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North Dakota

July 25, 2012

My middle son has been obsessed with North Dakota since he was just over one.  I can’t remember how or why he settled himself there, his needle stuck in the groove of this particular record.  By the time he was two, we had checked out every book in our public library on The Peace Garden State (all three of them).  He could rattle off facts about North Dakota that most North Dakotans likely don’t know: that the state beverage is milk; the state fruit, the chokecherry; the state horse, the Nokota.

When he was three, we picked up a AAA map, and he spent hours at his wooden play table, tracing the cartographer’s lines with his little finger, asking, “What’s this dot called?”  Fargo.  Velva.  Killdeer.  Tuttle.   He wanted to know how far North Dakota was from Philadelphia.  1,300 miles.   How long it would take us to drive there.  24 hours, without stops.  When we would go.  Some day.    

When he was four, I asked, “What will you do when you get there?”

His older brother chimed in, “You know, Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota, not North Dakota.”

“I know!” my son said, then turned to answer my question.  “I don’t know.  I’ll just look around.”

Now six years old, he’s no more sure of what North Dakota holds for him, but he’s determined to get there.

That year he turned three, I had located my birth family and learned that my birth mother is from North Dakota.  The non-identifying information my parents had received from Lutheran Child and Family Services indicated that she had grown up on a dairy farm, though it didn’t say where.  My sister and I just assumed the farm was in Wisconsin, given that, according to the agency notes, she had attended college in the Chicago area and given birth to us there.  It never occurred to us to look farther north, farther west, to conjure a smart, spunky farm girl who had traveled so far to make a life for herself.  It took me a while to adjust to the truth, having fashioned another narrative for so many years.  North Dakota, not Wisconsin.

After being discharged from the hospital, our birth mother returned home to her family farm in North Dakota.  She said she doesn’t remember getting there, doesn’t remember how she left the hospital, how she made it to the train station, how the train carried her home.  Nobody in North Dakota knew what she had endured.  All those memories have gone dark, lost to the incredible pain of the journey.

In two days, my sister and I will start off from Illinois Masonic Medical Center, the hospital where we were born, and make the journey to North Dakota, back to where my birth mother grew up and where she returned after giving birth to my sister and me.  One of her nieces still resides on the farm, in the house, where my birth mother and her four siblings were raised.

Originally, my sister and I had planned to take the train, the same one that would have carried our birth mother home, but the train would have dropped us an hour north in Fargo in the wee hours of the morning.  A one-way ticket was over $100.  With my sister’s six-month-old, and my son, in tow, that idea eventually soured.  We’re driving instead and overnighting in Minneapolis, where we will meet some of my birth mother’s extended family for the first time.

When we arrive at the farm in North Dakota on Saturday, there to greet us will be our birth mother, traveling back home for the first time in nine years.  Our birth father will be there, too.   I am so grateful to her for making this journey.  It was my idea.  It was my compulsion to go there, to breathe the air she breathed in the days after leaving us, to watch the sun set over the prairie, as surely it set four decades ago.  I struggle each day with a desire that feels selfish, that burdens others with expense and pain.  I remind myself of the mantra I imposed on my role in this journey from the very beginning:  Do no harm.   I’ve realized that such a mantra is impossible.  Now, revised:  Do as little harm as possible while being true to yourself.  

Earlier this year, in the midst of difficult discussions with my birth family about the proposed trip, I tried to explain to my birth mother why I wanted to go.  Maybe, I wrote in an e-mail, I’m trying to reach you in the past because I am having trouble reaching you in the present.  Maybe I’m trying to reach back in order to get myself going again, in order not to be smothered by this process, this pain, this inability for us all to be kind and good and, in whatever sense it may be, family to one another.  I truly don’t know.      

I’m taking my son with me because he’d never forgive me for going to North Dakota without him, but I am happy to have him along.  I’m just as grateful to my sister for making the trip with her new baby, for it didn’t seem right to go without her.  Whenever I travel back into a past that marks who I was, or might have been, my family serves as a tether to who I am, grounding me in security and love.

Every day for the last month, my son has awakened with a question.  “Are we going to North Dakota today?”

In just a few days I will say, “Yes.”  Yes, today, we all begin the journey back.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. mary permalink
    May 9, 2013 4:53 am

    Iam 56 years old my birthmother to is from North Dakota. Iam happy for you,mine has turned me down twice.I have a sister born Three years before me who she kept,I envy her family knowledge.

  2. Sharon Stalker permalink
    September 15, 2012 11:09 pm

    I so enjoy your stories! For one your writing just takes my breath away – awesome!
    My daughter has adopted twin boys three years ago and their older brother a year later. During an adoption event they also found an older sister who had been adopted by another family. At this time my daughter promised to involve her in holidays and celebrations because she had dealt with anger issues when the family was broken.
    I have not met you but your mother and I go way back to St. Paul’s grade school.
    I look forward to reading more of your stories.

  3. Susie permalink
    July 26, 2012 6:21 pm

    I agree ~ what an amazing story. Have a safe and wonderful journey to North Dakota!

  4. July 25, 2012 8:16 pm

    Another chapter I your healing journey, Jenny. I hope it goes well for you and Jackie and that you reach another place of understanding. I,ll be thinking about you. Peace,Judy

    • twinprint permalink*
      July 26, 2012 2:01 am

      Thanks so much, Judy! Looking forward to catching up hopefully upon the return.

  5. July 25, 2012 6:28 pm

    What an amazing story!! I love how your son has been fixated on the idea of North Dakota, and then you found out your birth mother was from there. The idea of the journey you will make is inspiring. I hope you take good notes so you can write about it when you get back. I’m looking forward to reading it!

    • twinprint permalink*
      July 26, 2012 2:03 am

      Thanks so much for your comment! I’m embracing the journey. I hope it embraces back! 🙂

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