Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dear Diary (1968-69) .....

My grandmother kept a diary for years and faithfully wrote entries every single day.  I received a diary when I was 11 (birthday present, I'm guessing) and made a rather half-hearted attempt to keep a record of my life.  Unfortunately, I wasn't very good at it, and I had a younger brother who kept stealing it to read it (even though there was very little written inside -- go figure).

I did make some notes about life with my new adoptive "family" during my first couple years there.  I'm transcribing them now just as I wrote them then.

Friday, December 27, 2013

One of two .....

As I posted earlier, upon my arrival I was informed that I was now "one of four" kids and, therefore, not entitled to anything other than what everyone else had.  However, the reality was that there weren't four kids living at home at that point.  My uncle's daughter had left for college that Fall, and once she was no longer a permanent resident, my uncle and his wife opted to send their Down Syndrome son to an institution in a city two hours away.  Their daughter had been his primary care-giver, much more so than his parents, and he was too much trouble(?), too difficult(?), too time-consuming(?) for them to handle without her.  They never told me the real reason, and I never asked.  He lived at the institution full-time, coming home only every other weekend, until he moved to an adult group home several years later.
Therefore, the only other child living at home was my younger brother.  Recall that he was both my biological brother (adopted at the age of three months) and, soon, my adoptive brother as well.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Fish out of water .....

I'd lived my entire life in cities; first San Francisco, then a small city in the Midwest.  My uncle, however, lived in a New England suburb.  Despite its size (pop. ~15,000), it was far more cosmopolitan than the city where I'd been living (pop. ~600,000).  Its location, approximately one hour outside New York City, meant that many of its residents worked in "the city" and, in fact, many were (and still are) at least semi-famous:  novelists, actors, politicians.  One of my classmates-to-be was a child model and had, by 6th grade, already appeared in several magazines.

It was vastly different from what I was used to.

Friday, November 29, 2013

One of four .....

I have no conscious memory of the next few days.  The drive to the East Coast took most of two days, and I don't remember anything of the trip.  I know I sat in the backseat, likely reading or napping the entire time.  If I cried, it was done silently, and neither my uncle nor his wife would have bothered to try comforting me.

As my uncle would later say, many times, he didn't believe in psychiatrists and counseling.  Any problems could and should be dealt with privately and on one's own.  And neither he nor his wife believed in "coddling" children.

I knew it was going to be vastly different, but I hadn't realized how difficult life would actually be with my uncle's family. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Saying goodbye .....

Going through my grandfather's effects after his death, we found several letters and photographs. Shuffling through them, I came across one that I'd forgotten even existed, and seeing it brought tears to my eyes.
Somehow during the intervening years, I've lost the picture, but I have a clear memory of it, even now.  It's a photo of my uncle, my uncle's wife, and me -- taken just before we left for the drive "home" after my grandmother's funeral.
The three of us are posed in front of the family car, a station wagon.  Hitched to it, a small U-Haul trailer carrying all my worldly possessions.

The end of the beginning .....

The days immediately following my grandmother's death are rather hazy now.  My uncle's wife soon arrived, having made arrangements for the care of her children and then driven 800+ miles to reach my grandfather's house.  Of course, my mother (my grandmother's daughter) was notified and, as with her relinquishment of my brother and I a decade prior, there are conflicting stories about her response.
She was never financially well-off, and she simply didn't have the money to fly from the West Coast.  When we talked later in life, she said she told her brother and father that she wanted to attend the funeral, but just couldn't unless they paid the airfare.  My uncle's version was that she said she'd ONLY attend the funeral if one of them paid the airfare.  He never hesitated to remind me how "selfish" and "unsuccessful" she was. 

A side note:  When someone makes disparaging comments about an adoptee's first parent(s), it's like making a disparaging comment about the adoptee him/herself.  After all, we are the biological offspring of our first parents.  They are part of us and we are part of them, whether or not we have a relationship with them or even know them.  Please be respectful of that.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Unloved and unwanted .....

