Making Connections

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     During the past several weeks, I have been preparing for a cousins’ reunion, for all descendants of my maternal grandparents. There has not been a family reunion in many years, and now all of my mother’s generation are deceased, so several of us thought it was time to get together, before any more are gone. We are making it clear that all spouses, step-children, relinquished offspring, adopted sons and daughters, and other family are all included. It will make for a new model of a family tree, more orchard than single tree, but we are striving for connections, not symmetry.
     The reunion will be in April, and I have been through countless boxes and albums of photographs, old newspapers and clippings and other documents, looking for connections and family history. It has taken many, many hours so far, and I am by no means through. Some items will be given back to cousins, while others will be available to be copied. It is a real journey, searching for pictures I remember and know exist in my house, but have so far not been located, and finding others I had never seen before, as well as birth announcements, letters, wedding invitations, etc. Many of these items were among my mother’s things, and many of those were inherited from great aunts and uncles who had no children of their own, but cared deeply about my mother and her siblings and their descendants. They kept every photo, letter, announcement and newspaper article about everyone. It is touching to realize the extent of their love for nieces and nephews of five generations. It is also a treasure of family history and connections.
     The photographs and newspapers also reveal the clothing fashions of various times, local and national history, and political, social, and religious outlooks over the years, ranging from grocery prices to opinions about why a woman could not possibly have a career and a family, no matter how much of a loss of her talents to the world! Looking at photos, I see resemblances going back many generations, from curly hair to arthritic hands, from a cleft chin to a cowlick to short stature. These are recognizable connections, sometimes across six generations. It makes those ancestors seem like the real people they were, although I never met them.
     As I go through all of these photos, I am aware that preserving them and passing them on is a way I can help my own offspring and their offspring, as well as my cousins, make those same connections. I am also aware that, had I not searched for and found my relinquished eldest son, he would not have access to these pictures and his family history, nor would I have access to him, his own history, and his current life. When he was born in 1966, open adoptions were virtually unheard of, although perfectly legal in New Mexico.
     Although I accepted the reality of not being able to raise my son, under the circumstances that existed at the time (a single mother, without adequate financial resources and with extreme family and social pressure), I never considered not finding him later. I cannot even imagine having tried to keep him, cannot imagine how difficult that would have been for both of us, and cannot imagine the outcome of such a decision. I also could not imagine relinquishing him to foster care, where he would bond to foster parents, only to be removed several months later and placed with adoptive parents. I did my research and learned that a private adoption, directly from me to the adoptive parents, through my doctor, was possible, legal, and not difficult.
     I have never regretted that, nor has he or his adoptive parents. What we all do regret is that we did not meet until he was 30 years old. I did think of him every day and hoped he was having a good life. Of course, birth mothers do not forget and I doubt most birth fathers do, if they know they have a child. Yes, I did “move on,” in that I married, had more children, and did not see them as replacements for my first son. But always, in my mind, was the desire to find him again. I hoped that might happen during his childhood, if I moved back to Albuquerque, but I was not able to do that until 1989, when he was 23, and then did not search until 1996.
     I did not search to replay his childhood, nor to replace his adoptive parents, but to make my own connections, to know him and allow him to know me and his brothers. I wanted those connections, and hoped he did, too. He has said he doesn’t know if or when he would have searched himself, although his adoptive mother had been urging him to do so, because she wanted connection. He has said he’s very glad I did search for and find him, “because now I know I am the person I was meant to be.”
     Sometimes we don’t see each other more than once or twice a year now, although it was much more frequent in the early years of reunion. We all have busy lives and have to remind ourselves of the importance of contact. Yet the connections are there. I have added him to my family tree, although my parents did not. They met him and enjoyed being with him, yet could not bring themselves to acknowledge his existence to family and friends. I do regret that my aunts and uncles did not know him, nor my grandparents, but I have told some of my cousins, and the rest will now when this cousins reunion takes place.
     I may or may not be the only one in the extended family to have relinquished a child. Others have found themselves pregnant in difficult circumstances and have made other decisions, to marry or to terminate a pregnancy. I am sure they have had their own challenges living with those decisions. Many have been married more than once and have children by more than one spouse or have step-children. No, the names don’t always match up neatly with the parents’ names. Some of us have changed names, kept names, hyphenated names, adopted step-children, or even lost contact with children from a previous marriage. Our family history has become complicated.
