It’s Complicated And Confusing

Kimberly Mays with Robert Mays

Mention of a television program called Switched at Birth led me to today’s real life story and it fits with the Missing Mom theme of my blog and so I share. The 1991 American miniseries, directed by Waris Hussein, is based on the true story of Kimberly Mays and Arlena Twigg. The two babies were switched soon after birth in a Florida hospital in 1978. Today the relationships between Kim Mays and her two living mother figures remains strained. “I don’t really feel like I’ve had a mother growing up. That’s where the confusion comes from,” Kimberly has said.

It does appear that the switch was intentional. In November 1993, Patsy Webb, a nurse’s aide from the hospital where the babies had been switched, came forward, claiming that Dr. Ernest Palmer had told her to switch the ID bracelets. She refused to do it, she claimed, but told the doctor she would keep quiet, fearing that she would lose her job and health insurance if she spoke up. She said she saw the next day that the babies had been switched.

Webb decided to come forward because she was dying and she wanted to clear her conscience before she died. There were two or three people involved in the switch she has said. The one baby was very sick. While Webb didn’t make the decision, she went along with it and that made her feel like a guilty party to it.

Yet for Kim Mays, the shocking and incredibly emotional twists and turns of her childhood, have not served her life well. “I had a rough childhood,” Kim Mays said. “I lost a parent.” When her first mother died, her father remarried. Until she was 6 years old, she thought her stepmother was her mother. After 7 years of marriage, he divorced that woman and remarried again. Kim Mays now says the man who raised her, Bob Mays, was very controlling and she ran away from home several times.

When she was 15, she ended up at a YMCA shelter and then asked to live with the Twiggs (her actual genetic family and who she had “divorced” just a few months earlier through the courts). “I was going through a lot of emotion. So I ran away, and I went to the Twiggs’ house. I stayed there a year and a half to two years almost,” she said. Mays left the Twiggs two weeks before she turned 18. She got married to her first husband and they had a son together.

“Losing my mom at two, to (Bob Mays) getting remarried right away, to him divorcing her, then finding another relationship to jump into, then (learning about) the switch, and then, other stuff that occurred,” she said. “It’s a lot to process as a child. I just didn’t handle it very well at the time, unfortunately.” Nor did she handle it well after that. She and her first husband divorced and their son, now an adult, was raised by her ex-husband and his family. That is an aspect of her story that I can relate to as my own biological, genetic daughter ended up being raised by her dad and step-mother. She has had six children by four different fathers.

“I feel bad for both sides, (the) Twiggs and everyone involved,” Kim Mays said. “(Arlena – the baby she was switched with) passed away (at 9 years old) and then they poured everything into finding me, so they went through a lot.”

You can read the complete story here – Kim Mays, Switched at Birth. The entire original 20/20 series is also available at YouTube.

Being Heard

This is particularly true for adopted persons. The narrative in adoptionland is such that adoptees often refer to it as the rainbows and unicorns version of reality. If one does very much reading about the lived experience of adoptees, a very different perspective emerges. That perspective has guided this blog from its inception.

In the fall of 2017, I began to learn the stories of my original grandparents. Both of my parents were adopted and died knowing next to nothing about their true origins. They and we as their children, only knew some basic facts. The Tennessee Children’s Home and Memphis TN factored into my mom’s adoption. Her original name was Frances Irene Moore and she only knew her parents were Mr and Mrs JC Moore. Not nearly enough for her to go on.

In the 1990s, my mom saw the resurgence of interest in the Georgia Tann story. Miss Tann was directly involved in prying my mom away from her mother. My mom also learned when her adoptive mother died that she had actually been born in Virginia. Because of Georgia Tann’s reputation and because my mom could not explain to her own self how she could have been born in Virginia but adopted before the age of 1 in Tennessee, my mom believed she had at best, in her words “been adopted inappropriately” (that to the state of Tennessee as she attempted to get the adoption file I now have possession of) and privately, to me as her oldest daughter – she believed she had been stolen from her parents by deception, then transported to Tennessee. Not the actual story but not that far off the truth.

My mom was troubled by her adoption. She did want to reconnect with her original mother. Sadly, even as the state of Tennessee refused to turn over her adoption file (she was almost a decade too early in asking and when it did become possible no one alerted her that she could have it), they told her that her mother had died some years before and that totally broke my mother’s heart. She quit creating a family history at Ancestry because it was based on the families of the adoptive parents and as she said to me – that’s just not real to me, I can’t finish it. I understand – while my experiences with my adoptive grandparents are cherished and precious to me – they no longer seem “real” to me either, because I do not carry their genes.

My dad simply ignored the fact he had been adopted. His attitude was, his mother gave him up and these kind people raised him and so, they were his parents and that was that. When my mom wanted to know more, he cautioned her against opening up a can of worms. She couldn’t talk to him about it anymore and so, she talked to me about it. Sometimes adoptees even silence other adoptees because they don’t want to touch the pain hidden in their own unconscious trauma.

Just a note that my favorite adoption related community has shutdown. I have often shared stories from there because I think it is very important to make the stories based on direct experience more widely known. While there will be no more “new” stories unless the group reactivates, there is an archive that I will be able to continue to access. Even so, it’s closure leaves a hole in my own life and I’m certain in many other lives as well. I think the administrators were simply worn out. I do understand.

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.

 

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.

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.