Moving Around

I didn’t grow up in a military family but I went to school right next to Ft Bliss in El Paso TX and so throughout my public school years, there were military families in the mix. Sometimes, I’d become very close friends with someone, only to have them leave as their family was moved to another location. So, there was a sense of loss in that.

Today’s question was whether an active military upbringing is in the best interest of an adopted child given adoptee abandonment issues and a military move every 4 years or a parent deploying here and there.

One adoptee shared this surprising but understandable answer – The moving every three years was hard, but I also felt like I had the opportunity to reinvent my entire identity every time I went to a new school. I think the instability felt comfortable and normal to me. As an adult I can see how messed up that is, but as a kid it just felt like what life is. Don’t get deeply attached to anything or anyplace because it’s never permanent.

With racial issued focused for many people this year, I found this sharing interesting –

She is an adoptive parent who has moved location 3 times and moved house 5 times in three years (only the first move was intentional… I found a way to move us to the Caribbean – a decision driven by what we thought would be best for the kids for issues related to race – and it was awesome until the dual hurricanes Irma and Maria decided we should be in Miami instead and then Covid brought us full circle back to where we started in Virginia) – I can attest to the reality that the strain of frequent moving is an additional burden on an Adoptee’s trauma load that can be quite difficult. However, it’s also true that structure, and knowing what to expect, can be very supportive of kids who have trauma histories, and the expectation of knowing the moves come every 3 years and that the moves are part of a shared culture could have an ameliorative affect or at least teach tools for processing and managing trauma. I will say that the tools our kids have learned over the last 3 years with all the moves have been good “practice” for delving deeper into the more primal, bigger “T” trauma of adoption. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the moves are a “safer” kind of training wheel for handling and processing trauma – and then those tools can then be turned on to the bigger traumas that all adoptees are trying to manage. However, it’s risky to add to that trauma load with frequent moves if the adoptive parents are in denial about or ignorant of (or worse) the toxicity of adoption itself.

And there is also this perspective –

I am an adoptive parent and a military spouse. I just wanted to mention that the military has provided phenomenal therapies and medical care. Our now 7 year old was diagnosed with intractable epilepsy at 15 months and the military medical system was willing to send her anywhere she needed to go to get her to the correct specialists. They were willing to relocate my husband to another base, if needed to get her the medical care she required. Most employers would not. Now, it’s set up that he can’t be stationed anywhere that doesn’t have a medical team to meet her needs. She also has access to a neuropsychologist who minored in adoption and separation trauma.

The military started putting a lot of emphasis on children’s behavioral health back in the 90s with Operation Desert Shield/Storm and have done an amazing job of “normalizing” behavioral health for children and adolescents. Today, almost every school district around a military base has a Military Family Life Counselor on staff. I’m not saying this makes military life “ok”. I’m just putting an aspect of resources available out there that aren’t currently being considered in this thread.

Choosing One’s Ancestors

Because I didn’t have any genetic ancestors most of my lifetime, knowing who they were and where they came from filled a void in me that my two adoptee parents were never given the opportunity to receive.  They both died knowing next to nothing and within a year of my dad dying (four months after my mom died), I knew who all 4 of them were – including my dad’s unnamed father (his mother was unwed and he was given her surname at birth).

Because thoughts about race and identity are currently prominent in the United States and because of the horrendous injustice that has occurred here all too often (so that even in other countries, the protests have also grown in awareness of the issue), I was drawn to a conversation that took place between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead in 1970 as shared by Brain Pickings.

During the week I spent in Jean Houston’s home in Oregon, she spoke frequently about her dear friend and mentor, Margaret Mead.  She even has a larger than life portrait in her front door drawing room that she suggest’s Margaret insisted be painted and delivered to her after Mead’s death.  Houston writes about the influence of Mead frequently in her book A Mythic Life.

In this conversation between Baldwin and Mead, Margaret says – “I think we have to get rid of people being proud of their ancestors, because after all they didn’t do a thing about it. What right have I to be proud of my grandfather? I can be proud of my child if I didn’t ruin her, but nobody has any right to be proud of his ancestors.”

She goes on to add – “The one thing you really ought to be allowed to do is to choose your ancestors.  We have a term for this in anthropology: mythical ancestors… They are spiritual and mental ancestors, they’re not biological ancestors, but they are terribly important.”

