My birth mother and the last letter to her sister

Reading my birth mother Lillian’s letter is like looking inside a window to Lillian’s soul.

Eight months before she died in 1983, my birth mother wrote a six-page letter to her beloved sister, Donna. Lillian and Donna were not biological sisters but the absence of blood didn’t make their emotional connection anything less than strong.

Donna was one of the first people I called five or six years ago after I’d learned my birth mother’s identity. Donna spoke kindly of Lillian. After we talked, Donna sent me a big brown envelope containing photos of Lillian taken at different periods in her life.

Last month, Donna, her husband and I got together on my last night in Indiana, where I had traveled for a family reunion. As we sat and talked in the lobby of my hotel near the Indianapolis airport, Donna offered me Lillian’s original letter, which she had saved and photocopied. I took the copy, thinking Donna should keep the original since it was her letter and she had saved it all these years. I showed Donna photos of my biological father, Steve, thinking she might have met him on one of her visits to see Lillian in Northbrook. Donna didn’t recognize my biological father in the pictures.

We talked about Lillian’s difficult life in Indiana and unhappy years as a wife and mother in the suburbs of Chicago. I thanked Donna and her husband for meeting me and walked them to the door. We hugged. “I’ll call you next week,” I said, thinking I would have questions about Lillian’s letter.

Back in my hotel room, I read and re-read the letter. What the letter said and what it didn’t say intrigued me in equal parts.

Reading my Birth Mother’s letter

In neat handwriting that slanted to the right, Lillian gave Donna a glimpse into her world at the beginning of 1983.

She wrote about the horrible car accident that had left her youngest son, my brother, Fritz, with brain damage.

After being struck and dragged 75 feet by a car in July 1981, Fritz slipped into a coma that lasted for three weeks, Lillian wrote. When he came to, doctors discovered he had brain damage on the left side of his brain. Fritz spent five months in a hospital.

“He had to learn to walk, talk and eat again,” my birth mother wrote. “He’s doing pretty good now (but) his coordination on (his) left side (is) not too good. I’m trying to get him into a rehabilitation training center so he can learn to do things for himself. All in all it has been pretty rocky…”

Lillian wanted to visit Donna in Indiana but she felt like she couldn’t leave Fritz.

“I’d love to visit you all but I can’t leave Fritz alone and he has a tendency to get on people’s nerves, that aren’t used to him,” she wrote. “I was never too strong on patience but I’m sure learning all about it now.”

They had moved out of their longtime home on Alice Drive in Northbrook to escape “all the trouble,” Lillian wrote. The trouble included a fatal shooting in their old neighborhood followed by a robbery of the victim’s home. Lillian desperately wanted to get Fritz away from his old friends and drugs.

Birth mother handwriting
Back in the day when students learned penmanship…my birth mother had beautiful handwriting

My Birth Mother’s new home

Lillian and Fritz had moved to a home in a wooded area, with a big lake across the street. I think it was Slocum Lake in Island Lake, Illinois. Lillian, who grew up in rural Indiana, probably felt safer in a smaller town and maybe the lake appealed to her. After all, my birth mother fished occasionally.

Twice divorced, Lillian worried about money. She didn’t have a phone. While Fritz was hospitalized, she racked up a huge phone bill that took a while to pay off.

“I was doubtful I’d ever get the thing paid,” Lillian wrote. “I just got the last payment made on the house in Northbrook so that is done so now maybe I can get to other things that I couldn’t afford before such as a phone.”

Lillian offered newsy updates on Mike and Michelle, her other children, her granddaughter Chris, her friends and ex-husband, Howard. She asked about Donna’s family. My birth mother expressed awe that Donna’s daughter, Kim, was old enough to drive.

She was a tiny little girl when last I saw her,” Lillian wrote.

 My Birth Mother, the Indiana farm girl

As girls, Lillian and Donna lived together on a farm near Odon, Indiana. Lillian was a foster child. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Lillian’s struggling parents were too poor to take care of their big brood – around 12 children. Authorities placed Lillian and her siblings in the homes of foster parents in southern Indiana.

During her teen years, the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Lillian lived with Donna’s family. Donna’s stern mother, Ruth, made it clear she expected Lillian to do housework and look after Donna, who was 13 or 14 years younger than Lillian. Ruth had her hands full with two other children and relied on Lillian to help out. My birthmother stepped up to the plate. Lillian took care of Donna like a mother and they formed a deep bond. After Lillian moved to Northbrook, she and Donna visited one another, usually with their families along.

