The Things You Learn
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The Things You Learn

The Things You Learn

The Salvation Army had made two attempts to reach my birth mother. They sent two letters, three months apart, one in April, not long after we had located my mother Barbara, and then another one in July. They, like myself, had also left two voice mails at the phone number we found for her online.

Nothing. No one had received any response. It was time for me to take matters into my own hands. Now in late October, we had waited long enough. To not draw attention, the letters were sent without any tracking – so there was no way to guarantee their delivery, and no way to be sure they hadn’t just been dumped, assuming they were junk mail or solicitations from the Salvation Army itself.

Rolling through my head were the endless unknowns – she was married, her husband also alive and presumably living with her. Had she told him what had happened all those years ago? Is she still of sound mind? She could have dementia. Her husband might be a jerk and she is afraid to tell him. Maybe he opened the letters and hid them from her. She could be dealing with another sick family member or friend and hasn’t been home in several months. Maybe they have a vacation home we didn’t find and they haven’t been at their home in Colorado? The options are endless.

The only public records we have located on my mother after my original birth certificate, was her marriage certificate to Larry C. when she wed him in 1985 when she was thirty-nine. A big gap of twenty years between me and him. But not only that, by then I was a junior in college and marry my husband in 1989. It’s ironic to me that my mother and I were only four years apart on the calendar at the time we each first married.

She gave me up in 1965, and then tragically only two years later is the death of her mother Marie, in 1967. Whatever their relationship was like that had to have been unbearable – first she has the unacknowledged loss of surrendering me. Unable to grieve that in public she would have tried to cope no doubt the best she could. But then to pile on the loss of her own mother seems cosmically cruel.

It’s also one of the reasons that I want to give my mother so much space in this process. While feeling at times now almost desperate for a connection, I know that this is a very big ask. Not only is she likely to revisit the emotional trauma surrounding my relinquishment, close to that must also be her mother’s death.

I had decided to write my own letter. As I spoke to my case manager, Diana at the Salvation Army she says something unexpected. She was reading through my case file and then almost mumbling to herself says, “Oh dear, and I see here it looks like after your mother had signed the papers, there is a letter received from her mother saying she should keep you.” WHAT!?! My heart lurches and I immediately ask what she means by this.

Diana says that Annette, one of her colleagues who for a while was the key handler of my case, and who sent both of the first two letters to my mother, had sent me additional information from the Salvation Army back in April.

Seated in our family room overlooking our sunny backyard I feel completely adrift. I explain to Diana in a shaky voice that no – no other information has come my way. WE found my mother, remember? Provided YOU at the Salvation Army her information and then you reached out to her.

I can hear Diana’s now hesitant voice ask me that she sees a letter sent by Annette to me on April 9th, but I’ve never received that? “No, no letter has come from you. Was this by email, snail mail – how was it sent?”. “Regular mail”, she says. Now this makes me doubt everything. Were the letters they say they sent, actually sent? Wobbly of mind and spirit I feel deflated by all of this. Even the people who I believe are trying to help me still don’t seem to understand the emotional triggers involved in this process.

My mind awhirl I ask if I can see this information NOW. RIGHT NOW. Sheepishly the case worker agrees she will absolutely send over the letter to me by email. “Give me a few minutes please and I’ll have it to you within the half-hour. I want to be sure what is sent is accurate and complete.”, but of course reminds me that it will not contain any identifying information, most especially about my father, as he is still un-named to us as of now. Without my mother’s permission they cannot release it, and without her returning contact, they and me, are stuck.

It’s a Friday afternoon, now nearly three o’clock. I wander back into my office grateful for the thousandth time in my life of my self-employed, work from home status. I can make appointments for personal calls such as these and control my own daily flow. I wait. Unable to concentrate on anything else I look through the last of my work-related emails, send a few replies, summarize and shut down my current open projects, and nervously await what comes.

Having no expectations or ideas of what I will see or learn I try to just remain calm. I think about the fact that Kyle isn’t home – he’s been away for the past three weeks taking a course in Los Angeles, about two hours away, which means 3-plus hours with traffic from our home-base in Temecula. I’ll have to face what comes with only the two dogs and two cats for comfort.

Sure enough, the letter attached is formally written and correctly addressed to me, dated April 9th, on Salvation Army letterhead. As I read, I see some of what is known to me, some of which I already also know to be potentially untrue. Pain, relief and a staggering sadness as to my mother’s life circumstances is revealed.

I knew she was the youngest by far of three older siblings and that by the time she was in high school they were all gone and out of the home. I knew her father had died when she was very young (or maybe before she was born…) and that her mother Marie had remarried.

