In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fifth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By Leanna Lyons
I had been living with my Grandma Doris since summer. She was my stepfather’s mom, and in her eyes, I was her first grandchild – period. In her eyes, love was thicker than blood. My mom Lana and stepfather Rudy were married shortly after I turned three. I did not really know or spend time with my father, LeRoy. Rudy was and still is my dad, because I also feel that love is thicker than blood. Mom and Rudy had two more children, two girls named Chris and Karyn. When I went to live with Doris, my little sisters were about six and three.
About a month before I moved in with Doris, her long-time boyfriend Jack was piloting a small plane and it crashed in a cornfield shortly after take-off. Jack was seriously injured and lay in a coma until his death four months later.
It never dawned on me until a few years ago, around the time of Doris’ death, but my moving in with Doris was as much for her benefit, while Jack was in the hospital, as it was a benefit to me. We had each other during those four or five hard months of mutual heartbreak. For me, the pain was from my mom flat-out telling me that I was moving out of her house (and implied but not said, that if she truly had had her way, out of her life and heart forever); and of course, for Doris, the pain was from the loss of Jack, first of consciousness and then in death.
While Jack was still in a coma in the hospital, Doris went to work in the office at a retail store similar to K-Mart, called White Center, and I went to school and made new friends. We carried on with a “new normal” which included nightly visits to the hospital so Doris could spend an hour with Jack while I waited in the waiting room downstairs, as children weren’t allowed up in ICU.
Those four or five months turned out to be the most peaceful of my childhood, second only to spending six weeks in Arizona with a great aunt at the height of summer six years later. No screaming, no yelling, no beatings, no being put on restriction, no snide comments about not being a wanted child and how I had ruined my mom’s, and later my Grandma Helen’s, life. I experienced nothing but unconditional love, in spite of Jack’s death in the middle of my stay with Doris. I think I only got snapped at maybe twice in that time period.
But around Christmas, my world was rocked again. I found out that I truly would not be returning home, because my mom had essentially given me up to the State of California for adoption or foster care. She did not even tell her own mother, Helen, what she had done. Mom didn’t break the news to her mother until Helen pressed for an answer as to whether the whole family would be coming up to Washington State for Christmas. Mom kept declining the invitation; Helen kept pressing her, and finally Mom said fine, but LeAnna will not be with us. When the whole truth was revealed, all hell broke loose.
My father LeRoy once said to me several years ago, when I was complaining about Helen, that as much as he and my mom really did love me, Helen was the only one that wanted me. Wanted me born, wanted me to grow up with married parents, and when that didn’t work out, well then by God, she would adopt me. He had a point.
To say that all of this could have been handled better is an understatement. Mom put it to me like I had a choice in the matter.
“Do you want to live with Doris or Helen?”
I remember crying hard, actually taking a few minutes to think about it, afraid to say the wrong thing, and then answering, “Well I like snow. I think I have to go live with Grandma Helen…”
The thing is, there was no choice, simply because Doris was not blood, no matter how much she loved me. Helen was blood, and Helen was a force to be reckoned with and she was territorial. While the question was being asked, Helen had already loaded up the truck, put on her white hat and was speeding down Southbound I-5 from Seattle to Sacramento with my grandfather Delmer.
Helen had already made the decision, regardless of what anyone else thought about it, that she was going to adopt me. In fact, I would hear for years thereafter, that she regretted not adopting me when I was born. I personally shudder at the thought.
It must be noted that while I was the one to leave, my sisters Chris and Karyn stayed with Mom and Rudy.
The reasons for the adoption looked good on paper. In fact, adoption always looks good on paper. An unwanted child is wanted by someone willing to spend money and go through the drill of the adoption process to adopt a child, especially one that is 10 years old and starving, figuratively and literally, as I was underweight when I went to live with Helen.
Because I was only age ten, I actually had NO SAY whatsoever as to whether I WANTED to be adopted. One had to be at least the age of twelve.
I moved up to Washington State two days after Christmas 1969. Six months later on June 4, 1970, I was standing between Helen and Delmer before a judge in the Snohomish County courthouse, and my adoption was final.
