New Yorkers, Al and Agnes, had 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 in my early months. 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 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?’ In time I wondered, ‘who else mirrors 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 really 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 on the route to being a somewhat “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 South Carolina, 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. It still shows my adoptive parents as though they are biological, but it does show the hospital, St. Francis, in Greenville. I was from the western part of S.C., not from Rock Hill!
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 and received an Amended Birth Certificate, I learned that many states allow only the release of “non-identifying information” about an adoptee’s birth mother, and that release of information is determined by the agencies and contains nothing that identifies her. To push against the seal; to break the barrier to adoptees’ 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. So, the bare bones of my biological mother’s information–height, weight, hair color, and level of her education–were all I received, with the sincere apologies of Sister-Director that it was all she may share with me. 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” encapsulated my origin.
After the bedtime revelation by my parents, I fantasized about my lost ones, and “thought and thought” sometimes about the accident I had miraculously survived. In fact, I began to dwell on death, became fearful and anxious, wondering ‘who am I?’ The physical differences between my parents and me were hard to deny. Adopted babies were said to be matched with adopters of similar heritage. My dad was Irish, and my mom was Polish and Czech. I puzzled in the mirror for any resemblance. Who do I look like?
Dad was an amateur photographer. He took pride in his childhood portraits of me. As I began to express my personhood, we connected less and less. We grew apart, as his perfect child ideal faded. He was often away on military duty. Our frequent transfers and school changes hurt me, and I suffered scholastically and socially. Although I was a likable kid, I felt miscast and misunderstood as an adopted teen. I drew further inward, and what began as nervous habits developed into low self-esteem and depression.
My rage was sometimes out of control, with tears, rebellious behavior, secrecy, and all the rest. When he was around, Dad’s way of dealing with me was physical punishment. At a loss with my lying, my parents took me to a therapist, but nothing could be resolved in the few sessions they allowed me. I couldn’t be fixed that quickly. The falsehoods around my origins adhered to me. I lied to create a self, because the truth of my identity was masked.
The fable my parents told me when I was six was all they had for me about who I am. They would give me all I needed–they thought they could–but they couldn’t. In tears, I once told my father that despite all the “material things” they gave me, they didn’t give me “what I needed.” They called me ungrateful, that I couldn’t be satisfied with what I had. I might not have fully understood the truth in what I told Dad that day, but he must have known my hurt–and although he was hurt, too, he walked away. They were incapable of offering me the comfort I needed. Their lips were sealed like my original birth certificate and my true identity.
Months into my journey to find kin, I received a gift from a “search angel.” It took a record breach to find my family of origin. I met my birth mother, Leila Grace, my half-sister, Karen, and many other family members in the autumn of 1993 in Greenville, South Carolina. By all accounts, it was a joyful reunion. I’m thankful for my perceived urgency to 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 life had been so hard, full of loss, and chronic illness took her away from me again.
In 2015, Karen and I found another maternal half-sister, Lottie. We three discovered we were fathered by different men. DNA testing allows us to see our hereditary truth. When stories and fables are insufficient, science tells us. In 2017, I connected with a paternal first cousin and his family in Greenville. They helped me identify my deceased biological father and four more half-siblings. Thank goodness! The “accident” was a myth.
Now, all my parents are gone, and the South Carolina Adoption Law is even more restrictive. A measure is currently in Judiciary to ban adoptees from their birth records no matter when the adoption took place, except by parental permission. What if the bio-mother (parent) is dead? What if the adoptive parents are dead? The laws that treat adoptees as children are archaic. States are thieves of what inherently belongs to us. It is our civil right to know our identities, our heritage, and our ethnicity. It takes persistence to get these laws changed; the kind of determination that drives adoptees to seek our truths, what we lost when our records were sealed, what is most important; intrinsic to us. The movement to restore adoptees’ rights is alive. Adoptees, bastards, foundlings, and orphans, we have suffered a great loss: identity. We are all entitled to the truthful date of our birth, and our actual birthplace. We must have open access to our birth certificates. The laws that deny us our right to our identity must not define us.
Mary Ellen was adopted in the State of SC in 1952, and has no legal access to her original birth certificate, although she has been in reunion since 1993, and can trace her ancestry by DNA. She, like so many adoptees, is marginalized for being relinquished at birth. Her personal essays have been published in many literary publications, and her adoption memoir is in progress.