The Stories We Tell

I do beg to differ with Mr Twain. When you don’t know, you make up stories to fill in the gaps. Before I knew the truth of my adoptee parent’s origins – I thought both of my parents must be mixed race – my mom was black and white and my dad was Mexican and white. Neither one of those turns out to be true.

My mom wouldn’t explain how she could have been born in Virginia but adopted at 6 months old in Memphis. She did know that Georgia Tann was in the baby stealing and selling market. My mom died still not knowing the truth because Tennessee couldn’t provide whether her dad was alive when she wanted her file (though he had already been dead 30 years by that time).

My mom’s story went this way. She was born to illiterate parents in Virginia. A nurse at the hospital was in cahoots with Georgia Tann. She gave my mom’s parents papers to sign that they couldn’t read. She said the nursery was too crowded and so they needed to move my mom. When her mother was released and went to retrieve her – she was gone. In my mom’s polite language with the Tennessee officials (though she believed firmly she had been stolen), she referred to her adoption as inappropriate.

Truth was my maternal grandmother was exploited by Georgia Tann in her desperate financial situation. She was married. I have a story about my maternal grandfather. His first wife died almost 9 months pregnant in the dead of winter with the baby still in her womb. I have thought consciously or not, he was concerned because he was WPA, the children from his deceased wife were in Arkansas, his job in Memphis had ended and he went back to Arkansas. He was insecure as to his living conditions there and so didn’t take my grandmother at 4 mos pregnant, also due to deliver in the dead of winter with him. My cousin who has the same grandfather does not believe he was the kind of man to abandon his family that way. I can’t know – no one left living to tell me. My mom didn’t feel close to him and maybe that is because her own mother felt abandoned.

My dad was adopted from the Salvation Army. When his adoptive parents died, he found a letter copy to the Texas requesting the altered birth certificate that mentioned his mother’s name as Delores. Growing up on the Mexican border in El Paso TX, until I finally knew better, my story about my dad was that his mother was Mexican and his father white. Her family would not accept a mixed race baby so she took him into El Paso and left him on the doorstep of the Salvation Army with a note to please take care of her baby. Understandable given the circumstances but still not true.

This is a common experience for people with adoption in their family histories. Making up stories to fill in the gaps. Knowing the truth is preferable – even if the story was a very pretty and exciting one (as some I’ve heard about are).

Family Breakdown

Painting by Mary Cassatt 1889

Some reading I was doing today in a book titled Healing the Split by John E Nelson MD caused me to reflect on my mom’s adoption from a new perspective.

He writes – “While there remains much to learn and study, schizophrenogenic mothers bring a sense of incompleteness to child raising. This is not the same as that mother rejecting her child.”

“Quite the contrary. She regards him as particularly close and significant for her. She needs her child in a distorted way as much as her child needs her.”

This causes me to reflect on my maternal grandfather. His very young mother gave birth to him AFTER her husband, his father, has died. He was her first born (even as my grandmother was her father’s first born and his wife had died but only after the 5th child was born) and remained extraordinarily close to her all her life.

As much as I have blamed my maternal grandmother’s widowed father for not supporting her and my mother, when it appeared that my maternal grandfather (whether this was entirely true or not) had abandoned her at 4 months pregnant – there remains this question in my own heart that can never be answered now. Why did he leave her and why did he not come to her defense when she returned to Tennessee from Virginia after my mom had been born and reached out to him through the Juvenile Court in Memphis.

With the same kind of destructive failure to be supportive that I blame my maternal grandmother’s family for, I do also believe that my maternal grandfather’s mother was not supportive of him. I believe she was not happy he had married my grandmother nor did she want anything to do with the child they conceived while married.

I can never know this for certain but why didn’t he take her back to Arkansas with him, when his WPA job in Memphis ended ? It could be because he was dependent upon his mother since she was caring for his children after their mother, his wife, had died – so that he could go to work in Memphis.

So, I believe the deck was stacked against both of my mom’s natural parents raising her – by her very own grandparents, their father and their mother, one on each side of the parental equation.

Dr Nelson notes in his book – “Any movement toward autonomy leads him to feel that she cannot survive without him, added to his certainty that he cannot survive without her. For him to individuate would destroy them both.” Just the thoughts percolating in my own mind this afternoon related to my own familial adoption stories.

No, I would not give you false hope
On this strange and mournful day

Oh, little darling of mine
I can’t for the life of me
Remember a sadder day
I know they say let it be
But it just don’t work out that way
And the course of a lifetime runs
Over and over again

~ lyrics in Mother and Child Reunion by Paul Simon

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.

