I was four years old when I was told that I had been adopted when I was a baby. Not that a four year old has any clue what that means, but I vaguely recall a lap, a book and a story that was supposed to explain what it was all about. I presume my paediatrician or the like recommended it, since, 45 years ago, Google wasn’t around to help in these tricky situations.
At five I was asked if I would like a sibling. I said no. Rather emphatically apparently. Let’s face it, no five year old wants to share a lap. So I was destined to be an “only child”. An “only child” who was “adopted”.
Isn’t it great to be different? To stand out in a crowd, especially in primary school at a small, very small, all girls, private Jewish school? Where no one else seemed to have been adopted, almost everyone else had at least ONE sibling and where most of the parents were in their late 20s and early 30s?
My parents, post war Hungarian immigrants who were unable to have kids, were in their early 40s when they, as they said, “got me”. Both of them were survivors. Both of them had survived not one, but two concentration camps, each. That, in itself, was an incredible miracle.
I wasn’t quite sure what the Holocaust meant except that almost all my parents’ families had (as had all our family friend’s families) been killed. I was named after my mothers dead sister and I had a grandmother that lived with us. She only spoke Hungarian to me around my friends, even though I would constantly hiss under my breath “speak English”. (Which, by the way, didn’t work as she just spoke Hungarian LOUDER.)
My nights were spent dreaming of escaping Nazis which I’m fairly doubtful is normal for most eight year olds. But then, I was different. The mean girls at school reminded me about this often and I was taunted with “haha you’re adopted” on a regular basis for many years.
I don’t think mum and dad were considered “older parents”. They weren’t OLD, just old-er. There is a big difference. But not for kids. Kids are honest. Brutal. And cruel. Because, kids are kids. And kids of the 70s didn’t worry about consequences, so, if you were different, no one asked why, they just didn’t care. Difference was your downfall not your shining light.
It was the late 60s. The war was barely mentioned amongst the chatter of young Jewish parents as their families wanted to move forward and not dwell on things that were seen as sad and unpleasant. It was the time for free love, adventure and opportunity around every Melbourne corner. Back then, people were married at barely twenty if not younger, and by the time they were in their mid-20s, their child bearing years were almost over. Having parents who were quite a bit “older” than the norm, was a little interesting.
I walked a fine line between respect and resentment not really knowing who I was and where I came from and ended up spending the majority of my childhood saying, “no they aren’t my grandparents, I’m adopted” I probably should’ve had a t-shirt printed. It would’ve made my life a whole lot simpler.
My birth mother had died due to complications from a kidney disease whilst in childbirth. My parents had been given this information via my adoption “agency”, the then “jewish welfare” organisation. They decided to pass on this information to me at some stage during my primary school years. I think for a long time I subconsciously believed I had murdered her. If I wasn’t dreaming about digging my way out through underground Nazi camp tunnels, I would lie in bed and envisage how you could give birth and die at the same time. I never shared this with anyone, not even my close friends. I was already not quite the dainty little lady I was being raised to be. I also didn’t really want to visit any more psychologists or doctors as I was at the time being schlepped around to kidney specialists to ensure that I wouldn’t fall victim to the same disease which killed the poor woman who would’ve been my mother. My parents were seriously concerned and they did their best to protect my vital organs. For my part, I didn’t really understand what a kidney was. But I was adopted, my parents were holocaust survivors, I had killed my birth mother and for some reason, my kidneys needed to be looked at, a lot.
All I knew of my birth father was passed on again to my parents via the agency. He was young, he had no idea what to do with a baby and his parents had advised him that the best thing for all of us was to give me up for adoption and walk away. I never questioned my natural heritage. I accepted what I had been told. The only time I ever asked any questions was one time, when Mum and I were having one of our mother/daughter “discussions” which involved some kind of yelling and screaming which usually ended in me begging for forgiveness. But this time there was a question: “Do you want to find your “other” family” I was taken aback. “Huh? What? I don’t have another family. Don’t say that! YOU are my family, and that’s that! And it’s not possible anyway because my birth mother died and my birth father didn’t want me, and NO of course not why would I want to do that?” YOU and dad are my parents and no one else matters.” The correct response. The expected response. And mostly, the honest response, at that time.
