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.

 

Honoring My Grandmother

In 1916, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lou Stark was born to James Coleman and Mabel Irene Stark on this date in Eads Tennessee.  It is my understanding that her father was a difficult man and quite old when he began to have children.  Lizzie was the oldest and her nieces and nephews called her Aunt Lou.

It seems that her siblings and my grandmother each escaped their family home as soon as they could.  One can surmise that my grandmother chose the possible opportunities of the big city, Memphis, to her west.  There she would meet an older man who had become both widowed and had lost one of his children not long before.  Most likely he was attached to a big WPA project building a hospital in Memphis.

So they married but his children and the mother to whom he was devoted and who supported him by caring for one or more of his children caused his heart to remain in Arkansas.  For reasons I will never be able to explain, he left her in Memphis four months pregnant.  Whether it was considered an end or a temporary separation can never be known.

What I do know is that my grandmother was sent away to Virginia to give birth to my mom.  Most likely, she was an embarrassment pregnant with no husband in sight in a very conservatively Christian community.  I suspect she was supposed to leave my mom in Virginia but she could not.

I cannot believe she brought my mom back to Memphis with any intention of giving her up for adoption.  Juvenile Court records do show that she reached out for my mom’s father over in Arkansas but he did not respond.  In his defense, there began a Super Flood on the Mississippi River the month my mom was born.  Refugees poured into Memphis from Arkansas who bore some of the worst destruction.  My grandfather was out shoring up levees.

My grandmother found the going difficult in Memphis.  The people who had been supportive of her previously were suffering from charity fatigue.  In desperation, my grandmother sought temporary care for my mom in an amazing citadel of an orphanage with a storied history.  The superintendent there betrayed her to Georgia Tann who was a master at separating children from their natural parents.

After being given a no win choice (surrender your child or be declared unfit – a threat with teeth in it because the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley was good friends with Tann), my grandmother tried to get my mom back 4 days later.  But Tann had a paying customer on her way from Arizona by train to pick my mom up and no way would the baby thief give my mom up.

Such a sad story.  She never had another child . . .