Category Archives: Adoptee in Reunion

Happy Birthday From Your Birth Mother

Forty-five years ago today, I gave birth to the first person in the whole wide world who I knew to be a flesh-and-blood part of me. (I was adopted, so this was a huge deal.) Like today, it was a Sunday. The labor was long, and I was exhausted but elated to know that I would soon get to hold my baby, examine her to see if she looked like me, and love on the human I had been growing and praying for throughout my whole pregnancy. It was the happiest I’d been in my fifteen years of life.

But the day after her birth, I awoke with the crushing weight of dread pushing down on my chest. I didn’t know what it was right away because I was barely awake. When I opened my eyes and saw the sterile white of the hospital room, I remembered: I’m going to have to give my baby away. It never occurred to me that anything else was possible; everyone assumed that I would give my baby up. I accepted it as inevitable. After all, that’s what my birth mother had done.

I had been adopted when I was a baby, and my earliest memories are of my origin story. Mama used to tell me bedtime stories, and my favorite was of how she and Daddy flew far away to get me. Mama would say, “You’re special because we got to pick you out for our very own, and your mother loved you so much that she wanted you to have a mama and a daddy.”

As a child, I often wondered about the woman who gave me up. But I didn’t miss her or long for her because I already had a mom. My birth mother was simply the woman who loved me enough to give me two parents.

As I got older, I noticed that my friends resembled their parents and siblings, and I began to wonder who I looked like. When I hit adolescence, the feeling that I didn’t fit in intensified and I began acting out. For years, I thought my fighting, vandalism, and delinquency were a result of my sick and abusive father, but my eyes widened as I read about the research that had been conducted on adopted people.

I read in Adoption and Loss by Evelyn Burns Robinson that bonding begins in the womb and that during the period immediately following birth, newborn babies recognize their mothers through their smell, heartbeat, voice, and eye contact. When this doesn’t happen, the baby can feel “hopeless, helpless, empty, and alone.”

I also read that many adopted people “demonstrated a high incidence of juvenile delinquency and…consistently showed symptoms which were impulsive, provocative, and aggressive.”

Check, check, check.

Intellectually, I knew that I was special because Mama had told me so, but I’d never felt it. Instead, I felt a deep sense of unworthiness. How could I have value if I was discarded at birth?

When my daughter and I reunited eighteen years after I gave her up, I learned that she, too, had suffered from similar feelings and symptoms. She told me that she had been depressed on her birthdays for as long as she could remember. After celebrating with family and presents and cake, she would sit by the window waiting for me to come for her.

When I Facetimed her this morning to wish her a happy 45th birthday, I asked if she was sad. She said she was okay now but had woken up crying. I didn’t mention it, but I, too, am sad and have been crying on and off all day.

I said, “I wish I could just stop over to see you.” Unfortunately, she lives in the Midwest and I live in California. We are fifteen years apart in age, yet I relate to her more than I relate to anyone else on the planet. We are almost like one person. We look and think alike, and we have the same furniture, clothes, glasses, and hairstyle. We even bleach our brown hair blonde.

I hate how adoption makes me feel—the sadness I experience when I scroll through my social media feed and see my birth sister and other family members together at events I am missing from. I also hate how much I miss being with my daughter—going shopping, cooking together, decorating. And I miss watching my granddaughters grow up, attending their recitals, and just being their grandmother.

I read, “It is unnatural for members of the human species to grow up separated from their natural clan.”

Today is a sad day.

 

The Missing Piece

Even when I was young, I was compelled to know my biological family, a quality that is absent in many of the adopted people I know. It makes me wonder if my aboriginal Cree ancestry has something to do with my deep need to understand my roots. The Cree were a nomadic people who traveled and lived together and had a deep bond with their extended families—unlike my adopted family. We were isolated and living in Alaska, far away from California, the birthplace of my adopted parents and their limited smattering of relations. I had no link to grandparents, cousins, or the place I called “home.” I loved my adopted family, but I craved a connection to something bigger—something Florence and Howard Hall couldn’t provide.

I was 22 when I joined the Adoptee Liberty Movement Association (ALMA) and began searching for my birth parents. It was a time before the Internet, open adoption records, and open minds. My original birth certificate was sealed and I was incensed to be denied my birthright, the most basic of human rights and the truth of my origin. Still, I knew I had been adopted from a foster home in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada when I was three-and-a-half months old. That was something. I also had access to my adoption order, which listed my original name—the name my birth mother gave me. The name she spoke with her lips, the name she wrote on that paper with her own hand. I was Gloria Debra Reed.

