For many people, it was just a day. Nothing special. A spring day much like today. Outside, the trees were probably showing off their newest green. Tulips were extending their heavy heads and the cool mornings were giving way to warm afternoons. The promise of summer was teasing many across the country. Lyndon B. Johnson was the president, the Civil Rights Movement was going strong, and we were still embroiled in Vietnam.
It’s also the day my mother gave birth to a baby boy and gave him up for adoption.
Family secrets are weird little creatures. They are furtively whispered about, behind backs, used as ammunition, and held tightly against our chests. For the lucky few, the family secret is never found out. It’s kept in a box and dies with the secret-keeper. But for others, it’s like trying to keep water in a cracked glass. At first, there are drips. And then, before you know it, the drips are a puddle, and suddenly the contents of the glass are no longer contained outside. The secret is fully exposed, staining everyone and everything around it. And there’s no way to get it back into the glass.
When I was in ninth grade, my cousin told me our secret. We were discussing our relatives and how this adult aunt wasn’t talking to that adult uncle and, as teenagers, we were OH SO MUCH MORE ADULT than those who had the years and mileage, but clearly not the maturity. We were trying to piece together the puzzle of our strained family relationships, and it slipped out.
“Heather, I heard your mom had a child out of wedlock. A boy.”
That one sentence had me reeling. For YEARS. I was the glass and that water was poured into me. But I was cracked by years of family strife, a mother who was damaged, and a father who was the focus of that damage. I would at times forget that tidbit of information and then remember it all over again. When it would knock on the door of my consciousness to remind me it was there, I had SO many questions.
Did Dad know?
My parent, who has told me never to have sex until I’m married, had sex before she was married.
Who is the father?
Do we know him?
Is my brother alive? Dead?
What did he look like?
And so many more questions swirled through my head. I had always wanted an older brother. I would watch reruns of The Big Valley as a child and the adventures of the Barkley family of Stockton, California, always captivated me. My grandparents didn’t have cable, but their antenna picked up a local TV station in Bluefield, West Virginia, and in the evenings, they showed old episodes of that 1960s western starring Barbara Stanwyck as matriarch Victoria Barkley, mother of three sons, Jarrod, Nick, and Heath, and one daughter, Audra. I loved that show. And I loved how protective Jarrod, Nick, and Heath, were of their sister. And I, as an only child, wanted that. I wanted that house full of loud, boisterous, male laughter, ready to lend me a hand, get me out of scrapes, fuss at me and how I was dressed, grill every boy I even glanced at. Instead, I had a quiet home, just me and my parents. While I sequestered myself in my room with my books, ignoring the invisible tension between my mom and dad, my parents mostly ignored one another until mom would lash out at dad for a perceived slight. I always thought it was a lonely only-childhood and watching The Big Valley that made me long for an older brother and what I thought the perfect family should be.
Now, though, I wonder if it was something genetic, a memory from the womb, a bone-deep knowledge that I wasn’t the first, and was supposed to have someone there waiting for me when I emerged. Someone who would have been five years old.
The secret I kept for many years finally spilled out of the cracks during my college years. I confessed the secret to my father, who took it to my mother, who finally admitted to both of us that she had had a child before either of us ever entered her life. She told us his birthday and that she had named him Sean–or Shawn–when he was born. But, she didn’t volunteer any other information.
It’s only been in the last few years, since reconnecting with my mother’s family, that I’ve gleaned even more details of that time in my mother’s life.
I always knew my mother had worked at the West Virginia Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York City in 1964 and 1965. I remember seeing black and white pictures of that time in her life. I could tell that she had fun, enjoyed her freedom as a young 20-something, out in the big city, away from her parents. What I didn’t know is that while she was there, she became pregnant. Was it consensual? Was it rape? Was the father American? Was he from another country and also working at the Fair? I have no idea. All I do know is that my biological grandmother–who I never knew–drove northward to retrieve my mother and told New Jersey cousins during a stop, “No daughter of mine is giving birth to a black baby.”
My mother was promptly sent off to a “home for unwed mothers” where she gave birth to her unwanted child. She returned home a short time later and eventually was the nurse for the woman who made her give away her baby. My biological grandmother died 19 months later from complications related to bladder cancer. Another 15 months after that, my mother married my father.
Every year, on April 6th, I wonder where my brother is. Is he alive? Dead? If he’s alive, is he happy? Does he know he was adopted? Has he looked for us? If he’s dead, what happened? Did he have a happy life? Sad? Does he have children? Grandchildren?
If he’s alive, today is his 54th birthday. Does he have a spouse with whom he can celebrate? A child? And does my mother even remember today’s significance? Or has she blocked this day from her memory?
I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. What I can answer is that each time my 23andme app tells me I have new relatives, I get a catch in my throat. And when I open the app to see that said new relatives are 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cousins, I get disappointed. I have several accounts with different adoption web sites… that have lead to nowhere.
I’m not sure I’ll ever find him. And maybe, when I do find him, he won’t want to be found. Or he’s not living in a town but rather a cemetery. I may never make that “big brother connection” I’ve always craved. That life-long need for a sibling will probably never happen. But, I will still look. And still try. And still wonder every April 6th if he maybe always wanted a little sister.
Postscript: Since this post is receiving a lot of traffic, here’s what I know:
My brother was born on or about April 6, 1966. I’m assuming he was born in West Virginia. I know the most popular “home for unwed mothers” at the time was in Wheeling, West Virginia. But, honestly, he could have been born in any of the surrounding states (Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania). He is most certainly of biracial ancestry (white mother, African or African-American father). The birth mother’s surname is Berkley and the birth father’s surname is, for me, unknown.
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