Maud Lewis – Tragic Birthmother

I am attracted to tragic birthmother stories. That is what I feel that both of my biological genetic grandmothers were. So last night we watched the movie Maudie. It is the story of the Nova Scotia woman, Maud Lewis, who’s folk art which sold for nominal prices during her life and has skyrocketed into value since her death. I am attracted the her famous painting of the white cat with the sad face.

In the Hollywood romanticized version of her story, her husband Everett Lewis was not a social person and is known to have been was born at the “Poor Farm” in Marshalltown, Digby County. In the movie, he frequents an orphanage. It is unclear whether his mother was a resident or an employee at the Poor Farm, and nothing is known of his father. The movie depicts Maud and Everette Lewis as two misfits who found each other and married.

When Everett wants to have sex with Maud, is ostensibly there as his housekeeper but in living with him, there is only one bed in the house – his bed. She confesses to him that she once ended up pregnant, had a severely malformed baby who died and was buried while she was asleep. Later in the movie, her Aunt Ida who had partially taken care of Maud before she went to work for Everett but didn’t want to die with regrets, confesses that the baby was perfectly normal but that Maud’s brother Charles sold her to a rich couple because he did not believe Maud was capable of caring for her.

Later, Everett tracks down Maud’s daughter and takes her to see the girl but Maud only secretly looks at her hidden next to their car, outside of her house and isn’t willing to go to the girl. One gets the sense that she may have felt the daughter would reject her for her deformities, caused by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (which was not treatable in the time period she was growing up). And that could be the true version – which is sad and tragic enough.

There is some dispute about the movie version compared to the actual true story and that would not be surprising as movies are meant to entertain. Everett is said to have been much worse towards Maud than the movie depicts him as being. The author, Lance Woolaver, visited Maud’s famously hand-decorated with her paintings house as a child and has been fascinated by her story all his life. He wrote a heavily researched 500 page book – Maud Lewis The Heart on the Door.

The book is described as a full-length biography including detailed accounts of her disabilities, due to a childhood battle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that twisted her hands and joints. Despite this deepening and painful affliction, she completed and sold thousands of bright pictures and Christmas cards from her little one-room house. Throughout her marriage to the illiterate fish peddler, she suffered from poverty and loneliness, yet triumphed over all with her brilliant, colorful and happy paintings. Everett Lewis was murdered after Maud’s death in 1970, on New Year’s Day of 1979 for his lockbox filled with money from sales of Maud’s pictures.

This author’s perspective on the tragedy of Maud Lewis as a birthmother was that as a young woman in Yarmouth, Maud fell in love with Emery Allen. Woolaver believes he was the love of Maud’s life. However, after she became pregnant, Allen abandoned her. He also believes there was no reconciliation between Maud and her daughter. Whether Maud believed the lie initially told her or not, it is said that she rejected her daughter, Catherine, when she reached out to know her mother saying that her child had been a boy who was born dead. A subsequent attempt by the daughter to contact her mother by letter also failed to bring them back together.

Catherine Dowley was born August 13, 1928 in Nova Scotia. She was not aware that she had been named for her mother, Maud Catherine Dowley. Later in life she did know that Maud was her original mother and that Mamie Crosby was her adoptive mother. Catherine’s visits to connect with Maud in Marshalltown upset Mamie, who like many adoptive mothers felt that she had been a loving and good mother to Catherine.

Catherine (with glasses) with her adoptive mother, Mamie Porter.

Catherine married Paul Muise in 1949 in Yarmouth county and several years after their marriage, they moved to Ontario. They were the parents of about 4 children. Catherine died before Lance Woolaver’s book was released.

Everett was know locally as a dirty old man who would take advantage of young women for sex. Maud may have known there was that aspect to him and sought to protect her daughter from predation. Just questions without answers such as those I have in my own parents’ adoption stories. Those that know have died with the answers I will never have.

Silenced Women

When I saw this graphic, it went straight to my heart like an arrow. My grandmothers, forced by circumstances to give up their first born, and in two cases only child (which includes a grandfather who never was given the benefit to know he had a son), to go on with their lives as though nothing happened.