At the time of my adoption, my parents were given a document containing non-identifying information about my birth parents. That document was the only thing that tethered me to my origin. From it, I learned that my birth mother was a member of a large Catholic family and had six brothers (but no sisters). It stated that her heritage was Irish—something I later found to be untrue—and my birth father was French, also untrue. Since Reed wasn’t a French surname, I concluded that my mother was unmarried at the time of my birth.

After countless dead-ends, I contacted the Edmonton library to obtain the phone book listings. I hoped that one of my birth mother’s brothers might remain in Edmonton. I called each Reed with a made-up story; I didn’t want to cause problems for her family in case my birth and adoption were a secret. I also worried that one of the family members would provide misinformation and block me from finding my birth mother.

“Hello, I’m Monica Hall calling from California. I’m doing genealogy research. My grandfather told me that I have some distant relatives in Edmonton with the last name of Reed. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” All the responses were positive, so I continued. “My grandfather told me that the Reeds are Catholic and there were six boys and one girl in the family. They would be somewhere in their 50s now. Are you from that family? Or do you know of that family?” Without exception, each person I spoke to was welcoming and helpful—but not one of them was related to my birth mother.

I had called all of the Reeds listed in the Edmonton phone book that morning, approximately 60 in all, but some of the calls weren’t answered. In the evening, I once again dialed the numbers. I was standing in my bedroom with the phone pressed to my ear when I heard my uncle’s voice for the first time. “Yah, yah,” he said. “There are six boys and one girl in our family.” My heart raced and my whole body trembled because I knew I was talking to my flesh-and-blood uncle. He had company and needed to cut the conversation short, but he told me to call back in a few days.

I couldn’t sleep that night. Anxiously, I lay awake as every possible scenario crop-dusted my mind. Would my uncle deny my birth? Would I soon hear my mother’s voice? What did she look like? Did I resemble her? Was she happy? Would she cry when she found out I’d contacted her brother? Had she told her family about me?

I called him back the very next evening. After a brief chit-chat, I said, “Pat, I haven’t been completely honest with you.”

“No?”

“Does the name Gloria Debra Reed mean anything to you?”

He paused a moment and then said, “No.”

“Well, I’m Gloria Debra Reed, and with all the information you’ve given me, I have reason to believe that your sister Ida is my natural mother. I was given up for adoption.”

Silence. My heart was in my throat. He said nothing for a few moments, and then, “Hold on.” I later found out that he had set the phone down to ask his wife if she knew anything about my birth. As I waited, questions raced through my mind. Where did he go? What is he doing? Is he running away? Is he thinking of a lie? My birth mother was so close. She couldn’t slip away from me now.

After what seemed like an eternity, he came back to the phone. In a matter-of-fact way, and with a playful rhyming cadence, he said, “Evidently…I’m your uncle.” I had never felt so elated in my whole life. Nothing compared to the feeling of knowing my birth mother was in sight.

For years, I had yearned to talk with her. I had dreamt of meeting her and asking questions—most importantly, why? But my uncle told me it wouldn’t be possible. She had passed away from a brain aneurysm when she was 30, leaving behind my three young siblings.

The first of many visits to Canada quickly ensued, and I discovered a clan of family that had settled around Lac Ste. Anne (first called Manitou Sakhahigan, Lake of the Spirit) in the 1880s. That was a time when the government and province gave aboriginal people a bit of money and land to relinquish their native rights. My great grandparents, Kohkom and Mosom (Cree for “grandmother” and “grandfather”), had settled on 160 acres. The land is still in the family, and there are annual reunions on that property, complete with a tepee.

My birth father’s family had settled on the other side of the same lake, and every year 30 to 40 thousand aboriginal people travel from all across North America to attend the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage for spiritual and cultural rejuvenation, and for the healing contained in the lake’s waters. This event happens to fall on my birthday.

I knew I belonged the instant I met my family and the moment my feet hit the ground where my ancestors had walked. The connection was immediate—I was home. I soon learned that, like me, my birth mother loved fashion. She was also gregarious and generous. And she had wanted desperately to keep me. I also learned that she thought no one would want to adopt me if she revealed my aboriginal heritage because of the intense racism and prejudice during that time. Shortly after she gave me up, she met the man she would marry and then tried to get me back—but I was out of her reach. Her husband told me that she cried herself to sleep every night, pining for me until she died.

