This past weekend was a big weekend. Jerry my birth father finally met my family. In the last seven months since our reunion, he had met his grand daughter Victoria, my husband and step son, a few of my closest girl friends, even Jack, Victoria’s father, but he had yet to meet a single solitary person who had raised me; those who had been related to my parents, who could tell my stories; paint a picture of the world in which I was raised; portray a sense of the people who instilled their values, morals and delightful humor in me – those who made me who I am today.
Since both my parents had passed away before my reunions, this monumental task of representing my dearly deceased parents fell to my father’s sister Louise, who I call Tweeter, and her six grown kids, my cousins. This kin shared the task with those on my mother’s side, the Potters, my mother’s first cousins and their kids (my second and third cousins). Combined these were the people who had created and could share the memories of my family – the many many ties that bind us with my newly found birth parents.
Both in prior experience and in my studies on adoption, I was especially aware entering into an adoption-based family reunion, that it’s very important that people are not made to feel put on display, that all parties meet when they believe they are ready and comfortable, and to take things slow and steady.
I believe for many adoptees the idea of introducing the birth parents to the adoptive family is not to show the newly-found biological parent off or to have the adoptive family meet them, but exactly the reverse. And this is a critical distinction. It is not like “here look who I have found” it’s more “here check out these awesome people who raised me.” While I know not all adoptive children feel this great symbiosis in their adoptive family, this was at least how it was for me. I loved my family and never felt “adopted.”
I am proud of my family, these are the people I love and who love me, who never made a distinction about my not being of their flesh and blood, nor who ever treated me differently because of it. I wanted my birth parents to meet these people, so that they could see how lucky we all were, what wonderful people I had in my childhood, how much love we all shared and continue to share.
During my prior reunion with my birth mother Lana, I made just about every mistake in the book. One of which was to throw a very large Memorial Day barbecue where everyone under the sun was invited; her family and nieces and nephews and my family on both sides, as well as friends and distant relatives. I even invited my grade school teacher. In sum without recounting every grizzly detail of the whole hot mess, Lana and I, both used to being the one in charge, butted heads on every little detail from selecting and serving the food, to alcohol being served, to where to seat people. Having only met that January, she and I had barely had time to get to know each other, let alone start planning parties together.
In short we had the reunion at Lana’s house, and although I warned her I had a ton of family and despite her saying “oh the more the merrier,” well there were too many people. Lana and I were on our feet the whole time playing hostess. We were unable to visit and make proper introductions and basically most of my family stayed in the yard and most of her family stayed on the porch.
Additionally, mistakes were made that immediately set people at unease. At one point Lana stated, “Look at the beautiful, smart daughter I made,” which pained my adoptive family member’s ears, ringing a bit disrespectful to the memory of my parents and the role the whole family played in making me who I am. Additionally a cake was ordered in honor of the reunion with a picture of Lana and me and my half-brother, but which did not include my daughter, the new-found grandchild, who was there at the party and of course a big part of the reunited family.” These are examples of the small faux pas which can carry broad and lasting consequences when placed in the high emotional atmosphere of reunion.
By the time it was over we were all exhausted, had spent too much money and met and mingled with too few people to make it worthwhile. And amid all this, the coup d’état was that the neighboring yards had numerous pens full of dogs that resulted in so many swarms of flies that you could not even pick up your fork without five flies landing on your plate, and while you were swatting the flies off your plate, more were landing in your drink. It was miserable and thanks to the flies, as though the reunion standards gods have some kind of sick twisted sense of humor, I came home with a horrible case of food poisoning that kept me in bed for a week; plenty of time to lay there and think about all the things that went oh so wrong.
Thus it’s no wonder that it took me seven months to work up the courage to plan a time for Pop to meet my family. I called my Aunt Tweeter and assured her this one would be much more pleasant. We would take baby steps, just a few cousins at a time. Knowing how close my cousins were to my adoptive parents, their Aunt Juice and Uncle Bub, I asked my Aunt to please call the two who lived near her in Houston and to ask them if they were ready to meet Pop. They said they were and a small dinner in a public restaurant was arranged, hopefully small enough and public enough that no one would be put out, and we could just sit back and relax and get to know each other.