Mead notes that there are very few black people in America who don’t have some white ancestors, with which Baldwin agrees, and they go on to explore why the “melting pot” metaphor is deeply problematic in honoring the actual architecture of identity.

Before I knew who my parents biological/genetic parents were, I made up my racial identity.  Since my mom was born in Virginia, I thought she ended up being given up for adoption because she was half-black.  I find it interesting now as I steep myself in issues of racial identity, that I believed my dad was half-Mexican because of his coloration and how well he related to the people in that country when he crossed the border at Juarez/El Paso.

Neither of these was actually the truth.  Turns out my mom does have a bit of Mali in her DNA and that on her mother’s Scottish side there were slave owners, a fact that I am not proud of.  Yet, until I knew better, I would say I was an Albino African (and said it quite proudly as I tried to recover a sense of identity that adoption had robbed me of).

My dad’s father was a Danish immigrant and quite dark complected.  I don’t know enough about the Danish people to know why that was their skin color or why their eyes were brown.  Maybe someday, I will explore that aspect of my own racial identity.

I found this story which Baldwin conveyed in that discussion quite illuminating –

“I remember once a few years ago, in the British Museum a black Jamaican was washing the floors or something and asked me where I was from, and I said I was born in New York. He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” I did not know what he meant. “Where did you come from before that?” he explained. I said, “My mother was born in Maryland.” “Where was your father born?” he asked. “My father was born in New Orleans.” He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” Then I began to get it; very dimly, because now I was lost. And he said, “Where are you from in Africa?” I said, “Well, I don’t know,” and he was furious with me. He said, and walked away, “You mean you did not care enough to find out?”

“Now, how in the world am I going to explain to him that there is virtually no way for me to have found out where I came from in Africa? So it is a kind of tug of war. The black American is looked down on by other dark people as being an object abjectly used. They envy him on the one hand, but on the other hand they also would like to look down on him as having struck a despicable bargain.”

So it is for adoptees who’s rights are second-class, some basic rights of knowing where they came from often denied them.  Over decades worth of time, they have been robbed of that sense of identity that so many people take for granted.  However, as a woman who’s skin is white, I am grateful that racial identity was not emphasized in my childhood home and that as a white person growing up on the Mexican border, I was definitely part of a minority race.  I will admit that I didn’t suffer the slings and arrows that the black race has in this country but I could not fully embrace any idea that I was somehow superior because of the color of my skin.  I consider that one of the few blessings of being ignorant for most of my life about my racial identity.

Family Contact Matters

I understand this as the child of two adoptees.  The adoptions for both of my parents were closed and my parents both died knowing very little about their origins or the details behind why they ended up adopted.  Since their deaths, I have been able to recover a lot of my rightful family history.  I now know of genetic relatives for each of the four grandparents.  It has been quite a journey.  It wasn’t easy (though maybe easier for me due to our unique circumstances than for many) and it required persistence and determination to see it through.

Certainly DNA testing and the two major matching sites – Ancestry as well as 23 and Me – were instrumental to my success.  Since the genetic relations I was coming into first contact with had no prior knowledge of me and I am well over 60 years old, seeing the DNA truth that I was related to them, I believe it mattered.  It is hard to refute when it is right there clear and certain.

My mom had four living half-siblings on her father’s side when she was born.  One died young of a sudden heart failure.  I barely missed getting to meet my mom’s youngest half-sister by only a few months.  I was lucky to connect with her daughter who had all of her mom’s photo albums and possession of a lot of family history, including written accounts.  One afternoon with her and I felt like I had lived my Moore family’s history.  The family photos I now have digital copies of are precious treasures.

Though my Stark family was the first I became aware of and within a month, I had visited the graves of my grandmother and her parents east of Memphis in Eads Tennessee, those living descendants were the last I finally made a good strong connection with.  The reality is that I simply can’t recover 6 decades of not living with the usual family interactions with my true genetic relatives.  All I can do is try and build relationships with whatever time each of us has left.  The personal memories of my grandmother that my mom’s cousins possessed (she was our favorite aunt, they said) made her come alive for me.

