Losing My Grandparents

My Granny, My Dad and My Granddaddy

Both of my parents were adopted.  So the grandparents I grew up with in my childhood were never actually related to me.  They were influential though.  The two people shown above often cared for me and my sisters over weekends.  I think mostly to get us into their church, the Church of Christ, as contrasted with the church our mom was raising us in, the Episcopal church.  My dad didn’t go to church at the time.  He worked shift work in a refinery, often double shifts, and so was mostly asleep when he wasn’t at work, except for meals.  Maybe he would watch a little TV or read a news magazine or the local paper.

My mom conceived me while she was still in high school and my dad had just started at the university out of town.  I think these two people shown above made certain my dad quit his dreams of a higher education and married my mom and went to work to support his young family.  Not that he didn’t want to marry my mom.  They were married over 50 years until death did them part and they died only 4 months apart.  My dad’s adoptive parents insisted I have a biblical name to save my damaged soul because of my illegitimate conception.

All of my grandparents had already died – and in fact my parents had already died as well – when I went in search of my original grandparents.  Though I doubted I would ever know who my dad’s father was because his mother was unwed and he was given her maiden name at birth.  I do now know who ALL 4 of my original grandparents were, their names and their ancestry.  I didn’t expect, that in learning who my original grandparents were, I would in effect “lose” my grandparents (those people who adopted my own parents as infants).

But I did.

Though I know I have a “history” with these people who adopted and raised my parents, they no longer feel like my grandparents.  And my true biological and genetic grandparents have taken their place in my heart and imagination, even though I have scant knowledge (but some) of these people whose genes are in me and helped create who I am at the level of physicality.  I have connected with some cousins who share the same original grandparents and what I know of my original grandparents is thanks to anything they have shared with me about these people.

I don’t love the people who raised my parents any the less but they are so far back in my own past now.  Though I had occasional interactions with them up until their deaths, as living people they are receding for me.  They are fading . . .

My original grandparents didn’t lose my parents due to anything worse than poverty and a lack of family support.  That doesn’t say much for my parents own original grandparents, who did not seem to care about my parents very much.  I’ve only heard that my mom mattered to her dad, which was a happy surprise for me and quickly warmed my heart towards that man.  My dad’s father probably never even knew he existed.  His mom was self-reliant and he was a married man, so she just handled it alone.

It is strange.  I was robbed of my original grandparents by the Great Depression, Georgia Tann and the Salvation Army.  Both of my grandmothers eventually re-married.  If they could have been sustained somehow, I know they would have raised their children because every indication is that they loved their babies and mourned their loss until they died.

Nothing makes up for these losses really but at least, I do know where I came from – which is more than my parents knew.  They died completely ignorant of who their own original parents were.  And that is very sad.

Closing The Gap

When an adoption has already occurred and given the importance of identity issues, what is an adoptive mother to do when the original mother doesn’t respond very much to efforts to reach out and keep that mother connected with her natural children ?

This was a question in a group I belong to this morning.

Some good advice that came from another adoptive mother was this –

Educate yourself on issues of generational poverty vs privilege and learn to identify what pushback actually indicates.

Get out of your bubble and be willing to have genuine relationships with people who are not like you.  (All of us in this polarized society could actually benefit from that advice.)

Humble yourself.

I remember an issue that came up.  My youngest sister gave up her son for adoption.  She gave me a lock-box full of mementos that illustrated her experiences and thinking at that time to deliver to her son someday as I was the contact in a registry somewhere.

It did come to pass.  As he read some letters out loud to his adoptive mom on their way home from our first meeting in person, she was startled to hear that she had some attitudes towards my sister.  She admitted later that she probably was projecting feelings of superiority.

Not to dismiss that the woman has done a fine job of nurturing my nephew.  She was very supportive of him when he was seeking to know who his true father was (turns out my sister lied about that one but indications from certain post-birth contacts indicate that she actually did know the truth).

Definitely, class differences can be intimidating.  In fact, this was mirrored to me growing up by my two sets of adoptive grandparents (yes, both of my parents were adoptees).  One set was well-off, socially prominent.  The other set lived in capable poverty.  I say it that way because they seemed to manage the situation without complaining.

When this class difference exists between the adoptive parents and the original parents (which is quite common or else the original parents would raise their own child 99% of the time) subtle messages are transmitted such as –

We are better than you and we know it.

