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March 9, 2012

I almost wrote: When I was younger, I thought if I met her someday, I would know the truth. The reality is, I never thought of adoption in terms of truth when I was growing up.  In my earlier years, adoption was a fill-in-the-blank form in need of simple answers.  Those answers existed, and she held the key, as perhaps did the judge who legalized our adoption and the caseworkers at Lutheran Child & Family Services of Illinois who knew us before our parents did.  Only much later have I realized that the first chapter of my life is more multiple choice than fill-in-the-blank, and multiple answers apply.  There are stories and there are memories, there are fantasies and realities, and there may be some facts, too, but everything is slippery.  Everything is just out of reach.

Here it is: When a life tumbles out in secret and the major players are kept from one another, when parts of that life remain permanently sealed in court files or tucked into medical records that no one can find, when nearly forty years go by before we begin to speak and there are so many of us trying to talk at once, that life may never know a single truth.  Over the last few years, I have realized that if the purpose of this journey is to discover the truth, it is an impossible one.  It has to be about something else.

When I was younger, the truth I knew began nearly a month after my sister and I were born.  We were twenty-three days old when the people we loved began to bear witness, and by bearing witness, brought us into being.  On a warm, sticky Friday in early August 1970, a caseworker met my parents in a room at Lutheran Child & Family Services in River Forest, Illinois.  My mother does not remember the caseworker’s name, only that she was kind. We forget, we erase, we lose, we transform.  The caseworker wanted to know if my parents had any questions or concerns.  My mother, whirling with joy, suddenly worried that she would mix us up and we’d forever be “the wrong person.”  The caseworker assured her that once she saw us, she would never forget who we were.  Once she saw us, we would always be the right person.  Just in case, the caseworker advised, my mother could put a bracelet on one of us.  For a few more minutes, my mother shook with anxiety: What if she didn’t remember which one of us was wearing the bracelet?  But then, two more staff members brought us in, and time stopped for the joy and wonder of our birth.  In that moment, nothing else mattered, nothing before, only now and after.  Just as the caseworker had predicted, my mother knew at once that she would never forget who we were.

Where was my birth mother when our parents first laid eyes on her babies in that low, brown brick building in River Forest, less than two miles from where my mother had graduated from Concordia Teachers College?  Where was my birth mother at this moment of joy?  She must have been home in North Dakota by then, must have been home with her mother on the farm, her scar pinching, her face smiling.  That’s how her sister-in-law remembers her: a usual self, as if nothing had ever happened, already the horror of her truth beginning to erase it.  She must have been home although she doesn’t remember leaving Chicago, doesn’t remember boarding the train and taking it north to the flat farmlands where she began.  We forget, we erase, we lose, we transform.  But she does remember this: her caseworker had told her that when my mother received the news that we would be hers, my mother was in the midst of baking a pie.  In my mother’s jubilance, the story goes, flour flew everywhere, covering the phone.  For years, my birth mother comforted herself with this image.  In the first letter I ever received from her, she wrote, “I don’t know why that was so important to me but I imagined a mom who was home and baking.  I held this image in my head for years and it brought me some comfort.”

Only it wasn’t true.

Although my mother is a woman of many talents, cooking is not among her passions.  She does not make pies from scratch.  Her signature cookies come from a boxed cake mix.  The story of the pie and the flour: not true.  The story of the elation: true.

My father, my birth mother was told, was a pastor.  My birth mother found peace in that fact, but it also held her back: She told herself she could never reclaim us from a pastor and his wife, from an entire flock of people in a church.  A pastor?  That was as good of a paternal start as anything, a profound assurance that we would be raised in a Christian home.  One time, she hatched a plan, sure that if she could just set eyes on us in a school yard, or a church, she would be content to know that we were well: She would visit every Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in downstate Illinois.  She would find us.

She might have found us in a church, but she would not have found my father in the pulpit.  He was a pipefitter, not a pastor.

Is that what they said?  Is that what she heard?

Does it matter?

My birth parents weren’t who I thought they were, either, not according to the non-identifying information passed along to my parents that became the Bible of what I knew to be true of them.  In those notes, my birth parents are relayed to my parents as a version of themselves.  What a match!

“You don’t swim?” I remember asking her incredulously when we first met.  “You don’t play tennis?”

No, no.

 “The birth father didn’t know about us?”

No, no.

 “You both didn’t attend a Lutheran college? That’s not where you met?”

No, no.

 “Are you sure?” I asked, understanding the absurdity of my question.  Are you sure that this piece of paper I have in front of me, that I have memorized until I can recite it back to you, are you sure that this piece of paper is wrong?

Is it really you?  Are you my birth mother? 

For months, I felt foolish.  Not duped.  I understood how, in the best of circumstances, such inaccuracies may have taken root, especially in 1970, in closed adoption, amid this single-minded focus on placing illegitimate babies with “legitimate” families: My birth mother told her caseworker who told my parents’ caseworker who told my parents who told me.  It reminds me of a game we played in elementary school, the telephone game, whisper down the lane.  In the worst of circumstances, people just plain lied.  But then, somewhere in the middle, is what we wish to be true and what is true, what we say and what we hear, what we want to remember, choose to remember, do.  We forget, we erase, we lose, we transform. 

Last month, I called the director of Lutheran Child & Family Services to inquire about a tour of the River Forest office when I am next in Chicago, to inquire about a visit to this beginning.

“I know why you’re asking,” she told me, “and it’s not there anymore.”

“What’s not there?” I asked.