The Salvation Army was somewhat forthcoming with information about my father’s birth at one of their homes for unwed mothers in the San Diego California area just walking distance from the beach and ocean.  They were able to give me my father’s full name and the missing piece of how he got from San Diego to El Paso Texas where he was ultimately adopted.  Once I knew my grandmother’s first married name (born Hempstead including my dad, later Barnes, Timm at death) and a cousin did 23 and Me, my discoveries were off and running.  Her mother, my dad’s youngest half-sibling, was living only 90 miles away from him when he died.  Mores the pity.

I thought I’d never know who my dad’s father was since his mother was unwed but the next cousin I met who I share a grandmother with had her photo albums and she left us a breadcrumb.  Clearly she had no doubt who my dad’s father was.  His father, Rasmus Martin Hansen, was an immigrant, not yet a citizen, and married to a much older woman.  So, he probably never knew he was a father and that’s a pity because I do believe my dad and his dad would have been great friends.

I now also have contact with my Danish grandfather’s genetic relatives.  If it had not been for the pandemic, they would have had their annual reunion there in Denmark.  I haven’t heard but I would not be surprised to know it is postponed.  My relative (who I share a great-grandfather with – my dad being the only child of my grandfather) planned to make the Danish relatives aware of me.

To anyone who thinks not knowing who your true relatives are – if the adoptions were more or less good enough, happy enough and loving enough – I am here to tell you that not knowing anything about your family (including medical history) and being cut off from the people you are actually genetically related to DOES matter.  Adoption records should be UNSEALED for ALL adult adoptees at their request.  Sadly over half of these United States still withhold that information.  I know from experience as I encountered this problem in Virginia, Arizona and California.  If my mom’s adoption had not been connected to the Georgia Tann, Tennessee Children’s Home Society baby stealing and selling scandal, I would not have gotten my first breakthrough.

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 . . .

Questions Without Answers

Try as I might, my heart longs for answers to questions that I will never be able to truly answer.  I may have theories but they may be wrong.  For too many years, when we knew nothing about my adoptee parents’ origins, we made up plausible stories –

My mom had been stolen from her illiterate parents from the hospital in Virginia where she was born by a nurse in cahoots with Georgia Tann who transported her to Memphis.  There was no other way she could reconcile being adopted as an infant in Memphis when she had actually been born in Virginia and who could blame her for that confusion ?

Because my dad was dark complected and seemed so comfortable with the natives in Mexico, I thought that he must have been mixed race with a Mexican mother and an Anglo father and that she had crossed the border with her infant and left him upon the doorstep of the Salvation Army with a note that said – “Take care of my baby, Maria.”

So my maternal grandmother was exploited by three women in Memphis – Georgia Tann certainly but also Georgia Robinson the superintendent at Porter Leath orphanage who had agreed to give my mom “temporary care” and then betrayed her to the baby seller, Miss Tann, as well as the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley who was Miss Tann’s close friend and could be counted upon to remove any child from their parents for nothing more abusive than poverty and a lack of immediate family support.

And my dad wasn’t Mexican at all.  His dark complexion came from his Danish immigrant father who was a married man, so his unwed young mother went to a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers at Ocean  Beach California just west of San Diego.  His father probably never even knew of his existence.  More’s the pity, as fishermen who loved the ocean they would have been great friends.

I’ll never know why my maternal grandfather never came to my maternal grandmother’s rescue or why they separated after only 4 months of marriage with her pregnant already.  I’ll never know why she went to Virginia to give birth, though I suspect she was sent away to avoid embarrassment to her immediate family in a very conservative religious rural community.

I can only live with the questions that will never have answers while basking in the glow of knowing so much that over 6 decades of living never prepared me to uncover.

What Is Normal Anyway ?

Growing up in my immediate family, adoption was the most normal thing.  After all, both of my parents were adopted and they were “normal” or were they ?  Until recently, I didn’t know that being adopted could leave traumatic wounds at such a deep and pre-verbal level the person isn’t even conscious those feelings are there.

Now, my mom was a Georgia Tann baby and when she was a schoolgirl in the early 1950s, the scandal in Memphis broke into national news.  Her adoptive mother admitted she had been adopted there but that she was not one of the stolen babies.  Life went on and she got pregnant and married in time for me to be legitimate.

