Glad I Was

1997 with my adoptee parents, apologies for the blurry quality

With Thanksgiving on my mind, I was remembering an email from my mom in which she told me she had to stop doing a family tree on Ancestry because it just wasn’t “real.” Both of my parents were adopted. Then, she added “glad I was” but that never really seemed genuine to me and the more I’ve learned about adoption and the trauma of separating a baby from its mother, the more I doubt she sincerely was grateful that it had happened, yet that was the reality and there was no way to change that. In a weird way though, I learned to be grateful that both of my parents had been adopted because otherwise, I would not exist and I am grateful for the life I have lived.

Learning my parents’ origin stories (they both died clueless), which was also my own ancestors’ stories brought with it a deep sense of gratitude for me, that I had not been given up for adoption when my mom discovered she was pregnant with me. By the ways of that time in history (early 1950s), she should have been sent away to have and give me up, only to return to her high school in time to graduate (she was a junior at the time of my conception and birth). The photo I have at the top of my blog are the pictures I now have of each of my original grandmothers holding one or the other of my parents as infants.

I continue to be grateful that I grew up with the parents who conceived me and then raised me throughout my childhood. I’ve heard many adoptees say that having biological, genetic children of their own made them fully aware of what being adopted had taken from them. At least, my parents had each other. I do continue to credit my dad’s adoptive parents with preserving me in our family. They were also a source of financial support for my parents during my earliest years. First, giving them space in their own home and me a dresser drawer bassinet. Then, an apartment in their multi-family building until my dad had saved up enough and was earning enough working shifts (and sometimes two shifts in a row) at an oil refinery to buy a house for our family.

In 2014, I experienced the last Thanksgiving with my parents. I knew their health was declining but I still expected to have yet another Thanksgiving with them in 2015. However, my mother passed away in late September and my father only 4 months later. They had been high school sweethearts and had been married over 50 years. My dad just didn’t find life worth continuing on with after his wife died. I knew that in the days after her death but then he sucked it up and tried. One morning, he simply didn’t wake up. He died peacefully with a bit of a smile on his face. I think he must have seen my mom waiting for him to join her.

That last Thanksgiving with my parents

Cousins Through Adoption

My aunt called me last night to tell me that her only son, my cousin Allan, had died this last Saturday. It was a bit of a shock and not a shock because for several years she would often ask me to pray for him due to some health challenge. When I mentioned his poor health to her, she said he was actually doing better lately and she worried about him less. He was a security dog trainer and he was doing a meet and greet with a potential new client when he literally dropped dead, with his wife nearby waiting for him in their car. The ambulance arriving was what alerted her that something had happened. So, he died instantly without pain doing what he loved.

I became closer to my two aunts – both from the paternal side – after my mom died and then my dad died 4 months later. I really didn’t have much contact with them for decades until that happened. It is like they came to fill a bit of a void for me of connection to something childhood. In fact, I told my husband – cousins are a childhood thing. They connect us to when we were children. My husband remembers meeting this cousin and I remember it was when we visited my aunt at her parents home in Pennsylvania before we had children. In fact, I wasn’t seriously close to this cousin had it not been a reuniting with this aunt by telephone and hearing constant updates on him. My aunt will be 90 this coming December and my cousin and his wife had just celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary on April 2nd. I don’t even have a photo of him, though I do have a recent photo of my aunt that she sent me one Christmas not long ago.

My adoptive family relations became more complicated for me once I discovered who my original grandparents were (both of my parents were adopted and their siblings were adopted except my dad’s step-sister who is the biological genetic daughter of my dad’s second adoptive father – yes, he was adopted twice in childhood after his adoptive mother divorced – as my youngest son said not too long ago, “you have a very complicated family”, well yes) and started having reunions with my genetic cousins with whom I have no shared life history but through whom I acquired insight into my original, genetic biological grandparents. I also acquired digital copies of photographs of my genetic family members. It is difficult to build relationships with decades of not knowing you existed between the two of you. I take a patient perspective on it and allow it to be whatever it will be. My genetic biological family is important to me and made me whole but there are still these other people with whom I have life history and I have begun to reintegrate them into my life as well.

