This is the sixth post of "30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days," a series designed to give a voice to people with widely varying experiences, including birthparents, adoptees, adoptive parents, foster parents, waiting adoptive parents and others touched by adoption.
I Am That Baby
Written by Tab Curtis for Portrait of an Adoption
I credit Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine for my adoption story. My grandmother was a teetotaler all her life until, at the age of 80, she decided to start drinking wine. This is the woman who named her cats Reese, Sugar, and Butter. Not surprisingly she chose the cloying wine of my youth -- Strawberry Hill. Having consumed a full bottle the night of our Christmas party, she was looking through some old family photos with a friend of mine when my friend remarked that I bore little resemblance to my mother.
“Well, that’s ‘cause Tabby’s adopted but she don’t know it.” Granny glared at my friend. “And don’t tell her, neither!”
My friend, of course, told me soon after Granny had returned to her home in northern Kentucky. I immediately called several relatives and was met with the same response each time:
“Your Mama told us she told you and you was real upset about it, so never bring it up around you.”
The Christmas that my grandmother let the proverbial cat out of the bag, I was 42 years old. My adoptive father died when I was 15 and my adoptive mother died when I was 27. My grandmother had kept this secret from me of her own accord for 15 years. I wasn’t sure I could forgive her if my birth parents were dead, too.
My girlfriend Keri and I drove to Kentucky to conduct a little fact-finding mission with my grandmother. We came up with a checklist of items we felt she may have information about:
- My birth name
- My birth parents’ names
- Whether my adoption caused the rift between my adoptive father and his mother -- this happened at roughly the same time as my birth.
- Why it was such a gigantic secret -- several members of my family, including my first cousin and my uncle (Granny’s son), were openly adopted a few years prior to my adoption
When we pulled into Granny’s driveway, she was sweeping her porch. She looked up, surprised to see our car. “What you two doing here?”
For the first time in my life, it was hard for me to look at her. I felt deeply betrayed that not only had she failed to tell me something I had every right to know, but then she had revealed this intimate secret about me to someone she barely knew.
We all sat down at the kitchen table. I turned to Granny and put my hand over hers. “You’re my Granny. You’ve always been my Granny and you always will be. And I need you to tell me the truth now.” I took a steadying breath. “You told one of my friends that I’m adopted -- is that true?”
“Who told you?”
“That doesn’t matter. I need to know if it’s true.”
“Yeah, it’s true.” Some friends have suggested in the intervening months that Granny’s slip was a kindness -- her way of telling me through my friend. The look on her face, though, told a different story. She looked like a spiteful little girl with a juicy secret. “And your mother didn’t want nothin’ to do with you.”
I had prepared myself for her to be hostile, but that really stung. Keri squeezed my thigh. “Okay,” I said, trying not to cry, “Do you remember her name?” Granny shook her head. “Do you remember my name?” She frowned at me. “The name I was born with?”
“Laura somethin’.” She paused. “Johnson?”
Well, at least the drive wasn’t a total loss. Time for the next item on the checklist. “Why didn’t anyone tell me? I mean, I’ve talked to 15 people in the past two days and every single one of them knew I was adopted.”
“That was your granddaddy and your daddy. That first day we got you, your granddaddy said wasn’t nobody ever gonna say you wasn’t his. Him and your daddy told everybody we knew if you found out you was adopted, they’d kill whoever told it. Meant it, too.”
“Okay, I understand that’s what happened during my childhood, but both of them were dead by the time I graduated high school. Why didn’t anyone tell me after they died?”
“Your uncle tried to the night you graduated high school.” She meant my uncle who was also adopted. “Your mother told him she’d shoot him.” My uncle did have a strange conversation with me the night of my graduation, but he did not mention adoption.
“Why didn’t she tell me when she was sick?” My mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March of 1995 and was dead by that September. I came home every weekend to help care for her during those months -- we spent hours together watching TV and talking.
“Thought she did. Then you said somethin’ one time and I figured she didn’t.”
“Why didn’t you tell me then?”
“Everybody told me not to!”
She slapped her hand on the table. “Your daddy and your granddaddy.”
“But they’ve been dead for years.” And then it hit me -- she was the one who had made the decision every single day not to tell me. Even when I told her I was worried about dying young like my parents, she held her silence. This secret had taken on a horrible life of its own. I could tell by the set of her jaw that this line of questioning would yield no more answers. “Did Grandma Frances have a problem with me being adopted?”
“I know that she and Dad stopped talking for about three years around the time I was born. Was it because she had an issue with me being adopted?”
