Tag Archives: Adoptees; biological parents; adoptive parents; adoption education

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.



Just The Facts About Adoption

People who have no experience with adoption might get the impression from the news or TV that it is always a drama worthy of Hollywood or at least a made-for-TV movie.

Yes, there are cases like the Baby Veronica custody battle, a story that could easily inspire a Hollywood tearjerker. The Baby Veronica saga is exceptional.

The Cradle, an adoption agency in Evanston, Illinois, tries to set the record straight about adoption. I talked to The Cradle’s Joan Jaeger about the agency’s Volunteers for Adoption Education program.

Joan Jaeger                            

Lynne: What do the volunteers do?
Joan: The volunteers are a group of people who have been personally touched by adoption — birth parents, adoptive parents or adopted people. Some high schools bring us back every year, even twice a year. We have some teachers who have written us into their curriculum. We’ve gone to one of the community colleges, too. On occasion, we’ll go to a junior high school.

We share a little bit about what adoption is and the personal stories from the volunteers. We always try to have all three parties to the adoption together (the adoptee, the adoptive parent and the birth parent), either live or through YouTube. If any one is not there in person, we pull up our YouTube channel, pick our play lists and hear from the person who is not there in the classroom. It fills in those blanks.

When someone is telling their personal story, it can make a huge difference in a student’s life. Those are the comments we get back from teachers, how helpful it was to hear straight from the mouths of people who’ve lived through the experience.

Lynne: How many volunteers do you have?
Joan: Probably 60 to 70 active volunteers.

Lynne: How long has The Cradle been doing this?
Joan: Over 30 years.

Lynne: Why is this programming necessary?
Joan: Adoption is one of those things everyone thinks they know about. You ask them basic questions and find out what they know is based on a made-for-TV movie or MTV. That’s not the typical reality. It’s helpful to share this information. It’s helpful for adopted people to be in the classroom to have their experiences validated. It’s helpful for anybody to better understand the reality.

A volunteer talks to a class about adoption

Lynne: Why do school children need to know about adoption?
Joan: The MTV shows target them. Things get overglamorized in the press. Some things get twisted in a way that isn’t real.

Lynne: Is there a lot of misinformation out there?
Joan: Oh sure. For example, there are some odd ideas about what open adoption is. People have this perception it is joint custody or co-parenting. It’s not.

Lynne: What do students ask?
Joan: One common question our adoptees get is, “Don’t you have a lot of questions about your real mom? When did you find out you were adopted?” It’s interesting the kinds of questions they get like the “real” mom question. The person who’s been raising the (adoptee) is as real as anyone else. For your average adoptee, adoption is simply part of who they are.

Lynne: What are some other common questions?
Joan: (For adoptive parents), “Aren’t you worried the birth mom will come back and take the baby?” In real life, that almost never happens. Whenever there’s a contested adoption, it gets a lot of play in the media because it’s unusual. The one story in a million becomes the news. People assume that’s the norm and not the exception.