Because, even without realising it, I felt the deep need to constantly reassure. It was my duty. But I did have a question, just one. For me, it was a big one and I didn’t even know why it was so huge and why I cared so much? Why was this the only question that I wanted and needed to be answered? “Am I Jewish?” “was I BORN Jewish?” “Yes!” “Yes you were.” Well that’s that then. That’s all I need to know. I was eighteen and I had other things on my mind. So, there it was. A dead birth mother, a disinterested birth father and his family who didn’t want to keep me in one corner, and in the other, two loving, doting parents and a grandmother, desperate for a child to love, nurture, raise and carry on a memory of ancestry gone too soon, who did. And in the middle, was me, the “baby”.
My adoption story should’ve ended there. A beginning. An end. No juicy story in the middle. Cut and dry. And that’s how it was until about fifteen years ago. One night on the news, I watched an segment about something relating to the laws for adoptees having been changed and the possibility of applying for information from the government about your adoption. I had had my own kids by then and was growing more curious by the day.
All my life I had filled out the medical history section of forms as “N/A”, Not Applicable, and had simply answered “I’m adopted” if anyone questioned why I wasn’t aware of any parental medical history. But now I had to fill out questions about my children’s medical history and I needed some kind of answers about our background. I also needed to fill in some long standing voids. The “who am I?” and “where did I come from?” void. It’s a feeling I can’t describe.
Not knowing where you come from is an empty, lost feeling. No amount of love, nurturing, caring or good intentions will help and it’s no ones fault. It doesn’t mean you don’t love your family, the family who willingly and voluntarily accepted you, loved you and called you their own. If you are lucky enough to be adopted by loving parents, you are blessed and I am. But it doesn’t take away that intense need to just know. To know who you are. And then there’s that inexplicable sibling void. I needed to know if there was anyone out there with whom I was intrinsically connected. Hey, I had years of sibling rivalry and arguing to make up for. I could never understand how my friends and their brothers and/or sisters fought so much. How could they not just love having a partner in crime around all the time. I really didn’t understand. How could I? Brothers and sisters were the stuff of my fairy tales. Did I look like anyone else? Did we share any common traits? So many unanswered questions.
So when I saw the news article, without hesitation I phoned the next day and applied for my records. I didn’t tell my parents. I was so conscious of trying not to hurt them that I went “behind their backs” and didn’t discuss it with them. In life, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t and lets face it, it wasn’t going to go down well either way. To add to the situation, I hadn’t yet told my kids about my history. I had never wanted them to treat their grandparents differently and I was waiting for them to be old enough to understand. Plus, I really didn’t think there was very much to learn. Birthmother – dead. Birthfather – not interested.
There I was, sitting in a circle, ready for my government “pack”, making chitchat with the other adoptees ranging in age from 18-72. I was last in line. The eighteen year old in the circle needed a truck to take home his info and sadly, the 72 year old ended up in tears as she was informed that they couldn’t locate anything about her birth as records didn’t go back as far. I was simply hoping for a little bit of history and maybe, just maybe, a baby half brother or sister. That was it. I didn’t think that was too much to ask.
I was handed two faded, typed pages. Birthmother – not dead, ALIVE. Huh? What? Well that’s interesting. What exactly do I do with THAT? Oh, wow, I have a sibling. A full-blood brother or sister. It didn’t mention which, but I didn’t care. It was something and I suppose that was too much information for the Jewish Welfare organisation to divulge. I mean, this is the same organisation that had made the decision to tell my parents that there was no birth mother. The only glitch: in 1977, nine years after I was born, my birth mother had taken my sibling and made aliyah (made Israel her new homeland) and who knows where they were now?
So, there I was. Slightly stunned, a little excited and very scared.
And then I did nothing. It was too overwhelming.
I hadn’t told my parents about my sleuthing.
I hadn’t told my kids about my being adopted.
My birth mother was maybe in Israel somewhere (or elsewhere) and for some weird reason I wasn’t really interested in my birth father, who it seemed had stayed in Melbourne. So I left it, for another five years, until a friend convinced me that I needed to at least try to find out some more information. He offered to hire a private investigator on my behalf to find him. I was hesitant but he was very insistent, so I left it up to him.
