A deeper motivation

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A tanker stationed on the Hudson. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021. It snowed again yesterday in New York beginning in the late morning; a light snow that began around noontime that turned heavy by mid-afternoon, and then rain, so there was no accumulation and the roads and the sidewalks were wet and clear. And then in the late afternoon just before sunset the sun lit up like a Springtime late afternoon. It was the kind of the light you get with warm temperatures. Except it was still cold. It was still dusky — rather than dark by 5:45 p.m. Things are looking up (and brighter).

We often get emails from people looking for images in our archive of others who’ve been on the NYSD Party Pictures. Many inquiries come from media. Others come from those wanting a print-out of an image of themselves, or a friend, or a family member.

Occasionally we get a request for an image a deeper motivation. I’m thinking of a woman who identified herself as looking for her  “husband’s biological mother.” The message explained that this “mother” had given up her child for adoption at birth more than 30 years ago, and that the child, now a grown man, wanted to make contact with his birth mother.

It so happened that the woman whose image was being requested was a friend of mine. I’d known her for a number of years. She was a divorcee with a family. I did not know that once upon a time she had had another child — “out of wedlock,” a term that no longer exists in the parlance. But there was no reason why I should have known since she never told me.

Subsequent email messages (we sent the requested image) revealed that my friend, the “biological mother,” had also been contacted a couple of years ago — not by her son, but by another member of his family when her identity was discovered through an adoption detective.

She “freaked out” when contacted. “Afraid of people knowing, afraid he wanted something from her.” Needless to say, the son did not meet his mother.

Several years ago, I received a call from an adoption detective. She was a very friendly lady from Massachusetts who had called to tell me that my own mother had had another son, born eleven years before me. And his daughter was looking for one of his birth siblings and I was it; and would I be interested in meeting her. 

My mother Tillie in her early fifties.

This came as big surprise. My mother had passed away in her early eighties in 1988. She had been a hard working woman, a dutiful and excellent mother to this little boy (and my two sisters), and proper. And, as it turned out, that she was. Although. 

I’m not sure, knowing my mother as we know our mothers, that I would have asked her about it. It was, after all — as I was certain I’d be told — none of my business.

This bit of information about her was shocking to me and to my two older sisters. It had a special impact because our mother had been orphaned as a very young child and the experience marked her emotionally for the rest of her life. We, her children, grew up with a profound sense of the pain and terror of childhood abandonment.

The adoption detective who called me wanted to know simply if I would meet her client, ostensibly my niece whom I’d never known about. Yes, was the answer. Unlike the woman friend who did not want to connect with her son and her hidden past, I always want to know. After all we children very often know very little about our parents as people, youth, children. They are always Parents. What I was learning was the rest of the story, like all of us.

It was not her son, but his daughter, my mother’s granddaughter, who had made the search — not at her father’s request but only his acquiescence. My niece was curious to know about her father’s biological family background for, among other reasons, family health history. We met, and it was entirely fascinating and interesting. She reminded me in some ways of her grandmother, my mother — the characteristics and the qualities were there. 

Our meeting flourished into meeting my brother as did my sisters, learning about our histories/backgrounds, and having the experience of seeing your own flesh and blood as first a stranger. My brother had been placed for adoption at birth. He was eventually adopted by a very nice family in Boston. He went to Harvard and later served in the Armed Services, and eventually ran a major corporation and was now retired.

In a way I was initially shocked that my mother put her child up for adoption, although time had reduced it to a hard cold fact. But more than that, I saw a brother who had made a good life for himself. It occurred to me that ironically he was fortunate his life became the path it took. Had he grown up in the same household that I grew up in, it might very well have been much more difficult because of the circumstances. My mother and father’s stormy relationship affected all of us living with it. But that’s another story for one’s family file.

The adoption detective who called me — a young woman named Roberta — got into her business while researching the genealogy of her own family, and soon discovered that because of the internet you can find almost anybody nowadays, and in a matter hours, or days at the most.

The matter of women (mostly unmarried women) giving up their children at birth is commonplace because of the changes that came with the Women’s Liberation and the Feminist Movement. Out-of-wedlock or illegitimate children were for ages a shameful mark on a woman’s character. Such a concept now seems ludicrous or even nutty, and ultimately irrelevant. The terms themselves are no longer in the vernacular.

