As I drove south on Interstate 69, the green rectangular sign for Daviess County on the right gave me a jolt. Up until now, Daviess County was an unfamiliar location listed on the digital records I had found for my birth mother Lillian, not a real place that I could see up close.
A child of the Great Depression, Lillian spent her childhood and adolescence in Daviess County. She lived briefly with her large, impoverished family before she was sent away to live with strangers who took her in as a foster child.
I was about to see the places where my birth mother and her family had lived, places I’d never been to before. It felt exciting to be near Lillian’s roots in rural southern Indiana.
I’m not sure why or when Lillian left Indiana but it must have been after she left Indiana University, where she had spent two years as a student. Probably a relationship or a pregnancy, or a relationship and a pregnancy, led her to the suburbs of Chicago. When I was born in the 1960s, Lillian was a 28-year-old married mother of four small children. They lived in a modest gray house on a leafy road in Northbrook, 35 miles north of where I grew up in Chicago.
After I came into the world on April 16, I don’t know how many minutes or hours Lillian and I spent together. I don’t know how long it was before Lillian and I were separated forever but I know I was a baby when my adoptive parents, Bob and Claire, took me home to their bungalow in Gage Park. They never told me I was another couple’s biological child. I grew up believing I was related by blood to the Millers and Krasowskis, Bob and Claire’s respective families. Not until after Claire and Bob died did I learn the truth about my adoption.
That discovery 16 years ago destroyed a piece of my identity. But on this summery Friday afternoon in September 2018, I didn’t dwell on my secret adoption discovery. I drove through a part of Indiana that I’d never seen before. Few cars were on the highway. I zipped along in my Chevy Malibu until it hit the 70 mph limit. I felt like I had the interstate to myself. Other than occasional farm buildings, tractors, billboards and occasional curves in the road, there wasn’t much to see. It was a beautiful day. The wide open blue sky and bright sun seemed to shine down on me as if to welcome me.
Learning about My Birth Mother’s High School Years
Overhead, the green exit sign for Odon and Elnora caught my eye. Odon wasn’t my destination, but I took the exit ramp on the right and turned onto State Road 58, which led to North Daviess Junior-Senior High School in Elnora. Maybe this school would have a yearbook for 1953, the year Lillian graduated.
A woman in the front office told me they don’t keep old yearbooks but suggested I visit the Odon Public Library. Go down the road, turn right at the gas station, then make a left by the bank, the woman told me.
The Odon Public Library is in a small building on Main Street, what you might expect for a library in a town of 1,400 people. A librarian directed me to the yearbooks on a low shelf. I sat cross-legged on the floor and pulled out the Odonians one by one. The yearbooks are much thinner than my Curie High School yearbooks. I attended a big public school on the southwest side of Chicago, a world apart from Odon.
Instead of finding the complete yearbook for the class of 1953. I found something like an abridged version. Inside I came across a group photo of the Odon-Madison Twp. High School class of ’53. Lillian’s picture appeared in the second row from the top.
Lillian wore a dark short-sleeved dress with a cameo necklace and something flowery, perhaps a corsage, under her left shoulder. Her dark hair was combed away from her face, lips carefully colored with lipstick. Unlike many of her grinning classmates, my mother’s dark eyes looked straight at the camera with no trace of a smile on her face.
Separated from Family: My Birth Mother’s Childhood
When Lillian was born in 1935, her parents, George and Susan, had several small children to care for. They were desperately poor. The authorities – social workers? – intervened. They found other homes for Lillian, her brothers and sisters.
When she was about 4, Lillian and her younger brother, Eric, lived with a couple named Jackson in Daviess County. Lillian and Eric were described as “welfare children” in the Jackson home by U.S. Census takers in 1940.
In high school, Lillian lived with the Wades, who had three children and lived on a farm near Odon. Lillian and her brother, Eric, moved in with the Wades at the same time but the arrangement didn’t last long for Eric. Because of his behavior, Eric was sent to live elsewhere. Lillian took care of the children, becoming a surrogate mom to Donna, who adored her older “sister.”
I’d like to believe that kind-hearted people took my mother in and loved her but I know that wasn’t always the case with her foster families. Lillian must have felt abandoned by her natural family.
Feeling Like an Outsider with My Adoptive Parents
I wonder if Lillian felt like an outsider like I did. Claire and Bob, my adoptive parents, loved me and took care of me the way parents are supposed to but that wasn’t enough to make me feel like I belonged to the family.
I wasn’t like Bob and Claire. I was a dreamer who read a lot of books. Books took me to new places and opened my mind to what I could discover once I escaped from my parents’ home and the drabness of Gage Park. Reading rescued me from boredom. Claire and Bob did not read books and felt at home in Gage Park. They had lived in Gage Park for decades.
Lillian loved to read. Maybe reading books helped my birth mother escape and imagine a better life for herself. I wonder which books were her favorites.
Drawing was another one of her pastimes. Lillian drew a simple pencil sketch of herself, mostly her hair with an outline of her face in silhouette, on the blank page at the end of “The Children’s Book of Bible Stories,” one of her old books.
My Birth Mother in High School
Lillian must have liked to sing. At Odon High, my birth mother belonged to the Glee Club for at least two years. At some point in high school, she met a handsome classmate named Rex and they had a serious relationship. Though Lillian and Rex never married, her classmates predicted they would.
“Lillian Arvin is now married to Rex Mallette and she is one of the most popular artists of our day,” classmates (or the yearbook editor) noted in the 1953 Odonian yearbook. In the class poem, classmates predicted: “Lillian Arvin is going to be a housewife. She’ll be Rex Mallette’s the rest of her life.”
Spending time with old yearbooks felt like a trip back in time to my birth mother’s early life, so different from my big city childhood. I wondered who were her friends among the seniors who graduated in 1953. The more I learn about Lillian, the more questions I have.
I photocopied the picture of the class of ’53 and tucked it inside an envelope. Another photo for my collection, I thought as I left the library and walked to my car.
Now it’s time to meet my Arvin cousins. I drove back to Interstate 69 which took me to Montgomery where I would meet my cousins at a formal family reunion.