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009 – What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Mary is 78, but she still has stinging memories of her mother leaving her in another woman’s guardianship. The era was the Great Depression but her mother wanted to go out and have fun without the responsibility of raising In guardianship she was sexually abused, then her guardian blamed her for the economic hardship in that house when the abuser left the home. Mary had grown too independent to reunite with her mother. But despite the trials of her life, she made sure to be the best mother she could possibly be when her children needed her.

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Mary:                          00:02               They would tell me, well, she’s not coming back. And I say, Oh yes, she’s coming. She’s coming to get me. But you know, she didn’t come to get me. So eventually you know you give up and then settling in. But I was devastated. I mean, it just, there’s no other word to describe it.

Voices:                        00:27               Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?

Damon:                       00:34               This is Who Am I Really, a podcast about adoptees that have located and connected with their biological family members? Hey, it’s Damon. And today I was so lucky to talk to one of my own relatives, Mary, she and my biological mother Ann met well before I was able to locate Ann myself, Mary and Ann shared a common interest in, of all things, genealogy. Mary’s story isn’t one of a formal adoption, but being placed into the guardianship of someone else. She was a child during the Great Depression, an extremely challenging time economically and mentally for the health of our country. But Mary’s life challenges were deeply underscored by the upheaval of her family when her mother placed her and her young brother in the guardianship of a stranger. I asked her to tell me about her experiences growing up. I have to warn you, she does describe an abusive experience in her childhood that I suggest you don’t listen to in front of children. Here’s Mary Story. Hello?

Mary:                          01:36               Hello Damon, how are you?

Damon:                       01:40               I’m very well. How are you doing?

Mary:                          01:43               I’m doing good.

Damon:                       01:44               Excellent. Thanks for calling. How are you feeling?

Mary:                          01:47               As well as one can be.

Damon:                       01:47               Yeah. Now tell me, you knew my biological mother, Ann. Help me remember, how did you know her?

Mary:                          01:55               well she and I both, attended genealogy conference we were sort of sitting next to each other and we started talking about where our family was from and so forth and so on. And we both came to the conclusion that we might be related, but you know.

Damon:                       02:20               (Laughs)

Mary:                          02:21               I’m going to say 10 years later we find out. Yeah, we are related.

Damon:                       02:25               And what was the relation? Do you recall?

Mary:                          02:27               Cousins.

Damon:                       02:28               Through whom?

Mary:                          02:29               now, it was, my grandfather, his brother, was your great grandfather.

Damon:                       02:36               Wow. You know, it’s so interesting to me that you and Ann did genealogy, one just because I know that she began the process well before you could do internet searches for people like you can now. So you know her library background was something that made her a sleuth in tracking down information. But I can’t help but wonder how much of that was just her own pure curiosity for wanting to know about our own history. And then what part of it for her was, because she had released me into the world and there was an adoptee out there that would want to know about her and, and my relatives and I just can’t, I would love to have asked her before she passed, how much she thought my presence in the world fueled her desire to do genealogy versus just her own natural process for wanting to discover herself. So you were adopted yourself, Mary.

Mary:                          03:37               No I wasn’t actually adopted. My mother, according to what she’s told me and what my guardian has told me, She decided that she could not keep my brother and I it was during the depression and I don’t doubt that she was having a hard time cause she couldn’t hardly find a job. And when you did, it wasn’t paying much, but, and she was still young. She may have been 20 when she gave us up. She still wanted to go out with the girls, you know, that kind of stuff. So she gave us to a guardian with as I’m told, the understanding that she would get us back at one time.

Damon:                       04:19               Who was that Guardian to her? To your mother. Do you know what was the relation?

Mary:                          04:23               Yeah, she wasn’t related. My mother lived in an apartment building and another lady lived in the apartment building. The other lady that lived in there was the sister to my guardian and my mother said she was asking if she knew someone who would take her kids and keep them and she said, Oh yeah, my sister would love to have them. So that’s how I, that’s how I got from Louisville, Kentucky to Indianapolis.

Damon:                       04:54               Indianapolis is where Your Guardian lived.