 

Modern Orphanages

From a generally anti-foster care perspective, a question was asked –

Why did the government move away from orphanages/group homes to children living with foster carers ?  Bottom line is that it is about money.  It is cheaper for the government to give foster carers a stipend than provide for the full needs of children in a modern orphanage or group home.

My mom spent a few months as an infant at Porter-Leath, an orphanage in Memphis TN. Her original mother took my mom there only for temporary care while she tried to get on her feet and estranged from her husband, the father of my mom, who was most likely tied up one state over fighting a SuperFlood on the Mississippi in 1937. He was in Arkansas working for the WPA and that was where most of his own roots and family were. That is how Georgia Tann got involved and my mom ended up adopted.

My family visited Porter-Leath in 2017. It is now an amazingly peaceful place and much changed but still provides some sheltering for runaways who need a safe place to go.

The discussion was not about orphanages of the past though.  It was about facilities that are geared towards children’s best interests. A revamped system. An environment where the kid never has to become someone else to fit in with a family he isn’t related to. One that is very consistent and stable.  That is vital for kids.

And no competition with a foster carer’s biological kids, or being made to feel like a burden or an inconvenience compared to the carer’s biological children. Modern orphanages are really structured.  Everyone there is on the same playing field. It totally eliminates the foster vs biological conflicts. The experience of former foster youth is that biological kids are horrible towards foster kids. Full of disdain and resentment for these strangers being in their homes.

I was intrigued by the mention of modern orphanages, I found a link to an Atlantic article highlighting Palmer Home for Children in Mississippi that is fairly current.

Slightly Off Topic

This may seem off topic but please bear with me.  This morning I realized that my tolerance for injustice has diminished.  I believe that learning about how my maternal grandmother was trapped and exploited has done that to me.

My grandmother’s only deficiency was poverty.  She went to Porter-Leath orphanage for temporary care of my mother while she attempted to get on her feet financially and they accepted my mom under a temporary condition.  My grandmother tried to reach her husband, my grandfather, who didn’t respond to the Juvenile Court’s notification – I believe – because he was out with the WPA trying to help Arkansas deal with a Super Flood of the Mississippi River that began the month my mom was born.

Georgia Tann had a repeat, paying customer in my adoptive grandmother.  She had previously adopted a son from the Tennessee Children’s Home and returned to them seeking a little sister for the family before my mom had even been born.  Miss Tann had a network of enablers, movers and shakers in the Memphis elite that helped her acquire product to sell.  Forgive my harsh judgment.

So my poor grandmother was pressured with a surrender or I’ll have you declared unfit by my good friend, the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley.  Even so, 4 days later my grandmother tried but failed to recover my mom.  She never had any other children.

I have always paid my medical bills – even those I thought unfair – even if I made the creditor wait and sent them only the smallest amounts for the longest time.  Having been uninsured for 30 years, I was grateful to finally qualify for Medicare.  I thought might as well catch up the basics and so went to my local nurse practitioner for a pap smear.

Unknown to me, the coding recommended by the laboratory to the doctor’s office for women between the ages of 30 and 65 was to also do a hpv test on the same specimen.  This was never discussed with me.  Medicare paid $29.44 against a bill of $128.20 for the pap smear but refused to pay the $169.80 for the hpv test.

I have been fighting this bill for 8 months and find myself trapped and exploited by a greedy laboratory.  I offered them $60 for the hpv test if they would write off the rest as they did for Medicare.  I thought I was being more than reasonable.

They have refused my offer and so I will now refuse to give them even a penny.  I no longer tolerate such exploitation.  The doctor’s office should have advised me to wait a year for the pap smear and this would not have even occurred.  I refuse to be a victim.  I never gave my permission and I won’t give in now.

Thank you for reading if you made it this far.  Do NOT allow LabCorp to do any tests for you.  I won’t ever again allow them to do any tests for me and I will not use my local doctor’s office for my next Medicare approved pap smear in 3 years.  They both lose.  I am not worried about a small black mark on an otherwise excellent credit rating.  I don’t intend to use credit anyway but I do have an Amazon Visa as long as I can pay in full with the first bill if I need that or just want to burnish my credit rating.

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 . . .

A Lifetime Of Regret

Adoption narratives rarely focus on the original mother from whom the child was taken.  I do believe both of my grandmothers experienced regret over giving up their babies.