I don’t think I’ll ever truly 100% get over it and I probably should not because adoption is still a thing that drives mothers and their babies apart. I now have an unflinching awareness of what it means to be adopted.

At almost 70 years old now, having to live through a full 6 decades before I knew the truths of my origins, I do fell as though I was born to re-connect the broken threads of my family’s beginnings, that I have somehow managed to fulfill my destiny in having been born at all.

In learning about my family’s ancestors, I also discovered what a miracle it was that in the mid-1950s, I was not given up for adoption, with my parents forced to suffer the same fate their own parents encountered. My teenage mother and my father only having just started on his university studies – both interrupted when I decided to take up residence in my mother’s womb.

My grandparents could not tell their own stories of loss that hurts for a lifetime because no one would have been sympathetic regarding their plight but for adult adoptees today, there is a growing awareness of the trauma and pain of being cut off from one’s roots and some are even choosing to attempt parenting when they had thought to give up their child and they are finding a lot of support in society all around them.

May the reform of attitudes continue to take over the dominant narrative that adoption saves babies and children from a worse fate.

John Lennon’s Mum

I didn’t know this sad story but someone in my all things adoption group mentioned it. “Ok adoptees, tell me John Lennon didn’t capture mother abandonment in his song: How?”

So I went looking for the story. I found an article in a Liverpool newspaper titled “The true tale of John Lennon’s mum revealed in Walton author’s book.”

His mum’s early death in 1958 is understood to have scarred him for life and inspired his music. On his 1970 song, Mother, he sang “You had me but I never had you”. Kevin Roach says that the idea of Julia as an irresponsible “good-time girl” who couldn’t look after her son came from Aunt Mimi, who raised John in her house in Menlove Avenue.

In Julia, Kevin goes into detail on the rows between Julia, her father George and her sister Mimi, as well as her relationships with men. Julia Stanley’s family never approved of her relationship with Alf Lennon, and they eventually married in secret. But merchant seaman Alf deserted her after baby John was born. As World War II continued, she had a brief affair that left her pregnant – but she was forced by her father to give up that baby for adoption.

She later met another man, John “Bobby” Dykins, but her sister Mimi disapproved. Eventually, after Mimi reported Julia to social services, Mimi won custody of John. Julia had two children with Bobby and later became close to John again, sharing her passion for music. But in 1958, she died after being hit by a car in Menlove Avenue.

Later in life John remarked that he had lost his mother twice – once at five, when he was sent to live with his aunt, and once at 17 when she died.

The book Julia by Roach appears to be out of print with a few, very expensive used copies available at Amazon. But I learned there is also a movie titled Nowhere Boy which thankfully is available at Netflix (and so I have added it to my list).

Nowhere Boy is a 2009 British biographical drama about John Lennon’s adolescence, his relationships with his aunt Mimi Smith and his mother Julia Lennon, the creation of his first band, the Quarrymen, and its evolution into the Beatles. The movie is based on a biography written by Lennon’s half-sister, Julia Baird.

Sad Stories

Not just sometimes, many times, I hate what adoption does to families.  So today, yet another sad story of a mother separated from her child.  An open adoption agreement that turns into a lie.  This happens too often to not be expected going in but the ones who go in trust the agreement until it is broken – and many times it is.

A woman became pregnant at the age of 18 and was 19 when her daughter was born.  I can relate, that is what happened to me although I was married first – thankfully – it could have turned out differently . . .

She chose adoption because she really didn’t believe that she had another choice. She had never heard of an open adoption. The family she chose was the first and only family she looked at. They sounded great to her.  They were also adopted and had relationships with their biological parents. She believed that, if anyone could relate to anything her daughter might feel growing up, these people could. Upon meeting them, she was offered an open adoption.

So things were going great for 3 years. The agreement was for 2 visits a year. Aware that her vulnerability could risk a rupture, she was cautious in her behavior at these visits.  She didn’t want to over step her authority or make the adoptive parents uncomfortable. She never referred to her own daughter as that around them or in direct communication with them.

It appeared that all was well until the little girl turned 3.  A visit was scheduled and 2 hours before she was due to arrive, the adoptive parents asked if they could reschedule the visit to take place a few weeks later.  The woman waited 2 months for a date.  Finally, she tried calling them. The number was no longer in service.  I have encountered variations on this story more times than I might hope to believe happens.

