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A Really Moving Story About A Girl Finding Her Birth Mother
There's a line I like, "My tears stuck in their little ducts, refusing to be jerked," by film critic Peter Stack. There's a lot of cheesy sentiment in the world. It isn't often I read something that moves me. This did. It's an article by Denise Kersten in the Washingtonian about being adopted and discovering a letter from her birth mother in her mother's file cabinet:

The envelope was made of almost translucent yellow paper. It was unsealed but as crisp as if it had never been opened. In a small hand, someone had written the name "Erica" on the front. I knew right away it was for me. I closed the filing-cabinet drawer where I'd found it and carried it up to my room.

Turning the letter over and over, examining the delicate handwriting and the floral design on the back, I remembered a conversation I'd had with my mom years before. I was complaining about my name, which I'd never liked. She told me she and my dad had almost called me Erica. She asked if I would have preferred it.

"Definitely," I said, not questioning why they had considered that name.

Now I knew why.

I often went into my parents' study when they left my two brothers and me alone. I had an insatiable curiosity, especially when it came to things written or said about me. Teachers' comments, standardized-test scores, doctors' records--all the things I wasn't supposed to see--thrilled me. While my brothers, Jerry and Petie, sat absorbed by the TV, I'd dig through my mom's hiding places, finding old photographs, greeting cards, documents, letters. A mahogany filing cabinet in the study of our Milwaukee home contained the most interesting items, but it was usually locked.

One file in the cabinet drew my attention. It was labeled "adoption" in my mom's schoolteacher handwriting.

I've always known I was adopted and always wanted to know more about my birth mother. Perhaps that's why I went through my parents' papers--I had a sense I would uncover something. The adoption file held neatly arranged documents about my brothers and me, each of us adopted from different families. Among my papers was a data sheet that listed my birth parents' ethnicities, ages, and physical attributes along with the social worker's assessment of their intelligence.

At age nine or ten, I'd stare at that white sheet as if it held the secrets of the universe. My birth mother was 22 when she had me, it said. She had brown hair and brown eyes. I have blond hair and blue eyes--in high school my nickname was Inga because of my Nordic looks. On paper I sound a lot more like my birth father, who was reported to be tall, blond, and fair-skinned. Yet I always identified more with her than with him. Years later, I have only a dim memory of his description, while I can still see the words typed about hers.

As a child I'd wander around the grocery store, my school, the shopping mall looking for women who fit her description. I felt like the lost baby bird asking, "Are you my mother?" In my imagination she was keeping tabs on me by playing a peripheral role in my life. The school nurse, family friends, even an aunt became suspects. I played out elaborate dramas in my mind, imagining a shocking reunion.

The mystery of my birth mother dominated my early adolescence, when I felt I had a personal relationship with her. I attributed all sorts of positive qualities to her, believing she'd fill some gap in my angst-ridden teen world. The more I argued with my mom about wanting to stay out late or not doing the dishes, the more convinced I became that my birth mother would understand me.

When I opened the letter, at age 11, a whole world unfolded. Suddenly this mysterious person who had given birth to me had a voice and a personality. I read about her pregnancy and her reasons for giving me up. I discovered that she had happy memories of me.

"I really enjoyed watching your hands and feet move across my stomach," she wrote. "Sometimes if I tickled your feet, you'd kick back at me. Lots of times you'd wake me up in the middle of the night with all your squirming and kicking. I was always glad when you did that. Most of the time I'd turn on the light and watch until you quieted down again."

Because I knew from the documents that she was 22 when she had me, I assumed she'd been devastated when she learned she was pregnant. But she wrote: "Most people think that I must have been upset and unhappy when I found out for sure that I was pregnant. I guess in some ways I was. I was worried about what to do and what would happen to me. But at the same time I was awed and pleased and a little proud to think of you inside me."

She wrote of the difficulty she'd had in giving me away and mentioned that there were others who had thought about keeping me. These others--my birth father, her parents--became characters in my drama, people who had seen me and perhaps loved me.

One day on a school bus, two kids in my school--one of whom was adopted--were arguing. As the fight heated up, the other child lashed out, "You're adopted! That means your mother didn't want you."

"No," I butted in. "That means his parents picked him instead of just getting stuck with him."

That's how I resolved the issue in my mind. I don't think I suffered much from feelings of rejection because I had such loving adoptive parents. Knowing they'd gone through the long adoption process to get me made me feel especially wanted. I was able to focus on being chosen by them instead of on being abandoned by my birth mother.

At the same time, I wondered why my birth mother hadn't kept me. In the letter she wiped away whatever feelings of rejection I had. That letter in the yellow envelope became my most treasured possession, and over the years I'd take it out every now and then to remember what she told me.

What's always been most important is one of the first lines: "The thing that I most want you to know is that I love you."

I was certain she'd want me to find her. I've seen television shows in which someone tries to find his or her birth parent but is shunned or ignored. Because of her letter, I never worried about that.

Even more, I felt compelled to find her so I could respond to one of the last things she wrote, in handwriting looser and messier than the rest: "Oh, Erica, I hope that you have a full, happy life and that you approve of my decision and don't think too badly of me."

