This is a story of the power of listening to someone's story and caring about her journey. Still today, it makes me cry thinking about this adventure we had.
The past whispers constantly
Published in Longleaf Style, Summer 2009
The past can be haunting.
For some people, lingering
questions of “who
am I” often distract at
inconvenient times. Maybe
it’s a family reunion where
one blond is surrounded
by a sea of dark hair.
Sometimes it’s in the
doctor’s office where the
family history is left blank
on the forms.
times, it is meeting a
stranger and wondering,
“Could she be my mother?”
Not all adopted children wonder about their
birth families, but, for some, the past whispers
constantly. Anniston resident Catherine
“Cathi” Handy heard those whispers and grew weary
of trying to drown them out. “I tried for years to find
out who my birth mother was, but I didn’t know what
to do,” she said.
It was never a secret to Cathi that she was adopted.
The one thing that was a secret was her birth mother’s
name. Any reference to her identity was blacked
out on adoption papers. Cathi had treasured a few
facts, she knew she was born prematurely in New
Haven, Connecticut, on December 14, 1949, and she
was adopted on September 17, 1950.
She knew a
few nuggets about her birth mother; a single mom,
abandoned by her sailor boyfriend, who was in her
sixth month of pregnancy when she contacted Catholic
Social Services about adoption.
“She felt unable to
provide a home for her child without the support of a
father or her family . . . adoption is in the best interest
of the child,” the adoption papers read. Cathi’s mother
also added a few details of her own, like the fact that
her birth mother died. Cathi always felt this wasn’t
true. A strange intuition?
After graduating from high school in East Haven,
Connecticut, Cathi married and had two children,
Jo-Ann and Steven. After her husband’s sudden
death of a heart attack at 31, she was a single mom
working labor jobs to pay the bills. Eventually, she
re-married and moved to Alabama and came to work
at The Anniston Star in the building department.
In the midst of her adult life, she attempted to find
information about her birth mother and even left
a letter with Catholic Social Services.
Life went on.
There are times when a conversation is idle and
has little life-changing value. But, often, if you listen
closely you will find something priceless.
in October 2007, Cathi and I, a friend and co-worker,
had our usual chat about the day’s work and somehow
her love of opera came up. She said something like, “I
wonder if my birth mother liked opera.” I was curious
about her comment. I had to know more.
As I listened to her share the disappointments
about not knowing her medical history and exactly
where she fits in a the family tree, I wrote down all the
details she had gathered through the years. She was
ready to know more. Besides, her adoptive parents
were both deceased and she felt a quest for the truth
would not be painful to them.
“I had a good life, I
have no regrets.” she told me.
I wanted to help Cathi. As a former church
social worker, I had contacts. My first call was to
Catholic Social Services in New Haven, Connecticut.
The organization emailed an “Adoption Reunion
Registration” form, which Cathi and I completed on
October 31, 2007. If her birth mother had completed
the same form, then she would be reunited.
against hope. I also made a call to the probate office
and inquired about adoption laws in Connecticut.
Then, we waited.
After several months, we knew the next step had to
be taken. So, on May 9, 2008 we completed a “Search”
form with Catholic Social Services and sent it along
with a $200 search fee.
Then, we waited some more.
Occasionally, I called the caseworker and told her all about
Cathi’s excitement and prayers while inquiring about the
search. Since the adoption was in 1950, our contact had her
work cut out for her.
In July, the caseworker called to tell me that she was
being reassigned, but she wanted resolution on the case
before she left.
Cathi and I got to the point of not even bringing up the
search when we passed each other in the hall at work. We
just nodded. Our patience couldn’t handle the pressure of
Then, On September 9, 2008 I received a call from the
new caseworker. The news was not good. She faxed a death
certificate. I called Cathi and told her that I had news.
we sat in my work area, I started to cry as I told her that her
birth mother died of breast cancer in 2004. Along with our
year-long search, Cathi’s journey ended. But, much to my
surprise, Cathi said, “But, you know her name!”
whispered “Mary” a few times. Also, she wondered out loud
if she had any siblings. Cathi and I had been on this quest
too long to stop. We were committed to the search.
I called the local newspaper in New Haven to get a copy of
Mary’s obituary and was referred to the library. After another
form, another fee, and another search, a copy of the obituary
was mailed. Cathi now had the name of Mary’s husband and
children. A quick Internet search yielded an address.
Cathi wrote a letter. More waiting.
Almost a year to the date from the beginning of our search,
Cathi received a phone call from Ellena, her half-sister. I
received a call from Ellena as well. It seemed she had been
searching for Cathi for many years, as had her mother.
Mary and Ellena didn’t have much
information to help in their searches.
Mary, Ellena said, had been told
that her baby died. She always felt it
wasn’t true. Strange intuition indeed.
Mary was, in fact, an unwed
mother in 1949 and was “promised
the world” by her boyfriend, until
she got pregnant that is. Raised in a
strict Roman Catholic Italian family,
Mary’s father was abusive and put
the 19-year-old out of the house.
She lived with family and friends.
Since the time her mother died
when she was six, Mary had
probably never felt more alone.
She turned to Catholic Social
Services as her last resort.
When Cathi was born in 1949,
Mary was still under the influence
of her strict father. She was torn
between doing what was right in
the eyes of her culture, family, and
faith regarding keeping her baby.
She knew her firstborn was a girl,
but she never got to hold her baby.
After her discharge from the
hospital, Mary went back and told
them she changed her mind and
wanted to keep her baby. She was
informed the baby didn’t survive.
She went back again a few days
later and was told again the baby
She was taught to not
question authority; so she went on
Mary married the love of her
life and they had three sons and
a daughter. Ellena told me that
she and her father were the only
ones who knew about Cathi, but it
wasn’t something she talked about
much. When she died of breast
cancer, Mary told her daughter to
find her sister.
It would be naïve to say that
this story had the happy ending
that Cathi, Ellena and Mary
dreamed about. As the two
sisters get acquainted, the life of
their mother is resurrected through
memories. This is not always a
comfortable feeling for other family
members, such as Mary’s 80-year-old
husband. He held the secret close to
him during his 54-year marriage and
from their church and community.
It’s safe to say that even in death,
Mary is under the influence of a strict
code of silence.
Now, after finding each other,
Ellena and Cathi are getting to
know each other and plan to meet
in New Haven In July. Cathi plans
to take Ellena to the opera because
she has never been. They will hug,
share stories and visit Mary’s grave.
More than anything, they will realize
that Cathi, Ellena and Mary are not
connected because of a haunting past,
but through their roots.
Theresa Shadrix is managing editor
of Longleaf Style. She counts her
experience as helping Cathi locate her
birth family as a precious one.