Additionally I sent a separate email to my mother’s side of the family asking them who might like to meet my Pop while we were in town. From my mother’s side I received an email saying that several of my mother’s cousins were excited, and that they wanted to have a get together at one of their houses and bring snack food etc. and family photos. Knowing intuitively that these were my mother’s people, and that if meeting Pop was going to stir emotions it would be on my Dad’s side, I was not worried about having a larger number. I told Pop, “The Potters will talk your ears off, force feed you and take lots of pictures.” And that is pretty much what happened and we both enjoyed it very much.
Pop was relived by the easy Potter welcome, as the prior night meeting my Dad’s family had been a bit more nerve wracking for him. He knew how attached my cousins were to their Uncle Bub and Aunt Juice, he knew my cousins were as close as I could get to my own siblings, and he knew that at the table sat his two toughest critics, those who were very very close to me and protective of me as well. So really, no pressure right?
Victoria, my daughter, had come in for the event and before the dinner the three of us, Pop, Vikki and I, had spent the day visiting my father’s grave, as well as the grave of his father, my grandfather, and the graves of my grandparents and aunt on my mother’s side. We had then toured the beachfront home in Galveston where I spent my teens and twenties; the house Victoria was brought home to and the house where my Daddy had died.
If ever Pop’s absence in my life had been underlined and highlighted it was on this day. The day he would meet the family, stand on the grave and visit the home and place of death of the man who loved and raised me, the man who I call my Daddy, the man who stood in the shoes Pop was denied by fate to ever even consider wearing. This was a big day for Pop and he shined, both absorbing the significance of this day’s journeys and paying his respects.
At the end of the dinner he graciously and bravely asked my Daddy’s sister and my cousins to welcome him into our family – to find a way to make room for him in their hearts. I was proud. The night included a moving moment as we toasted my Mommy and Daddy paying tribute to them; and I was again touched as my daughter Victoria spoke of her grand father Baba and how special he was to her, while also expressing to the family the joy and love Pop and his wife Susan have brought into our lives.
And as I had anticipated, as is the nature of adoption reunions, emotions swelled and exposed the tenuous mixed feelings that are part and parcel with healing the past and blending families. As one of my cousins become overcome with tears, the other helped me understand how all this adoption change and self-discovery feels to my adoptive family. It can be hard for adoptive family members to realize that there was some missing piece inside you that they could not fill. I assured them that in my experience growing up I never felt like I was broken or missing anything, or that they or my parents were not enough. I explained that, just as they recall my saying many times, I was only curious. I always just wanted to meet them. The compassionate side of me just wanted my birth mother to know I was ok.
I explained that both the pre-reunited adoptee and post reunited adoptee versions of myself still agree that adoption was a gift, that I was extra special and loved and that I could have no better parents in the world than my adoptive parents, that my family is and will always be my family and that I still would not have changed a thing. I noted that what reunion does do, is lift a curtain and reveal the stage upon which the story of your life has long been being written. You suddenly see things fully. It’s like not knowing something was broken until it’s been fixed.
Once reunited the adoptee begins to learn that his or her fairy-tale story with the happy ending had a darker side too; you were born, relinquished to strangers, separated from your biological ties, your history and genetic lineage, those things do matter to a person and they need to be processed.
Most importantly, when you can at last bring everything full circle, it may mean that people in your adoptive family, just like you had to, will eventually realize that the reality of adoption is not all happy endings; that it also includes for many adoptees latent feeling of abandonment, poor self-esteem, difficulty in relationships and intimacy, early pregnancies, and a longing for completeness. As your family watches you learn and heal or hears stories of what being adopted has meant to you, they may feel some type of guilt or sorrow for not knowing or understanding the challenges associated with being adopted.
It’s important to assure them that THIS was not anyone’s fault, that even you really did not understand it then, that most no one did and no one is to blame. You must assure your family that they are not being replaced, that no one can take their place. That processing the impact of adoption on your life today and spending inordinate amounts of time bonding with your birth family, is just a part of healing; and that the way they can continue to support you and love you is by listening to you and sharing their feelings, asking questions and opening their hearts. But most importantly it’s by trusting in the family connections you have created across decades, by assimilation, by welcoming in your new family birth members as their own, just as they did for you so many many years before.