Her adoption worker, from that day on, always said she had no idea where they were and hadn’t heard from them. Fast forward 14 years.  Her daughter turned 17 in April.  The original mother found her daughter on Facebook and sent a friend request. She didn’t really think it through and admits that maybe it was selfish of her but she understandably just wanted to see her daughter’s face and know she was okay.  When my own adoptee mom was searching, she said to me that as a mother herself, she would want to know what became of her child.  Unfortunately, by then, my maternal grandmother had already died.

Back to this sad story, the woman was immediately blocked.  The adoptive mother messaged her asking her not to reach out to her daughter again, at least not until she is an adult.  This woman is willing to respect their wishes, sadly to me adding, “she is THEIR daughter”. The adoptive mother claimed in receiving the friend request, the daughter thought that her original mother was a stalker.  The adoptive mother claims the daughter knows she is adopted and about her original mother.  She said the girl doesn’t have any questions and doesn’t want to know anything more.  She just wants things to go back to normal.

The whole exchange does not feel entirely believable to this woman.  The turnaround of 15 minutes was too fast.

This woman went on to give birth to a son who is 12 years old (he is 5 years younger than his sister). When the woman did speak to the adoptive mother, the adoptive mother shifted the blame, saying this woman was the cause of contact ending because it was too hard for the original mother to bear.  Yet the adoptive mother knew the original mother had had a son and believed this woman was now happy with her life as it had become.

The rub is – the only way they would have known that was by being in contact with adoption worker. All those years of the adoption worker saying she didn’t know where they were, it was a lie.

My Little Miracle

Not my children, my own little miracle.  My mom and dad met at a high school party.  She went to the party with someone else and left with him.  They went to the same high school but he was two years ahead of her and graduated.  After high school, he left El Paso Texas to go to a university one hour away in Las Cruces New Mexico.  Somehow on some visit, they did what teenagers are want to do . . .

So it was that my teenage 16 yr old high school student mother became pregnant with me.  Doesn’t sound all that miraculous, does it ?  It isn’t.  Happens all the time.  What was miraculous is what happened next.

Both of my parents were adopted, so adoption was quite an acceptable practice in each of their adoptive homes.  How was it then, that my mom was not sent off to have and give me up for adoption ?  I’m certain her banker father and socialite mother would have preferred that.  I’m certain their dreams of her becoming a debutante were dashed.  It was quite the custom in the mid 1950s.

It was only recently as I learned their adoption stories that I came to see the miracle of my own life.  I believe it was my dad’s adoptive parents that encouraged him to do what his ethics and heart were probably inclined to do anyway – marry the girl, give up a college diploma and go to work.

They stayed married til my mom’s death did them part and my heartbroken dad only lasted 4 months without her.  A true love story and one I am grateful turned out the way it did.  Today is my 66th birthday.

What Is Wrong About Adoption ?

As a society, we don’t really take care of one another.  Lately, it may seem to people hoping to adopt that the whole possibility has been hijacked and beaten up.  Adoptees and their original family feel they were sold out and ripped to shreds by those who’s financial interests took their parents or children away from each other.

The methods by which adoption has been practiced in this country are a shackle upon the most vulnerable members of the triad.  Sealed adoption records, hidden indentities, have kept people genetically related apart and have treated adoptees like second-class citizens who are denied the same basic civil rights so many people without adoption in their family history take for granted.

The rainbows and unicorns IDEAL of the adoptive experience is scarred now by battles waged by those who the practice has hurt the most.  Families formed by adoption are only seen through the smoke of lies and deception.  But that is changing and in no small part because of adult adoptees who are speaking out about the damage and about their rights to a genuine and authentic identity, even if it is a sorrowful and tragic beginning to their own life.

Back in the late 1980s, the origins of an adoption story may have started this way – An 18 year old girl becomes pregnant from an affair with her employer.  She denies she is pregnant until it is too evident to conceal.  Maybe she looked in the Yellow Pages, where she found what looked like help for her situation.  She moves to a large city and lives with a “host family” (strangers who she’ll lose contact with once her baby is born).  At birth, her child is handed over to a couple she knows only as a photograph.