When I picture my birth mother grieving for me during those few years before she died, I can feel her pain because I had given my own daughter up for adoption when I was fifteen years old. Before I was reunited with my daughter, I often wondered if she was OK. When she was little, I feared that I would never know if she died or if something bad happened to her. Many times, I saw children playing in a schoolyard and wondered if my daughter was among them. On her birthdays, I always sat in a dark place and concentrated, sending her love, knowing that we could somehow connect through the ether. I knew she would be thinking about her birth mother on her birthday, just like I thought about my birth mother on my own birthdays.

It’s interesting to anylyze the fathers I picked for the two children that I got to keep. Becca’s father has seven siblings and Quin’s father has five. It’s as if I subconsciously picked men with large families so my daughter and son would have the connection that I hungered for. Reunifying with my birth family filled a huge portion of that hole, but it also created a different kind of emptiness. There are no words for the deep ache and longing I feel when I see my birth family’s Facebook posts, photos and text depicting events that I am absent from. That emptiness will never be totally filled; it’s not in my destiny. My home is here in Sacramento with my adopted family, my two children, and my grandson. I could never leave them, and I wouldn’t want to.

I was reunited with Mary Claire, the daughter I gave up for adoption, when she turned 18. During one of her visits, I slipped out of the house for a late-night walk while the kids were asleep. The air was brisk and cool on my cheeks, the moon was bright, and the streets were still. But something felt odd. It was a feeling of warmth and peace, something I had never experienced before. I felt complete, like the last puzzle piece had clicked into place. All my babies were safely under my roof. I hadn’t even recognized that particular emptiness until it was filled. I had lived with that hole for so long it had become normal.Mary Claire is now 44, has two daughters, and lives over 2000 miles away from me. She longs for her birth mother just as I do. She called me the other day when she was emotional and needed some advice. She said, “I wish I could just come over for a cup of coffee.”

Nine years ago, we took the trip of a lifetime to the land of my roots. It was a dream come true. I traveled with my three children. Mary Claire was even brought her two-year-old daughter. We were also with my birth mother’s daughter, Sharon, my life-and-blood sister.

We attended the Pilgrimage and met many of my birth father’s relations. Standing out amidst the throngs of pilgrims, I’ll never forget the glow of pride and joy on his face as he guided us into the lake for a blessing. Later, we traveled to the other side of the lake and visited Kohkom and Mosom’s farm, where my siblings had run barefoot, spoken Cree, and spent their early childhoods surrounded by aunties, uncles, and cousins.

I stood in the middle of the meadow that July afternoon, surrounded by birch, alder, and poplar trees, amongst the tall, translucent blades of grass as they waved in the breeze. It was as if my ancestors were welcoming me home. In the middle of the clearing were the old well and the dilapidated home that had once been a place of music, dancing, and laughter. I collected pieces of the flowered linoleum that my ancestors had danced on and scraps of wallpaper that whispered their songs. I also collected pieces of wood from the house and wildflowers from the land. I later pressed them between pages of a book about the area’s history.

That day, in the warm summer breeze, I stood perfectly still while the meadow’s fresh scent kissed my face and enveloped me in the perfect moment. The sound of my children and granddaughter’s laughter as they bounded through the tall grass filled me with peace. All the missing parts were in one place. I knew I was finally at home. I was complete.

 

Unfinished Business

A few months ago, I was going through a box of keepsakes from 1973—the year I gave my baby up for adoption. Inside were the treasures I carted first from Alaska to California and then through eleven additional moves over the last 44 years.

I pulled from the box the pen I’d used to sign the adoption papers, a vintage-looking hospital pregnancy food menu, my patient wristband, and Catholic holy cards that the sweet little French nun had brought every time she visited my hospital room. There were also greeting cards from my parents, brother, best friend, and the nosey and judgmental Catholic neighbor lady who I’d hoped wouldn’t find out about my pregnancy. I wondered what ran through their minds when picking out a card. Congratulations weren’t in order, nor were “Get Well Soon” wishes. “Our Condolences” would have been more apropos, but no one had the guts to give me that card.

My 12-year-old brother’s card featured a seagull’s silhouette, maybe reminiscent of the then-best-selling book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The bird covered the large card’s entire front and was positioned against a background of emerald green with a smattering of sunlight sparkles dancing on the jeweled water. Inside the card was printed, “Miss You.” Beneath it, he wrote, “From Tim.” My sweet and mostly adoring little brother was torn apart by me giving up the baby. He stood at the nursery window for hours and talked to all the parents and visitors that came by, providing commentary about each baby. He wanted me to bring mine home; was inconsolable, my mom said; promised to babysit.