Mary:                          04:56               right. I was either three or four and my brother was two years younger. So that sort of how that transpired.

Damon:                       05:05               And how was your life in Indianapolis as someone, a child and guardianship by another person?

Mary:                          05:14               Well, first of all, I was yet, I was too young to really understand what was going on and while my brother fit right in and right off, I was not a happy camper. I cried for days and days and they would tell me, well, she’s not coming back. And I say, Oh yes, she’s coming, she’s coming to get me. But you know, she didn’t come to get me. So eventually you know, you give up and then settle in. But I was devastated. I mean it just, there’s no other word to describe it.

Damon:                       05:50               I can’t even imagine.

Mary:                          05:51               Yeah, I can remember crying days and days and then I would settle down and then I’d start thinking about it and I’d start crying again. She never adopted us. She did put us on welfare just because she could and she could get additional money for doing that

Damon:                       06:12               to support you guys.

Mary:                          06:14               She was married at the time that we went to stay with her, but um, he, well, it, it’s no other way to put it. He molested me or he raped me and um, she put him out.

Damon:                       06:32               How old were you when that happened? I’m sorry to hear that.

Mary:                          06:36               I was still about four or five years old.

Damon:                       06:39               Ugh.

Mary:                          06:39               I wasn’t very old little, it was sort of a, he woke, I still remember it. He woke me up and said, you know, be quiet and come with me. I didn’t know any difference, you know. So I went with him and he told me not to tell and I wasn’t going to, but I started bleeding and I, I, I told her, she, she saw me crying and then I said, she asked me why was I crying? And I said, because I’m bleeding. And she said bleeding from where? And when I showed her, she said, oh no. And she asked him about it and you know, um, and of course that became another problem in that relationship in our relationship because from time to time she would say, oh, well we don’t have the money because remember you cause Howard, which was his name, to leave us. So, I got blamed for it.

Damon:                       07:46               She blamed you. (Sighs). Yeah, that is horrible. Oh boy. I was just thinking to myself, you’re really young at four or five I, I just, I can’t help but wonder how you managed this violation as a kid and going into your teenage years, the molestation as a serious thing. Like do you recall at all how it impacted you?

Mary:                          08:15               Well, I guess you would say I was a resilient person. I guess my mother not coming to get me helped me to learn to sort of roll with the punches, you know? Whatever they were. I don’t think it really affected me too much.

Damon:                       08:37               So you feel like you were starting to learn some really hard lessons at an early, early age.

Mary:                          08:46               Right. Right.

Damon:                       08:46               As you, as you got older, what did you think about trying to find her when you started to become a teenager? You start to, you know a typical teenager start to feel their independence.

Mary:                          08:57               Well, I really didn’t think much about going to find her, after I graduated from high school in 1955, I was 16 when I graduate, but 17 in August after I graduated, the lady that raised me and without going into a lot of details, got herself into some, some problems and the welfare worker, it got in the newspapers, so forth and so on. And My, uh, welfare worker said, well, you can’t, you got to have somebody, you know, I, she said, well, you can probably make it on your own because I had already found a job at RCA even though I wasn’t old enough. I put my age up and I got hired. But at any rate, she said, your brother has got to have somebody who’s responsible for him. And in the course of talking to her, I said, well, my mother’s out there somewhere. And she searched around and was able to locate her and she was willing to talk to us and so forth. And she came down to visit and basically to take us back. I don’t remember all of what transpired with that, but, well I think she came and we went back with her when she, when she left to Cleveland.

Damon:                       10:29               Oh, she was in Cleveland.

Mary:                          10:30               She had moved to Cleveland.

Damon:                       10:32               So the social worker who is tracking down welfare cases says your brother needs a guardian and because your care giver had gotten herself in trouble, you needed to find somebody. And you mentioned your mother was out there somewhere. And the social worker was able to track her down in Cleveland. Wow.

Mary:                          10:55               Right.

Damon:                       10:56               So what was it like? You’ve graduated from high school, you’ve got a job with RCA and you’re on your way presumably to some of your own independence and now this social workers bringing your mother back in contact with you. What did that feel like?