Birth mother
My birth mother, Lillian, looked young and beautiful in this undated photo

Lillian confided in Donna when she learned she had breast cancer. The cancer was in an advanced state when Lillian was diagnosed a couple of years or so before she died. A surgeon removed a large tumor in my birth mother’s right breast along with lymph nodes in her arm. After surgery, my birth mother was unable to use her right arm normally.

Metastatic breast cancer had been eating away at my birth mother, causing discomfort, fatigue, depression and who knows what other symptoms. Lillian never mentioned her health in the letter. Maybe Lillian had accepted the prospect of dying with stoicism and was steeling herself for death and didn’t want  to talk about it in the letter.

“I have thought of all of you so often and do love you all (but) just hate to write when there are problems and I usually have a one-track mind when there’s trouble,” she wrote. I “can’t think of anything else until I get that solved and don’t like to lay it on anyone else.”

Feeling connected to my Birth Mother

I knew my birth mother’s childhood had been difficult. Now in Lillian’s own words, in her own handwriting, I saw how difficult the end of her life had been. In 1983, I didn’t know I had another mother. My adoptive parents kept the truth about my adoption and my biological family hidden from me. I never had a chance to meet or get to know my birth mother. That’s why I find every detail about her life so fascinating. I feel connected to my birth mother.

Reading the letter, I felt sympathy for my birth mother’s situation. Sitting alone at my desk with the letter in front of me, I blinked my eyes and tears rolled down my cheeks. Several days later as I wrote this piece at my desk, I had to stop writing to take a walk across the hallway. Tears flowed.

Birth mother
My birth mother, Lillian, in an undated photo

Perhaps my birth mother would have told Donna more if they had talked on the phone. I think my birth mother wanted to talk. Lillian gave Donna an unlisted phone number for her friend, Nancy, in case Donna needed to reach her.

“I expect to get a phone in the next month but if for any reason before you would want to reach me, call Nancy,” she wrote.

My birth mother had given me up for adoption almost 20 years earlier. I don’t know if she ever thought about me over the years or in the final months of her life. She never mentioned me in the letter.

Donna wrote back to Lillian but the letter was returned. My birth mother was just 48 when she died at Lutheran General Hospital in November 1983. Fritz passed away in a nursing home in January 1985. He was 23.

 

 

13 thoughts on “My birth mother and the last letter to her sister

  1. Hi Lynne, this is such a sad, beautifully told story. There is much to admire in your birth mother.

  2. Lillian was a strong woman who had to make some difficult decisions. I would assume she may not have mentioned you in the letter to her sister because she knew you were well cared for. Thank you for sharing your journey.

  3. This was a beautiful story you have written about your birth mother who was a beautiful woman. I love the photo that you posted. Its could that there was a letter instead of a phone call because it’s so important that you were able to read it all these years later. It’s difficult to think of when I knew you in the 1980s when we were 1st working together that this had just been a few years after she had passed and that you never knew anything about it. Sending you hugs.

  4. Hi Donna. It’s amazing how my life story has changed so much from what I believed to be true in the 1980s. If I’ve learned anything it’s that our identity can change and shift. I am grateful for that letter. Letter writing is almost a lost art these days. Thanks for posting a comment my friend.

  5. The most haunting paragraph: “My birth mother had given me up for adoption almost 20 years earlier. I don’t know if she ever thought about me over the years or in the final months of her life. She never mentioned me in the letter.”

  6. Hi Barbara. You could be right about why Lillian didn’t mention me in the letter. I’d love to know if she ever met my adoptive parents. The more I discover, the more questions I have. Thank you my friend for posting a comment.

  7. I can assure u your mom thought of u every day of her life. She was told to NEVER contact u. So she did as she was told. So soorry u did not get to meet her.

  8. Thank you, Marylee. I would have liked to have met her at least. I understand why she gave me up and don’t hold it against her at all. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  9. Hi Steffi. Yeah, I regret not having met my mother. I don’t think any mother can give a baby up for adoption and not think of her occasionally. I would like to know more details about her pregnancy, my birth and whether she and my adoptive parents met. Thanks for reading and posting a comment. 🙂

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