Wednesday, December 4, 2013


December 4, 2013:

          My kids--kids; they're 53 and 49 respectively--and their respective spouses and offspring were here for Thanksgiving this past weekend, and we had a wonderful time. It's hard to describe the kind of wit we share. It's home-grown, let's put it that way, coming out of shared experiences in the past, a love of word play, and a willingness to be silly that has always been a presence in our lives. The silliness comes from my parents, who could be divinely silly, even in public. The gold standard event came when I was about ten and my brother fourteen, we were in Schade's, the local soda parlor, after the movies on a Saturday night, having chocolate floats, and my parents started blowing straw paper wrappers at each other, until my mother threw a glass of water in my father's face (on a dare) and we collapsed in laughter. My poor brother was mortified and ran out of the place; he had friends there and, being fourteen, hated the embarrassment. But in other contexts he was just as capable of being silly, and I've never doubted that it was in our blood, along with my physical resemblance to our father, our voices--you could not distinguish my brother's voice and mine on a recording--and our tendency to collect things, in my case books, in my brother's case tools, antiques, and a basement full of broken furniture he was someday going to fix. He couldn't let go of anything. I have learned to let go, but it hasn't been easy.

          Yesterday afternoon Lorraine and I saw Philomena, the movie about an elderly Irish woman whose 4-year-old child was taken from her and sold by nuns to an American couple who adopted him. For $1,000. You have to see it. Judi Dench plays the elderly woman, and she's masterful as always, and all I could think about throughout was blood. DNA, if you will; but it's really blood. One of the things that holds my family so tightly together is knowing who we are. My two children knew their grandparents, knew them well, saw them pretty often, and an aunt had a genealogy done and we also know that on my mother's mother's side we are descended from early American settlers, that one of our forbears, Rebecca Nourse, was hanged at Salem for witchcraft in 1692, and on my mother's father's side, and on my own father's side, we are thoroughly Scandinavian. Swedish and Danish. My father longed all his life to go to Sweden and find his relatives there. He was born in the U. S. but he spoke a little Swedish, read it fluently, and wanted to see the graves, and meet the cousins and second cousins. He could never afford to go, but he, too, knew who he was, the son of Swedish immigrants, raised in a tightly knit Swedish community in Plainfield, N. J. Someone whose mother made the best Swedish meatballs in the world.

          But Philomena's son knew none of these things. He only knew he was adopted out of a nunnery in Ireland. He didn't know who his forebears were, his mother, his father, the circumstances of his birth, anything at all but the name of the nunnery. When he was dying of AIDS he went back to Ireland and the nuns lied to him, told him his mother had abandoned him, all the records had been destroyed in a fire (the nuns themselves set the fire), sorry. When he died his lover buried him at that nunnery, at his request, so that his mother might at least someday find his grave. She does. She had been searching all her life for him.

          This is a true story, in case you're wondering. And if you have a heart at all it will make you angry, not just because of the nuns and their incredible cruelty, but because this is the common experience of adopted people all over America, who in the vast majority of states are denied the knowledge of who they are, where they came from, the circumstances of their birth, the experience of their actual grandparents, all the stuff the rest of us take for granted as normal and natural, which we never think of as a right because it's just the way life works.

          Fighting this injustice has been, as most of my readers probably already know, Lorraine's life work, and I ought to be used to it by now. But I never can get used to it. I saw what giving up a baby--two, in fact--did to my cousin Joan's life, I know what my heritage, my ancestry, my blood relatives, mean to me, and it just drives me crazy that this natural right, this thing we all take for granted, should be denied to anyone. Or that a mother or father should be denied knowledge of what happened to their child, or children. Unfathomable. It is our very identities we're talking about, the most fundamental knowledge of all. Who we are. Where we came from. How we came by our traits, our predilections, our blond hair or deep-set eyes or body type. What could be more fundamental than knowing the family has a history of mental illness, or tends to die young of heart disease? And this is denied adoptees? Routinely. It is one of the great injustices of our time. The right to our identities takes precedence over all other considerations; it is that fundamental. It's in the blood.

          I won't get into the laws in the various states, or the history of why we have these laws. Lorraine does all that far better than I could. But I will urge you to see this movie. What happened in Ireland is all too similar to what happens here. A natural right--and all law is built upon natural rights--is routinely denied to adoptees in the United States, the only people this denial serves is adoptive parents, and it's totally unjust. And it makes me angry every time I think about it.