My mother lived long enough to see many of the changes of attitude that have occurred in society in the past forty years. Naturally she maintained the same attitudes she’d grown up with. She would have been mortified knowing her children knew. I don’t know how she would have reacted if her first son had suddenly appeared in her life. Although, paradoxically, she would surely have been impressed and proud of his life.

My parents Frank and Tillie Columbia at the wedding reception of me and my wife Sheila, and her mother and stepfather Jane and Harlow Culbertson in October 1964.

For my sisters and me it was very exciting to learn that we had another sibling. At this late date, we are, none of us, children or even young adults. My sisters and my brother all have grandchildren. Several months after meeting my niece, I met my brother and his wife, along with his discoverer of a daughter, for lunch at Michael’s. He and his wife are very close and have a very close family.

I had grown up in a household of profound domestic strife (to put it gently) between my mother and father. It created hardship for all of us that is very burdensome for a child. It was interesting to see a sibling who was the product of a loving, emotionally stable home. It was also interesting to see that my mother’s eldest son looked very much like his mother when she was at the age he is at now. It was also interesting to observe that his manner and personality greatly resembled his mother.

Several summers ago, I was a guest in Nantucket, and also paid a visit to my brother who has a house there that has been in his family for three generations. We gathered in the parlor to visit. I had brought along a close friend who was also a guest of my hostess. 

Everyone was seated except for our host. He stood behind a wingedback chair, resting his arms on the back. He was mainly a quiet host, a listener, but when he had something to say he’d lean in just a little over the back to express his thoughts. 

Watching him talking, it suddenly occurred to me: that stance, and position behind that chair was exactly the stance and position that my mother, his mother, would take when a stranger was brought to the house by one of us. It occurred to me at that moment that although my brother had never seen her, ever, and yet there he was seven decades later, with a natural stance and self-possession exactly like that of his mother.

The discovery turned out to be a wonderful experience for us. That Christmastime, my two sisters came to visit me for a few days. One night we all had dinner with three of our new nieces. They are all lovely, remarkable woman — smart, enthusiastic, curious — and I couldn’t help thinking that our mother would not only have loved them but admired them. For they had many of her qualities, including her drive and curiosity, and they grew up unfettered by the old rules for women.

Jane and Helen checking in on their baby brother a number of years back.

Getting back to my friend whose son wanted to make contact with his mother, wanting nothing material from her, but just to see her, talk to her, hear her voice, I felt disappointed to learn that she didn’t want to go through with it. In life she’s a very kind and sensitive woman. She’s been burdened too by matters unknown to me (although perhaps they are not so mysterious now). And I’ve long known that sadness figures into her assessment of her own life. I wondered if she were just afraid.

I’ve known a lot of people — contemporaries — who were brought up by adoptive parents. Their experiences growing up mirror those of us who were brought up by our biological parents (or parent). A million different stories. For some it was good, for others it was unremarkable, and then for others it was horrible.

Quite a few of my friends who were adopted have made the search for their parents. The results, like everything else, have run the gamut from profound disappointment to complete exhilaration. Whatever else, the experience brings the seeker a glimpse into his or her roots. We are like those from whom we came. Our features, our gestures, our temperaments, our interests, our talents, all served up from the universe’s wondrous gene pool.

Not all “contacts” or reunions are successful. They can fail in a variety of ways, usually a result of expectations and pre-conceived notions. I know of a woman who searched and found her daughter more than twenty years later. She is a very wealthy woman. Her newly discovered daughter was brought up in a middleclass, very modest but very loving circumstances. Her biological mother now wants her as a daughter and has showered her with gifts and luxury. The mother has expressed her enthusiasm very insensitively and very selfishly. The adoptive parents are deeply upset by this and the child is now torn.

I also know of a case where a young woman, also brought up in a loving adoptive home, searched for her biological parents and found a receptive and enthusiastic father (and grandmother) and a new family. The two families have been united by this child.

Recently another friend of mine, a contemporary, searched for and found her biological family. She discovered that her mother had passed away (well into her eighties) and she could not learn anything about her biological father. However, she was welcomed into the family of her mother and vice versa. The experience has made a profound difference in my friend’s life; it has put her at one with herself.

I don’t understand why my friend wouldn’t want to meet, to know their child, no matter who he or she is. Perhaps my feelings are tied to those fears of childhood abandonment that my mother shared so often with me. However, as a man who has not been graced with his own children and who has watched his friends’ children grow from infancy to adulthood, I can’t imagine not wanting to have even the slightest look at the joy of it all.

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