“The baby room.  It’s all administrative offices now.”

“That’s okay,” I reassured her.  “I just want to see the building.”

The pause felt heavy.  I was puzzled by the annoyance that hung in the silence.

“Is that okay?” I asked.  “If I call you ahead of time, could I see inside?”

“You’d better,” she advised.  “If you just show up, they won’t know what to do with you.”

I tell myself: Stop searching.  Stop asking questions.  You are all here together now.  It doesn’t matter.  Let it go.  It’s not like the truth will save me, or set me free, or anything of that proverbial sort anyway.  I’ve had a wonderful life.  I insist: I’ve had a wonderful life.  It’s just: It’s out there.  God knows.  The truth is out there.  And every day, as soon as the youngest boy is down for his nap and my husband is at his desk in our attic and everything is quiet, I put on my trainers and race down the street, my heart beating against my chest, my legs on fire, mile after mile in an endless chase after something I don’t, may never, fully understand.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2012 3:35 pm

    This is very interesting. Very very interesting. And very common. Good for you for trying to put the pieces together.

  2. March 15, 2012 3:37 pm

    I have wondered about the story my adoptive mom told me about my background before adopting me, too. Mostly inaccurate, but some truth as I’ve discovered from finding a letter to a doctor and from her diaries. I was told that I was the 11th child born to my birth parents, and that I had a sister placed for adoption whom my adoptive parents tried to find to no avail. I was told that I was part Japanese and Vietnamese. When I found my adoption contract, I learned that I was the 4th daughter born to my birth parents and the youngest. There was no sister also placed for adoption. I was also Taiwanese, not Japanese and Vietnamese. Since then I’ve learned even more through my birth family whom I reunited with this past Jan in Taiwan. I often wonder if my mom fabricated this story, or if they were told this story from the adoption agency in Taiwan. I don’t think I’ll ever know the truth, but I’m tempted to investigate. Thank you for your writing and for sharing your story. I can relate to it on so many levels! Glad I found your blog! Please keep writing.

    • twinprint permalink*
      March 23, 2012 1:20 am

      I absolutely understand your compulsion to keep investigating, despite an understanding that you may never learn the truth (whatever that even is!) Thanks so much for leaving your comment. I’ll be following your story, too, and sharing it with others. And I’ll check out the FB page you mentioned. What a great idea!

  3. Cindy permalink
    March 12, 2012 7:49 pm

    Your writing is mesmerizing. Thanks for sharing your story. Boy, do I know about half truths and untruths…that’s the way life is…nothing is as is seems. At least you have that understanding! Just make your way towards your own truth. Robin Branstator, a friend of mine, wrote a book about my family history entitled At Home on the Range, George R. McIntosh, Western Everyman. While doing the family history research, it was driven home that the more she learned, the less she knew.

    Just keep heading towards the light. Have a good week.

  4. Judy permalink
    March 10, 2012 10:51 pm

    Jenny, thanks for your candid writing. I can feel your frustration as you sort through all these inaccuracies, looking for the truth that is so elusive. I so look forward to meeting you–I have a hug that I want to give you–you and Jackie have been in my thoughts and prayers for many years!

    • twinprint permalink*
      March 15, 2012 12:33 pm

      Thanks, Judy! I’m looking forward to meeting you (again) this weekend, too, 40 years later….

  5. March 9, 2012 5:28 pm

    So lovely. That last line is stunning!

  6. March 9, 2012 4:47 pm

    I just read this sitting on a plane in Phoenix. Goosebumps. So good. So so good.

    • twinprint permalink*
      March 9, 2012 5:46 pm

      Thank you very much! Safe travels!

  7. Meg Tebo permalink
    March 9, 2012 3:22 pm

    “There are stories and there are memories, there are fantasies and realities, and there may be some facts, too, but everything is slippery. Everything is just out of reach.”


    This is why I get annoyed with people who expect memoirs to be exactly factual in every respect. So you don’t think Frank McCourt could possibly remember being four years old with such precision? who cares? It’s what he remembers FEELING that shaped who he is. and that’s the story he’s telling.

    I’m really enjoying this blog, and I know that would be the case even if I didn’t know your sister. It makes me think about a member of my own family who is adopted, and the things I’ve always wondered about him and his beginnings — things he’s starting to wonder about himself now.

    You write with such grace and candor. Obvious emotion without being maudlin at all. It’s a joy to read, but you’re also being one of those people who make me feel like I should surrender my pen in acknowledgement of my own shortcomings. I’ll be waiting for the next installment.

    • twinprint permalink*
      March 9, 2012 5:45 pm

      Thanks for your kind words, Meg! Whenever I teach creative nonfiction writing, I always talk to my students about emotional truth. Does the reader believe you? Does the reader trust you? That’s what matters. Emotional truth.

      • Meg Tebo permalink
        March 9, 2012 6:32 pm

        And if we’re completely honest, the same is true of journalism. Every story the reporter tells is filtered through many perspectives — the sources, the experts, the witnesses to whatever it is. But, and this is what’s hardest for many journalists to admit — it is also filtered through our own perspectives. We try to teach students to strive for fairness and yes, objectivity, while acknowledging that there’s no such thing as objectivity. And then, in my ethics classes, I make them think about circumstances where adhering too closing to the very goal of objectivity is, in itself, a dishonest way of telling a story. Sometimes, “just the facts” puts the whole thing in a false light. So, gain the readers’ trust and remain ever vigilant of the need to earn that trust every time you write. I still struggle with that, and I know our students do.

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