© 2016 Rudy Owens. All rights reserved.
In her 1968 book on the adoption experience, adoptee rights pioneer Jean Paton provided one of the best descriptions that adult adoptees confront once they have completed their search. They are transformed, in ways that others are not. “The Reunion of adopted people with their kindred is not equivalent to other human reunions because of the experience within it, the loss of [s]tigma, which other reunions do not include,” she wrote. “Other actual reunions are not linked to concepts of personal change and personal reformation, except for reunion with God when that is experienced or believed possible. Therefore the special curative element in the adoption [r]eunion seems to most people to be an unlikely thing. Examples are, of course, known to many privately, whether or not the full potentials of the situations have been achieved.”
Once an adoptee finds they have a whole new family, it takes time to sort out the patterns of family events, holiday rituals, and vacations. Did I send birthday cards? Yes, to my birth mother and birth grandparents, while they were still alive. How about Mother’s Day cards? Yes, both mothers each got one, every year. Where did I go for holidays? In my case, I always spent time, when I could afford to travel from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, to the St. Louis area. That is where my adoptive family called home. My adoptive mother was still mom. My adoptive sister was still my sister. My step-dad was still only my step-dad, and never anything more.
Between 1989 and 2015, I visited Michigan 10 times. On most of those occasions I visited my birth mother and saw my younger cousin, who I first met in 1989 in Ann Arbor. I travelled there in 1992, 1997, 1998, twice in 2002, 2003, 2009, and twice in 2015. The last time I saw my birth grandmother was in 1992. At that time, I was finishing my first year of graduate school in North Carolina, and flew to Ann Arbor for a weekend visit when the spring semester ended. My birth grandmother’s overall health and mental health had taken a slide since I last had seen her in Seattle in 1989. Her hearing failing, my grandfather was abusive to her, yelling when she could not understand anyone. Nothing felt easy. The trip was stressful. I wondered to myself, this is my birth family, do I want to keep in contact with them?
I met with my birth uncle and his wife, who would soon pass away. My birth cousin was still in the area. We had meals and mostly sat around. It still felt strange to be around each other. By now, three years had passed, but we all acted awkwardly. We had no history to build upon. I had stayed in touch on a semi-regular basis with my birth grandfather and my birth mother by phone. The calls were always short. My birth grandfather always spoke warmly to me, despite his gruff, Depression-era cranky exterior. On many of those calls, he repeatedly let me know, you are my grandson.
Read More: Chapter 13: Battling Michigan for Records
Editor’s note: Citations are listed in the original chapters but omitted in this chapter excerpt.