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 and perspectives.
A Tale of Two Families
By Kevin Nolan
Let’s talk about my adoptive parents first. They were amazing people. They adopted a total of six children, and after that, fostered quite a few as well, all infants, although we did keep one until he was almost four — we used to say that Catholic Charities forgot we had him.
Mom asked about adopting him, but was told she was past the age limit. Which in hindsight, was better for him because she died when he would have been about fifteen. He sent her a Mother’s Day card every year after he was adopted out, with a current picture of himself.
My adoptive parents were Mary and Thomas Nolan. They met at a USO function early in 1942, and it was love at first sight. He was soon sent overseas, first to North Africa, then Egypt, Sicily, Italy, back to England for D Day. total of 39 months overseas. She wrote him a letter every day, and until the day she died, she could still recite his service number and overseas address. She sent legendary cakes, pies, brownies and cookies which made him popular with his unit.
Mary was from Chicago, very devoted to her father, who owned a large sewer building company. From age fourteen, she ran the business side of things for him. She could type like a demon on an old 1918 Underwood Typewriter, with her eyes closed! Scared me as a child to watch her.
Thomas was from Detroit, where his father was an executive with Chrysler Parts Division, and was on the group who came up with the name MOPAR, Motors Parts, still in use today, eighty-three years later. He came home from the war in April 1945, and they announced their engagement in May of that year and were wed in August 1945.
His father wanted him to stay in Detroit and head up a new division within Chrysler Parts, using Army surplus Univac computers, which he had some experience with during his time in the service, but turned him down as Mary, very devoted to her father, wanted to stay in Chicago.
Good thing for us; otherwise, my siblings and I would not have been adopted by them.
We later — some years after her death — learned that she had five miscarriages in the first five years of their marriage. This led to the decision to adopt, which they first did in 1950, my oldest sister, then in 1952, another daughter.
Eager to adopt another child, they were told by Catholic Charities that two was the limit. Being turned down never stopped Mary. Shortly after that, she read an article in the Tribune that mentioned that Canadian-American adoptions had just been legalized.
She did her research, lots of letters written, and in the fall of 1954, they went to Quebec, Canada, and brought home a son, my older brother. HE had chicken pox, so to get him over the border, Mary covered up the spots with makeup. Like I said, nothing stopped her.
Not long after that, they went to annual Catholic Charities Christmas party, and presented their new son to the director, Sr Mary Alice, Daughters of Charity. All of a sudden, the limit was a thing of the past.
Summer of 1957, Mary wanted to add another child to the family. She went ” baby shopping” as she called it, and picked me out of the nursery as she said I clucked my tongue at her. She then went on to adopt two more daughters, one with a heart condition who wasn’t supposed to live until her first birthday, who will be sixty-two this month, and then finally in 1960, a preemie who lived in an incubator until she was four months old.
Sadly, Thomas died at age sixty, and Mary followed at sixty-five, three years later to the day. They were the most amazing people; we were always told we were chosen and special. We were loved.
Okay, now to the biological side and what we’ve learned. Both of my parents were from Ireland, mother from Portadown, County Armagh, near Belfast. My father was from Fintown, County Donegal, Republic of Ireland. Both my parents were Catholic.
That’s where it starts. In 1956, mother, Mary Theresa Haddock, known in America by the nickname Kelly, had finished schooling, and in those days, the segregation in Northern Ireland was so bad you could define a person’s religion by their address.
Denied a place at University and anything other than a menial dead-end job, she consulted her father. Her older sister had emigrated to America, to Chicago, married and started a family. Her father advised her to emigrate as well, so at nineteen, she emigrated along with her seventeen-year-old sister.
My mother and her younger sister went to Chicago and moved in with their older sister’s family. Shortly after arrival, my mother took the train and bus to downtown Chicago, where she applied for and gained a position with Marshall Fields department store in the accounting department.
She marveled over it to me almost sixty years later — that no one asked or cared if she was a Catholic. She loved America and became a citizen in 1964. Sometime during that first summer, she met a much older man, thirty-six years old, and they had a whirlwind romance. He taught her to drive his 1948 Ford, which is where I suspect I was conceived.
All the years later when I found her, all she could remember was his name. She claimed she couldn’t remember what he looked like. Shortly before I met her, I got a copy of a picture of him, and when I showed it to her, she said she remembered him.
She married the spring after I was born and had two sons. In total, she had three marriages, the last of which was her happiest, but he passed away from cancer. Her urn is buried next to him, which was what she wanted.
I traveled from Nashville to Boca Raton on October 13, 2013 for our first meeting. I got off the elevator, and she was standing maybe eighty feet away — my feet felt like lead boots as I walked towards her.
I finally got there and we hugged and I felt an amazing sense of love and closure coming from her. During our first phone call, she had said, you found me you found me I always knew you would find me!
We had nearly daily phone calls from then on and several visits. My 57th and 60th birthdays were celebrated with her, and we celebrated her 80th together in 2016. She was a character for sure. I saw a lot of myself in her; we shared a lot of traits, and I treasure the five years and five months we spent knowing each other.
Now, on to my father. One of the first questions I asked my mother in our first phone call was, who was my father? Having found her, after all those years of searching, I wanted to complete the puzzle.
She said his name was Cornelius McDevitt from Donegal, but she called him Con. This was a bit of obfuscation, I believe, meant to lead me in the wrong direction, as she immediately said, he’s dead. I said how do you know, she said he’d have to be, he’d be too old now.
So I turned my wife, a brilliant researcher and genealogist, to the task. She spent countless hours researching, but without a name of a town or village, it looked bleak.
But due to the fact that I’m a neat freak, one town in Donegal caught her attention, Fintown, which had won the “Tidy Town ” award several times, and the pictures she found online proved it, as all the cars were lined up perfectly and everything was neat.
Early in 2016, she found a person online in Ireland who got us a copy of his birth certificate. He was born in May 1920, in the midst of the Irish Civil War. He was the first in his family in 800 years not to be born under the British boot on their neck.
Shortly after, my wife found he had died in February of 1987, at age 66. That was a baam moment, to know the search for him would not end up in meeting him. A few days later, my wife made contact with a first cousin, and the floodgate of information opened.
Pictures, stories, and a ton of new cousins on Facebook embracing me as only the Irish can, no one judging the circumstances of my birth. They said he was a wanderer, a girl in every port, traveled to Canada to see a sister, Pennsylvania to see a brother, California just because.
In every picture they sent, he was sharply dressed and had a nice car. He never married, never put down roots, but he was fiercely loyal to family. He retired back to the family farm, to the cottage he was born in. Shortly after retiring, he died one morning of a massive heart attack. His brother was there, but did not know how to drive, and he had to walk three miles to the nearest phone. It was too late by the time help arrived.
So what I’ve learned from all of this is that I am a unique combination of nature vs nurture, and I carry traits and habits passed down from all four parents I was so lucky to be blessed with.
Kevin Nolan was born in Chicago in and adopted at 5 months. He is a lifelong hockey fan, played minor league hockey, coached and refereed ages pee wee to adult. He started a career in the auto service business in 1973 and is still at it all these years later. He loves mentoring the younger generation. He is a proud father of three children, all adults now, and two grandchildren. His previous piece for Portrait of an Adoption was in the 2016 series.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter
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