Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Blood relatives

September 8:

Last few days I've been hearing from Cindy, my cousin Joan's daughter. Joan died this year, having lived out her last years with senile dementia, which also made our grandmother's life at the end something you might imagine appropriate for monsters or Nazis or the like, but not for human beings. I had been sad to hear it. Joan, in fact, had a tough life all through. She came to live with us when I was about ten or eleven; she was sixteen or seventeen and pregnant, at a time in this country when being single and pregnant was scandalous and shameful. She had been living in Elmira, New York, with her mother and father. She came to us to get away, hide the pregnancy, hide the shame. My mother used to spirit her in and out of the house in big coats to the doctor's office. When the baby was born my parents arranged for her to be adopted privately, through the doctor, so that there would be no public record of its parentage. Was this legal? I've often wondered. Joan was no doubt told to forget the whole thing and get on with her life. She did, of course. We all do after tragedies and miseries. But I think it affected everything afterward. Many years later, having married one of the leading figures in this country advocating open adoption records--my beloved Lorraine--I asked Joan if she wanted us to help her find the daughter she had given away for adoption. She said no. She was too scared.

Now Cindy wants to find her.

We'll do what we can, but it's going to be hard. But the whole situation makes me angry, and always has. I loved Joan. She was easy to love, spirited, cute, full of energy. What kind of country would do that to its young women, make them abandon babies to strangers instead of finding ways to help them keep them? Do you think rich girls had to endure this? Babies belong with their natural parents, the people who gave them birth. If that's not possible, and it sometimes isn't possible, we, collectively, as a society, ought to find ways to place them nearby, with blood relatives, with help from the state or private agencies dedicated to this purpose. Blood belongs with blood. It is inconceivable to me that I might have been denied knowledge of my origins by law because I might have been adopted. By law, in most states, adopted children cannot know who their parents were. This is barbaric. It benefits no one except adopted parents, who can then pretend that their adopted children didn't come from another family, another background, another way of life. I base my entire sense of who I am on the fact that my father was the son of Swedish immigrants. I have my grandfather's naturalization papers, and a photograph of his family, my father then a little boy, taken the day the papers came. I cherish these records. My mother was the daughter of a marriage between a self-made man of Danish/German origin and a woman whose family can be traced back to kings and queens. You think I'm not interested in this? Adoptees are not allowed to know this information. Their birth certificates are falsified, or locked away. Having an identity is surely one of the natural rights. But what good is having it if you are prevented from knowing it?

Cindy didn't know Joan had had another daughter, and given it away, but she told me that she had always sensed that someone was missing. I hope she finds this woman, who's now in her 60s. My Lorraine found the daughter she had given up for adoption under equally difficult circumstances; she now enjoys very nice relationships with her daughter's own two daughters. This is blood. It's fundamental; it's part of the human condition; and to ignore it, or think it doesn't matter, damages lives in ways we're only beginning to understand. We come from families, a network of relationships based on blood ties; and most of us maintain those ties all our lives. To break those ties by law is a crime against nature. Adoption records in a few states have been opened, but in the rest, no. Reform has been blocked mostly by adoptive parents, working in many cases through adoption agencies. Adoption has its place. Sometimes it's the only solution in difficult circumstances. But to keep knowledge of their origins from the people most concerned in knowing them is, plain and simple, a profound injustice.

Good luck, Cindy. Hope it happens. Hope you find her.