Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences.
By Denise Emanuel Clemen
My mother died in March at the age of ninety-one. I wrote her obituary, totaling up the siblings, parents, and others who preceded her in death. I also counted those of us who survive her: children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren—including my son who was surrendered for adoption as an infant.
When I decided to search for my son the year that he turned twenty-one, I called my mother to tell her. After two decades of silence on the subject of the baby I’d given away, the announcement of my search yielded more silence.
“Are you still there?” I asked.
“You’re going to get hurt,” she said.
“I’m hurt now,” I told her. I was the mother of two young daughters, and it was clear that the joy I felt at having them in my life could not overshadow my grief at the loss of my son. My mother and I talked a little longer. She might have said something about letting sleeping dogs lie. “Well, if I find him, do you want to meet him, or not?” I asked.
“Of course I do,” she said.
Despite the fact that my son was born and relinquished in Iowa, a closed records state with a seemingly insurmountable bureaucracy, I found him just a few months after launching the search. We arranged to meet in the lobby of a Los Angeles hotel in 1991 a week before his 21st birthday. A few months later he and my mother met for the first time on a family vacation in the lobby of a New York hotel.
When my mother greeted my son for the first time, she displayed no misgivings. My son Cory had already been part of my life and the lives of my husband and daughters for the previous nine months. I shared with her what I’d learned of the first two decades of his life and sent pictures of his visits to my house in Los Angeles. There he was—the long lost big brother, sitting next to two little girls who beamed smiles so wide it looked as if they’d been given a pony.
Each picture she saw of Cory spurred her to recount the day we’d said good-bye to him. We meant to preserve that one and only encounter with a photograph, but she forgot her camera. As a nervous and shamed seventeen-year-old, I both longed for and abhorred the idea of this picture. My mother and I had kept my secret. It seemed wise that there was no evidence. As the years went by, I would have given anything for that picture.
My mother and my son spent more time together after that family vacation to New York. We took other trips to New York, and their visits to my house in Los Angeles sometimes overlapped. But geography began to work against us as my mother and her sister aged. With them on the east coast, and my son in Arizona, it was harder to get together. They continued to inquire after one another, and I supplied pictures and updates.
* * * *
In 2008, I planned a trip back to Iowa. By then my son was married with three children. It had been 38 years since the sweltering July day I’d handed him over to an adoption agency social worker. It was a trip that was long overdue. I’d returned to my hometown once a year or so since I’d escaped carrying my secret in 1970, but I’d never gone back with my son.
I knew, by then, that the loss of a child to adoption is not a stone dropped to the bottom of a well; it’s a stone dropped into an immense lake, radiating outward from shore to shore. My mother and I were not the only ones who had lost Cory. My brothers and sister had lost a nephew; their children had lost a cousin.
There were great-aunts and uncles, friends, family history, and the black Iowa dirt where generations had put down roots. Now those losses were rippling into the next generation. My grandchildren and my great-nieces and great-nephews were strangers to one another.
My father and my grandparents were long dead by the time I took my son back to Iowa and my mother was caring for her sister who was too frail to travel. But my son and his family met my sister and my brothers and their families. He met the cousins he might have grown up with and gone to school with, and his children met their children.
We went through buffet lines together, devoured fat slices of pie, sipped sodas and drank beer at backyard get-togethers. All these things would have happened hundreds of times if I’d kept my son, but now they were happening for the first time.
* * * *
In August of 2012, I moved my mother from the east coast to my house in California. Her twin was in a nursing home by then, and my mom was too frail to live on her own. The summer of 2012 held another milestone. It marked the year that the time I’d been reunited with my son equaled the time we’d been apart— twenty-one years.
As the days, weeks, and months tipped toward togetherness, the new geography gave my mother and her great-grandchildren a chance to spend time together. There was a holiday trip to Arizona, and my son and his family made many trips to California. There were summers when the grandchildren stayed for a week, separately or together, and my mother’s identity as Great-Grandma Ethel grew stronger, anchoring her to a present that occasional drifted away.
My son and his family drove to California for my mom’s birthday party in September of 2015. The evening was balmy and the guests flowed in and out from patio to dining room where my mom held court from her wheelchair at the dining room table. We all knew that in a couple of weeks my mom would be leaving California for a nursing home in Iowa, but for that moment, four generations sang in the candlelight, anticipating the sweet taste of birthday cake.
My mother donated her body to University of Iowa Medical School. Her remains have yet to be returned to us, but a headstone awaits in the church cemetery of my Iowa hometown. Her ashes will be interred next to my father. Sometime in the coming months, there will be a graveside ceremony and I expect that my son and his family will be there.
Our reunion has not been just a snapshot of a moment to replace an unrecorded parting at an adoption agency in Iowa long ago. Our reunion is not a photo album of two lives brought back together after twenty-one years apart. Our reunion is four generations reassembled, and there are pictures of us in a dozen photo albums, spread from coast to coast.
Denise Emanuel Clemen is the author of Birth Mother, a memoir published by SheBooks. Her essays and short stories have been published in many literary magazines. She wrote a piece for the Portrait of an Adoption 2014 series called Lies Prepare You For Nothing. A Birthmother Learns A Painful Truth. She blogs at http://deniseemanuelclemen.com.
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