One question I had for years was why did my real dad (LeRoy) sign off of the adoption? I didn’t have any contact with him from the time of his divorce from my mom until I was twenty-six years old, shortly before I married my first husband. One of my first questions to him was, “What did Helen say to you that made you sign the papers?”
His answer was not what I expected; basically, while he was sad about the whole affair, the reality was that I was at least going to be adopted by family. He was at peace in the sense that I was in the same state as him. He had a new wife and new children. And Helen was opposed to him having any contact with me. If she had truly had her way, I would have never seen my mother ever again, but she didn’t count on my stubborn, willful nature regarding my mom. My mom didn’t count on that either.
In my view, it honestly would have been a crapshoot whether I stayed with Doris, or if I had gone into the foster system until age eighteen, or if a miracle had happened and a couple of strangers had adopted me, or if I had been adopted by Helen, as to which of these options would have been a good thing for me or not. The odds favored that if Helen had not adopted me, I would have had a rougher time of it. For the most part, I agree, but you never know. I don’t know what would have been best.
As I write this, some forty-six years after the adoption, it might be that the adoption by Helen was the best course of action, in spite of what was to come while living with her.
Three years after I went to live with Helen and Delmer, they divorced. Both of them, without apology, blamed their divorce on me. Yes, personally blamed me. Friends of theirs would come to my defense. It was nice of them, but it didn’t help matters. Simply because I was a child, I get that I was a challenge, but I knew that not everything was my fault.
The main problem I had with my adoption was that I KNEW MY MOM! I knew my sisters and my stepfather. Mom was Helen’s first born, for heaven’s sakes. I missed my family, and I wanted to go home. That desire to “go home,” never, ever faded. Not in the eight years I lived with Helen. Not when I moved out on my own at eighteen. In fact, even when I moved back to Sacramento when I was twenty-two, I still felt that hunger of wanting to “get my family” back. All through the seventeen years of living in Sacramento as an adult until I was thirty-eight, I was homesick for my family, even though we were living in the same town and I saw them often and we had a relationship.
The titles changed within most of the family. “Grandma” and “Grandpa” became “Mom” and “Dad.” I was forbidden from referring to Rudy as Dad in the presence of my grandparents. Aunts and Uncles became brothers and sisters. Cousins became nieces and nephews. My mom and sisters though held their original titles.
My last name changed. Nowadays, the only real reminder that I am legally adopted is when I have to answer a security question for mother’s maiden name. It annoys me.
When I moved back to Sacramento in 1981, I basically changed my name back to my birth name. I still legally had my adopted name, but I used the birth name until I got married to my first husband. I added a business name later. I have had five last names! When I got married to my current husband, I refused to change my name again. Fortunately, my husband understands.
I do and did love my grandparents. I love my parents, all of them. I have a decent relationship with my mom and an even better relationship with LeRoy. I am connected to all my brothers and sisters. We work at it.
It was hard living with Helen. She had extremely high expectations and she was a control freak and a workaholic and couldn’t relate to anything less. I was in trouble a lot.
That being said, on a very practical level, I came to the conclusion that it was probably for the best that I ended up with Helen. I had a dry and clean roof over my head; I got an education; I had food in my belly, and clothes on my back. I did have friends, and I did do fun things. But it’s got to tell you something that I was always happier being at my friends’ house than I was at home. Looking back, I was always trying to find a way to stay overnight at somewhere else. I was one of those kids that went to camp and did not get homesick.
My grandmother and I fought tooth and nail. I was always in trouble. I was always on restriction.
When my grandparents were going through their divorce, I ended up living with my aunt, my mother’s sister and her family for a year. In the twelve months I was there, I was on restriction for nine months, because my grades were not up. I was smart, but I hated homework.
I once overheard my aunt and my grandmother talking about me and saying, “She thinks there’s something wrong with her; there’s nothing wrong with her. She just needs to…blah, blah, blah.” Apparently similar things were said about my mother back in the day. We were basically not taken seriously no matter what was going on.
Kids, even in the seventies, were to be seen, not heard. They didn’t or weren’t supposed to have feelings; they weren’t supposed to react to anything. No crying or “I’ll give you something to cry about” would be the threat to stop the tears. Not too much laughing or god forbid, an adult laugh with you and we’d all be admonished with, “Don’t encourage her.” Any compliment to me would be met with a contradiction. “LeAnna made a great cake,” could be met with “Well, once she burnt the tomato soup.”