So, while I was on the phone with my aunt, I thought of my cousin Christy. She is the daughter of the other aunt (that step sister by adoption) I’ve become closer to with the death of my parents. She recently turned 80. I remember my youngest sister sharing with me that she, Christy and Allan used to get into mischief at my Granny’s house (my dad’s adoptive mother). So I told my aunt, I would call and let Christy know and my middle sister as well. My youngest sister ? I am estranged from her, due to the severity of her paranoid schizophrenia which created a wedge between us due to cruel treatment by her towards me as I tried to administer my deceased parents’ estate and create some kind of ongoing support for her now that there are no parents to provide that.

My memories of my now deceased cousin are complicated in ways I would rather not share publicly. He is part of the story of why Thanksgiving was wrecked for my family. My uncle died due to the complications of Lou Gehring’s Disease during a holiday football game on TV as my dad and uncle’s family awaited Thanksgiving dinner to be served. There was always that watching of football games as part of my family’s holiday. The dinner was interrupted and the holiday ever after a reminder of his death. My cousin was only a child when his father died. This cousin was strikingly similar in appearance to his dad and I believe my paternal adoptive grandparents came to relate to him like a replacement for the son they lost that Thanksgiving Day.

RIP Allan Hart. May your dear wife, Christine, find comfort in the closeness of her own mother. They were living on the same property with her at the time of his death. I can truly say of ALL my cousins – God made us cousins. No truer words could ever be said since none of us are genetically, biologically related.

When School Becomes Home

On the car radio on Sunday, I caught the tail end of a To The Best Of Our Knowledge episode – Was The Art Worth All The Pain ? – that was an interview with the visual collage artist, Nathaniel Mary Quinn. What really got my attention was, even though he was not an adoptee – abandonment and trauma issues – were quite similar to what most adoptees experience. And his resilience and maturing perspective on what happened to him in his earlier childhood was inspiring and remarkable. At the end of the episode, he indicates the abandonment he experienced gave him faith in a larger reality that he interprets as Divinely guided in which what happened to him was necessary for him to become what he was capable of.

When he was 15, his family simply disappeared, leaving him to fend for himself at his boarding school. He had earned a scholarship at a really high quality school. His mother had died and when he came home for what he expected to be a Thanksgiving shared with his 4 older brothers and father, he found an empty, abandoned apartment. It was traumatic not knowing where any of his family was but he returned to school and worked hard. Really hard. He developed a study schedule and stuck to it because he knew he was one bad report card away from losing his scholarship and becoming homeless.

At school, he was fed 3 or more meals a day and had to wear a uniform so clothes were not an issue. On Sundays, the school band he was part of at Culver Academy in Chicago would put on a parade performance. Afterwards, when everyone else went to lunch, he went to a mound of grass on a golf course and grieved to a song by Al Green – on repeating loop 10 times – for 4 full years.

Today, he is an acknowledged artist with works included in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. His first solo exhibition was at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Quinn’s work is a complicated blend of painting and drawing that achieves the appearance of collage, a combination of human faces with comic book figures and other provocative images. Quinn describes his art as “luminism.”

“The technique of light,” says Quinn. “It’s the torch that I’m carrying from the platform of cubism. Cubism was a technique designed to show multiple angles and viewpoints of a particular object, but to show it on the same plane. “Well, luminism is designed to show the multiplicity of viewpoints and dispositions of the internalized world of that object.”

“Whereas in cubism one would paint the multiplicity of viewpoints of a cup, luminism will show the multiplicity of viewpoints of the internalized world of that cup,” he says. He applies a perspective of luminism to collages of human, often family, figures from his life.  His art draws on a difficult upbringing spent in an impoverished public housing project in Chicago with a broken family.

