written by: Mary Ellen Gambutti
The dad takes scores of photos of his charming, chosen child whom the mom has styled in ringlets and dressed in organdy. Pride in the images he creates? His ego nurtured in spite of the loss of natural paternity? Yes, to both. Her parents adjust to their adoptive role with impeccable clothing and care, music lessons, and the best schools, within the constraints of his military career and frequent transfers.
Reflected in a New York City shop window wearing fancy dress and diapers, who’s that little girl with her happy, young Mommy? She’s the one who brightens their lives, makes them a family. Mounds of photographs accrue to me as my parents and grandparents age and pass. Albums are devoted to childhood moments and immediate family. Others of known, unknown, and unbound ties. I recognize faces that have crossed my plane only in a tangent; with whom I share neither heritage nor habit. I handle the rough, yellowed leaves in futile search of familiar captions and commit to being caretaker of their memories—my adoptive ancestry.
Sealed origin is best for all, the state and agency dictate. Fall of 1957, I am six, and Dad stands at the head of my bed while Mom hovers at the foot. “I’m going to tell you the story of where you came from: Mommy and Daddy adopted you. We brought you home because you had no one; because you needed someone to love you and take care of you.” Kneeling in pajamas on my twin bed with pineapple finials, I hold Betsy-Wetsy and learn I’m an orphan-girl. Have I heard the word “adopted” before? In whispers between aunts? Between Mom and a neighbor? How deep is the pain? The loss of people you have never known, but yet mean something? I ask no questions, yet Dad continues: “Your family must have been killed in a car accident. You had no one, so we took you home.” In an instant, I’ve gone from the innocence of not knowing, to knowing too much, to knowing less than nothing.
Who are the people I belong to? Where? Who is the mother? But the story is over. Time for sleep. No tears, no hugs. Alone in my bed, am I alone in the world? How did I survive the harm that came to my family? This man and woman do everything for me but are not the same as my own.
The agency gave them a lie to tell me, to obliterate the family of origin I was not aware existed. So, I invent possibilities. I perceive the differences between us. Who do I look like? I’m not yours. I’m someone else’s. Who am I?
In bell bottom jeans in our New Jersey home, I lie on my back across my orange bedspread, ruminating. It creeps in: a whispered urging induced by psyche, an austere effect amplified by kaleidoscopic imagery. I stare transfixed at the knotty pine dormer. A hushed, insistent, rhythmic sound swirls, “Who are you? Think faster!” I’ve evoked this voice since age eleven, and now it’s strengthened by this evil of unknown. Evil secrecy. Anger. Betrayal. Escape. Leave me, or let me sleep.
I slip into moccasins, and I’m out to small-town streets to get away from my mind. First, to Brook-Chester, before it’s a strip mall. Greet friends, smoke, ride in boys’ cars. Drink beer from quart-sized paper cups procured for the under-aged. It’s 1969, and we can find a way to get anywhere. I suppress ghosts of the unknown, hide from questions with my own secrets and lies. Formed in the dark like a nebula, I drift in a fog of nowhere, nurture vague notions.
“You’re not like me!” Mother accuses, stabs. Her own pain, her shame taunt me. No pleasing her. I’m the ungrateful wretch. The gauche teen. My father’s belt, a cruel reminder that we’ve disowned each other. Frustrated in his job to save me from my illegitimate birth, he believes I can’t measure up. What they don’t say hurts as much as their words. “Why can’t you be like us?”
How, when I am no one?
In treatment for anxiety, depression, panic attacks, I feel the need to learn my medical history and origins. As I turn forty, the desire to know my birth mother peaks, so I decide to search. It is 1990, before access to the internet.
Mom includes a note with my adoption papers, “I don’t understand why you’d want these. Good luck.” She says she remembers nothing of the adoption process, other than the day the parish priest came to dinner in their tiny Sumter apartment and asked why there were no children three years into their marriage. She remembers she and Dad drove up to Rock Hill to collect me at the infant home in February 1952.
It’s gnawed at me for so many years. Now I’m obsessed with making calls, typing letters, research, adoptee support meetings. I’m stunned to learn my birthplace is Greenville, not Rock Hill. I always thought it a curious document, my Certificate of Baptism and Birth from Saint Anne’s Church in Rock Hill, which I’d had ownership of since my twenties. I’d been lied to. My parents had been lied to, but never questioned the validity of the Church Seal on my record. I couldn’t retrieve my birth records from St. Francis Hospital. No imprint of my baby feet. All destroyed by fire, I’m told. But I believe the fire was deliberately set—early version of the shredder, the incinerator.
No point in discussing any of this with Mom. It would hurt and confuse her, which is not my intent.
I pay a “search Angel” willing to break South Carolina’s adoption seal to provide me with identifying information. I work with a local Greenville genealogist who helps me sort surnames, locate cemeteries and gravesites, and trace long ago homesteads. I immerse myself in possibility. After weeks of inquiring letters and disappointing calls, I connect with cousin Lawrence, son of my grandfather’s brother. He generously facilitates the link to my half-sister, Karen, and to our mother, Leila.
Confident in voice, but trembling inside, I dial Karen’s number, ask to speak to Leila. She has just come in with groceries, picks up the phone, and in response to my northern accent, says, “I’m her daughter. What’s this about?”
“I believe I am her daughter, too.”
Her bags plunk to the floor as she slides down her kitchen wall. “I always wondered if there were other children!”
