An Adoptees Quest
Genesis...A search for Identity
As long as I can remember, I've been searching for something. I never had an idea what it might be, or why I so desperately sought it, but deep inside I knew that I would know it if I found it, whatever it was.
I came to realize that the time my "searching" started, when I was five years old, and the time that I was told that I had been adopted coincided with each other. While it's quite natural for a five-year-old to be of a curious nature, and every child does go through an exploratory period, here I sit 45 years later with the same inquisitiveness.
These curiosities I hold have been augmented lately by my own recent discovery of the computer, the internet and the world of information it puts at my fingertips, still, while the answers remain clear, and boldly scrawled onto the screen before my eyes, the fact remains that it's the question which still remains unknown. What is it I am constantly seeking?
Who ever invented the internet must have had me in mind, or at least people like me, as I can spend hours a day searching for irrelevant information, pertaining to useless issues, to find inconsequential answers to questions of a nonsensical nature, which have no logical bearing on my existence one way or another. But... it is a continuation of my search, In other words; I need this.
My earliest recollections of these searches go back to my childhood, I was always fascinated with the basement of the house where I grew up in Chicago. The back basement was forbidden. This was where the furnace, meat freezer, water tank, laundry and electrical service were. There were no toys, or any need or reason for a child to be there. The shelves along the wall were piled high with boxes upon boxes filled with mysteries and secrets, and where the shelving space ran out, the boxes then were placed upon the floor sometimes stacked five or six box high, and forming aisles strategically formed for easy access. It was a treasure trove for a young and curious mind.
Thinking about the basement, it was there I was to find the stored belongings of my adoptive mother's father. I had never met him, although I knew he was on the police force, as my mother would so often tell me. One of the boxes contained pictures of the man I had never met, as well as his old badge, nightstick, and handcuffs. I can vaguely remember the excitement I felt at that time, but I remember clearly that it was short lived, as I spent what seemed like hours waiting for my father to come down and find me after I had unintentionally handcuffed myself to a water pipe. My curiosities I must admit sometimes got the best of me.
The exact nature of my need to search eluded me for quite some time, although that action follows me until this day. Abandoned houses, empty lots, or overflowing alleys, always peaked my curiosity as a child. Growing up the quest remained the same, although at times more spiritual or philosophical in nature, there was always something which seemed to be missing. While filling out a medical background form at the hospital one afternoon; it hit me. An identity, a history, this is what I had so seriously lacked and searched for all of these years.
A couple of years ago Illinois State Representative Sara Feigenholtz proposed legislation which if passed would allow for adoptees to view their birth records. In Illinois, as well as much of the United States, adoptees have no rights pertaining to their own heritage, genealogy, or medical history. So when the adopted child is told (if they are told) that they are special for being a chosen child, and to live life as if there will be no repercussions, who are they supposed to turn to when diagnosed with acute pancreatitis or some other fatal disease which might have been detected earlier had a medical background been available. The legislation passed, and in November of 2011, I will have access to my birth records.
In my searches I one time came up with a pamphlet for infant feeding instructions from Garfield Park Community Hospital. The year was my birth year; however the name on the form read Baby Boy Lee. I was to later find out these were my instructions that my adoptive mother for some reason felt the need to hold onto.
After my adoptive mother had passed away, my father gave me a copy of my adoption record. The record had the name of my birth mother on it, Michelle Josephine Lee, but the name of the father was unknown. It went on to read that on that day, my birth mother had willfully abandoned and surrendered the child "Baby Boy Lee" who would eventually be adopted and given the name I am known by now. I have to admit; at the time it weighed pretty heavy on me. The notion of being abandoned and surrendered doesn't leave a pretty picture in anybody's head, but the fact that I now have some indication as to my own identity left me ecstatic. I am, or at least my mother was, a Lee.
Goethe once wrote: “Know thyself? If I knew myself I would run.”
Regardless, a new search had now presented itself. I am a Lee, so what does that mean? A genealogy search of the surname “Lee” showed its origin to be: English, Irish, or Chinese. Definitions, in English showed it to be derived from the word Lea, described as: a person who lived in, or near a clearing in the woods. In Chinese it translates to “Plum tree.” So having narrowed the origins of my heredity down to Western European, or Asian; it now became a matter of simple deduction.
After close inspection of my orbital cavity, contour of my eyelids, and greenish tint of my iris, I was quick to rule out the possibility of an Asian ancestry. I found the shape of my eyes to be much rounder than those of Asian subjects I had examined; too round as a matter of fact, almost Bambi-esque to be truthful (this probably would explain why past endeavors at intimidating stare downs were often mistaken for attempts of flirtation). Another factor in elimination was my hair; it is much curlier and far to light to be of Asian derivation.
Having eliminated the possibility of Asian descent, I found myself left with the possibility of coming from either English or Irish ancestry. This is where my searches once again left me “handcuffed,” only in a more figurative sense this time. My efforts at deduction left too many similarities between these peoples and their cultures. Inductive reasoning, however, given my facial characteristics, weighed against a host of photographs of both English and Irishmen, lead me to suspect that the chances of Irish heritage were somewhat greater.
To be totally honest, I had always suspected being of Irish descent. My eyes, hair, freckles; everything, all reeked of Gaelic influence. I have to admit; on a somewhat stereotypical note, my fondness for alcohol had a little to do with my conclusion as well.
