Thursday, May 11, 2017

The past whispers constantly

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.

At other 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?

Perhaps. 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.

She heard nothing.

Life went on.

The Search 
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.

One morning 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.

We hoped 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 conversation.

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.

As 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!”

She then 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’s Story 
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 didn’t live.

She was taught to not question authority; so she went on with life. 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 na├»ve 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.