Letters from Carol 1975

In late August, my natural mom and her sisters met at my Grandma Audrey’s house to begin going through her personal belongings. It’s been several months since Grandma passed away, so it was time to start the process. They found some interesting items during their work: pieces of scrap paper with poetry Grandma had written; greeting cards from family and friends; love letters exchanged between Grandma and my grandfather (who passed away prior to my reunion with my natural family); and empty envelopes that looked as if they had been swept up with handfuls of other items and stashed away in a frenzied cleaning effort.

Among Grandma’s things, they found a series of letters that my mom wrote to her family while she was in Memphis, TN waiting to have me; there are eleven letters in total that were written between January and March 1975. The letters were primarily contained in a single envelope with a simple phrase to identify them, “Letters from Carol 1975.” I find the phrase interesting. I know Grandma was very careful to avoid open references to me – especially after my brothers were born – but I suspect there’s more to it than that explanation. I bet if you lived through sending your youngest daughter away to have and then relinquish your first grandchild, it wouldn’t take many words on an external envelope to remind you what was inside. “Letters from Carol 1975” was probably all my Grandma needed to see.

The letters are equally heart-breaking, surprising, and funny.

My mom, not quite 17 when the journey in Memphis began, was terribly homesick. While she frequently mentions how much she likes the foster family with whom she is staying, she also writes a lot about missing the family and her baby kitten, Sebastian.

Mom’s letters also reveal the guilt she felt about the shame it may have caused the family for her to be pregnant. In one striking passage she writes, “It would be foolish to say that I won’t ever disappoint you again but I can say that I’ll never hurt you and Daddy like this again or ever give you cause to be ashamed to claim me as your girl.”

There’s not much mention of my dad, except the part where Mom declares that she’s sure “everything is over between us” and that “if he did come back I’d just slam the door in his face because he’s hurt me enough.” (Sorry, Pop, I know you read my blog, and you know that I have no hard feelings about how things went down with you and Mom, but I think it’s important to share her thoughts – even the difficult ones).

The letters contain a surprising amount of dialogue about my dad’s mom (who passed away prior to my reunion with my natural family), who apparently made quite a bit of effort to stay in touch with my mom, even offering to help support her if she decided to keep me. In one passage Mom writes that my paternal grandmother told her, “Carol, I think about you more than you will ever know. If I can ever help you in any way, let me know because you will always be like a daughter to me. If I had a daughter, I would like for her to be just like you.”

I also was surprised by the fact that the doctor felt my Mom had gained too much weight with me, so she was actually on a diet while she was pregnant with me. This didn’t go over well with Mom who wrote at one point, “I’m putting in an early order for a big stack of pancakes when I get home. JoAnn made some yesterday but I didn’t get any cause their (sic) too fattening. My mouth just watered and watered and I could hardly stand it.”

My favorite light-hearted moments are in two early letters. In one, Mom drew a self-portrait that is basically a stick figure with a huge belly, and she writes, “I’m kinda glad no one there will be able to see me SO big cause that’s hard on my ego. Next time you see me I’ll be my old skinny self again.” In another, she declares, “Mom, I have good news for you. I ate liver! JoAnn fixed it last week and I suffered through it. It really wasn’t too bad.”

For me, the most important parts of the letters reveal Mom’s struggle in deciding whether to keep me or allow me to be adopted. I don’t know how most adoptees feel, but I longed to know that I really was wanted – at least by someone in my natural family. When we reunited, my mom explained that she always wanted me, but just felt she couldn’t keep and support me at the age of 17. Actually reading her words at that age confirmed everything she said to me in the beginning. A couple of very important passages to me include:

  • “I’ve made the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make and I have to stick to it. I really believe it’s the best for my baby and no matter how hard it is for me, I have to put the baby’s future first.”
  • “I want my baby and I love it so much and because I love it I want to do what’s best for it. If there was anyway that I could give it the kind of life it deserves and needs I would keep it with me. But I’m afraid that I can’t give it the kind of life it should have even though I love it so. I just want to do what’s right…”

Oh, I don’t want to forget the bonus material in the envelope – a photo of my mom on her 17th birthday with a very visible baby bump. That’s me 22 days prior to my birth. It’s pretty cool to have a pregnancy photo of my mom. Most kids have those, but I had given up hope something like that existed. Makes me really happy that Grandma was a pack rat.