It was early November, 1967, and my grandmother had just died from breast cancer.  I thought nothing worse could possibly happen, but then my grandfather told me that, after the funeral, I'd be going home with his son (my maternal uncle).
When my birth mother allowed her parents to adopt me, it was with the understanding that they'd be able to give me a better, more stable, life.  Obviously, no one anticipated this tragic turn of events back in 1958, but this is why I suggested earlier that my grandparents were too old to adopt me.

Creature Comforts .....

As the only child in the house, I naturally had my own room, and my grandparents spoiled me to the extent their finances would allow.
Because they were both teachers, they understood the importance of reading, and I had several shelves of well-read books:  novels by Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder, several volumes in The Bobbsey Twins series, Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, Black Beauty, and many, many others.
When an elderly relative died with no other close family, my grandparents took care of settling the estate -- they kept a large (19"?) black & white TV and gave it to me for my room.  Many evenings I would make a big bowl of popcorn, pre-microwave style:
A layer of oil in the bottom, heated until a single kernel of corn pops.
Pour in 1/4 cup popcorn and wait for the magic to happen!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The beginning of the end .....

The evening of the day after I refused to visit my grandmother, when I heard my grandfather and uncle return from the hospital, I skipped down the stairs to greet them.
It was then that my world came crashing down around me and life as I knew it would change forever.
As my grandfather tearfully informed me, I would never see my grandmother again, because she had died.
Since the seriousness of her condition had been kept from me, I was totally unprepared for this news and absolutely incapable of handling it.  I was, after all, just 10 years old.

Monday, November 11, 2013

My uncle's wife .....

It's necessary at this point to re-introduce my uncle and his wife.  He was the oh-so-perfect older brother to my irresponsible, flighty mother.  His wife was equally perfect, at least in her own eyes.  They met in college -- he, an engineering student; she, in the school of pharmacy.  They married shortly after graduation and, within a year, had their first child.  Four years later, their second child was born.
As a girl, my uncle's wife had been stricken with rheumatic fever and though it was fatal for her older sister, she survived -- but with a permanently weakened heart.  She had been raised by her mother, a strict, unforgiving Southern Baptist, and a stepfather who reportedly had sexually abused her.  As her mother's only surviving child, she no doubt felt pressured to excel academically -- and she did.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A third bowl of cereal .....

Time marched on towards the inevitable .....
In 1967, I was in 6th grade, and we had started family counseling.  This was, no doubt, a result of the behaviors I'd exhibited over the previous few years.  This included frequent lying, disobedience above and beyond what's "normal" for an adolescent, plus the extremely disturbing violence I'd shown toward my peers (and younger children).

Beyond that, though, I wasn't aware that anything different was happening.  So, one morning in early November, I was surprised to find myself awakened for school by my Grandfather, since that was something my Grandmother always did.

A weighty issue .....

I was 10 pounds, 15 ounces at birth.  I was a BIG baby, and while I wasn't ever obese as a child, I definitely wasn't thin.  In fact, my clothes came from the "chubby girls" section of the store.
"As happy as one whose extra young pounds have been delightfully
transformed by the designing magic of Chubbettes"

More changes, with a capital "C" .....

I don't know the exact date, but by no later than 1965, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Granted, this can happen at any age, but this is a disease that's more likely to occur as a woman ages.  According to the National Cancer Institute, "Breast cancer rates are highest in people aged 55-64 years."  My grandmother would have been right in the middle of that age range.
No one explained to my eight-year-old self what the ramifications were of that disease.  I was fascinated by her mastectomy scar, and remember that her left arm (the side of her body where the disease was centered) became swollen and painful.  She took time off for surgery and recuperation, and I spent even more time with my great-grandmother.  However, it was around this time that my great-grandmother (who was in her 80's) fell and broke her hip, so she had health issues of her own.  Despite that, she continued to live independently, in her own house, until just a few months before she died in 1973.

