Mary Ellen Gambutti
caption of my photo poem, haiga:
"Snowy Egret on the bay shoreline,
stately and serene
how I envy your composure!"
Hello, dear visitors and subscribers!
I'm grateful for your time and presence here. Writing my memoir has been one of the hardest things I've done (besides my stroke rehabilitation going on twelve years ago.
The publication date of I Must Have Wandered: An Adopted Air Force Daughter Recalls is near the finish, and I'm downright antsy! My dedicated street team awaits advance proofread review copies of my manuscript. Early reviews will mean so much to the success of my book as an independent author. Great thanks to those who contributed early blurbs in praise of my book.
I hope my voice resonates broadly in the #adopteecommunity as well as with my fellow #BabyScoopEra #Adoptees ~
(Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_Scoop_Era )
Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, illegitimacy began to be defined in terms of psychological deficits on the part of the mother. At the same time, a liberalization of sexual morals combined with restrictions on access to birth control led to an increase in premarital pregnancies. The dominant psychological and social work view was that the large majority of unmarried mothers were better off being separated by adoption from their newborn babies. According to Mandell (2007), "In most cases, adoption was presented to the mothers as the only option and little or no effort was made to help the mothers keep and raise the children".
I have labeled my memoir as a "hybrid." In writing, the term has taken on a meaning of a fluid, or a genre-bending style. I might have called my book "auto-fiction," a hybridized autobiography since it is a coming-of-age story with a few fantasized, "perhapses," or fictional elements. But my truth is at the forefront, not fiction.
This article by Phillippa Finkemeyer, May 18th, 2020 in Kill Your Darlings Magazine is helpful in thinking about these definitions:
"Writers have long inserted themselves into their stories, but in recent years readers have increasingly turned to works which fall somewhere between fiction and memoir—a hybrid genre that allows both authors and readers to indulge in an idealised vision of the writer’s life."
My stories of loss and discovery are told through personal letters (epistolary), articles, vignettes, fragments, and images. I was born in South Carolina, relinquished to the care of strangers, and raised by a military couple in a blur of elsewhere.
I hope my stories find the hearts of those who want stories set in the 1950s and 1960s or can relate to life with authoritarian parents, or military families, or empathize with survivors of adoption trauma--children, and mothers of loss. Adoption professionals might find something of interest in my pages. My view of the adoption system is that it is flawed; that adoption laws are restrictive, potentially harmful, archaic, and they infantilize adoptees.
My personal experience and other adoptees' stories inform my belief that additional harm is caused when separation in infancy is not understood as trauma, as a wound. As you'll see, I have little to say about the blessings of adoption.
At our request, adult adoptees should be granted our vital records, birth certificates, and other records, including medical histories, and family heritage, just as every other American citizen is. It is our human right, whether we wish to search for our biological families or not. Until that time of justice, we adoptees advocate--and we wait.
I invite you to read this version of my piece published in Visible Magazine.
Adoption Fables and the Right to Know
Mary Ellen Gambutti
New Yorkers, Al and Agnes, moved to an apartment in Sumter, South Carolina in early 1951 when Al, who re-enlisted during the Korean War, was stationed at Shaw Air Force Base. They had been married for several years, and children didn't seem to be on their horizon until their parish priest suggested they adopt through Catholic Charities.
It was October 1952, and I was thirteen months old. The Rock Hill law office sent the couple a manila envelope with a packet of onion-skin pages folded and stapled into a legal blue cover. My adoption, finalized in the York County Court, made me the child of Al and Agnes. I'd been in their care since February 1952. They picked me up in Rock Hill with scant information about me.