There was also the card from my mom. It was white and had a tasteful and artsy line etching of a sleeping baby in a flowing gown on its front. It was titled, “An Unspeakable Joy.” Inside, it said, “Your brand-new baby….” The card was signed, “From her loving grandmother.” My artist mom may have thought she picked it for the lovely drawing, but I wonder if it was also a subconscious choice. It had been, after all, an unspeakable pregnancy.

 

I hadn’t received a card from Paula, my childhood best friend. Our houses were so close that we once strung a makeshift phone between our bedroom windows. It was made of string with cans attached to each end. Our families had been friends since Paula and I were two, even before we lived next door to one another. Her family was also Catholic and very involved in the church, just like we were.

When I was a teen, Paula told me that her mother hated me (probably more like a deep disapproval) and thought I’d had something to do with stealing and vandalizing their camper. She also blamed me for every little trouble Paula got into, which wasn’t much next to my shenanigans. I was a shit of an adolescent and probably deserved her condemnation, but I’d had nothing to do with the camper. By the time I got pregnant, Paula and I rarely hung out because I was off with my “bad” friends. Because of the unfounded accusations, Paula’s mom was the one person who I didn’t want to know about my pregnancy.

Even though I was a juvenile delinquent, I had valued my virginity. Virginity was like a torch in my family—or at least it appeared that way. When Mom wasn’t around, Daddy would say things to my brother and I like, “Mama was a virgin. She is a saint. I couldn’t even get her in the sack till we were married.” Virginity, sainthood, and Mama were synonymous, and they were clearly the ideal.

Paula later told me that when her mom found out I’d given birth and was giving the baby up for adoption, she’d said, “It’s too bad for the baby.” For more than four decades, I haven’t been able to forgive her for that. What was too bad? That my baby was born? That she was going to be with a wonderful loving family? And what did that say about Tim and me? We had been adopted, too. Was it “too bad” we had been born? Was it “too bad” that we had been adopted? I pictured Paula’s mom—my judgmental neighbor—shaking her head in reproach while standing in front of the card rack, picking through as if she was removing lint from an unkempt sweater.

It wasn’t until that day a few months ago, going through the box of keepsakes, that I saw her card for the very first time. The front showed a charcoal sketch of forget-me-not flowers and was paired with an Abe Lincoln quote: “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.”

Inside, she wrote,

Dear Monica,
We truly respect you for the heartache you have had to accept.
May God bless you always,

The Winton family

Seeing that card kinda took the wind out of my sails. How could I have missed it?

I moved away from Alaska soon after giving birth, but I have remained in contact with Paula over the last four decades. Every five years or so, we have a phone call to catch up. During our conversations, I always ask if her mom still feels the same way about me. Paula has conveyed that I turned out to be a good mother and person, but her mom never stopped disapproving of me.

Over the years, I’ve realized that I wanted Paula’s mom to love me like she had when I was the talkative little second grader who felt enough at home to walk through the front door without knocking. I wanted her to love the same girl about whom she teased, “Mary Monica could never be a Carmelite Nun.” (I was too chatty to take a vow of silence.) Because I was so deeply hurt by her comment about my baby and the dislike and judgment she had for me, my heart formed a protective crust of bitterness and resentment. But after discovering that card, I began to envision a different story.

I couldn’t be deeply hurt by someone I didn’t care about, nor could she have expressed such compassion in that card without caring about me in return. I began to wonder if her feelings toward me may have come from a place of fear: If this could happen to the sweet Mary Monica I knew and loved, then this could happen to my child. Maybe she was projecting a fear of inadequate parenting onto me. After all, if my “saintly mother,” her old friend and neighbor, could raise a child like me, then couldn’t it also happen to her? Or perhaps it came from something from her childhood—a trauma or belief system she had in place. Or maybe she was just pissed because she thought I stole her damn camper.

While thinking about all of this, I came to the conclusion that nothing is really how it seems. Our anger, judgment, and resentment comes from within and has nothing to do with the person we direct it at. Had I opened that box years before, I doubt I would have had the ability to look at the deeper meaning of these things. Forgiveness was always right there where I left it—sitting in that box, patiently waiting to be found.

