Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Best Laid Genealogical Plans, Part III

In the longtime search for my birth father, information I eventually found among RootsWeb member family trees led me to a contact in Bryan County, Oklahoma. I decided to make the phone call as soon as possible, before I chickened out. I knew that if I thought about things too much, I would rationalize myself into a hole. I had to remind myself that the goal was to make contact with my birth father, and not to cringe and falter at the very edge of success.

I was not certain that the woman whose phone number I dialed that day in July 2009 was a relation, but in my gut, I knew absolutely that she was. When she answered the phone, I gave my name and mentioned that I was referred by the woman who had been researching the family for DAR status. She knew immediately who I meant. I said that I was also researching the family, and cautiously began to ask a few questions.

This woman in Bryan County, Oklahoma, whom I will call "Gem," had several brothers, it turned out. When I asked which of them had remained in the California Bay Area during the post World War II years, it narrowed the field significantly. I decided to take the leap, telling her: "I think I'm your niece." Much to my surprise, she didn't seem the least bit disturbed, and replied,"Oh yes, that would be 'JM.'" We continued to talk, and I asked if I could mail her some photographs for identification, which she agreed to.

A little over a week passed, and I made a second phone call to Oklahoma. Gem confirmed that the young man in the photograph with my mother was her older brother, JM. The man pictured with his wife and two children turned out to be JM's uncle, and not his brother... so much for hand-me-down information. No wonder I had such trouble equating the two brothers in census records... they were not brothers at all, and therefore, not part of the same nuclear family.

So, now I was speaking to my very own "Aunt Gem." What strange feelings I had as she told me about her family, including my paternal grandparents, who had been poor sharecroppers in the same location for many years. She told me of her older sister, who was lost to cancer, and of a younger brother who had also died within the past few years. He turned out to be the very same Georgia man whose obituary and tribute photo had haunted me on the internet. No wonder I had felt a connection, for he was my uncle.

Though Gem was warm and welcoming, she did not feel comfortable approaching her brother, JM, about me. Instead, she gave me his address and phone number in California, and encouraged me to call him myself. I could understand her position entirely, though it meant more agony preparing for a second phone call with uncertain outcome. JM, now in his early 80s and sick with diabetes, had been widowed a few years ago. He lives alone, but his son visits regularly to take care of things around the house and run errands. Now I knew that I also had a brother out there, and importantly, that I would not be upsetting anyone's wife or mother by making contact.

All those years I spent growing up in the Bay Area, JM had been reasonably close at hand, but invisible. My mother married when I was a little over a year old, and I was adopted by my new father soon after that; we had our own little family, and life went on. I asked Mom not too long ago if JM had ever seen me, and she was only aware of one time, when she allowed him to come visiting soon after I was born. After that, she did her best to sever all contact. It is one thing to cease all contact, but quite impossible to avoid the curiosity and yearnings of a child over a parent, no matter how old that child may grow to be, or how absent the parent may become.

I came to the realization that our genetic compositions have a powerful affect on personal perception. Flesh and blood is bonding in ways we cannot even touch with the conscious mind. A few years ago, I began corresponding with an older relative who was related to my maternal grandmother. My grandmother died when Mom was less than two years of age, and I hadn't much contact with that side of the family. Yet, when I finally met this calm, unassuming, and well-spoken woman and her middle-aged daughter for the first time, no words were needed. A feeling came over me that I already knew her; her body was like my body; her soul was like my soul; even the way she moved and talked felt electric to me... like something long lost that was now found. The obvious, but also the subliminal similarities of our shared genetics, hit me over the head like a ton of bricks. I will never forget that experience.

So, now I was left with a frightening task... of calling the man I knew to be, beyond a doubt, my genetic father. I could hardly believe my good fortune to have found him in time! But, what would I say to him? What would we talk about? What was his side of the story? Would he like me? Upon meeting him, would I feel the way I did when I met my grandmother's relative for the first time? Did he even want to hear from me?

I decided to send a letter first, partly to ease the burden on myself, but also to give JM some time to read and reread the letter before I attempted to talk to him. I took a lot of care in crafting that letter: not too mushy, not too urgent, not too expectant... but, with concern and just the right amount of interest expressed. At the end of the letter, I gave my contact information and said that I would wait a decent interval and then try to call him, but that he could call me first, if he preferred.

It wasn't as difficult to wait as I thought, because part of me dreaded having to make that phone call. I decided on the day, and then once again locked myself into the spare bedroom equipped with just my cell phone, a pad of paper, and a pen. As the ring tone began sounding, I realized with some measure of surprise that I was optimistic, and not afraid like when I made that first exploratory call to Aunt Gem.

