With the emptying of the house, my husband and I are also losing a family that became a stand-in for my own distant family, and for Tony's too. And the neighbor--the grande dame of her family--was my friend, but a friend who I discovered shortly before she died, was a mother like me. A mother who gave up a child.
I've written about Yvonne several times before, for we had legendary arguments about whether someone who is relinquished and adopted should find their biological family. We wrote
emails, then printed out letters that went back and forth between our houses, three doors apart, continuing to argue our points. She was relentless in her condemnation of what I stood for in my work and my life. One could ask, how could I be friends with someone like that?
My daughter Jane was married then, but somehow when she visited, she and Yvonne did not meet. On the other hand, granddaughter Britt was here for extended visits for several summers, and when my house was full of relatives, including my nieces who are Britt's age, they sometimes stayed together at Yvonne's house, three doors up the street. Tony and I got to know her children, and their children. We opened our home to them when her house was overflowing. Yvonne was my sounding board on many issues, and I hers. Her strong--livid--opposition to my finding Jane was not evident.
|Nasturtiums on Yvonne's back deck yesterday.|
If she'd had a secret child in France she had relinquished, then everything made sense--every argument, every passionate exchange, even the way she spoke of the man who was thought to be the father, her unshakable insistence on the rightness of sealed records. She was hiding the existence of her first child. She'd hid it for more than 60 years.
Her death was seemingly slow in coming. Pneumonia led to the hospital, led to a rehab center, led to another infection.... She was in her late 80s now, had been through pneumonia a couple of times, had fallen, could barely walk, and after several months of this, she wanted to come home to die, and that is what happened over the last four months of her life.
Close the end, she told her eldest child that he was "not her first." She said it more than once, and to others in the family. I was not there, and she never said it to me. When I saw her the last few times, she was really slipping away in a morphine haze, and I could not bring it up.
Yvonne died in December, and among her papers with the letters from her children, the children found a letter written familiarly but from someone they did not know. Was this the missing sibling? Or someone who knew where the child was, what his or her name was? No one knows.
It's August now, and I've had months to process this, but it's all going down with a rather bittersweet taste. I had once such great affection for her. Even when we had our two major blowups over this issue, each lasting several weeks, I missed her companionship.
But knowing that she carried on these epic battles while she presented herself to be not personally involved made me feel so different about her at the end. I was both sad and angry and also, feeling somewhat duped. She argued with me and lived a lie. She once pressed a pro-adoption book into my hands--written by the son of friends of hers--and said I needed to consider the other side. That ended up backfiring because when the writer said he and his wife went overseas to get children so his wife wouldn't have to save a seat at the dance recital for the birth mother, I steamed. And wrote about it here.
Now maybe I can understand how husbands and children who have never been told about the missing child in the family feel deceived when that child, now grown up, shows up. It's not anger over the existence of the child; it's the feeling of one's world view--as say, the eldest--shifts. Now one is not the first born, with all the status and responsibility that implies. One is just the next one, the second. Or maybe it is simply the lie by omission that is so infuriating and hurtful. You kept this from me; you are not who you present yourself to be. For me, now Yvonne's bitter intransigence on the issue of adoption caused a huge shift in how I felt about her dying. It was more "good riddance" than "good bye, I miss you."
I am sorry that she felt so shamed that she had to keep the child secret. Her relationships with her known five children were messy, a combination of love and anger suffused with detachment. At her funeral, nice words were said about her personality and grit, and there was a faint hint of their complicated relationships. The partner of one said that her secret child certainly affected the anger that she inflicted on them when they were growing up. Probably true.
Now her lovely house has been sold, the closing is in a few days. It was a house full of history, history that came with stuff: art, books, letters, old silver, childhood memorabilia, Ferragamo shoes and purses made for her mother in Paris, her name embroidered inside. Crumbling paperbacks stuck between first editions. Linens with hand embroidery, her mother's family symbol. More linens. A kitchen that a chef would enjoy. China up the wazoo. It's all been scattered in several directions. My memories of holidays spent with her family, of meals on her back deck, or at her long dining table, our take-out lunches on our laps while we caught up with Homeland are all intact and tied up in that house.
Last week with one of the children--he's 60--and his girl friend and partner, I helped pack up the books, and drove around with him getting rid of other stuff to thrift shops, the nearby animal-rescue kennel, books to the library for sale. It was a way of saying goodbye. When the beds went, they stayed with us. When I walked through the empty house, I burst into a few quick tears. Yes, I will miss her in my life, despite our huge disagreement. Tony and I will miss the whole family's frequent presence, as we ended up such good friends with some of them. Yvonne and I were close, but we could have been so much more to each other. She felt she had to hide her true self from her family, and even me, someone with whom she shared such an intense experience. If relinquishment and adoption were so damn wonderful, Yvonne wouldn't have had to hide her reality.--lorraine
Reproductive Agents!!! Not Mothers. Of any sort.
Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption
"Lorraine did a fantastic job of sharing her experience and will resonate with so many other natural moms that lost their baby to adoption. She was able to make you laugh, cry, reminisce of how it was back in the 60's and 70's. In particular how young moms were coerced into believing the propaganda that they were not good enough to raise their own child, or didn't make enough money, or wasn't married, etc. All part of the coercion game. Whatever made society think strangers would be better raising someone else kids than their real mother is flabbergasting. Thank you, Lorraine, for telling your story so eloquently and mirroring so many others that had to go through that trauma."--Kathleen Molter on Amazon