Mom and the Baby Bump

Worth the Risk?

I’ve typed and erased the first sentence of this post about fifteen times. This is a post I don’t want to write, but that means I should. So, here goes.

I don’t handle death well. Not because I don’t have faith. Not because I don’t believe in eternity. Not because I don’t believe there will be a resurrection from the dead. But because death is hard. Death is a separation. And I don’t handle separation well – an issue that I understand plagues many adopted kids.

When I was making the decision about whether to reunite with my natural families, one of the major considerations in my “cons” list was the fact that I would open myself up to more separation. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to expose myself to that possibility. I wasn’t sure I would consider it worth the risk in the long run.

Today, the long run got much shorter because I attended the funeral of my Grandma Audrey in Pensacola, FL. For those who’ve kept up with my reunion story, you likely remember that she’s my natural mom’s mom. The sweet little lady that I got as a “bonus grandparent” when I found my mom.

Tonight, in the home of my mom’s friend, as I feel an emptiness in the pit of my stomach, I find myself asking if it’s worth it. I realize it’s a bit late to give that question a ton of thought. I guess I should have made that determination before I committed to this journey. On some level, I think I did. But it was not on the level that I’m working from right now. No, that level was purely a hypothetical, intellectual level. This is real.

When I met Grandma Audrey for the first time, she gave me two gifts – a heart on a chain that I wear everyday and a poem she had written for me shortly after I was adopted. And in our first conversation, she shared with me how she had prayed that I would find my mom and her family before she died and that just when she had given up hope, I came back. She also told me how she had marked my birthday on her calendar every year with an asterisk – a symbol that she chose to remind herself of my birth without risking that my brothers (who did not know about me at the time) would ask questions that my mom wasn’t prepared to answer.

I walked away from that visit with one clear thought – it wasn’t just my mom who loved me all those years (a fact that was well established in our first conversation), it was my Grandma Audrey too. And despite my attempts to maintain a safe distance, I just couldn’t do it. Because how can you not love someone who loves you (sight unseen) through 36 years of space and time?

So, is it worth it? Is the anxiety of loss and pain of separation worth it? As much as I hate those feelings, I have to say “absolutely.” Because memories are worth it. Because family is worth it. Because love is worth it. Because Grandma Audrey was definitely worth it.

Why I’m a Control Freak

I’m on vacation this week in Hilton Head, SC. It takes the solitude of a place like Hilton Head to open me up to write this blog post. I’ve been thinking about it for several months, but I just haven’t been able to muster the peace or courage or insanity or whatever it is that I’ve needed to write. Until now.

When I started first grade, I cried every day when my dad dropped me off at school. I don’t mean the tearful goodbye of a little kid who’s going to miss her parents for a few hours. I mean the screaming, holding onto his leg type of crying of a little kid who’s desperately afraid she wouldn’t see him again.

By that point, I already knew I was adopted and that knowledge messed with my world. Before you lash out about telling children too young, I want you to know I forced my parents into the conversation with questions they couldn’t answer without being open about my adoption, and they did a great job of explaining the whole thing. Adoption was and is part of my reality, and my parents felt it was important to acknowledge that fact and I am thankful they did.

It’s difficult for a little kid going to school for the first time not to have irrational fears. But mine were different; they weren’t completely irrational because they were built in some reality. For all the right reasons, my natural parents chose not to raise me. I was told that fact from the first time my parents told me about my adoption.

But when you’re a kid, that means other people can decide not to raise you too, and when I went to school each morning, I was afraid that’s the decision my parents would make while I was at school. I envisioned them just deciding not to pick me up. So I would be “that kid” who sits on the school bench, waiting for someone who is late to get them, but my situation would be different because my someone just wouldn’t be coming at all.

My parents always came, but I still believed it would be possible for them to decide not to and in my head that could happen at any time. All that seems silly now, as an adult, after I’ve heard my natural parents talk about their respective decisions, and witnessed the agony of the decision for my natural mom, who still can’t talk about the whole process without getting emotional.