All he had to start with was a name, yet within an hour he had an email address and two weeks later I found myself sitting in a pizza joint in Carlton meeting my birth father and my little 17 year old half sister (one half of a twin) for the first time.
He was not how I imagined he would be (I think I was hoping for some kind of superman or at least batman) and I proceeded to stare at him (and my sister, wow, I had a sister, here, sitting in front of me) and pump him for information.
I heard his side of the “story” and I left feeling very uncomfortable. I also left with the sad knowledge that I had missed meeting my other little half sister (the twin) by a year and a half. She had died of a rare brain tumour at fifteen. I still hadn’t told my parents (or my kids) any of this and it would be another three years before I saw him again.
About a year later, out of the blue, I received that “long lost family’ email from my birth mother. You know, the one you always hear about or see on TV but don’t really believe will ever happen in real life, especially to you? “ Hi, my name is… I think you are my daughter.”
At this stage I thought I was prepared although I never really believed it would ever happen at least not to me. I was elated, scared, nervous and I wanted to throw up. I stared at it for ten minutes doing nothing until the exact same message popped up on my Facebook. Ah, so that’s where my zero patience hails from.
By this time, my parents had found out about my search and consequent meeting with my birth father. Unfortunately it hadn’t been me who told them. When it all came out, it wasn’t pretty and the fall-out lasted a long time. We are still living with the residual effects. But shit happens and you deal with it, because often, some kind of magic follows.
My birth mother, was now living back in the UK, having originated from there, with her second husband, my step birth father as we call him, (because hey, how many people are lucky enough to have one of those?). She had been told that after Jewish welfare had taken three week old me away from her, I had been sent all the way to America and it was pointless for her to try and look for me. Ever.
Jewish agencies in the late 1960s: things have always been the same in our community. Everyone always thinks they know what’s best for someone else. Truth is, people were still so traumatised by the war, many couldn’t understand how anyone could give up a child when so many were lost and as such, no one had much of a clue of what should be done in that kind of situation. So they just made it up as they went along.
Baruch Hashem (thank the lord, the universe or whoever is watching over us) for modern technology particularly social media. It’s made our world the tiniest place and forgive me for sounding like a telecom ad but HELLO, SHALOM, G’DAY, we can now connect immediately to anyone, anywhere, anytime and have REAL time, face to face, conversations. It still blows me away.
After a few months of, initially, tentative Facebook chats and email correspondence, we eventually “Skyped”, then “Face-timed” and for the first time I saw her, face to face. It was surreal. And weird. Very, very, very weird.
I then “met” my brother, my sister in law, my (half) sister and brother in law, my (half) brother and 2 nephews. I went from an only child to one of SIX! My birth mother is one of seven children. I now have five aunties (sadly, one auntie has passed away) and an uncle and countless more uncles, aunties and cousins. I have met only some of them and have connected with many more family members through social media.
I even found out a girl whom I knew, was in fact my foster sister and she introduced me to my “foster” family who had “hidden” me for a month before I was given to mum and dad. She had always known. I never did.
I’ve been lucky over the last five years to have had my brother and his family, my birth mother and step birth father, my little brother and my youngest auntie and uncle come and visit us. It wasn’t easy for my parents and it still isn’t for my mum (my dad having passed away).
This discovery has been so important for me and sometimes you need to do what feels right in your soul even if it upsets the people you love most. You just have to hope they understand and if they don’t, at least accept and respect your choices.
Adopted children are often overlooked in the scheme of things. The parents adopting “out” the child are considered. The parents adopting “in” the child are considered. An adoptee of my generation is expected to be happy and grateful for simply being alive and blessed with a family. But it isn’t that simple. Life just isn’t that simple. It never is. Sadly, adoption doesn’t come with a handbook for anyone involved. We are all just winging it.
I’m only at the very beginning of this incredible chapter in my life and I feel lucky and blessed on all accounts. Although I’ve always been candid about my adoption, it’s never been “easy” to share openly about my recent journey and until now I’ve never particularly thought it was any more interesting than anyone else’s life journey. It’s that whole primary school thing, being singled out for being different, all over again. But I don’t mind anymore. Maybe I’ve matured somewhat. But hopefully not too much.
(photo with Susie (middle) biological mother (left), mother (right)