Could you repeat that, please ..... ?

In an earlier post I mentioned that, as babies, my siblings and I were often sick.  My sister and I both had serious ear infections and developed hearing problems because of them.
During my childhood, I was hospitalized at least a half-dozen times:  pneumonia, tonsillectomy, mastoidectomy (both sides), and other ear surgeries.

1961 (age 3-1/2) -- surgery on my right ear.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Face to face with terror .....

When I was very young, I had a number of health problems.  More on that later, but for now, a quick detour to tell the story of one hospital stay.
At around three years of age, I contracted pneumonia and was very ill.  So ill, in fact, that my Grandmother told me later that I almost died.
At the hospital, I was placed in Intensive Care and Isolation, and my grandparents had to wear masks in my presence.
They brought me little gifts or flowers each day I was in the hospital, and on one visit my Grandmother decided to bring me something extra special.
I was sleeping, but woke up when she arrived.  She, eagerly anticipating my joy at receiving this special gift, held it up in front of my face so I'd see it as soon as my eyes opened.
What I saw, through a haze of pneumonia-laced grogginess, was my Grandmother leaning over my bed, her cat's-eye glasses glinting atop a surgical mask, and this hovering in front of my face:
Barbie, ca. 1960
Terrified, I screamed and started crying.
Despite our less-than-auspicious first meeting, I did later come to love that Barbie™ doll.  (And, fortunately, today's Barbie™ looks much less menacing than she did in my day.)

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World .....

My grandmother enjoyed taking photographs, and she lovingly mounted them in photo albums with a carefully thought-out (and usually sedately humorous) caption for each.

This has always been one of my favorite pictures, and was captioned:

"An angel climbed down from the Christmas tree and couldn't get back".

Christmas, 1959

I admit it -- I look cute here.  This may be the only childhood picture of me with long hair, as my Grandmother would soon start cutting it short.  Also, I look "girlie," something that didn't happen often, as I was much more of a tomboy than a girlie girl.  And, I must confess, it's nice to be referred to as an angel.
But an angel I was NOT.
If you're curious about the challenges of adopting a toddler, be sure to read Toddler Adoption: The Weaver's Craft, by Mary Hopkins-Best.  It's a wise and wonderful book.  In a nutshell, though, here's what she says can be the result1:
  • Toddlers whose needs have not been met learn to mistrust.
  • Most toddlers who have experienced rejection respond by becoming rejecting.
  • While some of these toddlers react similarly negatively to all adults, many selectively reject their parents.
  • Rejecting toddler behaviors range from passive indifference, to being physically and verbally aggressive.
Check ... check ... check ... and check!
You might recall this post and the pictures of me with my Grandfather and my Grandmother.  I don't know that I actually *rejected* my Grandmother, but I definitely preferred my Grandfather.  Not that I was ever a "daddy's girl," but my Grandfather was gentle and had a silly sense of humor that (usually) appealed to my childish nature.  My Grandmother, on the other hand, was prim and proper and wanted me to be likewise.  (I was a failure in that regard.)
What I definitely WAS, though, was angry, as well as violent aggressive.  I had temper tantrums as a toddler, and they continued well into my elementary school years.
When we moved to our new neighborhood, I met V, who was exactly four months older than me.  We immediately became best friends, and remained so until I moved away seven years later.  On her third birthday I was invited to her party and didn't want to leave when it was over.  And I mean I REALLY didn't want to leave.  I screamed, I flailed my arms, I thrashed upon the ground.  Fortunately, we lived just a block away, because my Grandmother had to physically restrain me and carry me home, still screeching like a banshee.
(ca. 1961)

In addition, I displayed many socially inappropriate behaviors:  lying, stealing, bullying, etc.

Did I mention that I was no angel?

