Myths, Lies and Matches: A Quest By Mary Ellen Gambutti

Myths, Lies, and Matches: A Quest

By Mary Ellen Gambutti

The papers are duly notarized, fees are paid, and the year-long foster period is over. A Certificate of Birth and Baptism changes my name from Ruth Ann to Mary Ellen, states that my parents are the couple who fostered me, and shows the 1951 birth date I’ve always known. It falsifies my birthplace as Rock Hill, S.C., and no hospital is named.

*

Complete Non-Identifying Information

Requested of Catholic Charities

Regarding my natural father:

  1. Age and Date of Birth
  2. Name at time of my Birth
  3. Height
  4. Weight
  5. Hair Color
  6. Eye color
  7. Education
  8. Religious Background

~~~

Where did I come from?  At 6, I suddenly knew I was adopted by the telling of a fairy tale.  Not only did I belong to my parents, but also someone else!  The myth of the adoption agency was that I had a family. There were other children. A mother and father. And all of them died in a car crash, except for me.  “Adoption” sounded grown up and strange, special, missing something. Or even precious or breakable. I fantasized the family who came before my adoption. I could see nothing of my father or mother in the mirror. I had all the dolls and toys I wanted, a loving home, but no brothers and sisters. How could it be that my first family was killed in a car accident? Why not me? Because I was with the nuns in the “home”? I imagined, even hoped, I would recognize them all in a store or on the street. Who do I look like? I squinted and studied the mirror.

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  1. Socio-Economic Background
  2. Ethnic Origins (for example: mother Irish/English, father Italian/Italian)
  3. Number and ages and sex of siblings he had (cause of death if deceased)
  4. Where he was born
  5. Where he lived at the time of my birth
  6. Marital Status
  7. His usual occupation
  8. His parents’ ages and ethnic origins

(For example: mother Irish/English, father Italian/Italian)

  1. His parents’ educational background
  2. His parents’ physical descriptions
  3. His parents’ usual occupations
  4. If his parents were deceased, age & year they died and cause of death
  5. Any and all other non-identifying information (hobbies, talents, interests, etc.)

~~~

I’ve persisted in my quest of kin for years.  I know now that I lived in Phillip’s Mercy Infant Home in Rock Hill, South Carolina for 5 months prior to leaving with the couple who would adopt me a year later. I was told my hospital records were lost to fire, so I may not see the imprint of my baby feet. My original birth certificate is sealed by the State, and a shortened version of my identity is all that’s available to me. With the help of a “search angel,” I have the most critical puzzle piece: my birth mother’s full name.

*

I am hereby requesting complete medical histories on my natural mother, natural father, and their families.  I am requesting that you examine my file for the purpose of determining whether or not my natural mother and/or father placed on file, a consent form granting permission to disclose the information contained in my original birth certificate or any other identifying or non-identifying information pertaining to my natural mother and/or father.  Thank you for your help in this matter.

Sincerely,

~~~

Who do I look like?  I am not yours. I belong to someone else. I’m not a natural child, because I am not born of my parents. But who am I?

“We brought you home, because we really wanted you, because you had no one, and we loved you.”  I like that I am special.  I fantasize about the car accident that killed my real parents–the accident they think the nuns told them about that I survived.  And maybe there were brothers and sisters, too. What do the others look like?  This faceless kinship haunts me.  I’m not fooled into thinking I resemble you.  No, we don’t look alike, Mom, Dad, Nana and Granddaddy.  Because you aren’t the same as me. We don’t share the same smiles, gestures, or voices, because we are not blood. My family looks nothing like me. My Mom is Polish and Czech, and my Dad is Irish. He tells me I’m Irish because the nuns match babies with parents of similar origin.

*

In addition to the standardized ‘form’ items, please

Include answers to the following additional requests.

Please note that all items listed below, unless otherwise indicated,

Refer to both my birth mother and birth father:

Full physical description of birth parents:

  1. color of eyes;
  2. color of hair;
  3. age at my birth;
  4. height;
  5. weight;
  6. complexion:
  7. any birthmarks, scars, tattoos?

[Include your name and address here]:

~~~

Little ones love mirrors. The 2 story tall mirror in Arnold Constable department store extended 2 stories in the wide, carpeted stairway. “Who is that girl?”  Nana asked me, when we went clothes shopping.   I loved the self-recognition game.   In a photo of Mom with me by a New York store front, I’m mirrored in a full dress with diapers. I see myself, and self-realization starts.  I’m here in the mirror, but yet…I am not.  Is this the real me?