     The truth is, family history has always been complicated. In doing some family history and genealogy, from documents easily obtainable, I have found numerous second marriages, usually due to death of a spouse, going back many generations. I have found double relationships, where two siblings from one family married two siblings from another family, and even some first-cousin marriages, let alone some second-cousin ones and other interconnections. Particularly in the past, people married the people they knew and had access to, and didn’t travel far to meet new people, unless they traveled across oceans or across the country to make a new home. Even then, they sought out connections, family already there or others from the same background. It makes doing genealogy confusing, further complicated by the tendency to use the same few given names over and over, but their intent was not to make the future neat and easy for family historians, but rather to live their lives and make connections as they wished. Recently, I read a biography of Thomas Jefferson and learned that he recommended people should marry within their family, which helps to explain how he was related to a lot of people in more than one way. I found that, although I am not related to Thomas Jefferson, I am related to his son-in-law and grandson! I am grateful for those who did this research in generations past, making it easy for me to access.
     Closed adoptions and closed records cut off these connections and many others. Had I not searched for and found my son, he would not have photographs of his ancestors, let alone information about them. He says as a young person, he speculated about his ethnic background and imagined Celtic connections. He was correct, actually, although there are others, too, including sub-Saharan African. I do not know a lot about his birth father’s background, other than his birth name (he was also adopted, in an open adoption) happens to be the same as some of my distant relatives. Still, even knowing that led to my discovering that an acquaintance is my seventh cousin and perhaps a closer cousin to my son on his birth father’s side. Yes, it’s complicated, but the connections are important.
     Not all connections are genetic. Many people maintain connections with childhood or college friends, with former neighbors and friends they’ve met through work or organizations. Some do not; it takes time and energy to maintain connections, and some do not make it a priority. There are many ways to lose connections, and not so many easy ways to maintain them, or to re-establish them. Working on a high-school class reunion taught me that. It also taught several of us that life is short, and connections are important to us, so we’re endeavoring to keep in touch.
     Support groups of various sorts, including adoption organizations such as Operation Identity, are also ways of making connections with others who have similar interests and situations. Some attend a few times and decide it’s not for them, while others stick around a while, as long as they’re learning something helpful, or in the case of adoption support groups, as long as they’re searching, and then drop out for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they lose interest in the subject, perhaps they have found what they originally wanted and have no desire to delve further or to maintain connections with others in the group. Perhaps their lives just get too busy with other concerns. Some are disappointed in what they’ve learned or have not learned, and attending a group is a reminder of that disappointment. Some move away and lose that connection, and do not make new connections. Others do continue to attend, and remain active, while some drop out for a time but renew their connection later. Some no longer attend meetings, but do remain in touch through the newsletter and/or correspondence. Some persons who used to be in O.I., for instance, have continued to send dues, have written that they enjoy the newsletter, and have sent along news from time to time. Some have notified us that they no longer wish to receive the newsletter for whatever reason. We respect those decisions, and yet, sometimes we wonder how they’re doing and what’s happening in their lives. It is always sad to receive a newsletter back marked “unable to forward” or “moved—left no forwarding address,” and we have no further information. Then we have no choice but to let go.
     Letting go is another decision we sometimes have to make regarding connections. When a friend or family member dies, a connection is broken and yet we have to make our own decision about letting go. There are healthy and unhealthy ways of doing that. We can cherish good memories, let go of unpleasant ones, or we can pretend it doesn’t matter. Some choose to visit graves or particular places to keep memories alive, to reinforce not letting go, or just to make a connection when there is no other way, such as when someone dies before we got to meet them. For some birth parents and relinquished offspring, that’s the only way they can make even a second-hand connection. Others choose to search for other relatives, or friends of the lost one, in order to meet someone who can tell them more. Many adoptees have found relationships with an aunt or uncle, grandparent or birth parent’s friend in this way. Some birth parents have found a deceased offspring’s friend, spouse or other relative to cherish. Some find photos, letters, articles, or mementos to be helpful connections, and this is also true when adoption is not the issue. I never knew any of my great grandparents, let alone great-great grandparents, but seeing their pictures, touching my great-great grandmother’s shawl, or a quilt another great grandmother pieced, makes them real people to me. My eldest son and my youngest son never met my grandfather, but giving them some tools that had belonged to him helped them connect. Passing on my things may help sane future descendant of mine know that I was a real person.
     If you used to attend O.I., or some other adoption support group if you live elsewhere, and you’ve lost touch, you are urged to reconnect, either in person or by letter or telephone, to let us know how you are. We’d love to have you back at meetings, too. For some of us, the purpose of a group isn’t just to search, but to keep in touch, share our other common interests, and develop new ones. There are still plenty of people out there who could use help in making connections and receiving support from others who really understand. Not every issue can be solved by searching on the Internet, and one’s internal search is not over when they’ve found (or given up finding) the relinquished offspring or their birth parents. It’s nearly always better to make and maintain connections than to cut them off.

Excerpted from the April 2014 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2014 Operation Identity