name and purpose. It went from “asylum” to an “orphanage” to a “center” that now houses mothers and children, sometimes for years, if that’s what they need to successfully escape homelessness.

In recent times, they have seen incredible successes like they had not seen before in terms of families leaving them and going into permanent housing. It’s nothing short of incredible how these families are doing that.

When a single mother with a young child comes to St. Anne’s, she and her daughter are given a furnished apartment complete with a bookshelf filled with children’s books. They share a kitchen, laundry room and playground with other families, but otherwise have their own space.

One such mother said –

“I used to say, ‘I don’t want her to remember any of this stuff,’ ” she says of her daughter. “Now, I want her to see where we were, and how we are in a much more amazing place. I want her to see, ‘My mommy did it, my mommy figured it out, she took care of what we had to take care of.’ ”

When they move into their new house, she says, she wants her daughter to know that from these hard times, her mom created something better for them.

A Sad Holiday

For many adoptees, Mother’s Day is a complicated holiday.  For many children in Foster Care it is the pits of unhappy reminders.

All my life, Mother’s Day has been a happy one.  When we were young, we made my mom breakfast in bed.  When I had my oldest son in 2001, that next Spring during the month of May in celebration of Mother’s Day, I began a family tradition of taking my children out among the Wild Azaleas that are at the peak of their annual blooming for “see how you grow” photos.  It is cherished by me that we have not missed a single year with my oldest son now 19 years old.

Truth be told, it was my mom’s adoptive mother who started the tradition.  She had grown up in Missouri.  Her childhood location is some distance to the west but is very similar in rural wildness to where I live.  One year she came to visit me before our sons were born and I took her on hikes around our farm.  She cherished the experience because it brought back memories of her own childhood in Missouri.

When she learned the Azaleas were blooming, one morning she dressed up (though she was always fully dressed with jewelry and make-up before breakfast).  She chose a pink blouse to wear and a spot to sit framed by the Azaleas blooming all around her.  Later during that visit, she took me to see her own childhood home and I was surprised to see her farmhouse was very much like our own.  We were fortunate because the owner of that house allowed us to go inside and my grandmother shared with me what remained the same and what had changed over time.

As an adoptee, my mom yearned to have a reunion with her own mother.  She knew that Georgia Tann played a prominent role in her own adoption story.  When news of the scandal resurfaced in the early 1990s, she contacted Denny Glad who lived in Memphis and helped the victims of Georgia Tann’s questionable adoption methods.  My mom learned about her from watching a 60 Minutes special about the scandal that had aired on TV around that time.

Adoption records were still sealed in Tennessee as my mom tried without success to learn about her origins.  Devastating news was delivered to my mom that her mother had died several years earlier and they would not release her adoption file because the status of her father, twenty years my grandmother’s age, could not be determined (in truth he had been dead 30 years but the state didn’t try very hard at all).

Mrs Glad was instrumental in getting adoption records opened late in the 1990s for Tann’s victims but no one ever told my mom.  My mom died believing she had been stolen based on anecdotal stories she read or heard.  That wasn’t far from the truth but in reality Tann’s network of suppliers made her aware of my mom and my grandmother, through only the best motivations of a caring mom, got trapped.

Since my mom was deceased before I began to learn so much about adoption overall, I can’t ask her the questions that weigh heavily on my own heart about how she honestly felt about a lot of the issues related to her adoption.  She didn’t speak about it to anyone else in our family beyond acknowledging that she had been adopted.  That is, except with me and with me her feelings about it were definitely conflicted.

 

Orphans In An Epidemic

I became fascinated about a time in the history of Memphis Tennessee when I learned more about the circumstances of my mom’s adoption related to Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home.

Recently, the fact that few children get Coronavirus reminded me that something similar happened with the Yellow Fever that devastated Memphis TN in the late 1800s.  This caused a lot of orphans because the parents died but children continued living.

