Pictures of My Mother

Everything I knew about my birth mother’s life was based on what I had learned in a two-week whirlwind of document discoveries and long distance conversations with newly found relatives.

I was hungry to know what the woman, who died 30 years ago this month, looked like. For days I waited anxiously for the mail carrier to show up with a packet of vintage photographs.

“Your mother’s pictures are here,” my husband, Tom, announced after picking up the mail one day last week. I ran upstairs from my basement office.

Tom handed me a thick envelope. I started to cry.

Nobody’s life story is complete without photos. Inside the envelope, the faded pictures, dating back to the 1970s, show a woman with black hair and dark eyes. She’s rather slender for someone who had given birth to five children. Lillian alternately looks happy, haggard, tired and bored in photos showing her with her husband, surrounded by his family, with her sons and daughter.

The nicest photo, probably taken by a professional photographer, shows my mother looking attractive and chic in a sleeveless black and white dress, a curl of black hair on her pale forehead, standing near her husband who’s wearing a suit jacket and tie. Looks like they were at a party. Maybe their wedding day?

My mother, Lillian, with husband, Howard

Another one of my favorites shows my mother standing alone in front of a lake, holding three large fish in both hands. She looks happy.

Lil Fishin' cropped

Back of Lil Fishing

Lillian did a lot of living in her 48 years. She even became a grandmother, which is mind-boggling to me. Her granddaughter told me about the happy times she had with my mother, who took her fishing. Lillian skinned and filleted their catch of the day.

The photos flesh out Lillian’s story for me. It wasn’t all tragic, which is the impression I came away with from early conversations with her family members. Looking at the photos, I can see she had some ordinary, even fun moments. I am relieved.

Wife, mother, awesome cook. Hard-working waitress, drinker, angler.  My mother wore a lot of hats. I will always treasure the photos that bring her to life in my imagination.

Soup’s On!

I got tired of looking at Mr. Butternut. Like a house guest who had outstayed his welcome, the homely squash, purchased more than a week ago, no longer felt welcome in my kitchen.

It’s time for this vegetable to go bye-bye, I thought. So I turned the squash into soup.

I love soup for many reasons. On a cool September day, it’s the perfect thing to make for a side dish with dinner. For some reason, kids who push vegetables around on their plates feel differently about veggies when they are pureed and served in a bowl. My son, Jake, who’s 13, adores soup. I make it so he can get his vegetables and I can feel like a good mother.

I adapted the following recipe from the 2009 Thanksgiving issue of Good Housekeeping. I cut the recipe in half, substituted celery salt for celery and skipped the whole sage leaves which were used as garnishes. Really, who needs garnishes on Tuesday night? I also left out the croutons.

My immersion blender works like a charm when it comes to making soup. Give it a whirl if you happen to own one.

big pic of butternut squash
Immersion blender cuts down on clean up

Butternut Squash Soup with Sage

Makes 6 servings

1 medium butternut squash, cut lengthwise in half, seeds removed

2 tbsp olive oil

Celery salt

1 small to medium sized yellow onion, thinly sliced

½ medium carrot, chopped

Dried thyme

1 bay leaf

Dried sage

3 cups of chicken broth (I used three-quarters of a 32-ounce carton of broth)

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a glass baking pan with foil. Place squash halves, cut sides down, in the pan and roast 45 minutes or until tender when pierced with a knife. Let the squash halves cool off so they’re easy to handle. Scoop the squash from the shells and place in a large bowl. Dump the shells.
  2. Meanwhile, in a 5- to 6-quart saucepot, heat a tablespoon of oil on medium until hot. Add celery salt, onions and carrot. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in thyme, bay leaf, sage, salt and pepper to taste. Cook the mixture for two more minutes.
  3. Add broth and squash to the pot. Cover and heat to boiling on high. Reduce heat to low. Simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Discard the bay leaf. Whip out your immersion blender and blend the mixture until pureed. Or if using a standard blender, blend the mixture in batches. Serve hot and enjoy.

    soup in bowl
    Jake enjoyed a bowl

The Decline of Foreign Adoptions

The tide is turning against international adoptions. In South Korea, activists are trying to end or at least cut down on adoptions by foreigners. Up until recently, South Korea was one of the leading providers of children for American families, according to CNN, which is running a series on international adoption.

Courtesy of Flickr/t3mplar

Under a new law, birth mothers in South Korea have more time after giving birth to make a final decision whether or not to give up their baby. Mothers also can choose to revoke the adoption up to six months after filling out an application.