Mary:                          11:13               Well, I was open to it. I mean I wasn’t against it in any way and I did go to Cleveland. By then there was a small amount of time between the incident that caused us to look for her and the time that they located her and she got here in the, in the middle of that RCA employee lay off, I was young on the Totem Pole, so I was one of the folks that got laid off.

Damon:                       11:43               So you’re now young and unemployed.

Mary:                          11:45               Yeah, so I went back to Cleveland with her, thinking, well you know, maybe I’ll try it out, but I just couldn’t, couldn’t get past our differences, what all had transpired. I ask her lots of times about, you know, what happened and why and I couldn’t get past her excuses. So make a long story short, the Guardian has now gotten herself squared away and wanted my brother and I to come back and stay with her and I did for a while and then that didn’t work either. We just, I guess it was teenage changes or whatever you want to call it. That didn’t allow me to settle into well with that.

Damon:                       12:38               So you’re also at a point, like you alluded to, theres some teenage angst and just generally the emotions and hormones of a teenager who probably needs some stability in, in at least one home and now you’ve got two homes that are requesting your presence in. And frankly, neither one of them is one that you sound like you wanted to be in at all, so I could see how, how it would be challenging to settle back into a place where you had been abused and where something nefarious had happened that got this caregiver guardian into trouble and how it would be incredibly challenging to return to a home with your biological mother who for all intents and purposes, as far as I can tell from what you’ve said, abandoned you with this person.

Mary:                          13:25               Yep. Well she had remarried four other times by the time that I went to stay with her. I did not like the man that she currently had, and he was a real alcoholic, which was a problem, and one of the things I asked her was, how in the world do you keep changing husbands and you marry what you get rid of? They were all, they were all alcoholics. My Dad was an alcoholic. My Dad was an alcoholic, that was so bad that, uh, he became a homeless person on the street.

Damon:                       14:09               Oh boy. That was during the time and thereafter of the, of the depression.

Mary:                          14:15               Yes. Yes.

Damon:                       14:17               Did you meet him ever?

Mary:                          14:18               I never met him. I did get a chance to talk to him once on the phone. My mother said when I got with her, my mother said, well, I think I know where his cousin is. She’s in Cincinnati. And um, she says, I think I can get in touch with her. And she did. Uh, they did get him sobered up enough to come one day and call me.

Damon:                       14:44               How was that conversation

Mary:                          14:45               Drained. There were no promises on either side. Just, you know, I’m glad you called me. You know, I’m happy to talk to you. If I ever come to Cincinnati, I’ll look for you. Why don’t you come and visit us? Because by then I was married and I think I maybe had one or two children, I’m not sure. But anyway, the next call I got was that, ah, they had found him dead on the street.

Damon:                       15:14               Oh No.

Mary:                          15:15               And actually the call was sort of, uh, do you want to pay for his burial?

Damon:                       15:23               This wasn’t even calling to give you bad news and condolences. It was more, we need to take care of some business.

Mary:                          15:32               Right. And I chose not to and to let him get buried however they saw fit.

Damon:                       15:43               Yeah, I can understand decision.

Mary:                          15:45               Well, you know, it would have been nice to actually sit down and talk to him, talk to him about his, you know, family and so forth. But make a long story short, a little shorter. Uh, in the process of my family search, I was able to find, find a lot more family than my mother knew about.

Damon:                       16:11               so you were able to track down information about both your biological mother and father’s family. You mentioned earlier that you had attended genealogy conferences with my biological mother. Do you think that this was the beginning of your affinity for genealogy study? Like when you started to get clue after clue after clue that the, that it just kinda clicked it, that this would be something that was interesting for you?

Mary:                          16:38               It certainly was one of the reasons why I went into genealogy, but when I was working I had thought about retirement and what I would do after retirement, and there were several things that I didn’t really have the time for when I was working and genealogy was one of the things I decided to do once I retired.