Which can leave the original parents feeling they have to walk on egg shells.  They know the adoptive parents have all the power and money to do what they want including withhold information and contact if they so choose.

Mothers Suffer

I have said this before but it bears saying this again.  Giving up one’s child to adoption is not a walk away and all is well process.  Most natural mothers who’s child has been removed from them – whether by choice or coercion – will spend the remainder of their lives regretting the loss.

We are so deeply attached at a genetic and spiritual level to those persons who gave us the gift of life, that there is no true sundering of that bond.  To pretend otherwise, diminishes the pain and suffering that both natural parents and adoptees will carry with them their entire lives.  The relationships that should have been but never will be cannot be recovered down the road.  One can only begin where they find themselves if a reunion occurs and develop whatever relationships they can going forward.

For an adoptee, it can be said that the woman who raises them is their mom.  The woman who created them, is the one who made their life possible.  It is possible and indeed the reality for many people, that there are two true mothers in their life.

Even so, it is not true – that in giving up her child, it was like she took out the trash and never gave it a second thought. As though that were even possible for any mom to feel that way.  I do not believe it.  Many women who surrendered a child were very young when they did that.  They felt they had no choice in the matter.

Today, there are adoptee groups reaching out to unwed pregnant mothers to encourage them to go slow, before giving up their child, and seek a way to work through the circumstances without causing a separation.  I’m on their side in this perspective.

Hiraeth

I have started reading The Lies That Bind: An Adoptee’s Journey Through Rejection, Redirection, DNA, and Discovery by Laureen Pittman.  I may have more to say about her book when I finish reading it.

Yesterday, I came across this concept of Hiraeth. It is a Welsh word meaning a homesickness for a home or place to which you cannot return, somewhere that perhaps never was; nostalgia, yearning or grief for the lost places of one’s past.

Hiraeth is an unattainable longing for a place, a time, a person or people; a history that no longer exists or may never have actually existed at all. To feel hiraeth is to feel a deep incompleteness and yet recognize it as familiar.

There was something left undone within me when I embarked on discovering my family’s true origins.  There was a deep desire for the real.  My original grandmothers both nursed and cared for my parents for several months of their lives, approximately 6 to 8 mos of those lives.  This is far different in my own mind than the mother who gives up her baby at birth.  These women were beginning to know the person that these babies were becoming.  I cannot imagine the pain that followed them throughout their lives.

This morning “family of choice” has a different meaning for me.  My adoptive grandmothers chose my parents to raise as their own.  I cannot say that my original grandmothers truly had a choice.  They were pressured into relinquishing their child.

As I have been uncovering their stories, there is a deep longing in me to know them and I never really can.  I’ve been able to find some cousins and an aunt who can share with me some things about the persons I long for, including the grandfathers I’ll never know as well.  It helps but cannot fill the hole left in my soul when my parents were taken from their parents by strangers to raise.

Adoption Reunions

Maybe it’s a woman thing.  Today, I am happily experiencing a long distance (via telephone) “reunion” with my adoptee mom’s cousin.  I had previously spoken with her brother and it was all about family origins and lineage but I already had researched and discovered most of it myself.

So, today, it is some insight into the more emotional questions that have haunted me since receiving my mom’s adoption file from the state of Tennessee.  She was a Georgia Tann – Tennessee Children’s Home Society baby.

Much this cousin has shared with me was as my heart suspected already.  But it was nice to receive a confirmation and not just my wild imagination making up stories.  There have been too many stories in my immediate family already in attempts to fill in gaps that couldn’t be filled during my parent’s lifetimes.

With this cousin, I feel more complete now.  This part of my family line was less developed.

My parents were both adoptees.  They died without any reunion.  It has been left to me to find my own closure with the circumstances.  Obviously, I would not even exist had their adoptions never happened.  Therefore, I am grateful for my own blessing, including that I wasn’t given up for adoption as well.  I also acknowledge the sadness and tragedies that came before I was born.

I’ll Cry If I Want To

It is quite common for an adoptee to be sad on their birthday, even when they can’t understand why.  It has been noted by therapists that adoptees often sabotage their own birthday parties, even when they were looking forward to them.

Each of my parents were with their original mothers for months before they were taken away and given to other people to raise through adoption.

Consider what a birthday means to an adoptee.