Not all Korean adoptees approve of the changes. Steve Choi Morrison, who was adopted by an American family at the age of 14, supports intercountry adoption. He is the founder of the Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea (MPAK).

Since 2004, the number of children adopted from South Korea and other foreign countries has been on the decline, according to CNN.

I’ve heard horror stories about foreign adoptions. I also know of children adopted from abroad who have thrived in their American homes. Like most things, international adoption is not a black-and-white issue.

I am glad South Korea is showing birth mothers greater respect. The decision to surrender a biological child should never be made in haste or under pressure. In another encouraging sign, South Korean activists are working to improve government support for single mothers.

Hitting a Dead End

I hit a dead end in my search for bio dad. Ok, that’s a stretch. Finding my biological father seems next to impossible so I’ll be happy to get a few nuggets of information about the man, who’s a stranger to me.

Last week, I tried to reach a distant cousin. As an adult, she lived with her mother for a while and her mother was very close to my adoptive mom.  I have a hunch there could be a family tie linking my birth parents to my adoptive parents. My cousin might know something, I thought.

I left a couple of messages for people with my cousin’s last name in Green Bay, Wisconsin, her last known place of residence. The phone rang at 11:30 one night. I was in bed. My cousin’s son was on the phone. A little groggy, I explained what I was looking for. Sorry, he said, but my mother passed away a little over a year ago. She was about 65.

Damn! Why didn’t I reach out to my cousin sooner? I should have started this mission a long time ago.

Courtesy of Flickr/Al-HikesAZ

It would be nice to know my father’s name, occupation, ethnic background and medical history. Of  course, that’s not all I want to know.  I would love to find out how he met my mother and what kind of guy he is. Are we alike in any way?  Do we look like we could be father and daughter? Did my father have other children?

I assume my father would have to be at least in his 70s and possibly older. It is quite possible my dad, like my birth mother, is deceased.

Finding out you’re adopted is not the kind of news you want to hear as an adult. I found out in September 2002. To say it’s unsettling is an understatement. I turned the information around in my head several times but that’s as far as it went. I had no burning desire to find my birth parents. That would have meant unraveling my life story to an extent and exposing myself to something that could be ugly. I wasn’t ready to go there.

Years passed. I got used to the idea of being adopted and started to ask questions and poke around into the past. Of course, by waiting so long, I lost opportunities to talk to older relatives who probably knew a great deal about the adoption. My godparents are gone. They were very tight with my adoptive parents, who are also deceased.

I am kicking myself for not starting this search sooner. Do any of you also regret not having looked for biological family earlier? Tell me I’m not alone!

When Adoptions Fail

I read a shocking report by Reuters about  adoptive parents who use the Internet to find new homes for children they no longer want.

The article is the first in a five-part series by Reuters that examines America’s underground market for adopted children. According to the report, parents are so eager to unload their kids that they hand them off to people they barely know. No screenings required. How horrible and dangerous for the children.

Courtesy of Flickr/Colorfulexpressions

Children adopted from overseas are especially vulnerable to these unauthorized exchanges. As the article points out, Americans often don’t know what they’re getting into when they adopt children from other countries. They don’t know the child’s complete history. When problems arise at home, parents don’t have a support system in place. Bailing out seems like the best option for some desperate parents.

Adopting a child is not like purchasing a big-screen TV. You can’t take your baby back to the store if you’re unhappy. Once you adopt a child, you make it work no matter how difficult things get.

Clearly we need to do more in this country to support adoptive families and make it hard for parents to abandon their kids like unwanted possessions.

Questions for My Father

Now that I know something about my birth mother, I am eager to find out about my biological father.

I grew up thinking I was German on my adoptive father’s side and Polish on my mother’s side. Cousins tell me I definitely look like I could be a biological relative.

My mother had dark eyes and black hair and may have been part Native American. I have blue eyes, naturally dark brown hair and fair skin. Maybe I look more like my father than my mother.

I am curious about the man who gave me my DNA. Is he still alive? What did he do for a living? What kind of man is he? How did he and my mother meet? Did he know my mother was pregnant with me? Was he aware of the adoption? Did he have other children? If so, that means I have siblings.

Courtesy of Flickr/Enigma Photos

Tracking down bio dad could be like searching for a needle in a haystack. I’m not sure how to look for this guy. My mother is deceased so I can’t ask her. The people I’ve talked to about my mother don’t have any good leads on who my father could be.