But who I am at 38 is shaped by who I was at 5, and I like to be in control because it ensures that I will never be “that kid” – physically or emotionally. I protect that part of me with every fiber of my being. I see that 5 year old every time I think about whether I can trust someone. I see that 5 year old every time I consider whether I should reveal my heart to friends and even family. I see that 5 year old every time I think about letting someone else have any semblance of control in my life. I see that 5 year old and I think it’s my responsibility to protect her.

I’ve lived 38 good years on this earth. I have a few close friends, and they are the best I could ever ask for in my life. I have married a wonderful guy, who I love deeply and who loves me despite my weaknesses. I have families (adopted and natural) that I love with all of my heart and who love me.

But I hold part of myself back – even from my friends, and my husband, and my families. And I think they know it. And I think they respect it. And I think they hope one day I won’t. And I think they will love me even if I do. And I think it’s something I want to change. And I think it’s something I may never be able to change. But I’m trying. And I think that’s worth something.

Would the “Real” You Please Stand Up?

A winter wonderland has descended upon the Mid-Ohio Valley. Our church is one of many that cancelled services today, so I’m sitting in my recliner with a warm blanket while Jeff is checking Facebook in his office and my mom (Carol) is reading a book. The quiet is nice, though my mental peace was interrupted a few minutes ago by a blog post I saw on Facebook.

The gist of the post was that “Duck Dynasty” is fake – not just the parts of the show that the family has admitted over and over are scripted – but that the people themselves are fake. Before you start to worry this is going to be a “Duck Dynasty” rant and stop reading, don’t worry, that’s not where this is going. But, I do need to tell you about the other blog post before I can get to my point, so stay with me. The “evidence” used to support this claim primarily comparing photos of the Robertson men without beards to photos of the Robertson men with beards. A few jumps in logic from there, and voila, the Robertson men (and their entire families) are fake. While I am hoping that particular blog post was a bit of sarcasm that I missed, I’ll continue to my point anyway.

When did it become our role as humans to deem other humans fake? Especially when we base the judgments on something as simple as their exterior appearance? When I worked at a university as their in-house lawyer, I dressed up every day. For those of you who know me well, you know that was a chore because I much prefer to wear blue jeans, t-shirts, and tennis shoes. But I did dress up to match the expectations of my employer. Does that mean I was fake then? Does it mean I am fake now because I typically wear my preferred wardrobe? Does it mean I am fake when I meet with clients and dress up to match their expectations?

Most of us have many layers, and even those of us who insist that we are the same with everyone no matter what, would be hard-pressed to support that argument to its logical conclusion faced with complex situations. We may have a certain style that is most comfortable for us, but I suspect we dress differently for certain situations based on external expectations. We may generally be open about who we are, but I suspect we tell our best friend things we would never tell strangers. We may have an opinion about something today, but I suspect we would be open to change that opinion tomorrow in the face of new facts to consider.

People are complicated and life situations make us more so.

When I finally decided to seek out my natural family two years ago, part of my journey was designed to help me gain understanding of who I am. I clearly knew how my adoptive family impacted me, and my friends, and my co-workers, and the various people who had been put in my life to that point, but I didn’t know how my natural family had impacted me. I am beginning to discover those things now, and I suspect it is shaping me. Does that mean the pre-reunion Becky was fake? Or perhaps it means the post-reunion Becky is fake?

I say it’s all me. Granted, it’s an evolution of me, but it’s still me.

I wish we would give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume we are all the “real” us. Does that mean we will sometimes look like we contradict ourselves? Probably so. Does that mean that we will reveal more of ourselves to some and not others? Likely. Does that mean some will like us and some won’t? I’m guessing so.

But we all need to give ourselves and each other room to evolve. Humans aren’t meant to be static. We are meant to grow. People, places, and circumstances alter us and that’s what it means to be human.

So, go out and be you. Some people will hate it, but some people will love it. And those who hate it don’t need to see your multi-faceted layers, and those who love it should see those layers. And you can rest in the knowledge that you are real and anyone who says otherwise is just going through their skeptical phase as a human and you can pray for them to get over it – quickly.