Taken from my mother’s original application in 1965 I read: I can confirm that your birth mother gave birth to you at The Salvation Army Booth Memorial Hospital in Spokane, Washington. Per the record, she had applied for admission on January 20, 1965 and was later admitted to the Maternity Home on March 5th….

The record indicates her mother [Marie] had remarried five (5) years prior. Her stepfather was a chief of police and she [Barbara] did not get along with him because he had a violent temper. At first, he was not informed of the pregnancy because your birth mother thought he would take his fury out on her mother. She stated he had beat her and her mother at various times.

Regarding your biological father, the record states he was from West Virginia, and was 21 years old. His nationality was Sweden/German, and his religious affiliation was Methodist. He was a high school graduate and was an airman second class stationed in North Dakota. He was an only child and his parents were separated.

Per the record, your birth mother and birth father had met at a dance about two years prior and went together for about a year, but he was a Methodist and your birth mother was a Catholic.  They loved each other very much but could not come to an agreement about religion so they stopped seeing each other. A few months later, they started seeing each other again and your birth mother became pregnant. They wanted to get married, but still felt their religious affiliations were a barrier. Months later, he was transferred to Alaska, yet he continued calling and writing. She hoped he would become a Catholic and marry her. At some point she had said she “would not mind being a Lutheran (which seemed a good compromise between Catholicism and Methodism),” however, her siblings kept telling her that “once a Catholic, one should never be anything else.”

My parents loved each other, wanted to be with each other. I was conceived in love. The relief in that showers over me and through me like salve for my soul. In all these months of staring at her photo I’d worried – what might have happened to you? She had an innocence and brightness to her high school senior photo. In her yearbook beneath each of the senior photos were the students’ favorite sayings – the sorts of things you think are cool way back when, but now strike you for the youthful ego-driven idiocy they are. Next to her photo are these nice looking young boys with the phrases, ‘I sat back and let it happen’, ‘Devil in Disguise’ and ‘Shake a Tail Feather’. Hers says, ‘That’s O.K.’. But was it?

Now I know that in fact she was dating a young man out of high school a few years older than her, by then an Airman at Minot AFB. As a ‘steady’ to an older guy she would have been somewhat above those boys and treated differently by them. My concerns for her on that front alleviated, there were instead new ones.

Her stepfather was violent – and not only that as the local Chief of Police in a small rural town in the 1960’s, he was also untouchable. She and her mother were trapped by that tragic choice Marie had made in marrying a bad man. Had she known before she married him? Was he good at hiding his violent craft as most predators are? It is crystal clear now why Barbara had to be far away to have me – beyond the family shame of her circumstance, it wasn’t safe.

Organized religion kept them apart. To my modern eyes this seems baffling – a Catholic and a Methodist. They are both Christian – really? But reflecting that the time in 1964, these differences mattered. I wonder now if also this becomes a reason for her reluctance to reply to our attempts to contact her. Does she feel foolish for those reasons now – fear that I won’t understand? A religious difference most people would barely register as a conflict – does that make her choices seem more shameful when viewed through this modern lens? I wonder, does she still pray to her God? Believe in Him after all of these losses?

I read on:

Since your mother was living in an apartment, her mother helped pay for rent and food, and your birth father helped pay for medical bills. She began coming to the Booth Home around February to attend pre-natal classes, and it was in one of these visits the doctor discovered she was malnourished and anemic. She admitted she had been living off milk and cereal as she had very little money left for food. She was told she didn’t have to struggle that she could be admitted into the Home for inpatient care. Once admitted, she adjusted well to the group living situation and was assigned kitchen duty. On Sundays she would attend chapel and then go to Catholic services.

Per the record, you were born on April 21, 1965 at 11:30 a.m. You weighed 6 lbs. 13 oz. and were 20 inches long at birth. After your birth, the record indicates she received word from her mother that she had told her stepfather, he had gone into a rage, but had asked that your mother keep you and force your birth father to marry her. After discussion, your birth mother finally agreed to release you because your birth father had stated he could not marry her until their religious differences were resolved and until he could be discharged from the Air Force and had a steady job. You were relinquished to the State Department of Public Assistance on April 30th and your birth mother went back to North Dakota. 

Malnourished and living on cereal. My heart breaks open and I weep and cannot stop. That poor girl – she was trying so hard to make this work. She was strong, a survivor and just trying to fulfill what she wanted so badly, but the world just kept stacking up against her. The unfairness of it all overwhelms me. She wanted me. She wanted my father. To make a family of us. Finally, without resources, safety, or an able and willing husband to support her she relinquishes me and drags herself back to the only home she has ever known, returning to what awaited her there. I pray she stayed well.

I close my office door and head for the couch. Breaking all our house rules I allow both dogs up on the seat with me and give myself over to the vast sea of emotion.

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