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Paper Chase

November 6, 2012

ImageI’ve spent the last five days hopping on and off CTA trains–brown to red to blue to red to brown–and ducking in and out of library archives and government offices and a hospital.  Tonight, after leaving the stately City Hall building downtown, with sheaths of paper in hand that tell me absolutely nothing about my own life, I realized how exhausted I was.  I can’t even tell you what I’m looking for anymore because I don’t know myself.  All I know is that my life started here, in Chicago, in this city that I have always loved because of that.  If there is a beginning, it must be here, somewhere.

In the archives at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) library are boxes upon boxes of papers that the Florence Crittenton Anchorage donated when the home for unwed mothers–where my birth mother was a resident–shuttered in 1974.   In these boxes are case notes and employee records and board meeting minutes that mention numerous residents.  Nowhere, however, is there any mention of Lois B., the 22-year-old mother expecting twins who was a resident there in March, April, May, June and July 1970.  (She celebrated her 23rd birthday there in April.)

The intake cards from the home, the ones that contain the full names of nearly all the women who resided at Florence Crittenton Anchorage from 1949 to 1973, were transferred in 1973 to the Chicago offices of Children’s Home + Aid, according to documents in the UIC archives.  But when I contacted Children’s Home + Aid, the woman I spoke to had no idea what I was talking about.  She asked around the office, but nobody knew anything about the records of the mothers from Florence Crittenton.  I told her I had evidence, photographs of documents from the archives that discuss the transfer from Florence Crittenton to Children’s Home + Aid.  At her request, I e-mailed them to her.  

My sister, mother, and I drove to the site of the home.  The building that housed all those pregnant women and their stories still stands at 2678 West Washington Boulevard.  The neighborhood is dotted with boarded-up homes.  It had seen better days even in 1970, when our birth mother was there.  I jumped out of the car with my camera and shot some photos of the property.  I quickly moved around the main house, under an old brick arch and into the backyard, stepping over broken concrete.  In the UIC archives, I had seen photographs of BBQs in this backyard, a handful of pregnant women standing around a grill, all hidden from the street.  I wondered who, if anyone, still lived in this building.

At City Hall, a woman in the Tax Assessor’s office told me that 2678 West Washington Boulevard does not exist.  I gave her the building’s original permit number, from the year 1888, which I had found earlier on microfilm in the UIC library.  I needed this permit number to obtain a legal description of the property, which I needed to search for a history of its owners.  She told me that my permit number was invalid.  I showed her a copy of what I had found on microfilm.  I explained to her that I had seen the house, that I had stood in front of it, had walked around the property.  “It’s there,” I said.  “It’s still standing.”  She didn’t even look up from her computer.  “That,” she said, “means nothing.”

In the basement of the Cook County Building, I sat before another microfilm reader, pouring over old documents related to the home.  These documents have nothing to do with my birth mother, or my sister and me.  They are tangential paper trails.  They are what I have, though, so I follow them.  I have spent days following paper trails that lead further and further away from my own story because it feels more productive to keep going than to stop and give up.

My own story just seems to lead nowhere here.  Earlier today I got off the brown line train at Wellington, a station that sits nearly on top of Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center.  836 West Wellington Avenue.  This address belongs to the hospital where my birth certificate says my sister and I came into being.  It is also the address connected to the doctor that the certificate says delivered us.  For the last few months, I have corresponded with people from the Health Management office, trying to determine if records of our birth mother’s labor and delivery, or my sister’s and my birth, still exist.  Nobody knows.  After several exchanges, they stopped e-mailing me back.

This morning I met with someone from the hospital’s Media Relations team.  She said she could assist me but not today.  No, today it would be impossible for me to learn anything more about the doctor who delivered us, the maternity ward where my sister and I left my birth mother, the records of all us being there together that may or may not exist.  Now that the woman from Media Relations has my e-mail, though, now that I am real–a smile, a shaking hand, a business card–she promised she would put me in touch with people who might be able to help.

My sister, earlier than that, had dropped me off at another library where the archivist thought there might be something of interest about the home, or the hospital, or the doctor.  Before I got out of the car, my sister asked me why all of this mattered.  I paused and looked at her.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  I meant it.

But I got out of there car anyway and went into the library to meet the archivist and see what she might have.

It began where it ended.  There was nothing there.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2012 3:52 am

    Amazing that all this information just evaporated. It does matter, Jenny, because it is a part of your life. It doesn’t change the facts of how you and Jackie are living lives of purpose and love and meaning. Searching for the truth of our past is a journey we all go through in one way or another I think. I just found out that I had a half brother I never knew about. Surprises, good and sad all around us. God bless you.

    • twinprint permalink*
      November 9, 2012 1:58 am

      A discovered half brother, Judy! That sounds like quite a story, too! You’re right. It matters and it doesn’t and it does and it doesn’t. I love archival research, but the disappointment over not finding what I was searching for has never been so personal.

  2. November 6, 2012 3:49 am

    The frustration of archives. The journey becomes the story, b/c it’s important to look. I wonder about other names…

    • twinprint permalink*
      November 9, 2012 2:00 am

      Yes, the journey is the story, Ann! You get that. I did find so many names in those archives, stories that are not mine, stories that belong to someone else. And I bet only a handful of us have ever cracked open all of those materials, to read them.

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