I believe the one to suffer the most was my maternal grandmother.  She was honestly victimized by a lot of different factors, the Great Depression, a charity fatigue caused by the response in Memphis to a SuperFlood that sent thousands of refugees, many from Arkansas, into the city as well as a husband with conflicted loyalties (to the children of his deceased wife and to a mother who he was always the favored son of) who was WPA and fighting that same flood and not responding to her dire calls for help.

In my mom’s adoption file it is clear how hard she fought, though she lost, to keep my mom.  She suffered a secondary infertility which is not uncommon among women who give up a child to adoption.  Her childish nickname for Elizabeth – Lizzie – was on my mom’s birth certificate and though for much of her life, she would sign her name Elizabeth and nieces and nephews called her Aunt Lou – on her gravestone is the exact same name that she gave birth under.  I think it not a coincidence.  Just as my mom yearned to know her original mother, I believe her mother never gave up hope that my mom would find her again.

It was left to me to find her grave near the small town area that my grandmother grew up within.  So sad and tragic.

My dad’s mom also lost him though it seems to have been less damaging in some ways than the exploited pain of my maternal grandmother.  It is believed that she did sorrow for her firstborn son but she went on to have 3 other children.  It does not appear she was as devastated though certainly carrying regrets, I think especially so, as she raised other children and probably believed it should have been possible to raise my dad.

There is a shift in adoption thinking that it really isn’t a beneficial choice.  A variety of reforms attempt to make the situation better.  Family preservation is probably the best – where caring individuals seek to support and encourage an intact family.

The Sin Of Being Poor

Georgia Tann felt disdain toward poor, white, single mothers directly related to their class difference.  She divided people into two types –

Poor people, including single “cow” mothers, were BAD.
Wealthy people “of a higher type” were GOOD.

Georgia believed that poor people were incapable of proper parenting. Their children needed to be rescued.  Tann could “save” them.  She did it by seizing them and placing
them for adoption.

It would appear that was her perspective regarding my maternal grandmother and the cause of my mom’s adoption.  My mom was not unwanted and her parents were married.  It was the Great Depression and there was a superflood affecting Memphis at the time my mom was born.  Her father, WPA, was out shoring up levees in Arkansas and couldn’t be reached quickly enough to save my mom from the inevitable.  Her mother never got over losing my mom.

In a 1935 article in the Memphis Press-Scimitar, Georgia Tann described the first time she placed children for adoption.  She was only 15 years old.  She had found two children in the corner of her father’s courtroom.

Rather than send them over to the Mississippi Children’s Home Society, she convinced a respectable Mississippi couple to adopt the 5 yr old boy and 3 yr old girl. In the newspaper article, Georgia didn’t reveal the process by which she separated the children from their birth parents.

Yet, her description of the family was indicative of her attitude –

“The father was a man of intelligence but of a mean disposition, who was always getting into trouble. The mother was an ‘ordinary’ woman, from a poor family.”  That was certainly true of both of my maternal grandparents.  Their only sin was poverty.

The children placed for adoption were sweet and attractive in appearance. The girl eventually received a degree in music.  Thanks to the financial resources of my mom’s adoptive parents, she also eventually received a degree in music from the University of Texas at El Paso and that began the profession she practiced for the remainder of her life, right up until her death.

The boy in Georgia Tann’s story received a law degree and practiced his profession as a lawyer.  My mom’s “brother” was also a Georgia Tann adoptee.  He didn’t become a lawyer but still leads the life he has chosen with financial support from his inheritance.

These early placements by Tann, including both my mom and her brother, were given opportunities of wealth and all of them made the most of it.  Some of her later efforts produced some horrific outcomes.  My mom and her brother were very lucky regarding the adoptive parents they received.  In no way would I say that the wounds of separation from their original mothers were not deep within each of them.

What’s A Flood Got To Do With It?

 

My mom’s father left long before she was born. Why he left and what his intentions were I cannot know at this point.

What I do know is that when my mom was born, a super flood began that heavily impacted both Memphis and the state of Arkansas. My mom and her mother returned to Memphis from Virginia where she was born as the worst of the crisis began to recede.

My grandfather was in Arkansas doing flood recovery work for the WPA. I will always suspect that the flood of 1937 in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys played a role in my mom ending up adopted. The Great Depression was just one more obstacle in the way of everyone.

So I can only believe that the flood kept my grandfather from answering the inquiry of the Juvenile Court and sent my grandmother into desperation. She fell into a trap because of that and was not able to prevent the tragedy of losing her first born and only child.