The phone call was picked up, but it wasn't an older man's voice that greeted me. It was someone younger than JM: my brother, perhaps? I asked to speak with JM, and the younger man asked who was calling. "Chery," I said tentatively. "Who with?" he asked, as if I were a salesperson. Okay, I thought, he's going to make it extra tough on me. I quickly thought how best to put it so I wasn't letting the cat out of the bag. "I sent him a letter a few days ago," I said, and then I waited. I heard the man's voice in the background, directed to someone else. Suddenly, there was a soft, but final-sounding "click" at the other end. It took me a few seconds to realize that I had been hung up on.

Convicted, without a jury? How could this be? That evening, I did my best to not feel utterly devastated. Eventually, I reasoned that JM had not yet come to terms with this new situation and had obviously not told his son about me. JM had been caught in a compromised position when I happened to call at the wrong moment. It was totally understandable...

My husband then stepped in and tried to help, because he saw what an emotional dishrag I was becoming. While I was at work one day, he called JM and they had, as my husband put it, a very decent conversation. JM agreed to my sending another letter. My husband even went so far as to say that he liked JM.

An additional letter was mailed to California, this time with photographs. Another decent interval passed, and my husband called again to pave the way for me. Though the two of them had talked for a good half-hour the time before, this time JM simply greeted him with "Bye!" and promptly hung up on him. What was going on, we wondered?

Things got complicated at home for awhile for unrelated reasons, and then came the business of the holiday season. Several months passed before I learned that my husband had again made attempt to call JM. This time, it was JM's son who answered the phone. My husband gave his name, and then said, "I'm married to the half-sister you know nothing about." Hardly a moment passed before the dreaded click sounded again.

So, that's that, I thought, after learning of the most recent attempt. JM must have told his son, and now, they were apparently both avoiding contact with me. How does one deal with this kind of rejection? My one consolation is that it is not ultimately a personal rejection; how can it be, when they don't even know me?

I prayed the next morning, and the answer came that I should send a card. So, I did... one final act of reaching out to JM. I told him that I hoped he was doing alright. I explained why my husband had intervened, because I could not stand the thought of being hung up on again... because I care. I asked if he was nervous about my intentions, and tried to assure him that all I ever wanted was to meet him, and that it seemed he did not share any of my feelings. I said that if he changed his mind before it was too late, I would still be here. Finally, I told him, "God bless you."

So ended the search for my birth father. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the old saying goes, and my expectations were never unrealistic. Still, I was not quite prepared for being shut out entirely. On the bright side, I now know more than I'd ever hoped to about the paternal side of my family. Aunt Gem sent me a few up-to-date photographs. I also know something of my paternal heritage, of hard share cropping days during the Dust Bowl years, and of a family line stretching all the way back to the Isle of Skye, Scotland in the 16th century. If I choose, there is a lot more research to be done to explore my British heritage.

JM and my mother, sharing a happy moment in 1948

But, what I can't do is force open the heart of the person who is halfway responsible for my very life. I must accept that although this is a tragic loss of opportunity to me, it is perhaps something altogether different for JM. People have their own reasons for thinking and feeling the things that they do, and I can't easily put myself in his shoes. Time may heal, but, it never forgets, and that memory is forever etched within my DNA, and within that of my children, as it will be in their children, and so on.

In the meantime, the midnight oil continues to burn bright on the desktop of many a hopeful genealogist; the dawn eventually breaks on the horizon, and the cycle of life goes on...


Thomas MacEntee said...

Oh Chery - I've been following this series and you have my greatest admiration. How difficult it must be to not feel devastated totally and rejected. As I kept reading I guess I expected the ending we always see on television: a tearful reunion, stories shared, bonds renewed. But the fact is that not all situations end like that.

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

I am so sorry your search didn't have a happier ending. You are much braver than I as I don't believe I would have been able to make the first phone call.

Carol said...


First, your articles have been riviting reading.

Second, HUGS!!

Third, what a wonderful husband you have.

Fourth, your emotional journey, will, I believe, make you a soul with more depth than before, more understanding, more empathy.

Every trip is made for a reason, you may never learn the reason, then again, you may. Enjoy that new depth. Embrace it!

Diana Ritchie said...

Oh Chery - I'm so sorry! I've been following your story (you are a wonderful writer - I could hardly wait for the next installment!!) and was hoping for a better endings.

It's always hard to imagine that someone wouldn't want to re-connect. In my family it was my mother's birth sad.

I really appreciate you sharing this story.

Astrid said...

