An Adoption Family Secret

doll75-closeAdoption affects families in different ways and sometimes it is unexpected.

It is only as an adoptive parent that I am thinking about how adoption has been in my family for decades. It is not something I thought about much growing up, but something that has inserted itself here and there.

My first recollection of adoption was when I was six, my older sister told me I wasn’t born, I was adopted. As if someone who was adopted was not born. But in fact I was not adopted into the family, but born into the family. It was just her way of being mean and making me feel left out.

But there were adopted children in my extended family and I didn’t think too much about it. My dad’s older brother married late (he was in his mid 50’s) and he married a woman with a ready-made family. I was a little confused about this when I was young, but when I was older I could understand what adoption was.  He married a woman with four children and then adopted them and they became his children.

The youngest one was the one closest to my age, I think a couple of years younger. He would not have remembered his birth father. My understanding is his mom was divorced. I wonder what a man would do to give up all rights to his children. I never asked and my cousins may not even know. But it was clear that my uncle was definitely their dad. They took his last name and they were a family. I’m glad my uncle found love and a family even if he found it a little later in life.

But out of the blue there is another adoption story in my family’s history which became known to my cousins and me over Easter weekend.  It is a story from long ago and sort of both surprising that it both never came up earlier and that it came up at all.

There was a secret in my mother’s family that goes back 80 years.  It was such a secret that the whole family must have promised never to reveal anything about it to anyone, and it almost worked.

About 15 years ago, my (now deceased) mom let slip a family secret she had kept her whole life.  My mom’s sister (Aunt S.), who had never married, had had two children out of wedlock. My mom had had a stroke. A stroke does strange things to the brain; it lets you say things that you didn’t want to say. As soon as she said it, she regretted it and would never answer our questions when we asked, so we just dropped the subject with her.

But my mom came from a pretty big family and I have quite a few cousins. So of course I called a couple of them up to tell them what I had heard and see if they knew anything.

My cousin Ann asked her mother (my mom’s sister, Aunt Sue) about the births. Aunt Sue was furious with my mom for spilling the beans. But she said “I don’t know anything about it… and besides I was only nine”. Hmm, well that was (an unintentional) confirmation. Aunt Sue also refused to ever say anything about it. So we were left wondering about two cousins (the first grandchildren) whom we never knew and wouldn’t know us.

I think back to a time when everything was different.  There was no “family planning” for girls.  If there was any family planning, it was only available to married women.  It was just 100 years ago that Margaret Sanger started campaigning for family planning to be available to women, but she was trying to help married women space out their children, not help single women avoid getting pregnant.

I have lived my whole life where there has been plenty of different birth control options and abortion has been legal during most of my life.  How different all of our lives would have been before birth control was readily available.

Back when my mom and her siblings were teens, it was a great dishonor on a family if a girl were to get pregnant out of wedlock. Even others knowing would have brought a lot of shame on the family.  I guess that is how this secret was kept for so many years. I think they might have sent Aunt S. away to a maternity home or maybe to an out of state relative to live during her pregnancy.

A couple of years ago, I read The Girls Who Went Away:The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. Even though the book only covered the years 1950-1970’s, I thought of my Aunt S. often as I learned about the impact of giving up a child had on the women interviewed. These girls had no choices. Society didn’t give them choices and families didn’t give them choices.

I also thought of my aunt when I saw the movie Philomena. This movie came out in 2013 in the theaters, but is now available on Netflix. It is the story of an Irish birth mother trying to find the son that was taken from her at the Magdalene Laundries, housing for “unfit women” and their young children. And if you are interested in this topic, the movie Magdalene Sisters is available on Netflix and is a story about life at the Magdalene Laundries.

In fact one of these Irish maternity homes has just made the news in the last month.  The names of almost 800 children’s who died between 1925- 1961 were found.  They may be buried in a mass grave in a former home for unwed mothers. The girls/women who came to these maternity homes were considered “unfit” women.  But I wonder about the fitness of the people who ran these homes to have 796 unmarked, unrecorded burials of children.

Large families have a way of spanning different generations.  My oldest first cousin on my dad’s side is just 6 years younger than my mother-in-law.  My oldest first cousin (known) on my mom’s side is 10 years younger than my mother-in-law.  I am the second youngest of a generation on both my mom’s and dad’s sides of the family.  I grew up going to many of my cousin’s weddings as a child.  Some of my cousins I didn’t even know who they were until I was an adult because they were in high school when I was born.

Over Easter, my cousin, Jane on my mom’s side, got a call from someone who said she was the granddaughter of Aunt S. using her first and last name. She had a birth certificate with that name on it and had spent years trying to find someone related to her mother (and thus herself). The caller’s mother was born in 1940 and had died two years previously.  The birth certificate did not list a father.

We figured out that given what Aunt Sue said about her age when the first birth happened, then the first child was probably born in 1932 (and Aunt S. would have been 16). That sounded about right. We had always assumed that another child would have been born a year or two later. But 1940 was 8 years later. Aunt S. would have been 24. That was entirely possible, but not what we had expected. Then cousin Ann said her mother and Aunt S. enrolled in secretarial college the same year (1941). There was quite an age gap, but it sort of makes sense that my Aunt S. needed to turn her life around so taking the courses with her younger sister would have made sense. One would have been 18 and the other 25.

If what we have speculated is true, these births out of wedlock may have caused the trajectory of Aunt S’s life. She joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in WWII. The WAVES were a part of the US Navy for women. Did she join because she was estranged from her family or just needed to make a new start? She was in the Navy until she retired and worked at the Pentagon when I was in high school.