While my mom at many times believed in my creative endeavors and actually did believe I really would graduate high school, Helen really did give me a good life foundation. I did graduate high school; I did move out on my own at age eighteen; I did have a job and a car. Over the next four years, I worked my way back to Sacramento. I was and still am willful and stubborn and that’s what got me back to Sacramento and then to Germany and back to Washington State.
Willful and stubborn are two traits that parents really don’t like in children, but tend to admire when the children become adults.
Personally, I wish my grandmother had just filed for legal guardianship of me, so that my last name would not have changed. But as an adult in late middle age, I appreciate what she was trying to do and avoid. She wanted an airtight solution to the problem of me possibly being bounced back and forth between her and my mom. Well, I was still bounced around a little. I did spend a few summers in Sacramento, and there was that year with my aunt during Helen and Delmer’s divorce, and six weeks in Arizona with my great aunt.
Delmer died in 2004 around the age of ninety. I didn’t see him very much after the divorce. He refused to pay all the child support he was ordered to pay, blaming it on Helen’s fault. There wasn’t consistent visitation with him. I am very close to his daughter Janey. He wasn’t my blood grandfather. But he was family. To Janey, I am her sister. To me, she is my aunt, and my sister, and my surrogate mom and friend.
Helen died in 2009. It broke her heart when I moved back to Sacramento. She was very upset when I changed my name. She retaliated in little ways. When I moved to Germany, she wasn’t happy. But for the most part she tried to handle these things with a certain amount of grace. I was, after all, an adult and could make decisions for myself.
Doris died in 2012. As much as we loved each other, we were rarely in contact, even after I moved back to California. She came to my first wedding, but not my second. Two months before her death, she made the trip from her home in Montana back to Sacramento to celebrate her ninety-fifth birthday. I was at the party. There were sixty-five of us in attendance. It was beautiful, but it messed with my head at the same time. This wonderful woman was surrounded by everyone who meant something to her, including me. We were hugging and crying.
I came back to Sacramento for the memorial after Doris died. I was sad again, not just because she had left this earth, but also because Helen hadn’t had the same kind of family love. She didn’t get the same send off as Doris did.
My mom is still alive and living in Sacramento. My father LeRoy is alive and living in Washington State. My stepfather is alive in and living east of Sacramento. I am in contact with them all.
When Helen died, it was discovered that my mom and I were cut out of whatever little inheritance that she had. I got a phone call from my mom who was beyond distraught. It took me well over an hour to “peel her off the ceiling.” My heart broke for her. For myself, sure it hurt a little, but two decades ago, I had written Helen a letter basically telling her where she could stuff her will. So it didn’t surprise me that I was left with nothing. However, I had spent time with Helen the last year of her life. I told her and tried to show her that I really did love her, and she said she loved me too. I made the decision to believe her.
I have her ashes. They have given me a measure of peace of mind. I do have to say though, that when I got my copy of the will, I smacked the box of ashes with it, and asked, “Was that really necessary?” That was mainly for my mom’s benefit.
Helen was unwanted by her own mom; she was a teen mom to my mom at the beginning of World War II, and she was divorced before my mom was two. My mom was pregnant with me at 16. My aunt, Helen’s other daughter, was pregnant at 15.
She was married six times, divorced five times, widowed once. She had two daughters, six plus grandchildren, lost count of the great grandchildren. Her friends gave her a memorial after she died, but her family did not. She alienated and frustrated nearly everyone in the family.
There were many things that I admired about Helen. She was creative, smart, a good business woman, and she loved deeply, probably too deeply. But she felt her hurts far too deeply. I do want to go on record that I really do love the people I am writing about. They are my family, blood or not.
I am childless by choice.
LeAnna Nocita-Lyons lives on Vashon Island, Washington with her husband and four cats. She has a small business called The Eccentric Haus Frau, which celebrates the creative domestic arts, namely crocheting, knitting, sewing and photography. She has self-published crochet patterns and a small recipe book of spice mixes.
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