Our long conversation extends further back beyond my birth. We promise to meet in the fall, and she says she’ll visit Leila next day with the earth-shattering news.
“Momma, a lady called who thinks she’s your daughter.”
Leila quickly denies the claim, but Karen persists.
“Yes, it’s true,” Momma admits she left me with the hospital nuns.
Electric excitement transfers through the phone lines between Pennsylvania and South Carolina when I first speak with my birth mother in September 1991. Karen calls me and gives Leila the phone.
“I am your daughter!” She hears me speak for the first time. Did she hear my first cry?
Her voice is soft, shy and southern. We relax and she tells me her favorite things: plants, animals—especially kitties—country music. I share how glad I am and ask how she feels about being found by me.
I record her reply in pencil on my yellow pad, “I think it’s great!”
“They make it very hard to connect with our birth families. I don’t think it’s right,” I say.
My birth mother replies, “No, not if you really want to find each other.”
Thrilled to meet many of my kin at the Cox-Lenderman reunion that October, I make an effort to connect with my birth mother in a meaningful way. She is moody, sometimes openly jealous of my growing relationship with Karen. I know her time will be curtailed, as she has begun dialysis treatments three times a week. Momma confided she’d always wondered what had become of me, but knew there’d be no chance to learn about the baby girl she relinquished. She didn’t tell me she had walked out with no direction. Maybe to another waitress or cotton mill job. But Karen filled in the blanks, in private. Momma couldn’t tell me my father’s name, or that she’d drifted down to Charleston to a third brief marriage.
Her pride prevented her from saying it, but the traps of instability, poverty and poor health stood in her way. Had she the wherewithal she might, too, have been a seeker like those mothers and daughters on TV. Instead, she stared from her recliner as age and infirmity crept up and dreamed it all away. Leila died a year after we met and took my father’s name to the grave. I believe she found a measure of contentment in knowing me. My search continued.
DNA has become a viable search method for adoptees during the past five years. Search angels coach and genetic genealogy groups on social media assist to locate family members with a high degree of success. I had nothing to go by to find my father’s side. I tested and worked what I had learned of the Cox-Lenderman families into my maternal family tree.
In 2015, we discovered our half-sister, Lottie, on an internet message board. She had made the post not long after Leila died. We were deeply touched when we read:
“I have been searching for my birth mother … My father died when I was four years old and my mother, Leila Grace Cox, left us when I was six weeks old … my grandfather Andrew raised me until his death.”
Lottie was an amazing find out of the blue. Had our mother mustered the courage to tell us of her infant daughter born in 1954, three years after my birth, we could have all been united during that year. Our sister has spent her life in Charleston.
Karen and Lottie tested their DNA—we wanted to confirm we didn’t share a father—and I went to work on common genetic matches, eliminating those who matched through our mother. It was the start of my paternal family tree. Ancestors must begin centuries back, then come forward in time.
I got through this tedious process—as with my maternal search, fueled by obsession—with the help of a volunteer genetic genealogist. Two years produced no one closer than a second cousin. I would have abandoned the effort had it not been for friends who kept me focused on the prize of knowing.
One banner day, a paternal first cousin arrived on my laptop screen. But, how to identify him with only a code name? I returned to the experts, and we identified Jack Gunter. I circled back to social media and contacted his son. Analogous to the way Lawrence led me to my birth mother, Derrick connected me quickly to his father, Jack, whose mother was my father’s sister. Larkin Thrasher died in 1973, at age forty-three, with four known children. I came forward–the undiscovered fifth.
Love of natural family, no matter the length or origin of separation, cannot be measured. The blessing of knowing my five half-sisters, a half-brother, and cousins, is incomparable. I grew up with an adopted sister, ten years my junior. Our parents gave us what they could. But genes: sounds of my sisters’ voices, their mannerisms, features, joy of time spent with genetic siblings in reunion. What we’ve seen in our youthful photos—these are not the mythical children I considered in my mirror, ones I’d been told had not survived. I am grateful.
My original birth certificate is under seal in the state where my family was born and live. That sealing is a prohibition, a license to lie, a denial of my human right to identity, and an injustice felt by many thousands of adoptees.
My adoptive Dad died in 1999 in California, where my parents retired. I went out to help Mom sort, pack and make the move to my home in Pennsylvania. Among baby books, albums, and his framed portraits of me, I came across brief biographies, and his and Mom’s family trees drafted on yellow lined paper, prepared for the adoption agency. Preserved in their original envelopes were letters, hand-written and typed in the days of carbon paper, character references, correspondence between Dad and Catholic Charities, the Rock Hill law firm that handled the agency’s adoptions, the secretary of the oratory affiliated with St. Phillip’s Mercy infant home, St. Francis Hospital in Greenville, and the Mission Order of St. Francis. Clearly, adoption was a well-oiled machine in the 1950s.
During the year they fostered me, business correspondence shifted to Dad’s progress reports to Catholic Charities, complete with photos and praise for my first teeth. I recalled Mom’s story of the young lieutenant and his pretty wife in their Chevy headed north from Sumter, their nervous excitement as they approached Rock Hill, 90 miles north in February snow swirling from the Smokies. The following day they’d return to their tiny apartment with a precious bundle. I gathered the pile of papers and photos to keep with me, mementos of Dad’s urgency, paternal duty, thoroughness, his love for my Mom, and for me, the child he wanted.
Mary Ellen Gambutti
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