Aunt S., never married. And when I was a child, in my infinite naivety, I thought that anyone who wasn’t married, was gay. So for years I thought she was a lesbian.  This says nothing about my aunt but more about when I grew up and what we talked about as children.  We didn’t see her very often. During high school, we would see her for one holiday meal a year. She kept her personal life to herself. Then she retired and moved to Florida. I got the lowdown from my cousin Ann who visited Aunt S. in Florida with her mom every year. We heard toward the end of her life she had a common law husband.

I never remember seeing my grandmother and Aunt S. in the same room. It may mean something or it may have just been proximity. My cousins, who are older and have better memories, do remember our grandmother and Aunt S. together.  My grandmother’s last child was born in mid 1932. I can see how having a teenage daughter pregnant, and possibly being pregnant at the same time as her daughter might have created a very stressful time for the whole family.  Two of my cousins agree that Aunt S. would not have been estranged from her family.  Since I am younger, I didn’t know my grandparents as well, but I’m glad to hear that, as so many girls and women became estranged from their families due to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

My cousins had already thought about whether this last child of my grandmother’s was actually the child of Aunt S., but dismissed that as one of my cousins got hold of the birth certificate of the uncle born in 1932 (now deceased) and see that indeed my grandmother and grandfather were listed as parents.  My grandmother was 40 when the 8th child was born.  This is not really that unusual for the time before birth control.  My dad’s mom was 42 when my dad was born.

I found out about the children born out of wedlock before my Aunt S. died. But no one could ask such a personal question of my aunt, so our family will never really know the story. But it was not a unique story. It happened to many families. And in those days it was a secret that many took to their graves.  Mary’s mother went on to be adopted by a loving couple.  She did not know she was adopted until her twenties.  But that is how things with adoption played out many years ago.

Fifteen years ago my cousins and I speculated about whether we would ever meet these two cousins. I guess we now know the answer is no, we will never meet these two cousins. The older one would be around 80 years old and the younger one died two years ago. But is was a nice surprise for us to get to meet and correspond to the granddaughter of what we presume is the second child.

We have talked on the phone and emailed the granddaughter of the second child, Mary.  She has done a lot of research. She started before her own mother died, but she didn’t get our contact information until after her mother’s death.

In 2009 (and this was before her mother died), Mary was pretty sure she knew exactly who her mom’s birth mother was.  She wrote to her county to get the adoption records and presented lots of evidence.  But the workers there admitted that she had great evidence, but they were not able to find any adoption record, when there should have been one in the county of the adoption.

We don’t know what happened to the adoption record.  Could it be my granddad’s uncle, who was a lawyer, did the adoption, but didn’t file the paperwork?  It was not until right before Easter that some random Googling by Mary that she found a recent obituary which listed Aunt S. as a deceased relative that Mary was able to get some contact information via Google and then Facebook.  She chose my cousin Jane to contact first, because she was able to get the phone number on-line.  But she ended up talking with at least three of us around Easter.  I was happy to reconnect with my two cousins Ann and Jane over the Easter weekend and talk about everything we knew and what we speculated.

And last week, I got to meet my cousin, Mary.  She is my first cousin once removed and her mom was my first cousin.  She stopped by on her way to a local airport to pick up her daughter from an off-campus college trip.

This unknown cousin, Mary and my cousin Jane had corresponded and Jane thought she might know who our new cousins’ grandfather was.  Mary was able to contact the family of the suspected father (a friend of the family and who married someone else later).  Through a DNA test Mary found out that this suspected father was not related to her (oh well, it would have been a great story).  But from the DNA test, she found someone who was registered on who was either a first cousin or a second cousin.  She was able to contact the person and it is my cousin Tom.  So from the DNA test to find out if Mary was related to the suspected father, she found out she is definitely related to our side of the family through her mother and my Aunt S.

My new cousin, Mary has been in contact with several of my cousins, through Facebook, phone calls, mail and email.  She lives very close to two of them (within 40 minutes).  I thought she would have met one of two in the last couple of months. But I was the first cousin she met.  It sort of makes a full circle to have met me first.  Her mother was adopted out of our family and I am the one in our family who adopted a child into our family.

doll73I showed Mary a present Aunt S. had given me as a child, a Japanese doll sits in a place of honor in my living room.  Aunt S. served in Japan in the 1960’s and always remembered her nieces and nephews with gifts.   Cousin Ann had some of Aunt’s S’s pins and a cigarette lighter from her days in the Navy and had sent them to Mary.   I had meant to check my attic for something from my aunt before she stopped for a visit, but I forgot.  The one thing I did remember I had were dress-up clothes that we got from Aunt S.  She had fabulous clothes to dress up in, but she also had some Navy stuff that we could dress up in.  I found her Navy cap and inside was a name tag inscribed with her (birth) grandmother’s name.  I sent it to her and will email some pictures I have of my aunt at a family gathering.  The funny thing is I had taken these clothes out of a trunk last year and washed all of them.  They still smell a little funky, and I hadn’t decided what to do with them.  I hated to throw them away, (it is a fabulous collection), but I’m not sure who would want them.  Luckily, I didn’t do anything with them and just stored them in my attic, so that Mary got a hat that her (birth) grandmother once wore.  I think this pack rat tendency comes from my mom’s side as well.

It is nice to have a new cousin.  I know my son, Danny (age 6) wants to meet cousin Mary and her husband.  Unfortunately Danny was in school, when they dropped by.  He is all about having relatives.  He has met cousin Jane once, but still asks about her and wants me to post pictures of him on Facebook so she can see them.  And he was gladdened to hear that she keeps Christmas pictures of him on her fridge.

So the secret is out, 80 years later.  And it came out in a time when being born out of wedlock is not such a shame, at least to the younger generations.  Family is family, whether you are adopted into or out of the family.  Things like this don’t happen everyday. So it made for a pretty exciting Easter.  Welcome to your new found family, cousin Mary.



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