Many people who are adopted as infants grow up feeling like they belong in their adoptive families. To them it’s natural, and they have little or no desire to track down their birth parents. Other adoptees, however, need to know more about their “real” parents and how they came to be “given away.”
Jane Langdon always felt like an orphan when she was growing up in the small town of Baraboo, Wisconsin. Even after she left home to attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison, thirty miles away, the fact that she was adopted left her vaguely lonely and confused – and like she was not really a part of the family that had adopted her. Jane felt she was forever marked by the mystery of how she came to exist.
In the years after college, pursuing a marketing career in Madison, Jane often thought about trying to find her birth mother. About twenty years ago, when she was in her mid-thirties, Jane took a deep breath and joined an adoption support group. Other members of the group soon reassured Jane that “feeling disconnected,” as she describes it, is commonplace even among people who, like her, were adopted at birth and never knew any parents except their adoptive family. The group also urged her to try to find her parents. “They told me that for most people who find even one of their birth parents it works out to be a really good relationship on both sides, even if they end up not having a lot of contact,” Jane said. “Just finding them sets your heart at ease.”
Jane also had been afraid of hurting her adoptive parents’ feelings if she looked for her birth mother, but they said they would support her. She began searching, trying various means of tracking down her birth mother. She knew which agency had handled her adoption, but the agency cited confidentiality and refused to help. She thought she knew the hospital where she had been born and the date, and at one point she even found the elderly doctor who probably delivered her. But every lead turned into a dead end.
After each failure, Jane would drop the search for a few months. Over the years, however, she wondered more and more about her birth parents, and especially her mother. Was she still alive? What was she like?
Jane loved flowers, and often went into a local florist shop and talked to the owner. She occasionally caught glimpses of the owner’s wife in the back, tending plants or arranging flowers. Jane, who had taken ikebana courses and was known among friends for her tasteful flower arrangements, fantasized about what it would be like to have parents who shared her love of flowers and gardening. Jane never imagined the owner’s wife as her mother – they didn’t look anything alike – but Jane often thought she would have loved to have a mother like that. Jane would have liked to talk to her, but the woman never seemed to come out from the back of the shop.
Jane found herself studying people she met as she made calls on her job selling business machines, and as she shopped for groceries. “I always looked at people on the street, wondering if that could be my mother,” Jane said. Once she saw a photo of a woman who was “a dead ringer” for Jane, but 20 years older. “I contacted her,” Jane said, “and asked if she ever gave up a child for adoption.” The answer was no.
Then Jane developed a medical condition. Her doctor said he needed to know more about her family medical history. He wrote a letter requiring the adoption agency to cooperate. Within a short time a woman named Grace called Jane from the adoption agency. Grace had talked with Jane’s birth mother, who had provided the family medical history that the doctor needed. Grace sent Jane a letter with pertinent bits of her mother’s medical history.
“I sat on the stoop with the letter from Grace in hand,” Jane recalled. “Would I be able to accept the truth and would it help resolve the isolation?” The letter told Jane she and her mother were both petite, had wide hips, were diabetic, suffered from a thyroid condition and had undergone gall bladder surgery. “The letter revealed more than I had hoped for,” Jane said. “I had a different birth name, I was Irish, my birth date was correct, there were two other children and my mother’s maiden name was given. I was overwhelmed with all the details. I was light as a feather, floating in the fall sun.”
But the letter didn’t have her mother’s married name. Jane telephoned Grace and asked if she could have it. Would her mother mind? Grace called back the next day.
Jane’s birth mother was the woman in the back of the florist shop.
“She said she would like to know more about you,” Grace told Jane. She offered to forward a letter from Jane to her mother.
“I wrote her a 12-page letter,” Jane said. “It took six weeks to write. I didn’t know how to talk to a mother I had never seen. I didn’t want to make her feel bad, but I wanted her to know what I was like.”
Her mother read the letter, and called Grace. “She was overwhelmed at the similarities between us,” Jane said.
Jane was ecstatic. So much of her life suddenly seemed to make sense. She wanted more than ever to meet this woman, her mother, and talk about flowers and gardening and family and everything and nothing.
Jane knew that the couple had recently sold the florist shop, retired and moved away. Grace told Jane that her mother didn’t want to talk on the phone; she wanted to meet Jane in person. Her mother was having some health problems, however, and didn’t want to meet until she was feeling better.
Over the following months, Grace kept Jane informed of her mother’s medical problems. Grace assured Jane that her mother’s current husband, the owner of the flower shop, was not her birth father. Jane never pressed Grace to ask about her birth father. If her mother wanted her to know, Jane reasoned, her mother would tell her.
Jane, meanwhile, excitedly told her friends about finding her birth mother. It turned out that many of her friends – from the adoption group, from college, from work, from her neighborhood – were able to provide bits of information about the woman Jane had only glimpsed in the back of the shop, working over flowers. Jane’s mother loved music, was outgoing, had a good sense of humor, was an avid reader, was involved in charity work and liked throwing parties and dinners for friends. At the flower shop she was not merely the owner’s wife; she was a co-owner and equal partner, an entrepreneur. She had started the business with him, and she did the books and handled the finances. Some people thought her good taste, gardening skills and business acumen were largely responsible for the shop’s success.
Jane’s mother also apparently was known for her cooking, and one of Jane’s friends came up with several recipes from Jane’s mother. “Men really like this,” Jane’s mother had handwritten on one recipe. Jane’s friends noted that describing Jane’s mother was like describing Jane herself – and Jane couldn’t have been more pleased.
Around the same time, the British company that had always made Jane’s favorite rose-scented perfume stopped producing it. Unable to find a similar rose scent – “Everything else was too musty, not like fresh roses,” she said – Jane began experimenting with making her own perfume. She even took a correspondence course. When she finally wore her homemade perfume one day, she was startled at the reaction. Everybody commented, and several people asked where they could buy the perfume. Jane, who had been thinking about a career change, said to herself, “This is a business waiting to happen.”
One morning the phone rang. It was a friend calling to tell Jane to look at the newspaper. Jane found her mother’s obituary. The funeral had been the day before.
“We always thought we were going to meet,” Jane said. She grieved privately with her husband Rick Stuessy, a security guard, who had always supported her search for her mother. She did not reach out to members of her mother’s family – indeed, Jane decided she would not have gone to the funeral even if she had known in time – because she did not want to cause them more emotional turmoil. “What would I have said if they had asked me who I was?” she wondered.
Jane decided to commit herself to creating her own perfume business. She found resolve in knowing that her mother had been an entrepreneur and had been in the flower business. In a spare bedroom, she set up a one-woman company, House of Rose (www.houseofrose.com), specializing in flower scents, including rose, magnolia, hydrangea, freesia, orchid, azalea, violet, lilac and lily of the valley. After all, flowers were in her blood.
It would have been nice to talk to her mother about her perfumes, of course. “But it just wasn’t meant to be,” Jane said.
She prefers to remember that all those years she was looking for her mother, her mother was right there, nearby. She also prefers to focus not on what she missed, but on what she ultimately learned about her mother and, more importantly, about herself.
“As an adopted child, you sometimes feel like you have no history,” she said. “Now I do.”