An Adoptee Turns to Humor to Endure Secrets and Lies

I was born in February of 1968, a byproduct of the previous year’s notorious “Summer of Love.” There were so many relinquished babies in the late ‘60s, we were like a Pet-Smart hamster cage overrun with new litters. Any ‘God-fearing’ family with a traditional home setup and decent donation check could score one of us pinkies.

The idea of adoption first popped into my adoptive dad’s head as he strolled through the 1967 Minnesota State Fairgrounds with his four bio-kids and clinically depressed wife. There in the livestock section was a Catholic Charities adoption marketing booth decorated as – no lie – a red barn adorned with big photos of adorable, pink, healthy baby faces. BINGO, thought Dad. This will keep my emotionally crippled wife busy and add some pep to the house like a cute new puppy.

“No, I do not want to adopt a baby,” insisted adoptive mom. But Dad demanded it would be a nice Catholic thing to do, and it was a patriarchal time, so despite protests from Mom and the youngest bio-kid, they did it.

Trouble With Tribbles
Again, in those days there were gobs of babies available. Have you seen that old 1967 Star Trek episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles”? It may have been inspired by all of us little homeless waifs. So a family that already had several natural-born children and an unstable mother was still able to pass the brief home visit with flying colors. Those issues might not be approved on today’s social service checklists.

As I grew…and grew….and grew (eventually reaching 5’11” in a very petite family – women 5’1”, men around 5’6”), adoption was never discussed except for the one time I was informed about my own adoption.

I was 6-years-old and we had recently talked about the word “adopted” in my first grade class. For some reason, I had confused the word “adopted” with “baptized” so I told my teacher that I was adopted at church. She explained the definitions in more detail and cleared up my confusion.

I relayed this story to Dad when he and I were alone together, and he stated matter-of-factly that I was in that category the teacher described, I was adopted. Another woman had me, and they were raising me, and that was about it.

Mom never wanted to talk about it. The older siblings weren’t interested, either. They are strikingly similar to one another in stature and physical features, and they’re all very much alike in personality and lifestyle preferences, too—staunchly conservative, Catholic, meat-and-potatoes Republicans.

And I’m an agnostic, vegetarian, tree-hugging liberal. For years I tried to adapt and conform. Most adoptees have a strong desire to fit in and deep fear of abandonment, so up through my early 20s I attempted to change my true nature. But man, it is exhausting trying to be someone you are not.

ricardo herve
So, like bad episodes of Love Boat and Fantasy Island blaring on the TV every Saturday night, it (“it” = adoption, round peg in square hole, etc.) was plainly ‘there’ in the room but never discussed.

There were some nice times together. There was definitely no abuse, and my kid brain always reasoned, if not for this family I would’ve been left in a bag on the street or something worse! Be GRATEFUL, Tribble!

At age 18, I had to find a genetic link after a lifetime of feeling like an alien dropped from space (this Star Trek theme won’t stop, will it? I do love Shatner).

Catholic Charities agreed to check my file, and saw that my mother, Terry,* had contacted them several years prior, inquiring about me. They sent her a form to fill out, which would allow me to access my information and her contact information. The completed form was never returned; however, it did not take long for the social worker intermediary to contact Terry and see if she was up for some communication (cue Peaches & Herb “Reunited”).

mork egg ship toy
Polite, friendly letters, a few phone calls, and one face-to-face meeting ensued. The honeymoon phase felt good. I was shocked at the amount of relief I felt about the fact that I had actually been born to someone, came from a real genetic family like other human beings. Not like Mork from Ork. Not even a tribble.

Terry was 24 when she had run out of money, and options, while living in San Francisco several months pregnant with me. She had not told anyone in her family about her pregnancy, but decided to tell her brother, who was a priest temporarily assigned in St. Paul, Minnesota.

He got Terry settled in at a Catholic Charities wage home while she waited out the pregnancy and relinquishment plans. She told me she blocked out a lot of that period of her life, but more than once she defended her choice, stating, “I did what was right for me at the time.”

Okay. Thanks Mama. But WHY couldn’t your brother have been stationed in Honolulu? Or anywhere else that wasn’t the COLDEST FREAKING PLACE ON THE PLANET TO GROW UP? Just kidding (kind of). There are some lovely people up there in Minnesota, even if they do all sound like the cast of Fargo.

Terry and I stayed in contact off and on for about six years. It was rocky. She had never told her kept children (or most relatives) about me, and she was clearly not comfortable having an ongoing relationship with her deep, shameful secret.

So, after dozens of her denials and disappearing acts, our quasi-relationship was kaput. My letters were not answered and the rare phone call had been met with condescension and irritation. Secondary rejection is not fun or pretty. But I decided it was a sign to look up the “other half of me,” my paternal side.

Terry had never told my father, Rick, that I existed. She had broken up with him and moved to San Francisco from Philadelphia after finding out she was prego with me. My last phone call to her, telling her about my desire to connect with him, was met with the outrage and fury of a thousand angry klingons!

With the help of a Catholic Charities intermediary again, I found my father. Although Terry had never intended to state his name anywhere in the records, apparently she let it slip during a counseling session and the note-taker at the time (bless her heart) jotted Rick’s full name in the paperwork margins. It was easy to find him because he and his family lived in the same neighborhood as Terry and her family. Some of their kids attended the same school, and the wives knew each other. Talk about a soap opera. Seriously, Aaron Spelling couldn’t make this stuff up!

No wonder she freaked out. Oh, the tangled web some weave. We have never spoken again. But I forgive her, for my own well being and for the sake of moving on.

Anyway, Rick was surprised but delighted to find out he had another child. Getting to know him and several other paternal family members has been a real treat. He is as laid-back as my mother is high-strung. He introduced me to dozens of kinfolk.