The Certificate of Birth and Baptism arrived in the mail shortly after the adoption papers. It was issued from the Church of St. Ann in Rock Hill, the parish of St. Philip's Mercy Infant's and Children's Home where I was boarded. I surely never visited the church. The certificate was signed by my new parents--I assume just before the adoption--and it bears the stamp and seal of the State of South Carolina and St. Ann's Church. It proclaims my birth date and baptismal date four months later. There is no hospital name, no time of birth, no name of the mother who delivered me, no doctor's name, and no birth weight. The mysterious document certifies my birthplace as Rock Hill, South Carolina. The name my adoptive parents chose for me, Mary Ellen, and their full names as my mother and father, appear in longhand. My adoptive father's sister and brother in New York stood up for my christening--by proxy.
My adoptive parents mailed me my adoption papers when I was forty. I'd expressed my need to learn something of my origins, beyond the "day they brought me home" story. I wanted the full story of where I came from. It was a topic that hadn't been touched on for many years. The papers revealed that my given name was Ruth Ann, the "child petitioner" in the case; the name I was called in my first six months. From the time the woman who gave me life relinquished me to the care of the nuns, and my Guardian ad litem, Sr. Mary Mathias, my struggle for the truth of Ruth Ann, had been upon me.
In Arnold Constable, the posh Hackensack department store where my grandmother took me for a winter coat, a tall mirrored wall rose next to the wide, carpeted staircase. "Who is that girl?" Nana playfully asked me. At four, I loved the self-recognition game. I'm here in the mirror, but am not. Is this the real me? Years passed before I wondered who looks like me?
All I knew growing up was that I was born in Rock Hill, South Carolina. It was the only heritage I knew, and I was proud to claim it. Some of my parents' northern family teased me with the moniker, "Rebel," and the notion intrigued me. I somewhat understood I wasn't fully part of them, though no one spoke about "genes," or where babies come from, I knew intuitively I was the black sheep. Being adopted set me apart from them, and it suited me--at least in my early years. I loved them all, but I wasn't theirs. I was becoming a difficult child.
I would much later realize that my Certificate of Baptism and Birth is falsified; produced by the State and Church--both a keepsake and a paltry legal notice. Photocopied many times, it was my identification document, used in combination with my laminated military-dependent I.D. card. I had been unaware that its validity was wearing out, becoming out-of-date, and learned the certification had run its course when I was denied an attempt to get a passport in the early 1990s. I was told that an official Birth Certificate from South Carolina was required. I was stunned to learn from Vital Records that as an adoptee, there did exist an Original Birth Certificate, but it was sealed along with my other birth records. I couldn't have a copy of it and was not legally permitted to see it.
At that time, I didn't look into the adoption law of my birth State but later learned this sealing had taken place in the 1960s. My adoptive parents likely weren't aware that a new restrictive law had bound us from having a copy. They had always assumed there was nothing more to know and were content with the myths around my origins. We had long been out of the State of S.C., and our physical distance, as well as the passage of time, negated the concern of contact. My birth mother would remain unknown. "Mother may I" wasn't an option--I had no idea who she was. To get a passport, I needed an Amended Birth Certificate--another falsified document.
The once upon a time of my origins, the story my parents told me when I turned six followed Catholic Charities' guidelines. In my pajamas ready for bed, I played with my Betsy-Wetsy doll, and listened intently to Dad, but didn't look at his face. I'd heard it from infancy, but the word adopted now sounded strange. It denoted specialness, sadness, weakness, and fragility. Was I broken? I was orphaned by "…an accident," he said, "Everyone is gone." Oddly, my parents didn't seem sad for the disappeared family--neither their loss nor mine. It was a family with no names. The benefit of the loss came to Mom and Dad. They were happy, and so should I be.