Twenty-six years have passed since I was reunited with the daughter I gave up for adoption. Even though we have a close and wonderful relationship, I have avoided reflecting on the time surrounding the pregnancy, birth, and adoption. For 44 years, I also hauled around the journals that my mom and I wrote in during that time. Over the years, I’ve known that I should give them a read, but I couldn’t bring myself to open them until recently. Maybe I’d been avoiding them for the same reason that I failed to notice the sweet card from my neighbor lady. Examining that time in my life held too much sorrow. It was just too dark inside Pandora’s Box.

While digging deeper into the box, past the pen, wristband, greeting cards, and other mementos, my eye caught on Sister Clare’s business card. The plain white card was stuck under the flap of the cardboard box. She was the sweet nun at Catholic Charities Adoption Services who counseled me and found parents for my baby. My mom took me to see her every week during my pregnancy. I made a mental note to drive by the old building when I visited Anchorage a few months later.

During my trip, I first cruised my rental car past the houses I’d lived in, getting a feel for my beloved town. There is something magical about Anchorage in the summertime with its majestic crown of mountains bordering the city, its cool, fresh air, and its lush midnight sun vegetation. “There is no place like home” kept ringing in my ears. Even though I only lived there for sixteen years, I’d felt called to return throughout my life to search for something I couldn’t define.

I didn’t have the address for the old Catholic Charities building and I hadn’t brought Sister Clare’s card with me. I used my phone to search for the map and navigation, and when I did, a phone number also popped up. As the phone rang, I wondered why I was calling since I’d found directions to get there. I told the receptionist that I’d given a baby up for adoption 44 years earlier and wondered if I could visit the office building to look inside. Minutes later, I received a call back. Lisa, the director, was completely and totally gracious, even honored to talk to me. She said she would love to meet me and told me to come right over. She also thanked me and told me what an incredible woman I was.

I was embarrassed by her praise. A part of me must have still felt shame for the pregnancy and having to give my baby up for adoption. I expected that I would be interrupting by showing up in the office—I certainly didn’t imagine that I would be treated like a visiting dignitary. I was completely taken aback by Lisa’s eagerness to accommodate my visit. As I sat across the table from her, it hit me that maybe this was the moment that I had been searching for on my many trips to Anchorage and through all the decades of toting around my keepsakes and journals.

“You are only as sick as your secrets” is a saying I’ve heard quite a bit, and I had kept my share of secrets over the decades. My mother had taken me to Catholic Charities for weekly counseling sessions to help me, but they weren’t as effective as they could have been because I never told Sister Clare what was really going on. I wasted an hour each week with meaningless chitchat and told her only what I thought she wanted to hear. I don’t remember much about what I said during those sessions. The only thing I truly recall was the lie I told her about my baby’s parentage. I said that I had heavy-petted with a boy who ejaculated on my thigh. I was still a virgin, I said—a lie that she seemed to buy.

I didn’t tell Sister Clare that the pregnancy was the result of being raped when I was a virgin. Or that I was afraid Paula’s mom would find out and have confirmation that I was the slut and horrible girl she perceived me to be. I didn’t say that my dad had abused me in a hideous wire hanger beating, or that when I was 13 he’d raged at me about the disgusting things sluts and whores do and how he loathed and despised that kind of women—said this as if I was one of them, said things a young girl should never hear (especially from her father). I didn’t tell her that being adopted myself, the only person in the world who would be a part of me was the baby she and my parents wanted me to give up for adoption.

Lisa, the present-day Catholic Charities director, was roughly the same age as the daughter I’d given up. She sat across the table from me with compassionate light blue eyes and short brown hair. Her voice was gentle and kind. At first, I wondered if it was contrived and practiced, like a funeral director’s, but as I poured out the things that I should have told Sister Clare 44 years earlier, tears pooled in her eyes. She was just the angel I needed in that perfect moment.

I finally understood the reason I hadn’t been able to let go of the journals and the box of keepsakes. I had been subconsciously waiting—or maybe something greater than myself was grooming me for this healing. I was finally at a place in my life where I could face the pain from my past and let it go. As I spoke, I could feel that something wonderful was happening. My regret rose like a flock of doves lifting a heavy robe from my shoulders. I realized that I needed to tell the truth—not just to my friends or in my memoir, but in the setting of the adoption agency. I was doing what I didn’t have the courage to do at 15. I had shown a brave face back then, but I was really just a scared little girl all alone with her shameful secrets.