An adoptee often cannot help but think of the woman who gave birth to them on their birthday.  Many hope that the mother is also thinking of them on that date.

A child who was adopted may have a hard time understanding why they are so inconsolably sad at a time when they should be happy.  Tears, emptiness, fear and despair might seem a bit over the top to observers.  Maybe they could consider the symbolic meaning of that day to an adoptee.

A pre-verbal child will experience bewilderment at the sudden absence of their original mother.  They have become attuned to the sound of her voice, the smell of her body and the way she touches them (unless removed from her at birth, when only the sound of being in her womb is left in their deepest memories).

A child adopted as an infant may lack conscious memories of their loss and so can’t make sense of it.  A reunion with the original mother can make the birthday triggered emotional wound worse.

If the original mother was unwed, there were no excited visitors or phone calls of congratulations. No one was there taking sweet or silly photos of those first days.  All of these an adoptee has lost from their earliest days.

If healing is able to occur, then the hurt and anger that take over an adoptee’s emotions around the time of their birthday may lessen.  If not, then it will only be the passing of time that changes the focus and makes possible the ability to move forward again.

The Life Cycle Of An Adoptee

What is it like to live as an adoptee ?

A tiny baby who didn’t consciously know what was happening to it.
The child who loved their adoptive parents.
The unsealed records finally arriving but causing an emotional wound.
The adult still trying to figure out what it all means.

My mom was a people pleaser.  It could have been driven by a fear of being given back or given away – again. This is simply a logical extension of what the child may have been told – “Your birth mother loved you enough to give you up, and now we love you.”  Seems simple and appropriate on the surface.

But what is an adoptee supposed to think ?  It would not be surprising if their silent response was – “So you could give me up too ?”

My mom may have been aware that she was the fulfillment of her adoptive mother’s dream of becoming a mother.  I have my grandmother’s letters to the adoption agency in the file I received.  She was over the moon happy and thought my mom the most brilliant child.  So, my mom may have wanted to do a good job of being the fulfillment of that dream.  In her teens, she didn’t feel she measured up to my grandmother’s expectations.

My mom never got that reunion with her original mother that she yearned for.  I have gotten “some” of that reunion joy as I have met cousins and an aunt on each side of my parental adoption equation.  And honestly, it has filled in a gap that I couldn’t even know as clearly as I do now that I am whole.

I literally had to wait many decades to reconnect with my original family.

Missed Opportunities

Evelyn Grace Johnson (later Harris) at age 2

I’ve only known about this family of cousins since October 2017.  The first time I became aware of this one is because her name appeared on the back of her parents’ gravestone in Pine Bluff Arkansas.  I was at the cemetery to visit the grave of my grandfather, Jay Church Moore.  Nearby was the grave of my mom’s half-sister Javene.  I only missed her by about 2 months because she lived to a very ripe old age.

I googled and found that Evelyn lived in Pine Bluff but could not locate a phone number and so we went on to Memphis that day.  Then in May 2018, we returned to the Arkansas area to visit Evelyn’s sister, Sherry, who gave me so much insight into the family, shared so many pictures and stories that I felt as though I had lived in this, my family, for all my life.

I didn’t see Evelyn during that journey either.  I talked to her on the phone.  She said she wasn’t well but maybe when she was better we could meet.  That day, sadly, didn’t come because she passed away last Friday without us ever accomplishing that someday meeting.

I feel I missed opportunities three times now – once with Javene and then twice with Evelyn.  However, I am blessed that I even know they existed.  For over 60 years, my two parents status as adoptees meant we didn’t know our original family roots.  Now I do.  And so today, I mourn a missed opportunity – while counting my blessings – at the same time.

 

A New Way – Adoption

If I could, this is the “new way” I’d like to see adoption, going forward.

No secrets.

No change to the original birth certificate.

Prospective adoptive parents really should adopt out of the foster care system
and not take young woman’s infant from them.

Always family preservation should be the primary goal. Mothers should be encouraged to keep and raise their babies.

Any adoption that does occur should be centered on the child’s needs.

Lifetime counseling for adoptees should be part of any licensed agency’s business model. Post-adoption issues are real and prevalent.

No intermediaries at reunions.

Do away from the concept of “non-identifying” information. Adoptees have the
right to know the specific details of their origins.