Damon:                       17:03               It’s fascinating to uncover all of those facts. Through the genealogy process. And you can imagine my surprise when, uh, you know, unfortunately after Ann passed away, I had the opportunity to go through many of her belongings and she had told me that she had done genealogy. And on my very first birthday that I spent with her, she gave me a book that showed many pictures from throughout her life and it was really sweet to see her as a youngster. But what I was not expecting was in the the pages towards the end were some of the results of her genealogical investigations and she was able to show the names of people that she had discovered back to the days when people in our family were owned as slaves and documents of people who had been freed. And I, I was blown away by that amount of just historical recount. I was so happy to just get to know her, but for her to be able to draw a line all the way back through history. You know, I, I was, I was totally blown away by that whole thing. It was amazing.

Mary:                          18:23               Well, I was amazed and surprized at how many older pictures you had. I have a few older ones, even one that I used on a page that I put together not too long ago, of my grandmother, and there was a man standing, no there was a man sitting, she was standing by her and I, I had no idea who he was. He can’t, it has to be her husband. There was nobody else that it can be. So not only did I find my grandmother’s picture, but my grandfather’s picture as well, on the bright side on my father’s side.

Damon:                       19:08               Wow. That is so cool. So may I ask you about, um, I’d like to ask you about your brother. What, what do you know about his feelings about connecting with your mom?

Mary:                          19:20               My bother was a happy go lucky kind of person and he was the kind of person that didn’t share his feelings. He seemed to have been okay with the whole, you know, all of it that went, you know, that that happened. He seemed to have been okay. I can remember when I was crying. I want my mommy. He would tell me she’s not coming back. You have to stop crying. And he’s only like two or three years old, you know, he’s telling me, he’s consoling me, if you will. All of the moves, everything seemed, he seemed to be okay with them. Also, I was going to say he did become, uh, addicted to some drug. I don’t know what,

Damon:                       20:08               but he ended up with a substance abuse problem?

Mary:                          20:10               and, and he passed. It’s probably been 30 years ago now.

Damon:                       20:16               Do you recall when he was like, when your mother was rediscovered and when she invited you to come back to live with her and because he needed a guardian? Do you recall at all how he felt at that time?

Mary:                          20:28               Well, he went to school so he, you know, got a lot of friends and so forth in school. And then the man that she married had several children and he settled right in with them. But then when the opportunity came to move, with our guardian, uh, he left and moved, you know, went with her. You know?

Damon:                       20:52               He went back there.

Mary:                          20:53               and he seemed to been all right with all of it. You know, you sometimes wonder if his, uh, addiction was just a coping method. I don’t know. I really don’t.

Damon:                       21:08               That’s a good question. And whether his happy go lucky nature was potentially masking some pain that he had not expressed.

Mary:                          21:18               It could have been. It could have been.

Damon:                       21:19               Where did you leave things with your mother? When was the last time you spoke with her, saw her, anything?

Mary:                          21:25               Well, She was somewhat persistent with trying to reconnect, if you will. And I didn’t make it easy, you know, unfortunately. But we did stay in contact when she was going through her last stages before she passed. I had already retired and I would drive back and forth to Cleveland from time to time to check on her, to do whatever, you know, just to brighten her spirit or whatever. She wanted to move here. But quite honestly I didn’t want her to, and they really would not have been a good move for her. All of her friends. She still had a sister that lived in Cleveland. Everybody was there, not here, and she would not have been happy being here. So I talked her out of that one.

Damon:                       22:26               She would have been uprooted from where she was comfortable and had a support network. She would have had to rely almost exclusively on you and you had a strange relationship.

Mary:                          22:40               She was willing to do that, wanted to do that.

Damon:                       22:43               I can understand why that was…

Mary:                          22:44               We stayed connected until she passed and when she passed, she left everything to me.

Damon:                       22:51               May I ask you, did you ever question her as to why she did what she did and did she ever express remorse or sadness?