While I’m filled with questions for this man, I am also a bit wary about finding him, assuming he’s still alive.  I did a Google search on “how to track down your biological father.” High up in the search results was a New York Times  article about a writer who found her birth parents. The headline – “I Found My Biological Parents, And Wish I Hadn’t” – reminds me of the risk involved in this kind of pursuit. In the article, the writer discusses the very strange first meeting she had with her dad.  When they said good-bye, he asked his 37-year-old daughter if she wanted him to take her to Disneyland. That was the last time the writer saw her father.

That article reminded me of “Flirting With Disaster,” the 1996 comedy starring Ben Stiller as a man on a mission to find his birth parents. He finds them and the results are hilarious.

For me, nothing could be more serious than searching for birth parents. Only Hollywood could make a funny story out of it. (By the way, I recommend “Flirting With Disaster,” if you haven’t seen it already.)

Have any of you found your birth fathers? How did you find them and what was the reunion like?

Questions for My Mother

The story of my mother’s life is the saddest story I’ve ever heard.

I have pieced together a rough draft of her life, based on documents and interviews with family members and a close friend. I only have bits and pieces, not the whole story. What I’ve woven together is far from complete but the more I learn about my mother, the more I want to know.

Born around 1934 in rural Indiana, my mother had enough brothers and sisters to fill a classroom. She was one of about 14 or 15 children. Feeding and sheltering that many kids proved impossible for her parents who struggled through the Depression. My mother and her siblings were separated, sent to live as foster children in the homes of strangers.  One of my mother’s foster moms was a woman with a “wicked tongue,” according to her daughter. My mother cleaned the family’s house and did other chores. She liked to draw and read fiction. She also looked after her foster mother’s children and grew especially close to one of her foster sisters, who looked up to her. The girl wept when my mother left for Indiana University.

She never earned a degree. My mother married young and had several children. They all lived in a simple bungalow in a suburb north of Chicago. My mother was known for her great cooking and lively personality. People I talked to recalled how nice and sweet she was sober. After a few drinks, the sweet attractive woman morphed into someone who could be belligerent and aggressive, a woman who talked a lot and would not let go of a grievance.

Courtesy of Flickr/Carrie Ann Images

My mother already had four children when I came along. Her husband had every reason to believe I was another man’s child so after I was born, my mother gave me up to a couple in their 50s. They adopted me and never told me I was adopted.  My mother and her husband eventually divorced and she raised her four kids on her own for a while. She worked as a waitress.

She married again and her second husband was said to be good to his stepchildren. My mother’s oldest, a boy, was born with developmental delays. Her second child was a girl. Her third child, a boy who did very well in school, helped keep the family together. Tragically, as a teenager, he took his own life after breaking up with a girl. The death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare and suicide adds another layer of pain. My mother was never the same after that.

She was coping with breast cancer when her third son, a troubled young man, was seriously hurt in a motor vehicle accident. Divorced again, my mother took care of her injured son and herself at home.  I was told near the end of her life, she and her son lived in a rented cottage on a lake in northern Illinois, a place where my mother felt at peace. She was about 48 when she died. Left behind was her son, who eventually died from complications related to the accident.

My mother was gone before I even knew she had existed.  If I could talk to her, I would ask a lot of questions.

Courtesy of Flickr/Mikecogh

What would you do differently if you could re-live your life? How did you and my father meet? What did you see in him? What’s his name and what is he like? How did you feel about giving me up for adoption? Did you meet my adoptive parents?

I don’t resent her at all for giving me up. She did what she had to do and I’m sure it made perfect sense at the time. It makes perfect sense to me now.  In that situation, I probably would have done the same thing.

My one regret is never having had a chance to look into my mother’s dark eyes and talk to her.

A Life Cut Short

Adopting little ones from foreign countries can be risky. Consider the story of Max, a troubled Russian boy who died while in the care of his adoptive mother in Texas.  Even parents with the best intentions probably don’t know what they’re getting into when they adopt these kids.

Reported in the New York Times, the story discusses the international outrage triggered by the case. It includes interviews with Max’s mother, Laura Shatto, who is struggling with heartache and guilt, and his birth mom, Yulia V. Kuzmina, a young Russian woman.