*

Please include any medical records and/or information known for each birth parent. Please include any medical records, birth records, nursery log records of my birth and any known subsequent medical treatment prior to adoption:

  1. Name and address of the medical facility where treatment was administered:
  2. Name and address of my delivery doctor:
  3. Name and address of the attending pediatrician:

Thank you for your courtesy in providing me with the requested information.

Sincerely,

[Your signature]

~~~

I began to lie, I’m not sure when, but eventually it was an unfettered impulse to make things up to my mother who may or may not have been listening.  I paid little heed to the truth as an adolescent.  After all, I had been living in a fantasy childhood where truth was always doubted, I started by telling stories, and I couldn’t stop. I indulged.  My father pronounced me a “psychopathic liar” at 16, and brought me to Dr. W., a family therapist.  The grey haired doctor sat about 10 feet away from me with his legs crossed, writing in a note pad on his knee, and rarely spoke, except for an occasional soft question.  He would snooze, while I sat bewildered, then open his eyes and study me through his wire glasses.  All four of us, my parents, the doctor and me, met one time in another room.  I can’t recall what my father said, but I must have felt empowered, because I recall speaking my mind and crying. No doubt I was critical and defensive, and I was never returned to Dr. W.  My lying continued.

~~~

Was I their first child?

Any full siblings?

Any half siblings?

The first name of each birth parent:

Where was each birth parent born?

Did they reside in __ (insert city and state in which you, the Adoptee, were born)

  1. If answered “no,” were they from (put your state)?
  2. Were they from another state and came to __for my delivery and adoption?

~~~

My confusion over the truth was heightened by my parents’ sloughing off the importance of my origins. I wanted them to talk with me; to tell me more.  We never spoke of anything of consequence to me. My mother just did not know how to speak with me, to relate to me, because I was not her own.  She called me “Gargantuan.”  Although I didn’t know what it was, she cruelly explained it was a giant; a monster with large hands and body. I was 5” taller than my mom, at 5’7,” and my hands are large, my fingers long.  She mocked me, “You’re nothing like me!” as a highlight of my imperfections.  She chipped away at my self-esteem, but she must have had problems of her own.  “I don’t understand you, why can’t you be like me! Why can’t you do things the way I do?  You are completely different from me.”  I avoided talking with her.  Truth was useless; of no importance.  At 17, I began to sense what I would later fully learn, that I could not know the whole story of my first family.  It was a desperate fact, the truth was unknowable. It is next to impossible to cut through the lies of the law, and barriers to truth. This is why I now hold truth in such high esteem.

*

I am hereby requesting complete medical histories on my natural mother, natural father, and their families.

Please list any/all childhood diseases or surgeries known for each birth parent:

Please list any/all genetic disorders known for each birth parent:

Please list any/all known diseases or illnesses experienced by each birth parent:

  1.  were any of these diseases or illnesses experienced during my birthmother’s pregnancy with me?
  2. were either birth parents exposed to German measles, polio or tuberculosis during the pregnancy?

~~~

Adoptees are deprived of our identity when our records are sealed.   We lose what is most important to us.  All my life, I’ve tried to grasp what is not legally my own. The truth is that we lose ourselves to the unknown in adoption, and are required to fit another mold.  However well-meaning the adoptive family, the sadness and feelings of incompletion will always be there.  So we adoptees, bastards, foundlings, orphans: we are victims of bonding and loss, of parentage, kin, identity, truth, self.

When I found my sweet, elder sister in 1993, we spent hours in Greenville cemeteries. It was discovery for us both, of each other, and of our past. Among the antique gravestones of Antioch, Standing Springs, and Rocky Creek, we found families; the kin we had just learned existed.  The uncertainty left me, with the fulfillment of being connected. I was learning my truth. Our mother’s mother, her father, her grandparents, and their great grandparents—a month before–I didn’t know them.  I was now sure I existed within the context of “family,” real folks. The Lendermans, the Coxes, the Baldwins, all lived and died in the same countryside, among church families and communities.  All my young life, I transferred between base and neighborhood with my military family, and until I married my second husband, was rootless.  The grounding he supplied me hadn’t come from birth.  Now, I could say what it felt like to be connected. I could affirm my place in the world.  We two women discovered our dear third ½ sister in 2015, and joyfully visited the cemeteries together, to share our maternal ancestors. We each were fathered by different men.  The DNA tests showed the limits of our sisterhood; I am the daughter lacking the full picture.

*

At the time of my adoption were my birth grandparents still living?

  1. If not, what did they die from?
  2. What were their names?

At the time of my adoption were my birth great grandparents still living?

