Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
By Andrea Ross
I readied myself for my appointment with Joan, the social worker at the adoption agency in Denver. Adoption rights advocates had told me that social workers who were sympathetic to adoptees in search would sometimes meet in their offices, then excuse themselves from the room after chatting a bit, leaving a piece of paper on the desk that had a scrap of identifying information on it: a birth parent’s name, for example.
I hoped Joan was this kind of sympathetic social worker. They told me that one social worker at her agency was willing to divulge information. But I also had a backup plan to ask a series of questions based on my non-identifying information in hopes that she would slip up and tell me something even if she didn’t mean to.
The crow’s feet around my eyes had deepened during the past year working in New Mexico’s backcountry as a wilderness guide. Was I seeking something or running away from something else: myself, my life? Would the pain of losing my birth parents fade as I aged? I was twenty-nine years old and hadn’t grown up.
I was still a baby who had been given away, abandoned. Did I expect finding my birth parents to solve all my problems—to clarify who I was and what I should do with my life? I think I did. I was looking for unrealistically big answers, pinning my hopes for self-understanding and direction in life on these shadow people. Desperation swirled around me, a self-inflicted storm. Would I really feel better once I knew who they were?
Finally, late that morning, I navigated my way into the office of Lutheran Social Services in Denver to meet Joan. After a year driving the gravel roads in the tiny town where I’d lived in Northern New Mexico, Denver’s traffic and dense population felt too fast and noisy for me, adding to my nervousness. Even though the information I sought was rightfully mine, I couldn’t help feeling guilty, as if I were doing something illicit.
I walked into the building, wrapping my arms around myself as the air conditioning slapped me. Joan met me in the lobby. She was a tall woman in her sixties, with short white hair and a kind, wrinkly smile. She offered me a tour of the office building, which I thought was strange because I didn’t care what the office looked like. Maybe she thought I would envision it as a kind of home since my birth mother had once entered that building, and because the names of my birth mother and birth father were written on a slip of paper in a file there somewhere within that building.
When I thought about it, I realized that it did feel onerous to stand in the building, perhaps the very room, that held definitive information about my origins, which I was prohibited from seeing. I walked alongside Joan, trying to be polite, nodding, smiling, and shaking hands with social workers, but distracted by the fantasy I entertained of tearing around rooms, ripping open file cabinets, grabbing documents, and shoving rolls of microfiche under my shirt.
After the tour, Joan suggested we go somewhere for lunch. My heart raced. Surely this was my chance. I was positive she was communicating to me in a kind of code that she couldn’t talk about my case while we were in the office, but if we left the building she would be able to give me the information I sought. I enthusiastically accepted the invitation, and she asked me to wait in her office while she collected her things to leave.
As I waited, I remembered that her exit from the office might be an encoded invitation to look around the room for information, so I hoped, and half expected, to see a file folder with my name penned in red lying on the grey Formica desktop.
I was so nervous I could barely see straight, but I looked around for anything she might have left me as a clue. The office was very tidy. Everything was grey: file cabinet, desk, computer monitor, chair.
The desk was completely bare, the computer turned off. The file cabinet was closed. As I tried to muster the nerve to jiggle its handle to see if it was locked, Joan returned. My body pulsed with disappointment and fear that I wouldn’t get any new information from the visit.
Joan escorted me out of the agency’s doors into the bright August noon. It was very hot, and even though we only walked about a block to a little Mexican restaurant in a strip mall, I was sweating by the time we arrived.
The restaurant was cool and cavernous inside, and it felt like a good place for a secret meeting. I held onto hope that she would disclose information in private there. We sat at a table, ordered food, and chatted as we waited for the waitress to serve it to us.
Joan asked me where I had grown up. Under the table, I twisted my napkin in my hands. “We moved to northern California when I turned one. My dad had just gotten a job as a professor there,” I said.
Joan sipped her water out of its slick plastic cup. “And where do you live now?” she asked.
I don’t live anywhere, I thought. “I’ve been living in New Mexico, working as a wilderness guide.” I smiled weakly. The fear of rejection was always just under the surface of any encounter I had with people, and right then it felt as if that fear had taken a seat at the table with Joan and me.
The waitress arrived with my plate of enchiladas and Joan’s burrito and set them on the table. I began to cut a gooey piece, and asked Joan, “How long have you been working with Lutheran Social Services?”
“I’ve been there for thirty-five years, if you can believe it.”
Butterflies stirred in my stomach. “You were there when I was born?”
