“How did you hear about the ‘American Girl’ show” the grandmotherly voice on the phone asked me? I looked around, and seeing the room was empty, whispered “from my granddaughter.”
I didn’t want Rebecca, my surrendered daughter, to hear me refer to myself as her daughter Rachael’s grandmother. Rebecca made clear when she first contacted me three years earlier that her adoptive mother and her mother-in-law were her children’s only grandmothers. At the same time, she never tried to hide who I was from her four children. I spent time with them when I visited Rebecca at her home near Chicago and later at her home near Bloomington Illinois; they visited me at my home in Oregon. I took Rachael and her sister, Chelsea, on a tour of colleges in Oregon and Chicago. Rebecca, her husband, and children came to our family reunion. Rachael and Chelsea email me occasionally and Rachael sent me the link to her blog.
It was Rachael’s twelfth birthday. I was purchasing tickets to take Rachael and Rebecca to the American Girl show in Chicago when the seller asked me the apparently simple question. But nothing is simple in the world of adoption. I did not want Rebecca to think I was assuming a forbidden role, thus I whispered. Rebecca's adoptive mother sent Rachael an American Girl doll for her birthday so our gifts complimented each other.
Last summer Rebecca and her youngest child Aaron, then eight, came to visit. I took Aaron to a local theme park with a friend and her grandson. My friend asked Aaron if I was his grandmother. He said “Well, she is my grandmother in that she is my mother’s biological mother but….” He stopped there, unsure of what I was.
This August just before Aaron’s birthday Rebecca asked me to stop sending her children birthday presents which I had been sending for a decade. I don’t know the reason for her request but I think it may be related to the Mormon definition of family which is not wide enough to include natural relatives. (See “An Inconvenient Appendage.”)
Rachael is now a sophomore at Brigham Young University in Utah. Recently, she attempted to answer the question “who am I” on her blog as part of a school assignment:
“I am a college student, I work a college job, I love life! I love my family, I love Chicago. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and believe in the truth of the gospel that is taught in this religion….
I am the oldest of four …and have mom, dad, two cats, dog, and rabbit (actually it's my sister's). Here's a little about where we come from. I don't mean Illinois, that shapes me too, but where we really come from. Our origins.
[Her mother’s adoptive father’s]… family has been in the US for many, many generations. Perhaps even back to the origins of this country itself. It's funny that these ancestors ended up in Illinois too, by the Mississippi, when they were taught about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They moved down river to join other latter-day-saint members in Nauvoo and then ended up making the trek West to Salt Lake City with some of the first Mormon pioneers in their escape of persecution. Now I'm back in Illinois.
[Her mother’s adoptive mother]: These ancestors were converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints while in Denmark. They … took a boat all the way to America where they met the Saints out West….
. …I think that by learning about where I came from helps me realize the special worth I have on this earth. God made me for a reason!”
Rachael’s omission of her mother’s actual, biological, natural family may have been because this second second family didn't fit into the context of the assignment. No matter why she did it, attributing her origins to people who have no biological connection with her ignores an important part of her. She is her mother’s daughter, yes, but only through adoption is she connected in any way to the ancestors she writes about. Since adoptees that search talk about feeling unconnected to their adoptive families, I wonder if some might explain how they feel about their adoptive ancestors.
Rebecca’s adoptive parents imparted their faith in the LDS Church to Rebecca who in turn imparted it to Rachael. Her mother's adoptive parents, however, did not give her the interest and talent in writing, the difficulty in spelling, or her blue eyes. Rebecca and her family moved to Chicago when Rachael was seven and to the Bloomington area when she was 13. Her love of Chicago with her sense of connection to Illinois is one of those synchronistic things that occur in families separated by adoption. I grew up in Chicago and Rebecca’s biological father’s family was from Bloomington.
I am sad about being left off Rachael’s blog. I’d like to think that knowing me has had some value for her.