Wow! You need to send your story to NPR's "The Story" and see if they will interview you. I wish you the best in this pursuit. Does your Aunt Gem know the reasons why JM seems so adamant to be left alone?

Bill West said...

I empathize with you. My Mom's Dad
severed all connections with her and
my uncle after a divorce. For years
she never spoke about him. I wish she had been able to try to reconnect
with him but there were so many emotions involved she never did.
I hope your father and brother will
someday have a change of heart.

Thank you for sharing your story.

Miriam Robbins said...

Chery, thanks for sharing this story, heart-breaking as it has been. Not every adoption story has a fairy-tale ending, but it must give you some peace to have some questions answered. I am glad you have been able to connect with Gem and get genealogical information on that side of your family tree.

Take care.

Greta Koehl said...

Chery, I can only echo the comments of others - you are so brave to have done this and I am so sorry that the outcome was not the one wished for. At least on the plus side you know that you have a wonderful husband and have found a new aunt. Thank you so much for posting this story.

Becky Wiseman said...


Thank you for sharing the story of the search for your father. I know it was hard for you to make those calls and even harder to write about it but you have done so quite eloquently.

Have you thought about sending your father and brother a link to your blog? Perhaps if they read this series they might have second thoughts and contact you...

Elyse said...

Chery - I am so sorry that your birth father refuses to talk to you. I can only imagine how hurt you must feel. Perhaps you should ask your Aunt Gem why he feels this way? Perhaps he has always felt guilty for not being around when you were a kid or maybe it is his own son that makes him avoid you. There are a multitude of reasons but I hope that some day in the future, before it is too late, that he will reach out too you.

Sheri Fenley said...

Chery I think JM's loss is by far greater. He is missing out on YOU!

Tracy said...

I have been following this series hoping and praying for a positive outcome. As I sat reading your story with tears in my eyes, I thought of my own similar saga. I was a very young child the last time I saw my own father so I empathize with your pain. I think there are just some issues that people can't reconcile even at the end of their lives. Unfortunately time does not heal all wounds.

I wish you the best as you get to know your Aunt Gem. It is courageous of you to share your story.

footnoteMaven said...


You know how I feel. We've discussed this.

What I'd like to tell you is how very brave I think you are "dishrag."

Your writing is perfection! Everyone who read this was sitting beside you on the bed waiting with you.

All things happen for a reason; even if we don't know what that reason is.

Life has a habit of making a hard right or left just when you thought you were headed in a straight line.


Alice Dilts said...

Thank you for sharing such a heart wrenching story about your birth father. It is hard to say why he acted the way he did although it could be something to do with his generation. Maybe your Aunt Gem can give you more insight. Any man can be a father but it takes someone special to be a Daddy.

Chery Kinnick said...

Thank you all for your supportive comments. I struggled with wondering if I should write about this topic, but it's what writers do--share stories about the human condition. And, what could be more human than this? I may be knocked down, but I'm not out. This experience has made me a better person, and one who has a much wider perspective than before, plus I achieved a lifelong goal of finding JM--so, not half bad. I could have wished for a different outcome, but what happened does not affect my self esteem. If anything, it has grown stronger. Take care everyone, and don't be afraid to face those difficult challenges. It is sometimes only by letting go that we can move forward and make room for the new.

Jasia said...

This is exactly every adopted child's worst fear when they decide to look for their bio parent. The sting of rejection is potent. You are a brave one, Chery, both for making the contact and for writing up and making public your experience. My heart goes out to you.

I wouldn't be surprised if you hear from your brother after your father is gone.

GrannyPam said...

I have no idea where you found the strength to write this, Chery. I hope that having contacted your birth father, you have the satisfaction of a completed task, in spite of the poor reception you have received.

God bless

Nancy Larson said...

You know, as I read your story and my heart "hurts' for you, I can't help but feel sad for your father and brother. You have been so much help to me, so warm and helpful, such a wonderful addition to my "family", I feel sad for their loss. And I can't help but think, what a couple of dumb male fools...Nancy L

Chery Kinnick said...

Gretel - I appreciate your understanding exactly what a genealogy discovery like this means, and thanks for the writing comment. But, I still want to grow up to be just like footnoteMaven. (Gosh, I miss Nearby History, don't you?)

Jasia & GrannyPam - you are so supportive, thank you.

Nancy - here's to a future of family collaboration (with the families that will have us, that is!)

Nora said...

If it seems appropriate, perhaps you could send your father a card with the information about the location of your blog enclosed so that he or your brother could explore it on their own and get a better picture of your intentions and heart, and the work you have done to reconnect with them. It is a long shot, but you never least you will have done everything possible without forcing the issue.