“I wanted to kill them,” Kuzmina was quoted as saying about Shatto and her husband, Alan.

swing set
Courtesy of Flickr/Bekah Leigh

According to the article, Shatto left Max and his brother, Kris, playing alone on the backyard swing set so she could go to the bathroom. When she returned, she found Max on the ground unconscious. Max’s death was ruled accidental by police, prosecutors and medical examiners in Texas. They determined his bruises were self-inflicted by a boy who was known to claw at his skin, throw his body to the ground and bang his head against the walls. But child welfare officials in Texas said they could not determine who caused the bruises on his body, leaving the Shattos under a cloud of suspicion.

The tragedy has ruined Shatto, a teacher. She wonders how she will explain Max’s death to his brother, Kris, who was also adopted from Russia.

Just tell Kris the truth, I thought. The article paints Shatto in a sympathetic light so I will assume Max was not abused at home. The best thing for Shatto to do is tell Kris what really happened to Max. Leaving two little boys alone in a fenced-in backyard for a few minutes is not a crime. Many parents have done it or something similar without tragic consequences.

Kris should be able to handle the truth, assuming he and his mother have a strong, loving relationship. That’s what Shatto should focus on. She cannot bring Max back to life but she can do what’s best for Kris. She has to move forward.

It’s always better for parents to be honest with their children even when the truth hurts or makes them look bad. Lies create more problems, especially when people uncover the truth, which is bound to happen. Just ask any adult who found out late in life about her adoption.

What do you think?

Touched By An Angel

Remember I told you about my search for biological family on Facebook? Well, it fizzled.  But I have good news. Working with an excellent search angel, who found me here, I have connected with five family members on my mother’s side.

Talking to these people over the phone, I’ve learned quite a bit about my late mother’s life. (I will tell you more about it later.  It made me cry.)  My family members promised to send photos of my mother. I can’t wait to see them.

Thank you, Marilyn Waugh, for digging up the official records for me.  Waugh, past president of the American Adoption Congress, conducts adoption searches for the Kansas state government. She also directs Adoption Concerns Triangle of Topeka, a search and support group.

bigger photo of marilyn waugh
Search angel Marilyn Waugh

“I became a search angel after searching and connecting with my birth son, Michael,  24 years ago,” Marilyn says. “People helped me on my journey and, as a ‘thank you,’ I help others.”

(You can reach Marilyn Waugh at her website.)

I never would have been able to find the records without Marilyn. Believe me I tried. I got lost in the weeds trying to navigate the online directories. For amateur searchers like me, piecing together family history gets tricky when you’re trying to track down your mother. My mother was married twice so she had three names during her life.

Marilyn uncovered a census record from 1940 and that pushed our search in the right direction.  I wanted to make sure the woman we found on public records was my birth mother. Marilyn dug up an address for her on and it matched her address as it appears on my birth certificate. That plus the conversations with relatives connected the dots for me.

I don’t have all the answers to my questions. I would like to find out who my father was and would love more details about my mother’s life. My ethnic background is still unclear. I also want to know how my adoptive parents got connected with my birth mother in the 1960s.

If you want to track down your family, find a search angel. These search experts do not charge for their services or, if there is a small fee, it covers the cost of database access. You can find a search angel by visiting G’s Adoption Registry or by contacting a representative from your state at the American Adoption Congress. Word-of-mouth recommendations are another good source.

I would love to hear about your search for family. What was it like?

The Search for Family

I started my search for biological relatives. I sent 25 messages to strangers on Facebook who share my birth mother’s maiden name – Arvin.

I am hoping one of these strangers will offer clues about my birth mother, a woman I’ve never met. I wrote a nice, polite letter of introduction with the few facts I have about this woman – her name, place of birth, age when she had me.  So far, I’ve only heard back from one Arvin. She said birth mom is not related to anyone in her family and hinted at a possible family tie in Kentucky.  I am pursuing people in that state along with Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

Courtesy of Flickr/psycho_pixie
(Probably) not my family members

So this is how searches go. You wait and wonder who will respond to your message. You check email and Facebook frequently. You try not to think about it too much.

Some adoptees post their photos with a “help-me-find-my-family” message on Facebook and other social media sites. That could be a quicker way to get results, especially when the photos go viral, but I’m not ready to put myself out there just yet.

I’m sure there are more efficient ways to track down biological relatives but I chose Facebook because it’s free and relatively painless. I may spend money on DNA tests or travel to the Midwest to continue the hunt but for now I’ll stick with social media. What strategies have you used to find blood relatives?