“Well, no!” Granny looked at me as if I had sprouted a second head. “She wrote the check for you!”
“Yeah, that old hellion that had you wanted more money for you than your daddy made in a month.”
I turned to Keri. “Black market baby -- didn’t see that coming.”
Next: Finding the "hellion"
The only other knowledge I gleaned from my grandmother that day was the name of the “hellion” -- Janie Smith.* I used that name to track down her granddaughter. The wonderful people at the Adoption Angels Yahoo group used my birth name to pull the “black book” entries for that date/time/location and came up with three names, one of which was Laura Johnson.
It took me a few weeks to gather the courage to call Janie Smith’s granddaughter.
“Hello?” She didn’t sound deranged.
“I apologize in advance because this is going to be a very strange conversation,” I said.
“O-kay,” she laughed nervously.
“My name is Tab Curtis and I was born in April of 1968.”
“You don’t need to say anything more.” She paused. “I know exactly who you are. You came to live with us when you were just a few days old. I called you my angel baby.” She went on to tell me that her grandmother worked in a tenuous capacity for the state and that my birth mother and birth grandmother brought me to her grandmother’s house one afternoon. My mother struggled to hold on to me, but my grandmother overpowered her and passed me to Janie with an exhortation to “get rid of this.”
The only people who could have reconciled the differences between my two origin stories were my adoptive parents and they were both long dead. Immediately after finding out I was adopted, I did some quick research on the Internet and consequently filed for my adoption papers to be released by the state of Kentucky. This is a maddeningly long process -- the motion to open the files must first be filed in the county of adoption. If the judge approves the request, the state then attempts to locate the birth parents. If they locate the birth parents, it is up to the birth parents whether or not they wish to have contact with the adoptee. If the state cannot locate the birth parents within six months of opening the case, the motion returns to the county judge to decide whether to open the files.
Every day as I waited for the state to complete the search, I thought about how all of this could have been prevented if my parents had told me the truth. I talked to dozens of relatives trying to determine why they held onto the secret so tightly. The most likely reason I can find is that they were afraid that if I found my birth parents, I would abandon my adoptive parents. This could not have been further from the truth. My adoptive parents are the ones who raised me -- they changed my diapers, fed me, and listened to my terrible teenage poetry. The fact that they didn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth is the only part of the past year and a half that still hurts.
When the state finished the search and the county judge rendered her decision in January, 2012, I received a one-inch thick 9”x15” mailer with dozens of pages relating to my adoption and other court proceedings tied to my birth, including the annulment papers for my birth mother and her husband. I also found notes from the adoption home study issued by the state of Kentucky during the summer of 1968. It appears that I was not a black market adoption, but a grey market adoption.
This term refers to adoptions that were not conducted through a state agency but were not strictly illegal. I also found that, prior to my parents assuming custody, I had developed something very common amongst infants confined to orphanages in that time -- a severe addiction to Paregoric, or tincture of opium. This product, which is no longer legal, was used to soothe teething pain.
I immediately started searching (where else?) on the Internet and located my birth mother. While I was tracking down an accurate phone number for my birth mother, I decided to look for the only other name I had -- the man she was married to in 1968 and who was listed as my father on the birth certificate.
He picked up on the third ring.
“I’m looking for the Thomas Johnson* who was married to Sally Rogers* in 1968,” I said.
“I apologize in advance because this is going to be a very strange conversation.” I took a deep breath. “You may remember that there was a baby born in April of 1968.”
I had prepared myself for denials and anger, but not for honesty. I said the very next thing that came into my mind.
“I am that baby.”
“I’ve worried about you every day for 43 years,” he said and then burst into tears.
He shared his story with me and we have been in touch several times since that day. He is one of the kindest people I’ve encountered during this very strange year.
I’ve since met my birth mother, as well. I’ve also read volumes about the Baby Scoop era and the injustices inflicted upon young women of that time. Sally and I are making our way into a tentative relationship, both of us unsure of what to say about the lost years but trying to make the best of whatever time we have left.
I often think of baby girl Clarke and baby girl Thompson -- the two other girls born on that day in the same hospital. Does either of them know that they were adopted? Did they find their birth parents? I hope that their adoptive parents had the courage and the confidence to let them know that they were adopted. They were chosen and they were wanted.
If anyone reading this story has been moved at all by it and if you know a secret being kept from someone “for their own good,” do them the biggest favor of their lives and tell them. Oh, and stock up on Strawberry Hill for your next family function.
Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. If you have a story you would like to submit as a candidate for next year's series, please email it to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.