My Grandfather's mother lived on a farm outside the city, and we would drive out for visits after Church every other weekend or so.  When I was very young, she kept chickens and I have a distinct memory of trying to play with them one day when I was around four or five.  I had been crawling around in the chicken coop (in my Sunday dress!) when my Grandmother called for me.  I appeared in front of her, wearing my by-now chicken-poop-stained dress and when she asked if I'd been in the chicken coop, I denied it -- looking her right in the eyes as I did so.
When I was eight, I got a beautiful blue bicycle for Christmas.  Our neighborhood was six blocks of middle class oasis in a desert of seediness.  In fact, located just south of our neighborhood you could find a minimum-security prison!  When presented with the bike, I was also presented with the rule that I could ride it ONLY on the sidewalks and ONLY in the neighborhood.  Oh, yes, I promised -- I would ONLY ride in the allowed areas.
That promise lasted about as long as my training wheels did.  I was soon venturing out of the neighborhood and into the seedy heart of the surrounding area.  I'd come home after an hour or so and my Grandmother would ask where I'd been. 
With wide-eyed innocence and a smile I'd reply:
"Oh, I was just sitting on the brick wall on 10th Street" (the mandated boundary) "watching the cars go by."
My Grandmother obviously knew better, but didn't press it at that point.  It wasn't too long, however, until I was caught in the act by my Grandfather, who'd been sent out to find me (after first checking and finding no trace of me on the 10th Street brick wall).  I was blithely pedaling along -- in the street, not on the sidewalk -- in a less than desirable area, when he drove up behind me in his dark green Hudson, rolled his window down, and instructed me to GO HOME NOW.

Not my Grandfather's Hudson, but it looked very much like this one.
I loved that car.
As I recall, my bike was confiscated for a period of time, and my Grandparents were on the receiving end of yet another of my epic temper tantrums.
Unfortunately for my grandparents, as soon as I got the bike back, I resumed my out-of-boundary adventures.  Although this was the mid 1960's and, supposedly, a kinder and gentler America, I recognize now that some of the areas into which I ventured were not safe for an unaccompanied preteen girl.  I'm not sure why my grandparents didn't permanently lock my bike away, as apparently nothing else was successful in keeping me close to home.
Of equal concern for my grandparents was my propensity for violence towards my peers.  Not toward my best friend, V, although I did often bully her.  However, I was physically aggressive towards other children in the neighborhood and one time actually beat up another girl -- and laughed afterwards.
I am not proud of this and offer no excuse for my behavior.

The best I can say is that it was a one-time occurrence, and it spurred my grandparents to (finally) seek out family counseling services.

Unfortunately it was, as the old saying goes, "too little, too late."





Saturday, June 29, 2013

They Say You're Never Too Old .....

My grandmother* was born in 1907 and my grandfather in 1904.  That means when I was born (1957) they were, respectively, 50 and 53 years of age.
(*Throughout these musings, I will refer to them as my grandparents.  Even though they legally adopted me and were, therefore, my parents [for a while, at least], the story just gets too confusing if I call them that.)
These photos were taken in 1960, but my grandparents really didn't change much during the time I lived with them.
My grandfather had his hair cut in a "flat top" when he was in his 40's or so, and didn't waver from that style to the day he died.  I used to love running my hand over his hair -- it was so soft and tickly.

I was trying to smile, but the sun was in my eyes.

Friday, June 28, 2013

And in THIS corner .....

Back in the day, it was commonly assumed that babies are born as "blank slates" -- tabula rasa.  Their personalities would develop solely based on how they were raised, with no input from biology.  Some people still promote this idea today, but in general it's understood that we are all a product of both nature AND nurture.

"Tabula Rasa", the blank slate
My brother, adopted at 10 weeks of age, was certainly viewed as a blank slate, to be molded into his new father's image of a perfect child. It's less clear what my grandparents believed about me, since I was already 16 months old.  But I have no doubt that they were certain that their excellent child-rearing skills would overcome all.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What's in a name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet

What's in a name?  Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Recall this, from an earlier post:

The birth notice my parents mailed to my Great-Grandmother

At birth, my parents chose the name "Sharon Kay" for me, and for the first 16 months of my life my mother called me "Sharon."
I think most reasonable people would agree that 16 months is long enough for a child to become accustomed to and associate him/herself with a name.  Right?