The Illinois adoption bill came up on the House floor for ratification May 9th. Noted adoption rights groups led by the group “Bastard Nation” were opposing this bill in its current form. According to the Bastard Nation website the bill would: “Allow birth parents 6 months after the bill is passed to file ‘Denial of Information’ forms with the Adoption Registry. Any adoptee whose birth parent files a ‘Denial of Information’ form will NOT receive an original birth certificate. This section includes a 6 month advertising campaign to let birth mothers know their choices.”
Among other complaints the group has with the bill is the fact that it would permit redacting (or whiting-out) an official document, and make all of the birth parent options go through the Illinois Adoption Registry where the concerns are related to searching rather than to civil rights. There’s that word again, searching, I guess I'm not alone.
While I have to agree the group has brought up some valid points, the fact remains that this bill is the greatest hope for Illinois adoptee rights reform in over the past 60 years. It would allow for medical background history information to be released which is an important step in the right direction.
One of the most vivid memories in my life is the feel and smell of the last breath of air on my face, as it was expelled from my brother’s lungs in my attempts to resuscitate him after he succumbed to an ailment, which if had been diagnosed at an earlier age, he would not have had to have died from. My brother was adopted as well, and it is now my belief that the withholding of these pertinent medical records should fall nothing short of voluntary manslaughter every time an incident such as this occurs again.
Granted the adoption bill has a few wrinkles to be ironed out, but what groups like Bastard Nation are failing to recognize is the fact that this is a start. Over 90 percent of woman who gave their children up for adoption have stated that they would welcome contact with them. For the adoptee, it could seem as a rebirth, a genesis, if you will. My adoptive sister found her birth mother and moved to Kentucky to be near her; they get along fine.
It seems to me that if adoptee rights reform in Illinois carried over to other states with the same inhumane and discriminatory practices, groups like Bastard Nation and their kind would be put out of business.
So, the bottom line is, in another year I should have access to my medical records. To me, as well as my son, that is most important. Should my birth mother, Michelle, choose to meet me, that would be a plus. Maybe my searches would finally end. Maybe she could answer a few questions pertaining to who I am, and why I am the way I am. Better yet… maybe she’ll have a basement.
Update: A New Discovery
A little under 56 years ago, a woman I never met made a decision that gave me the greatest gift any person could ever receive; she gave me life. I have never had the pleasure of meeting my birth mom, however, thanks to a trip to Davenport, Iowa, and the easing of Illinois adoption record laws, last August, on my birthday (ironically), a mystery was resolved; I had found my mother, although be it too late.
On this day, 16 years ago…my mother, Michaela Lee Tuohy, passed away.
I have to admit, getting the news that the woman I was searching for since the day I found out I was adopted had passed away 16 years earlier left me a bit distraught. However, my search also revealed that she had other children. Suddenly, I was not so all alone, I have two half brothers and a half sister. I also discovered that my mom was a bit of a legend in the area from the great tributes given by her friends and peers:
Said Chicago Mayor Richard Daley:
"Michaela was an excellent writer. Her talent and creativity were an asset to the city, and her sense of humor, quick wit and humanitarian spirit were inspiring."
Paul Galloway, ChicagoTribune Staff Writer wrote:
“ Mrs. Tuohy, who was called Mike by her friends, was known for a skewering wit, a consummate skill as a storyteller, a delight in malicious gossip, a warm compassion and an infectious and often undisciplined zest for life--and parties.”
But, by far my favorite quotes are from Bill Granger of the Daily Herald:
"Mike" Tuohy and her husband were pioneering settlers in the Old Town neighborhood when it was very bohemian, counter-cultural and Greenwich-Village-like. She fit in and made it fit her. She presided over the conversation pits found in local saloons, bringing together journalists, critics, writers, artists, musicians, hangers-on and even politicians. She was funny, salty, quick of wit and she showed it off with devastating punch lines, putdowns and comments.”
As well as,
“Mike Tuohy could tell Nelson Algren to shut up for going too long in a story of remembrance and get away with it - because she did more than once. She re-reviewed Roger Ebert's critiques and he took it. She punctured inflated egos with precision and threw a motherly wing over life's losers to protect them. She was a Gertrude Stein without literary pretensions, perfect for a city like this.”
I found that a name printed on my birth certificate, of which I was certain was fictitious and traveled to Iowa to corroborate, was very much real. I found that I can go into the Old Town Ale House and see portraits of her painted on both the bar’s mural, and among the individual portraits painted by Bruce Elliott, the bars proprietor. I found a family I was able to meet with and hear stories of her life, see photographs of her, and read articles she had written, and articles that were written about her…not many adoptees’ could boast of these luxuries’.
It would be selfish of me to say I wished she had lived long enough for me to meet her, as the greatest spirits are the hardest to harness, and the brightest stars fade the fastest.
As Granger put it:
“The city lost her… both the city she officially worked for and the city she had graced since coming from her Iowa roots and finding home sweet home in Chicago. Chicago lost a friend."
She belonged to the city, and it truly was the ‘cities’ loss.
Since August I haven't been myself. I've been overwhelmed with mixed emotions, undermined by the fact that a lifelong search had so abruptly halted, leaving me wondering where to go from here. And now, occasionally obsessed with my own genealogy searches that have taken me from Bohemia to County Cork. But this too shall pass.
Now I find that where most adopted children can only dream that their birth mother was a princess; or such, that I was one of the lucky ones. Now I can turn the page, and only hope to live up to her legacy.
Rest in peace mother… and thanks.