  1. If not, what did they die from?
  2. What were their names?

[Include your name and address here]:

~~~

There is still more to learn.  With my chromosomes revealed, I began to link to earlier ancestry. I can now trace my maternal ancestry to England, Ireland, and Germany.  My adoptive father had told me, all those years ago, that I was matched to him because we are Irish.  I enjoyed that. It suited me.  In my 20’s an Irish American friend told me that I had “the map of Ireland all over my face.”  His was an affirmation, as though to quell my uncertainty.  “I don’t know what I am, I’m adopted,” I shrugged. “I’m a mongrel, Heinz-57 variety.”  It is true. My Irish ancestry has been proven by genetic testing.

~~~

Father Unknown

My “test” family tree is cobbled together from DNA hints that did not correspond to my 2 half-sisters; we share DNA from our mother.  My DNA matches that don’t match theirs are assumed to be on my father side. This has been the closest I can come without the interest and cooperation of matches I have contacted.  You see, there is still stigma associated with being an “illegitimate child,” although I am 64.

The adoption agency told me that our mother insisted she didn’t know who fathered me. But, she lied by not revealing our younger sister, Lottie, to us.  Karen, the eldest, was with our mother daily for one year from our reunion until Momma’s death. Yet, Momma never mentioned a third daughter.  Who was she protecting after all those years?  She denied her 3rd daughter abandoned as an infant, when we could have all known the joy of reunion.  Momma asked Karen for help when she needed her. When I found them both, and Karen confronted her with the prospect of another daughter, Momma first denied, then admitted. She was relieved that I was alive, and we could share a kind of honeymoon for a time.  But she couldn’t tell us about Lottie, nor could she tell us who my father is.  In the end, I have the DNA of paternal ancestral hints to go by, masses of cousins on paper; all 4th and higher, but no solid paternal leads.

*

Please include any medical records and/or information known for each birth parent. Please include any medical records, birth records, nursery log records of my birth and any known subsequent medical treatment prior to adoption:

  1. Name and address of the medical facility where treatment was administered:
  2. Name and address of my delivery doctor:
  3. Name and address of the attending pediatrician:

Thank you for your courtesy in providing me with the requested information.

Sincerely,

[Your signature]

~~~

My search became a passion; a drive to know myself, an ongoing discovery, an artifice. Some is myth, some is proven, just as all family stories. And some is made of puzzle pieces which were scattered at my mother’s relinquishment of her child. My search is an effort to mend the harm she caused by tearing me from her family line. The loss of siblings, grandmas, cousins, a patchwork. But understand, Reader, that my search is separate from my rights. I, like every person, have a right to the record of my origin; the truthful date I arrived in the world, my actual birthplace, my ethnicity by name. Catholic Charities and The State of South Carolina have conspired to seal this information from my access. In keeping my birth records out of my reach, like cookies from a child, they deny me equal access to what is mine.

A saliva test has yielded a tree of my extended kin, and I may one day identify my father. I had no internet access, and no DNA testing was available to me when I found my mother, a ½ sister, and a few cousins in 1993. But at 40, I had the passion to know them, and there was no other way available to me except by phone, directories, and genealogy. But to get this far required a record breech for some crucial piece of information. With no names to work with, I would not have succeeded. It was–is–my right to own my birth certificate. In 2014 I started my search again. I had a hemorrhagic stroke at 58. My birth mother died of diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure one year after our reunion. I know what my maternal health history is, but I want more. I tested my DNA, found a paternal 2nd cousin, and mirrored her family tree to find my place within it. I joined Bastard Nation, the activist group for adoptees’ civil rights, and through them I advocate for clean legislation, not compromise bills that favor anyone over the adoptee. We all must have open access to our birth certificates. With so many of us finding our kin by DNA matches, there is no time like the present to allow us all our equal right and dispel the lies, once and for all.

Mary Ellen Gambutti, born Ruth Ann Cox

***

*This essay first appeared in The Bastard Chronicles: An Anthology, 20 Years of Adoptee Equality Activism in the U.S. and the Birth of a Bastard Nation

Mary Ellen's work appears or is forthcoming in Gravel Magazine, Wildflower Muse, The Remembered Arts Journal, The Vignette Review, Modern Creative Life, Halcyon Days, The Book Ends Review, and Borrowed Solace. Her short memoir, Stroke Story, My Journey There and Back is self-published. She and her husband live in Sarasota, Florida, with their rescued Schnoodle. Her Blog is https://ibisandhibiscusmelwrites.blogspot.com

2 Comments

  1. So thrilled you have included my work! My hope is it will contribute to the movement to obtain rights for all adoptees, primarily the right to our Original Birth Certificates. Thanks again!

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