Fast-forward to the early 1990s and the Georgia Tann scandal hit national attention again with stories on 60 Minutes and Oprah among others.  My mom learned that she had not been born in Memphis but had actually been born in Virginia.  She could not reconcile the disparity of this in her own mind and learning about some of the most extreme atrocities perpetrated by Miss Tann, my mom knew at a very deep level that she never should have been adopted and that her adoption was somehow inappropriate – that last word was one she used when she tried to get her adoption file from the state of Tennessee but was rejected.

What is normal, anyway ? Normal is what you know.  We knew adoption was real and we knew that our parents were being raised by people who did not give them birth.  We knew that ALL of the relatives we knew as such, were not related to us.  It is a bit odd to re-think that now but at the time it was what we knew as a reality.

“What makes us normal is knowing that we’re not normal.”
~ Haruki Murakami

Now, I do know that my parents being adopted was not a normal situation.  And I even know that I have been a victim of adoption fog.  Even as I was discovering who the people were that actually gave birth to my two parents.

 

Becoming Whole Again

Much of what I write here came as an unexpected side effect of discovering who my original grandparents were.  Both of my parents were adoptees and both of them died without knowing what I know now.

The journey began because my cousin informed me she had received her father’s adoption file from the state of Tennessee.  This came as a huge surprise to me.  Back in the early 1990s, my mom tried and failed to get her own.  I had hoped, since she had died, it might become available to me but that is not how sealed records work generally – and I have bumped up against them in 3 states – Virginia, Arizona and California.

What made Tennessee different was the Georgia Tann scandal.  There would have been criminal charges lodged against her if she had not died before that could happen.  The movers and shakers of Memphis political life were all too happy to let the wrong-doing die with Miss Tann.

The story had such potency, that it erupted on the public’s imagination in the early 1990s on 60 Minutes and Oprah.  A movie was made by Hallmark featuring Mary Tyler Moore as a convincing Georgia Tann.  Reunions of adoptees with their original parents started being seen on television and my mom wanted that for herself.  It was not to be.  No one told her that less than 10 years after her own efforts were denied, it would have been possible.

It was surprising to me how the dominoes began falling so easily, so that in less than one year, I knew who all 4 of my original grandparents were and made contact with some surviving descendants.  Only a few years ago, I would never have predicted such a result.

It didn’t end there however.  From that new wholeness, I also began to understand deeply the impacts of separating young children or infants from their mothers and original families, how this causes a deep traumatic wound in the adoptee and how even the most well-meaning of adoptive parents (my adoptive grandparents were totally that and good people in general) can not make up for what has happened to the victims of the process.

And from all that, has come this blog.  No doubt I still have more to say as soon as tomorrow.

 

Lifelong Sorrow

It is clear in my mom’s adoption file that my maternal grandmother, shown above holding my mom for the very last time, never intended to surrender her.  She was pressured and exploited by circumstances and the expert manipulation of that baby thief, Georgia Tann, in Memphis.

I read a statistic that said that more than 30% of women who have relinquished children never have another – either because they chose not to, or could not. There is an increased incidence of secondary infertility among natural mothers.

I know that my grandmother never had another child.  I know that while her birth name was Elizabeth, my mom’s birth certificate had her name as Lizzie.  I saw her sign Elizabeth to a note and a postcard she sent to Georgia Tann after losing my mom.  Yet, when she died in her 60s after marrying a second husband, Lizzie is what is on her gravestone.  I can’t help but believe she hoped my mom would find it someday.  My mom died without fulfilling her desire to know about her original mother.  I was the one to find the gravestone and sit beside it and talk with her soul.

There is no way to know why my maternal grandfather left my maternal grandmother in Memphis four months pregnant.  It seems her widowed father sent her away to Virginia to have my mom and I doubt she was supposed to bring my mom back to Tennessee.  It is clear my great-grandfather was unwilling to take the two of them into his home.

It appears that the only time my maternal grandmother had any communication directly with my maternal grandfather (after he left her alone and pregnant) was when he decided to go ahead and divorce her 3 years after they married and two years after my mom was born.  The divorce papers also show her name formally as Elizabeth.  I believe that having lost their child, my grandmother was so filled with shame, she could not face him.  The divorce freed her up to remarry and not long after that he remarried.  My heart is glad they didn’t die alone.

My mom’s adoption file is a constant reminder to me of what they had not done, of the courage they somehow lacked to fight back and of the child in the middle (my mom) they both lost.  I come close to tears every time I revisit this story in my heart’s mind.