Adoption, Search and Reunion, and God

I found out I was adopted very young. I didn’t really know how to handle the whole concept for a while, but as I got older it became a much bigger deal in my life. I would sit for hours and wonder who my natural parents were, what they looked like, what they enjoyed doing, if they had other kids, etc., etc. I had ridiculous thoughts about who they could be and at very trying moments in my adolescence even made up stories about it – which I understand is common among adopted children, but it makes me no less embarrassed and remorseful.

After I turned 18, I thought about starting the search process, but I ultimately decided against it. Repeat process at 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24 years of age. At 25, I decided to take the first step and retrieve non-identifying information about my natural parents. I found out a few facts in that process, and the information satisfied me for a while, but then I needed to know more. So I started the search and reunion process through the State of Tennessee on several occasions, ultimately stopping each time because I felt like the door to that part of my life was closed.

At 38 and two years into the search and reunion process, I see things a little differently and that’s what I want to share today. I’m going to put the rest of this post in bullets because the thoughts are varied and it may help me keep common thoughts together.

  • Information and relationship aren’t the same thing. For a long time, I truly believe I just wanted information about my natural parents. I wanted facts and figures, but I wasn’t ready for a relationship. I needed to know who I looked like, but didn’t necessarily want to see myself in that person on a daily basis. I wanted to know where my personality traits came from, but didn’t necessarily want to add another person to my circle of family and friends. I thought it would be cool to meet my natural parents, but didn’t necessarily want to invest the time and energy it would take to heal any wounds from our separation. Information is easy. Relationship is not.
  • I have repeated the same process with God. The interesting thing about having parents you’ve never met is that you can make them into whatever you want them to be. You can create the best pictures or the worst pictures depending on your mood on that particular day. And when you get information about them, you can begin to feel satisfied just knowing some facts and figures. After all, reconciling with a mom and dad who decided to relinquish you (and their parental rights) to another family would be messy and painful. At various points in my life, I’ve felt that exact same way about God. I knew all the facts and figures, but I hesitated to really know God because that meant I had to give something of myself. I had to deal with my feelings of anger and resentment about times I felt like he abandoned me. I had to address what appeared to be contradictions in his nature. I had to do something in response to his desire for a relationship with me. And that’s just not easy all the time.
  • Reality is better than imagination. Developing relationships with my natural parents and other members of my natural families has been one of the most deeply rewarding experiences of my life. My natural parents are actually way cooler than any picture I created of them. And once I decided that I wasn’t going to hold my natural parents accountable for decisions they made when they were teenagers, the whole concept of search and reunion changed for me. I began to embrace the potential of having a relationship with each of them and moving forward. I still have questions about the past, and I ask those when they surface in my mind, but there are no wrong answers. Just honest answers.  And that makes the reality of relationship with them better than anything I imagined. The relationships aren’t perfect, but they are real, and that makes them as close to perfect as human relationships will get.
  • I want to get better about relationship with God. I’m not sure how much I really know God versus imagine what he’s like and have information about God versus having relationship with him, but I think it’s time to address that situation. Because he is perfect and whatever I imagine about him pales in comparison to how awesome he really is and that’s exciting to me. So I think it’s time I started a search and reunion process with God. If you are interested in joining me, let me know.

My Payne Family Tattoo

Last weekend, I spent about 4 hours at Lure Tattoo in Vienna, WV getting my fourth tattoo. Mat Ward, the tattoo artist, created another beautiful piece of art to honor my natural family – this time my natural mom’s family.

From the minute I reunited with my natural mom, the Payne family has been “all in” with me. There was no hesitation in accepting me as part of them, because to them I always have been part of them. The first communications with my natural mom quickly escalated to calls with Grandma Audrey, email exchanges with Aunt Arlene, Aunt Teresa, and Uncle Kenny, and additional Facebook friends in the form of my brothers (Damon and Jared) and sister-in-law (Anyse). When I met many of the Payne family members during the spring and summer of 2012, it was like I had come home after being on an extended trip and just needed to get acquainted with everyone again. I have no idea why God made our genetic connections so powerful, but it has been a blessing to me in reuniting with the Payne family.

The tattoo is a very special design based on some key moments in the reunion process with my natural mom.