On August 13, 1878, Kate Bionda, a restaurant owner, died of yellow fever in Memphis. A man had escaped a quarantined steamboat and subsequently visited her restaurant. The disease spread rapidly and the resulting epidemic emptied and actually bankrupted the city.

Yellow fever was transmitted to humans by mosquitoes.  It came to the United States by way of West Africa and was brought here on slave ships. The disease required warm weather to survive.  It thrived in the wet and hot summers since that is when mosquitoes breed prodigiously. After a three-to-six-day incubation period, the afflicted person would experience flu-like symptoms, such as fever and aches. Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it ?

After a very short remission, a more intense stage followed.  The victim vomited blood and suffered from liver and renal failure. Jaundice was a typical symptom (why it was called yellow fever). The victim usually died within two weeks. Survivors of the illness could still feel it’s effects for months.

Memphis, a city of 50,000, had outbreaks in 1855, 1867 and 1873, with each outbreak getting progressively worse. Those who came down with yellow fever were quarantined in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading. Often, they were made to wear yellow jackets as a means of identification.

In July 1878, an outbreak of yellow fever was reported in Vicksburg, just south of Memphis. Memphis officials reacted by stopping travel to the city from the south. However, William Warren, a steamboat worker, somehow slipped away and into Kate Bionda’s restaurant.

Most of the residents who were able to fled the city. Twenty-five thousand people picked up and left within a week. For the most part, it was the African-American residents who remained in town, although they died at a much lower rate than the white residents who contracted the disease. An average of 200 people died every day through September. There were corpses everywhere and near continual ringing of funeral bells. Half of the city’s doctors died.

The epidemic ended with the first frost in October, but by that time, 20,000 people in the Southeast had died and another 80,000 had survived infection. In the aftermath, open sewers and privies were cleaned up, destroying the breeding grounds for mosquitoes and preventing further epidemics.

Sister Constance of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral stayed in Memphis during the outbreak, going from house to house to care for the sick. Sometimes she found abandoned children amid the rotting corpses of their parents. She did eventually contract the disease and die.  Father Joseph Kelly of St. Peter’s Parish became known as the “Father of the Orphans” and “selfless caregiver among victims of Yellow Fever epidemics”. During the 1873-1878 epidemics, he evacuated all the orphans.

 

The Influence Of Money

I am enough of a realist to know that the influence of money is not going away anytime soon.  Even so, in adoption, I believe it can be a corrupting factor.

Had it not been for cooking the books and overcharging the prospective adoptive parents, Georgia Tann’s crimes may never have been discovered.  When someone is making a lot of money off of an altruistic effort, it attracts attention.  It also buys protection as in the case of Tann and the Boss Crump political machinery in Memphis Tennessee.

I do believe that my dad’s parents probably paid less for him at The Salvation Army than my mom’s parents paid for her through Georgia Tann.  The Tennessee Children’s Home Society was careful not to document the money that was changing hands or was at least doing so in a very hidden way.  There is no doubt in my mind their eagerness to go looking for yet another baby after my grandparents had already adopted two must be an indication of a monetary motive.

In a novel I finished reading yesterday, there grew an awareness that the Catholic Church was making money selling babies.  I’ve no doubt that it is likely the truth.  Adoption is a kind of human trafficking that has the approval of society in general.  Who can object to people wanting to give unfortunate children a good home ?

But society has no interest to providing enough support for mothers to keep and raise their babies.  Something is terribly rotten in such a system of priorities.  The reason adoption records have remained sealed in most states in the US for so long is for the protection of the people who have the money – the adoptive parents.  Agencies, lawyers and social workers as well as the courts are all making money by taking the product of unfortunate young women and delivering babies to those who can afford to pay.

It was not lost on me in the recent NY Times article that the two men in a stable marriage who adopted out of Foster Care not only had no out of pocket expenses directly related to that but received subsidies for doing so.  This is where money actually helped the situation.