My Great Aunt Helen and I developed a close friendship for a few years, until she passed away. She used to tell me I reminded her of her mother, my great grandmother. She said our hands and gestures were identical, and Great Grandma was nearly 6 feet tall. This meant so much to me.

MilMaLuIt’s been a ridiculous ride, but fascinating to say the least. Now I have my own wonderful tribbles, I mean CHILDREN!, and have learned some valuable lessons to pass on about nature, nurture, honesty, openness, forgiveness, and love.

One of the biggest messages I’ve taken from all of this is that sometimes the universe hands you some major, in-your-face contrast so you can more clearly see what you do want in your life. Honesty, integrity, and being a loving, attentive mom are high on my list of goals, and maybe some of that has to do with seeing their opposites.
So, now with a bit of closure achieved, life goes on.

As Mr. Spock keenly advises: “Live Long and Prosper” – and of course laugh whenever you can.

*Names not changed to protect privacy. Screw that. Enough with the secrets and lies.

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15 Responses to “An Adoptee Turns to Humor to Endure Secrets and Lies”

  1. Matthew Winkler says:

    Mary, I love your position on privacy. You earned it.
    “*Names not changed to protect privacy. Screw that. Enough with the secrets and lies.”

  2. Lisa von Braun says:

    Dear Mary,

    One reason I appreciate your story is that you have had a successful reunion with your birthdad, and I needed to hear that message of hope.
    At the age of 28 I had a very successful reunion, still going strong, with my birthmom. However, my reunion with her did threaten my adoptive mom, and the relationship has slowly deteriorated over the years.
    On my birthdad’s side it, has been very tough to get anyone to talk to me, he keeps saying no (over 20+ years, I try occasionally).
    I have two sons by birth and one by adoption ( he was 13 at the time, and we did not change his name and have honored his family connections) and remain fascinated by adoption issues, while continuing to gain insight from reading the stories of others. In your story, the idea of being from ‘Ork’ – yes! I felt so incredibly grounded once I had the information.
    One of the tasks of life is knowing the self…as an adoptee from a time when adoptions were closed, that task can be complicated and take a lifetime to complete.
    Thank you for your perspective, excellent writing, and sharing your story.

    • Mary says:

      Hi Lisa,

      Thanks so much for your message.

      Outright refusals to meet, and relationships that get too difficult and need constant recalibration (like yours and your mother’s – BOTH mothers, really) are unfortunate. Connecting with our roots shouldn’t be so complicated and painful.

      It’s great that your adopted son got to keep his name and family connections! You are an inspiration for all adoptive parents (or should be!). Gives me tingles.

      I hope that your father and other family members come around eventually and want to meet you. Frankly, I’ll never understand the mindset of relatives who reject or ignore a long-lost family member who simply reaches out to say hello. Very puzzling.

      Yes, finding our “self” is a lifelong task for those of us born in the era of secrecy and cut off from everything familiar/comforting. It helps that we adoptees have each other for support and understanding.


  3. Lynne says:

    Great story, Mary. I like your sense of humor. I can relate to how it feels being a square peg in a round hole. I was raised by a couple who adopted me and my sister when they were in their 50s. Melissa and I had the oldest parents around. It was strange. Our parents never bothered to tell us we were adopted, choosing to take those details to their graves. Yes, we were adopted in the secret ’60s. I am glad today’s parents are more open about adoption with their kids. Lynne

    • Mary says:

      Thanks so much, Lynne.
      I just can’t imagine being a parent who thinks it’s okay to withhold that kind of information from a person, from the child they are raising. I’m sorry you had to deal with finding out after your adoptive parents passed. It must have been almost too much to take in. The secretive ’60s — Good Riddance. Wishing you all the best in continued healing and thriving.

  4. […] in awe of the ways she used satire to endure not only secrets and lies, but truth too. Her story, An Adoptee Turns to Humor to Endure Secrets and Lies, wasn’t the only new take on the adoption […]

  5. Karen Goldner says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Mary! It makes all the difference in the world when we can look at what we have been through as adoptees (I am also post-reunion) and see the absurdity in it! I could really relate to what you said about being relieved to know you had actually been born to a human being like everyone else. I always had the sense that I just materialized one day, out of thin air.

    Laughter is the best medicine!


    • Mary Sisco says:

      Hi Karen!
      It is bizarre growing up in a large family where everyone is related except for you. It *does* make you feel like some materialized, out-of-place creature.
      Thank goodness for the camaraderie of fellow adoptees, the only ones who can truly relate.
      I hope things are going well for you post reunion!
      Thanks for your nice note 🙂

  6. Mary,
    I enjoyed your humor and especially the Star Trek Original Series references! When I found my birth fam, I found a cousin who is a huge Trek fan! She has a Trek party every New Years Eve! It’s awesome! Thanks for sharing!

    • Mary Sisco says:

      Yay for Trekkies! And Trek parties – Wow, that must be a blast. Major props to your cousin [insert Vulcan salute]
      Thanks, Paige!

  7. Diane Clayton says:

    What a great article! Also a 60’s adoptee, raised in a good Christian home, well loved and taken care of. BUT, and we all have one, I still feel like the odd shaped peg! Been searching for Bio-mom and not getting anywhere! I digress, anyway thanks for a look into a possibility of my future! And the laugh and giggle! Your my kind of writer!

    • Mary Sisco says:

      Nice to meet a fellow ’60s love child, Diane.
      It is very empowering to find your roots no matter how the reunions turn out. I wish you lots of luck in your search for ‘the pegboard from whence you came’ (a.k.a. bio-family). Thanks for your kind note!

  8. Darlene says:

    Loved your story and wacky sense of humor!