As I continued my quest, I received an Amended Birth Certificate. I learned that many states allow only the release of "non-identifying information" about an adoptee's birth mother. The release of information determined by our adoption agencies tells nothing of her true identity. Therefore, the adoptee's true identity is likewise unknown. In these states, pushing against the seal; breaking the barrier to our birth records is unlawful. In my case, Catholic Charities is subject to South Carolina adoption law, and the agency is bound to hold back anything in their archives that might assist me in finding my birth mother or family by name. The bare-bones-- my biological mother's height, weight, hair color, and level of education--were all I may have, with the sincere apologies of the Director that she may share nothing else of my story. She told me my mother had assured the agency that my biological father was unknown to her. At the time I guessed that perhaps he was a serviceman. There was a multitude in South Carolina in the 40s and 50s. Perhaps he was married to someone else, or otherwise unsuitable. The vague "mother unwed--father unknown" with its accompanying stigma of illegitimacy branded my origin. My adoption by a respectable Catholic couple, with an added military insignia, would legitimize me.
When I was six, after my parents told me the bedtime fable, I fantasized about my lost ones. I would think and think about the accident I had miraculously survived. I saw no similarity between my parents and me in the mirror. Dad said he was told that I am "English-Irish;" and that the agency matched me to him. I accepted the story; embraced it because it and they were all I had. But I was skeptical, my curiosity was unsatisfied. My dad was a surrogate with a similar heritage, but he was a replacement. He and my mom, who was Polish and Czech, were stand-ins. I began to understand--I wasn't from them. Who do I look like? Who am I?
My adoptive father was an amateur photographer, trained in reconnaissance--an intelligence officer. He took a myriad of portraits of me as a young girl. Later, he sleuthed and spied on me. As I began to express my separate personhood, we connected less and grew apart. His ideal of a perfect child faded, and he was away often on military duty.
Our frequent transfers and my school and friend losses hurt me. I suffered scholastically and socially. I felt miscast and misunderstood as an adopted teen. I drew further inward. Nervous anxiety developed into low self-esteem and depression. Adolescent rage, rebellion, secrecy, and sadness grew. Dad's way of dealing with me was physical punishment. When he was home, wherever we were, his role was as a disciplinarian.
At a loss with my frequent lying, my parents brought me to a therapist, but nothing was resolved in a few sessions. I couldn't be fixed that quickly. Falsehoods adhered to me. I lied to create a self because the truth of my identity was masked, and didn't matter.
My adoptive parents both praised me and provided, then punished by denial. I once told my father that all the "material things" they gave me, they didn't give me "what I needed." There was nothing else he could do about me and for me. They couldn't comfort the longing. They sneered, calling me ungrateful. I couldn't be satisfied with what they gave me. I didn't fully understand the truth of what I told my dad that day when he had walked away, perhaps hurt, maybe stunned, his lips sealed, like my identity.
Months into my journey to find kin, I received a gift from an adoptee advocate. Her record breach helped me find my birth mother, my half-sister, and many other family members in 1993, in Greenville, South Carolina. I'm thankful for the sense of urgency that made me act when I did. A year after our reunion, my birth mother died. She was only sixty-nine, close to the age I am at this writing. Her hard life was cut short by loss and illness and she was once again removed from me. It would take DNA testing to find the full truth when I learned who my biological father is. I've connected with all six of my living siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews, while the documents that are inherently mine remain under seal. When stories and fables are insufficient, science and human kindness may reveal the truth; my true birthplace of Greenville, South Carolina, and my Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and German heritage. Thank goodness, the "accident" was a myth.
My adoptive and bio parents are deceased, and the South Carolina Adoption Law is yet even more restrictive now. A measure is in Judiciary to ban adoptees from obtaining their birth records no matter when the adoption took place, except by parental permission. The laws that treat adoptees as children are archaic. It is our civil right to know our identities, our heritage, and our ethnicity. It takes persistence to get these laws changed, and adoptees are determined to have our truths restored; what we lost when our records were sealed. We adoptees, bastards, foundlings, and orphans have suffered a great loss, and want back what we have lost. We are entitled to the truthful date and place of our birth, and open access to our records. The laws that deny us this right must not define us.
Happy Mother's Day!
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(c) copyright Mary Ellen Gambutti 2022 - all rights reserved.