  • There are two dates – March 20, 1975 and February 19, 2012 – which are our separation and reunion dates. March 20 is my birthday and February 19 is the day we first spoke.
  • The tattoo also features a river that separates over a hill into two branches and eventually comes back together over another horizon. Having come from the same source, we were separated, but are now united again. The river is particularly important because very early on in our reunion, my natural mom sent me a photo of rivers merging with a promise that she would not allow anything to separate us again.
  • The river also has significance because one of my favorite songs is “Aqueous Transmission” by Incubus, which includes the lyrics, “I’m building an antenna, transmissions will be sent. When I am through maybe we can meet again, further down the river. And share what we both discovered, then revel in the view.”
  • The landscape scene is “framed” in a heart-shaped bouquet of flowers with the family name “Payne” at the top, representing the love that my natural mom and the rest of the Payne family had for me regardless of the fact I was separated from them.

The tattoo is on my upper right leg. I tried to be modest in having the photo taken, but please forgive me if you are seeing more of my upper leg than you desired to see.

DSC02494

The Meaning of “Adopted”

I don’t spend most of my time focused on the fact that I’m adopted. That’s not to say that I am not acutely aware of it, but I don’t obsess about it or spend every waking moment thinking about the implications of being adopted. Most of the time it’s just like any other fact about me – it just is and doesn’t demand much thought or explanation. Granted the reunions with my natural families have brought it to the forefront in the last two years, but even that has just become part of the fabric of my life now. On most days, I’m just being me and that means I have lots of families. All of this is true on most days. Today is not one of those days.

Today, I am wondering what it really means to be adopted. My day started innocently enough. I went to the gym, led a lunch and learn opportunity, ate a late lunch with a client, and answered emails. Then, I went for an afternoon haircut. And that’s where my day shifted. The conversation in the shop was pretty casual and focused on the fact that an individual’s mom just celebrated a birthday. The lady telling the story explained that her mom is now 83, but they put the candles on the cake backwards so it would say 38. Of course, her mom got a big kick out of that fact and snickered because the daughter always says she’s 39, which prompted the mom to say, “Oh, I guess I couldn’t have had you. You must be adopted.” The daughter laughed while telling the story and noted, “Well, if I was adopted at least I was wanted by someone.”

Ouch. Is that what adoption really means? That someone wanted me – with a heavy dose of implication that someone else did not? I have to admit, that thought stinks. Not just for me, but for all adopted kids. I’ve always thought it was a bit more complicated. That my parents probably did want me, but life circumstances led them to make a decision to give me to someone else rather than keep me. Now that I’ve heard their stories, I think that is true. But not every adopted kid has heard their parents’ perspectives. And that means there may be a bunch of kids who really stress over that heavy dose of implication. Wanted by some, but not by all.

Interestingly, I’ve often struggled with what it really means to be adopted. As I was growing up, my parents had a tendency to “claim” people – meaning they would take them in (sometimes physically, but always emotionally) and support them. In fact, they still do that, which I think is cool. But in introducing those folks to others, they would often say something like, “this is our adopted son/daughter.” In some ways, I knew I was distinguished from those individuals because I was never introduced as adopted, but because I knew I was adopted, I wondered if there really was a difference between them and me. I have always been a good thinker, so I often rationalized the distinctions – for instance, I was living in the home and the “adopted son/daughter” was not – but I still struggled with the idea that I might not be so different from one of those people. That in reality, it could have easily been one of them living with my family rather than me if the timing would have been different.

One of the cool things that has come from my reunion with my natural families is that I’ve seen where I belong with both families. But on days like today, when I struggle to understand what this whole adoption thing really means, I wonder if it’s more like I don’t quite belong to either family. And that thought does not help my already well-established tendency to believe I should rely only on myself because you never know when someone might walk away (by the way, this is apparently a common reaction in adopted kids).

I realize this post isn’t exactly encouraging, but it’s real. And because I was still thinking about it after a 2-hour lawn-mowing expedition, dinner, and an ice cream cone, I figured I better get the thoughts out of my head and onto paper. Here’s to hoping the next post is more positive. In the meantime, I’m going to try to stop thinking and get some rest. Hope you guys have a great night!