Real

Me in 1997 with Mom and Dad

For most of my life, this is as far back as I was able to know about my origins and my parents knew next to nothing because they were both adopted in the 1930s.  I know that my own mom thought about her original mother.  I’m certain she wondered what the woman looked like – I know now.

I don’t know about my grandmother’s interests or personality.  I once talked to a nephew of hers who said she was kind and referred to her as Aunt Lou.  I suspect my grandmother did think about her daughter from time to time. I can’t believe she didn’t and she kept that name active that was on my mom’s birth certificate, even having it put on her gravestone. That tells my own heart a lot.

I believe my grandmother would have fantasized about my mom finding her, as much as my mom fantasized about finding my grandmother.  The state of Tennessee would have sought permission from my mom’s original parents when she was seeking them, had they still been alive. That is a tragic aspect to my own family’s story.

I wonder if my mom ever considered “searching” when she became pregnant with me. She never said anything about it until the scandal of Georgia Tann re-emerged into the national consciousness in the 1990s. That is what motivated my mom to try – stories on television and in magazines about successful adoptee reunions.

I wonder if, in the 5 decades that passed between her adoption and her actual effort, those feelings of wanting to know were stuffed deep down into some kind of guarded place of forbidden knowledge ?  Was she paralyzed to some extent by a fear of rejection, disruption and disloyalty to the adoptive parents ? I believe my dad was. He wouldn’t even consider “going there” and encouraged my mom not to open that “can of worms” hidden behind the sealed adoption records.

When my mom’s adoption file arrived, I knew it’s precious nature, wanted no risk to its contents. I read each page with hungry eyes.  My mom only knew from her attempt that her parent’s names were Mr & Mrs J C Moore. At least, she knew she wasn’t illegitimate !!  With the arrival of my mom’s adoption file – I had full names – Jay Clinton (actually an error, Church was his actual middle name) Moore and Lizzie Lou Stark (her maiden name and youthful nickname to her birth name Elizabeth).

In my mom’s file were black and white negatives – my grandmother holding my mom for the last time – and my grandmother’s handwriting.  I knew she had siblings and that her mother had died when she was young. I understood why, even though my mom was born in Virginia, she was adopted in Memphis, TN – my grandmother’s family lived there. Why Virginia ? I have theories. What I do know is the Stark family immigrated in from Scotland at Virginia.

It is hard to explain the impact of having so much information after 60+ years of living for my own self and the sorrow that my mom was denied such a comforting perspective on the events that caused her to become adopted.  From there, it has been a whirlwind for me. In less than a year from receiving that file – I knew who all 4 of my original grandparents were.  I was whole and it was an unmistakable feeling to know that I was – finally.

The pieces fell into place in an almost magical way. It was as though one door opening, unlocked all of the other doors. Not exactly but even so – the dominoes kept tumbling.

The first genetic relative I found was the daughter of my mom’s half-sibling, a sister who I barely missed seeing alive by only a couple of months – sadly. This cousin was able to give me so much information and share so many photos with me that I almost felt like I had experienced it all firsthand.

In reading between the lines of my mom’s adoption file as regards my grandmother, I am certain in my heart that losing my mom was heartbreaking and life changing. After all, it’s clear that she couldn’t face my mom’s father with the news. Finally, after 3 years of separation, he filed for a divorce and she did not contest it but re-married a short time later. A bit later, he re-married. At least they didn’t die alone – neither of them.

Every new piece of information I have received about my grandparents has contributed to my own self becoming more real and whole. That may sound strange if you have always known what I grew up not knowing. It has been life-changing for me.

Neither of my grandparents had any more children after my mom was lost to them. Her father already had 4 other living children (the fifth one had died before my mom was conceived). My grandmother only ever had one child – my mom.

Sometimes, I grieve on behalf of my parents and original grandparents.  The severity of the loss for each and every one of them, even if it was normal for the Great Depression and the morals of that time, is something I really can’t do anything about. Yet sometimes the tears still come in my eyes – like now as I write this.

Sometimes, I am equally aware, that these genetic relatives I have been discovering are total strangers to me. I do work at getting to know each one of them better – it is a slow process that simply can’t make up for 6 decades of life.

I am genuinely happy for what has happened unexpectedly to me in my life since the doors began to open wide. I feel a completeness that I didn’t totally realize was a missing part as the child of adoptees who knew nothing about their origins.