A few years ago, after my mother passed, I stumbled upon the fact that I was a late-discovery adoptee. It did not matter that I was a woman of a certain age, finding out this secret that was kept from me was disassociating, agonizing, surreal and ultimately, confusing. I had lived my life based on a collection of secrets, because a woman I loved dearly was not comfortable with the truth. Finding out about my adoption meant that my life would never be the same again. There was no getting back to normal for me as I now faced having to figure out my new place within my own history. My personal identity has been altered and my faith in others was now questionable.
My mother, Mattie Shea, had just taken her last breath at age 84. As I stared at her beautiful face, it appeared relaxed, peaceful. I thought about how those loving arms would never hold me tight again, and her comforting voice would now only remain in my memory. I loved my mother to no end. She was truly my best friend, my world, the only one who had always been there for me.
Growing up, it was just my mom and me. We lived modestly in a Brooklyn, New York apartment. Mom worked at a toy factory in New Jersey, yet every single day, she made it home in time to cook dinner, check my homework, and spend quality time with me before my bedtime. She managed to give me the best her money could buy. Mom sacrificed because I was her princess. My bedroom was every little girl’s dream, all decorated in pink and white with a canopy bed. I also had every toy imaginable. I truly lacked for nothing. There were piano lessons, dance lessons, tennis lessons. Mom and I even traveled. My smarts, Mom’s prayers, and dedication to my getting a solid education got me into top schools in the city. I eventually attended Boston University on a scholarship. Mom taught me to be caring, kind, and made sure I developed spiritually. She modeled every single day what humility, strength, and faith in God looked like. She possessed quite an admirable and extensive arsenal of parenting tools that I use with my own four children.
As we were going through my mother’s things shortly after her passing, one of my daughters came across an envelope that was taped behind a dresser drawer. Inside the envelope was my original birth certificate but with another woman’s name, Barbara, who was listed as my mother. The discovery did rattle me but there were various suspicions throughout my childhood where I questioned and was never provided with responses. Why were there no pictures of my mother pregnant with me? I also remembered a couple of slips-of-tongues that eluded to adoption from relatives who quickly tried to clean up their spill once they realized I did not know what they were talking about.
There were also a few letters from Barbara, whom I didn’t know, along with official adoption papers. The first letter I read was dated a few weeks before I was born. Barbara wrote about how much the baby she was carrying moved in her womb and how the doctor said it was healthy. She also mentioned how sad but confident she felt in handing over her baby to my mother.
Barbara’s letters had a Greensboro, NC return address. I decided I would tread lightly with understanding and compassion regarding the situation I was faced with suddenly. I did not want to disrupt anyone’s life, so I sent a short note to the NC address stating my name, birthday, phone number, and informing Miss Barbara that my mom had passed away. I let Miss Barbara know that she could contact me if so desired. I mailed the letter and waited patiently, hoping that Miss Barbara was still at the NC address written on the letter.
I received a phone call three days later from Miss Barbara. She stated how she had waited 47 years to receive my note. We spoke for over an hour, and she filled in the details of my life I hadn’t known were missing. At the time Miss Barbara got pregnant, she had been a young college student on her way to becoming the first African-American woman to hold a position in the lab of the Greensboro Dept. of Health. She fell in love with Frederick, a student at North Carolina A&T State University who eventually became an English professor. Not wanting to shame and burden her mother, a then-pregnant Barbara went to stay with an aunt for a few months so as not to raise any red flags. During the ‘60s, in respectable Black southern families, pregnant young women were sent away to live with a relative until their baby was born. Frederick didn’t know Miss Barbara was pregnant at that time.
A few months after our conversations, I went to visit Miss Barbara at her NC home, and thankfully, the visit went well. She had never given birth again and nearly a half-century later, she stood before her baby whom she had only held, touched, and smelled once before giving her away. A year later, I went to visit Miss Barbara again who was now in a nursing home. I was accompanied by two of my four children. I had brought this woman grandchildren to hold, touch and smell. We all spent the day at an aquarium before bringing her back to the nursing home to share a meal. She proudly introduced us as her family to friends and the facility’s staff. I left her with a photo album that she seemed to cherish and promised to gaze at daily.
I’ve spoken with Miss Barbara numerous times since our meetings. We’ve had many funny, insightful, and heart-warming conversations that always ended with her telling me how much she loves me. I’ve sent birthday, Christmas and Mother’s Day gifts. So far, I haven’t seen her since our last visit, but I think of her often. Now at age 78, Miss Barbara has Alzheimer’s and has been moved to a different section of the nursing home. We still speak occasionally, but our conversations are different now.
There are no more conversations about her love of science, math, and how proud she was that these academic interests had been passed on to me. No more conversations about my handsome and smart birth father who has passed away. He too never had another child. Our talks now center around Miss Barbara’s daily life at the nursing home. She chats about her favorite dishes and how a resident, whom she refers to as her boyfriend, saves a seat for her at mealtimes. She sends greetings to my deceased husband, whom she has never met because he passed away before I found her. Miss Barbara talks about how someday we will take a vacation together to a tropical place. After allowing for constant enthusiastic wishful rants, Miss Barbara says she loves me, and then hangs up.
As a late-discovery adoptee, finding out the truth at this stage does not fill as many gaps as I thought it would. I am a square peg in a round life. I still have questions and what ifs. Honestly, the feelings I have for the woman who gave birth to me are sometimes still confusing and unresolved. I’ve experienced moments of abandonment and rejection, but also compassion and empathy for the young woman who was faced with a very difficult situation, one that I too faced in my younger years. I, however, made a different decision, one that will never haunt me, make me explain myself, or force me to make amends at some future point. I’m grateful that Miss Barbara made the choice she made, but even so, I still have not been able to call her Mom. I struggle to feel the depth of love for her that I should have. As for the woman who raised me, my mother, my mommy, the center of my world, I am saddened that she didn’t feel secure or comfortable enough to share important truths of how our bond came to be. As a mother, I understand how a decision can be impactful and far-reaching.
I’ve tried to deal with the range of emotions that have surfaced since I found out about my adoption. And when those subtle emotions of anger and resentment try to creep up, I squelch them by reminding myself of how blessed, grateful, and fortunate I truly am. In the end, I have come to realize that the sacrifices and selfless acts of two amazing women made my life possible.