“I’ve been waiting for this call for 40 years,” the embracing voice shared on the other end of the phone. It was one week before Thanksgiving 2011 and I’d finally decided to contact a woman I thought was related somehow to my birthfather. On a hesitant whim, I called Vanessa Green (all names are changed). Turns out, she is my birthfather’s sister-in-law and was part of the family when I came along in 1972.
But I’ve jumped ahead too far. As Ralph Ellison so perceptively writes, “The end is in the beginning, and lies far ahead.” I need to return to the beginning so that the end – what is the end for now – makes a bit more sense.
When I started this search 20 years ago, this is what I knew: When I was 2 months old, I was adopted through the Elizabeth Lund Home in Burlington, Vermont; my birthparents were young teenagers; my birthmother was white; my birthfather was black. That’s all I had.
Because it was a closed adoption, I wasn’t expecting to find out much. I started at the beginning: I called the Lund Home and asked for what adoption agencies call “non-identifying information,” information legally available to me; it also does not reveal the identities of the birth families. The adoption volunteer sent me a letter.
I learned that, before she became pregnant and gave birth to me, Sarah (we’ll call her) was a 10th grade student attending her local public high school in her Vermont town. She was an above average to honors student. She was a cheerleader. She was one of 5 children and was an identical twin. She was dating, without the knowledge of her Irish-Catholic parents, a 17-year-old African American boy, who was an average student who liked cars. I learned later that this was her first boyfriend, her first relationship.
Before relinquishing custody to the State of Vermont, she named me Christina Lynn.
The letter from the agency ended by informing me that if my birthmother ever contacted the agency for information about me, they would let me know.
There are a handful of people who made my search possible. Liz Smith was the first. She was a birthmother. Not mine, but someone else’s. At 18, she decided to put her baby up for adoption. Later she wanted to reconnect with her child and basically taught herself how to do an “illegal” search. She was successful in her search and now helps other people who are looking for their birth families. Her fee in 1994 was $400 – cheap for a search, steep for a graduate student living on a very fixed income in Ann Arbor. So, when I told Liz that I would contact her in a few years once I finished school, she said, “why don’t you send me $100 now, and if we can’t find anything, you don’t owe me anything else.” Well, Beth found everything, and never asked for the rest of the fee.
Because my birthmother and her siblings never left Vermont and, in fact, still lived in the same town, it was easy for Liz to locate an address. There was some confusion about whether or not this address belonged to Sarah or to her identical twin, Sophie. So my next step was to write Sarah hoping that the address I had was indeed hers.
Liz cautioned me, saying, “You don’t know what kind of people you are contacting, so be careful. Be honest about what you want, but don’t use your real name. Leave a contact number, but don’t include a return address. You never know how people will react when their ghosts come back to haunt them.”
Liz was right — in more ways than I ever imagined.
(Tomorrow I’ll write about what I uncovered once I finally contacted my birthmother.)