By moving this young woman to a different state, she was isolated away from family and friends – those who cared about her and may have allowed her a different outcome.  Though she knew who her baby’s father was, the agency may have advised her not to tell him about his child.  She was encouraged to surrender her child by being told how deficit she was to raise that child.  This kind of practice went on for many decades, certainly in the 1930s when my parents were surrendered to adoption and as recently as the late 1980s, when Roe v Wade and the emergence of single mothers as an accepted aspect of society reduced the number of babies available for adoption.

So if you have begun to sense that there is simmering an anti-adoption movement you are not mis-interpreting the noise.  One could even call this the next frontier for reproductive justice.

Opportunists Everywhere

Georgia Tann may have facilitated the most adoptions in the history of the United States (believed to be from 5,000-10,000 children impacted over 3 decades of time) but there were others pursuing the same opportunity to enrich themselves by taking children from unmarried, white girls and placing them into wealthy homes – whatever the market would meet.  The time period is known as the Baby Scoop Era and it’s range was approximately the end of World War II and the early 1970s.  The social mores of that time period were a factor as well.

One such “business person” was Dr. Thomas J. Hicks, who sold or gave away more than 200 infants from the ’40s to the ’60s.  Some of the infants were illegally placed through a local Akron OH woman who was a black-market adoption channel.

Most of the girls who went to the Hicks Clinic were young, unwed and poor, trapped in a depressed mid-century Appalachian mining community. Many were teenagers whose parents were struggling to feed the mouths already under their roofs. An unplanned pregnancy had serious consequences, even beyond the obvious social stigma.

The TLC network will highlight this story in a six part, three night special titled Taken at Birth.

Dr Hicks was a father of three, who was married to a Baptist Sunday school teacher.  Hicks died at age 83 in 1972.  At the time he died, Hicks was without a medical license, having surrendered it to avoid prosecution following his 1964 arrest for performing abortions.

A local probate judge who didn’t have any knowledge of what Dr. Hicks had been doing, and so had no allegiance to him or his family, decided to look into the situation.  There were an estimated 200-plus babies that had gone to Akron Ohio from the Hicks Clinic.

Two hundred babies? To Akron?

Hicks started out from compassion but soon saw there was money to be made and turned his efforts into a business.  Dr. Hicks housed pregnant mothers in the attached apartments to the right of his clinic and at his farm and in an abandoned telephone company building.  A local woman in Akron OH then informed desperate, childless couples who paid $1,000 per baby that their baby was ready for pick-up.  Most of the babies were passed through the back door of the clinic along with a forged birth certificate.  No record of biological parents was maintained making it particularly difficult for “Hicks Babies” to discover their roots.

McCaysville Lost and Found serves to facilitate searches and provides a communal link for Hicks Babies and their families.  Their mission is to support of those beginning, in the middle of or who have already completed their birth quest.

Branded A Scarlet

 

When I was a schoolgirl, we were made to read The Scarlet Letter.  Now as a grown woman, I wonder about that.  Who’s idea was it that young girls should read literature of that sort and what was the intention in making us do so?

Imagine my surprise, when upon discovering the granddaughter of the second wife of my grandfather, she writes to me –

“Another thing about your grandmother as heartbreaking as it was a women having children outside of marriage was considered a total disgrace usually  branded a scarlet and forced to relocate and start their life anew, which explains your Dad’s adoption and I feel pretty certain abortion back then was not a common practice.”

My dad’s mother was unwed.  My dad’s father was much older and married to a woman way much older (27 years older) than he was.  It isn’t a wonder to me that he was unfaithful and found a vulnerable young woman to attract the romantic attentions of.

I’m pretty certain that my grandmother didn’t know he was married when she started seeing him.  I’m also pretty certain that she did know he was married by the time she discovered she was pregnant.  Because her childhood was difficult, she learned at an early age to be self-reliant.  She took herself to a home for unwed mothers run by the Salvation Army.

My dad was with her until about eight months of age.  She was still breastfeeding him when the Salvation Army who had taken legal custody of him, adopted him out.

What is amazing to me is that this step-cousin was still blaming the woman for her grandfather’s lust.