It can be uncomfortable to look at. His collaged and fragmented figures are meant to demonstrate that we are all the sum of our experiences. In his words, “I hope to convey a sense of how our experiences, both good and bad, operate to construct our identities. I also want to portray a mutual relationship between the acceptable and the unacceptable, the grotesque and what is aesthetically pleasing.” Formed from an amalgam of family photographs, images from articles and advertisements, and his own furious brushstrokes and charcoal marks, the men and women who populate his compositions appear as hybrids, at once monstrous and delicate. For Quinn, they are portraits of his fractured family and images of all human beings’ multi-faceted selves.

Thankful

One adoptee’s story –

I still struggle internally with how addiction and reunification should be handled.

My birthmom was not an addict but my birthfather was, and that factored hugely into her decision. She had actually changed her mind and decided to keep me, when at 3 months old, there was an incident with my birth father on Thanksgiving that scared her.

I am one of those with a “good” adoption story, so I have always been thankful for the life my adoptive parents gave me and the space they allowed in the semi-open adoption. This was the 90s, our “open” was more letters and pictures with direct communication starting at 12 and physical meeting at 16. I went to live with her at 17 with all parents full support.

My birth father is now finally sober but VERY brain-damaged from his many years of addiction and I do not have him in my life.

I don’t despise addicted parents by any means, and I do agree with the philosophy that not all people with addictions are neglectful parents. However, it is playing with fire IMO…. I think that if there has been no neglect or abuse then support should be given to keep family together as much as possible.

I personally feel that once actual neglect/abuse has happened then the child should have the right to decide for themselves the level of connection they want and that may not happen until age 8-13 depending on maturity level.

I do not believe that Termination of Parental Rights ever needs to happen, unless the child is truly wanting it. My anger toward both addiction and the system comes from the fact that kids aren’t given enough room or right to have their own voice.

I don’t really care what first parents, adoptive parents, or foster parents “want”. Anyone who actually loves their child in a healthy way wants them to feel safe and comfortable and connected with all the people in their life.

Reunion as teenagers and adults is different as their brains can cognitively understand addiction and how “using Mom” is not the same person as “Mom”. But a younger child can’t understand that and I personally am grateful for the stability I had and can see how damaging the inconsistency of foster care life can be.

I can’t speak for other adoptees but I have personally dealt with thoughts toward my birth parents like the following –

“You should have had an abortion then.”

“Why wasn’t I worth it?”

(Since having my son) “I get that being high is cool, but nothing is better than the love I have for my son. Why didn’t you feel the same?”

I want addiction de-stigmatized. I want drugs decriminalized. I also want kids to be safe and I think all kids deserve to go to bed knowing “I am the MOST IMPORTANT” things in my Mom’s life.

Not Real

This is complicated.  It is weird growing up knowing your grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins are not really related to you.  That is what it is like when BOTH of your parents were adopted.  Adoptees experience adoption as individually as any two people experience reality.

My mom had to stop creating the family trees on Ancestry because she said to me, it just isn’t real.  She somewhat hollowly said she was glad she was adopted but I knew from long years as her confidant that wasn’t totally true.  She was glad that as a Georgia Tann baby she didn’t end up in worse circumstances.  She ended up in a wealthy home with privileges.

So much so, that when she conceived me with a boy that came from very humble beginnings, her parents really felt disappointed that she had married below her class.  My adoptive grandparents never shared family holidays until I was well into maturity and then I only remember one occasion when the 3 of them were all present for one Thanksgiving (my mom’s adoptive father having died long before that time).

While my adoptive grandparents certainly played their roles for real and had an enormous impact on all of our lives, now that I know the truth of who my parent’s original parents were, that is who I think of when I think about my grandparents, even though I had no in life real experiences with them.

At my age, it is not uncommon for one’s parents to have died and if that is so, one’s grandparents have also died.  It’s not that I think those adoptive aunts, uncles and cousins are not really “good” people – they are.

Yet, now that I have cousins and one aunt who are genetically related to me, I’m all about slowly without a lot of force, experiencing their lives and all that unfolds in any human life as a way that I can become better acquainted.  To build familial relationships with people that share some of my genetic DNA during whatever time we have left in this world.