New beginnings .....

So, mom just has the twins to care for now.  My younger brother has gone off to live with a successful attorney and his wife in a lovely suburban home.  I'm taken in by my grandparents, with implicit promises of a better life and major spoiling.

"And they all lived happily ever after!"


Whoooooa there, pardner!  Not so fast ......

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Six minus one equals three .....

No, that's not an example of the "New Math" we were subject to the 1960's.  I'll explain .....
Some time after my mother's visit home in early 1958, the decision was made that adoption was the appropriate choice for my younger brother and I.  So, with the departure of our father, my family of six became a family of three (that no longer included me).

This is the last time my mother would hold me in her arms:

My older sister looks very apprehensive. 
Was she afraid these people were going to take her away, too?

Desperate times .....

In previous posts, I mentioned that my father was a civilian mariner in the Military Sea Transport Service.  He would be home for one week, then gone for three.  It was during one of those weeks home that I was conceived, and my birth occurred 13 months after my older siblings were born.

Thirteen months after I arrived, our younger brother was born.

And here's where I have to rely on my imagination once more.

The Baby Scoop Era .....

Most people who've been touched by adoption are aware of what's known as "The Baby Scoop Era," a period lasting from approximately 1940 to 1970 during which unmarried (white) women were encouraged to give up their babies for adoption.
Well, not so much "encouraged" as coerced.
Again, remember that life was different a half-century ago.  Birth control for women was almost non-existent and generally available only to married women.  While available -- for a price -- abortion was illegal, and often dangerous.

Money .....

When my grandfather died in 1993, we found that he'd saved several letters and telegrams that my mother had sent to him and my grandmother.  It's hard to imagine now, when everyone tweets, texts and instagrams constantly, but a half-century ago, many people didn't have private phone service.  When they did, they were required (thanks, Ma Bell!) to rent their equipment from the phone company -- and long distance calls were VERY expensive.

This kind of luxury was not within my parents' meager budget, so when my mother needed to contact her parents, she did so in writing.  Letters could take several days to arrive, so when it was an emergency, she'd send a telegram -- C.O.D.

I imagine .....

For this part of my story, I have to use my imagination.  It didn't occur to me to ask my mother until it was too late, and my siblings don't remember, because they were too young at the time.
So here's my early story as I've written it for myself .....
Was my father on hand when I was born?  It's possible, but I don't think so.  Certainly he wasn't around too often, since his job would have kept him away from home much of the time.  My guess is that my mother brought me home alone, or accompanied by a friend.

In the beginning, continued .....

Before finishing the story of my arrival in San Francisco, I first need to mention that in March of 1956, my older brother and sister (fraternal twins) were born.  D & G were both full-term and 5+ pounds -- no mean feat for our 5' tall mother!  Our parents agreed that my brother would be named after our father, and my mother chose the name of a then-famous TV personality for my sister. 
If you stop and do the math, you'll see that my arrival in April of 1957 was just 13 months after the twins were born.  Again, our father's job kept him away at sea, so my mother was probably alone for much of the time she was pregnant with me.  And the poor thing must have thought she was having a second set of twins (this was long before ultrasound, remember), because she grew to an enormous size with me.

Monday, June 24, 2013

In the beginning .....


Dwight Eisenhower was President, a red Corvette was a thing of beauty, and the US and the USSR were embroiled in the Cold War (which had an occasionally amusing side).

Lee Merlin, Miss Atomic Bomb 1957

In San Francisco, the Seals professional baseball team was in its last season, soon to be replaced by the Giants, who were relocating from New York.  In March, a 5.3 magnitude earthquake shook the area, but all in all, life was good.