Mary:                          22:59               Oh, I asked, I asked her about it many times and I would say, well why would you do that? Like she said, she had tried to get us back, but the Guardian wanted like $5,000 to give her back. And I said, well, why didn’t you go get a lawyer? You know? I mean, my, my automatic thing to say is, you know, they, they can’t do that to you. She couldn’t do that to you. But she said, well, I never really thought about, and I just knew I didn’t have the money.

Damon:                       23:35               But do you believe her? Do you get the sense that she was genuine in her desire to try to get you back?

Mary:                          23:42               Nope.

Damon:                       23:42               Why not?

Mary:                          23:43               My mother was a person who loved entertainment. She, and she had initially, uh, two sisters in Cleveland, and the three of them would get together on weekends and, and I would have their drinks and their dinners, you know, or she would go to gatherings and drink. That was their lifestyle. I mean, that they didn’t, they didn’t have a homey kind of atmosphere.

Damon:                       24:21               They were partiers.

Mary:                          24:22               Yeah. Yeah. And that wasn’t my way of doing things, or I didn’t even think that that should be her way of doing it. But you know that that’s her business.

Damon:                       24:33               I see. So knowing that she led a party lifestyle, it was hard for you to believe that she earnestly wanted to come back for you and your brother.

Mary:                          24:43               Right. Right.

Damon:                       24:44               So looking back on everything that you’ve been through, tell me a little bit about what you wish had been different.

Mary:                          24:51               Well, I don’t really know. I would have preferred to have been with my mother, with my father, had what I would consider a normal family life. That, that’s what I would have preferred.

Damon:                       25:08               Well, I’m sorry that it didn’t work out to be that way. It sounds like it was..

Mary:                          25:13               you know how they say if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.

Damon:                       25:17               Yeah, that’s true.

Mary:                          25:18               And I certainly, I can certainly be thankful for that because it did make me stronger.

Damon:                       25:24               In what ways did it make you stronger?

Mary:                          25:26               Well, I decided that that her lifestyle or family way of doing things was not what I wanted for my family. And we had five children. I kept them busy with constructive things, if you will. They were all involved in sports as well as their school activities and I was involved with their activities. You know, I didn’t just push them out the door and say, okay, you go to scouts and you go here.

Mary:                          25:57               I was the one who took them and stayed with them and cheered for them and whatever else.

Damon:                       26:05               You were a good mom.

Mary:                          26:07               Well, I would like to think so. Uh, and I think my children would, would agree with that. I, you know, it made me able to, to accept and to, to uh, not let things get me so bogged down that I couldn’t, couldn’t function or not function in the way that I think a parent should.

Damon:                       26:32               It didn’t kill you. Made you stronger.

Mary:                          26:34               Yup.

Damon:                       26:36               That’s excellent. Well, Mary, I’m so thankful to you for sharing your story with me here. It’s been really interesting to hear. I was excited to talk to you because I kept looking at your face in my Facebook timeline and I’m thinking to myself, I know she told me we’re related. I just can’t remember how I’ve, I’ve just really glad that we were able to connect and that you were able to tell me your story. Thank you so much for taking time to share your story with me. I really appreciate it. All the best to you. Bye bye

Mary:                          27:02               Alright. Bye bye.

Damon:                       27:02               Hey, it’s me. Mary’s story is heartbreaking in a lot of ways. In a short period of time, she was taken from her mother to live with a guardian. In guardianship, she was sexually abused then her guardian blamed her for the economic hardship in that house when the abuser left the home, it had to be hard to then bounce from house to house between returning to her mother’s home, then being asked to return to the Guardian’s house.

Damon:                       27:31               That level of instability is incredibly disruptive for a child or a teenager to grow up with. However, I was so heartened to hear that Mary, decided that she was going to embody the loving, involved, nurturing mother that she always wanted, but never had. She kept her children active and stayed involved with their activities and modeled for them the example of what a mother should be. I hope you’ll find something in Mary’s story that inspires you, validates your feelings about wanting to search or motivates you to have the strength along your journey to learn who am I really? If you would like to share your story of locating and connecting with your biological family visit, You can follow me on Twitter @WAIreally, and please leave a comment on what you think of the show or rate the show wherever you get your podcasts.

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