I could feel the pain she'd felt at having to hand over her newborn to strangers, and the guilt she'd begun to experience. I wanted to tell her that I'd had a wonderful childhood and that I was grateful for her sacrifice.

"I think of what it would have been like to keep you," she wrote. "I think of how happy I'd have been the first time you smiled at me. But deep down I wouldn't have been satisfied, knowing I wasn't giving you the best start in life I could have."

The rest of her piece is at the link above. Worth reading. Mind your mascara, though.

Posted by aalkon at August 12, 2006 10:19 AM


Gulp! It's a good thing I wasn't wearing mascara.

Since this was written six years ago, I'm REALLY curious to know what happened next.

Posted by: Jackie at August 12, 2006 12:51 AM

I was reading up on adoption and found it. As a sideline of my hobby, Amy Alkon/Girl Detective, I helped a friend of mine find her birth parents. Most of us don't give this any thought, what it's like to not know your origins (ie, where your biological family is from), your health history, and other stuff we take for granted.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 12, 2006 12:56 AM

Her story is my story, up to a point. I haven't contacted my birth mother, and I haven't told my mom that I want to do this. But I believe I have a name and an address, and I've had it for over a year.

What stymies me is exactly what to do next: I'm not sure if the person whose address I have is precisely correct (though I'd say I'm 95% sure), and I don't know if a letter or a phone call is best. I've read that letters are better, but you'll never know if it got lost in the mail or just was something she didn't want to respond to if nothing happens. (And by making it FedEx or registered, you only call attention to it, which could alert others she might not have told.)

So, I'm a bit stuck. Like the author, I'm not resentful at all: I absolutely respect the maturity and intelligence (if that was what it was) of a young woman unable to provide for a child who gives it up to others. And I love my adoptive mother as my only true mother.

But I was pleased to read how Denise approached her first conversation, when she reached her bio mom's husband. It could be a good template if and when I decide to go ahead.

Thanks for posting this, Amy.

Posted by: Kitt at August 12, 2006 2:38 PM

P.S. And for what it's worth, a quick search of the author's name brought me to this blog:

It's not her blog, but it appears that she's writing a book related to adoption, and posts her current email address (I think her name is now Denise Wills, or Denise Kersten Wills). So, you could email her to find out what happened next.

Posted by: Kitt at August 12, 2006 2:44 PM

The world of adoptees seems divided into two camps: those who want to know all about their birth parents; and those, like me, who aren't interested at all.

A friend who had given her daughter up for adoption (out of wedlock; no money at the time) got curious enough to hire a detective to track down her daughter. When my friend contacted the girl (college age at the time), it was rough: she knew she'd been adopted, but didn't want to hear from her birth mother. And the adoptive parents really resented the intrusion.

Obviously, circumstances differ from case to case. But I'd advise anybody interested in tracking down birth parents, or children who had been put up for adoption, to be very careful in the process, and to consider who -- if anybody -- will actually benefit from the reunion and at what cost.

Posted by: Todd Everett at August 12, 2006 5:42 PM

Yeah, I had finally gotten up the nerve to drop my notarized "who am I?" letter to the California Department of Social Serivices into the mailbox at LAX just before I stepped onto the plane for my bizarre Jupiter And Beyond The Infinite week in Paris back in 2001. Turns out the Naturals had never filed a release, so a mystery they remain. Anyway, I respect their privacy and just left my release on file in case they ever change their minds. I guess it was a bit of a relief. I think I had just worried for years that they might've had regrets or some guilt and I merely wanted to be able to say that my life had been wonderful and if they had had second thoughts, they shouldn't. Still, it's strange to think that somewhere out there may be two graying pervert weirdos who kind of look like me. And, still, it haunts me: I was born in the beginning of July, which means I would've been conceived sometime around Halloween... were there costumes involved?

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at August 12, 2006 11:36 PM

This is the thing I think non-adoptees really don't have any idea of -- what it's like to have little or no idea of your be asked if, maybe, you're Irish, and to tell the person who's asking that you really have no fucking idea.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 13, 2006 1:57 AM

I've been "accepted" by just about every European nationality over the years. I'm adopted Jewish but have Nordic looks, so selected Germans, Irish, English, Norweigans, Danish and Italians (Northern, apparently) have all laid claim.

The thing that tipped me over the "should I" terminus came a bunch of years ago when Dateline did one of their numerous soppy "reunion" type stories. Most of it was pretty by the book, but one woman who had found her birth mother noted that it startled her how much they spoke, gesticulated and had other characteristics in common that you'd think would be entirely influenced by nurture, not nature. Her mother moved her hands the same way she did; they paused the same way in conversation.

I think Amy's right: Those who take those things for granted, who can look into a picture of their birth parents and have not just some predictor of the future but some reassurance of their present, can't quite know what it's like not to have that. It's not so much that I miss it -- it's more like, what would it be like to *have* that connection with someone else?

Posted by: Kitt at August 13, 2006 7:58 AM


I'm the author of that adoption story. It's so nice to know that you found it moving!

Posted by: Denise Kersten Wills at August 17, 2006 11:12 AM

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