“Yes, I was.”
My heart beat rapidly. Had she seen me when I was an infant? Had she interviewed my birth mother when she placed me for adoption?
“I’m sorry to tell you, Andrea, that I was not the social worker assigned to your case. She retired many years ago.” My heart fell. Still, I wondered if Joanne had seen me as a three-day-old baby going into foster care or as three-week-old baby being adopted by my parents, if she had held me, or had at least cooed at me while I was bundled up asleep in someone else’s arms in the agency’s waiting room. And if she hadn’t, who had?
Who had held me, fed me, and dressed me when I was a newborn? All these questions made me feel like I was going to explode. I felt angry sitting there in the stupid strip mall Mexican restaurant because I had no answers to any of my questions and because I had to ask them at all and because I had no legal right to their answers.
How many times had I been handed off? Why would anyone think it was a good idea to remove newborns from their mother and give them to someone else, only to remove them again weeks later to give them to the adoptive parents? So much for forming secure attachments early in life.
Throughout my life, in moments of self-doubt or loneliness, an image had often popped into my mind: a baby curled fetally, surrounded by dark space and twinkling stars of the universe with her umbilical cord spooling out from her tiny belly, connected to nothing.
My search was about wanting to find a place where the raw end of that cord belonged, and to draw the baby down to earth and into the arms of a primal mother. So as a young adult I had begun imagining grasping the baby self by her cord and walking through the world trailing her like a helium-filled balloon.
“You may have guessed that I’ve decided to try to search for my birth mother,” I said. “I have a letter signed by my adoptive parents stating their support for my search and asking the agency to help me.”
Joanne dabbed the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “Yes, I assumed you were here because you want to search. I’m glad your parents are sympathetic to your desires.”
“I also have a letter stating that I give permission for your agency to give my birth parents my contact information if they contact you in search of me. Would you put it in my file?” I asked.
She agreed. I took a deep breath and asked, “Has your agency received any word from my birth mother or birth father since my adoption, asking for information about me or providing information about themselves?” I held my breath.
Joan’s eyes crinkled a little at their edges. “I checked your file before you arrived, and there was nothing like that. I’m sorry.”
My chest felt heavy; it was devastating to be told that no one was looking for me, that in twenty-nine years, no one had made even the small gesture of sending a letter, to find me.
I wondered if my birth parents were dead, in denial of my existence, or just didn’t feel they had the right to search me out. I squeezed the loneliness into a very small place in the back of my mind so I could continue. “Is there anything you can tell me to help me with my search?” I said.
Joan folded her paper napkin and placed it on the table. “Well, since your adoption is a closed one, I’m not at liberty to reveal any information that would identify your birth parents.” Apparently, our trip to the Mexican restaurant was just for lunch, not for talking with me candidly.
My enchiladas congealed on my plate while I tried to gather the confidence to ask her some questions about my non-identifying information. Ask her! I coached myself. This is your information! She won’t give it to you if you don’t ask for it. No one else is going to do this for you. I was sweating again, and I wanted to give up, but I knew it was probably my only chance to ask her.
I took another deep breath and asked her, “Since both of my birthmother’s parents were Norwegian, did she have a Scandinavian-sounding last name?”
“I suppose you could say that,” she replied. I had scored a point, but it was a vague one.
“I also read that she wanted to go to school to be a teacher, and the local teacher’s college was the Colorado State University at Greeley: is that where she was enrolled when she became pregnant?”
“Yes, that’s where she was.”
At last I had gained one solid piece of information—now I knew where she had gone to college! And in the over-air-conditioned darkness of that nondescript Mexican restaurant, an idea occurred to me: I knew my birth mother had attended Greeley, so perhaps I could obtain the college’s enrollment records from the fall semester of 1966 and compare the names of newly enrolled women with those still on the enrollment list in the spring of 1967. Then I would be able to make a list of all the first-year women who had enrolled in the fall but hadn’t returned for the spring term. My birth mother would be on that list.
It was my first breakthrough in years. It seemed like an elegant plan; since Joan had said it was a Scandinavian name, I could put the list of names together and find the ones that sounded Scandinavian, then track them down. There would only be a few names, maybe ten or twenty. Perhaps Joan had, after all, given me the information I needed.
“I understand,” I said.
The next day, I drove through the Front Range’s bright pastureland to Greeley, a town that smelled of cattle feedlots, to the university’s library. I found the archives in the basement, a small room with a few tables with people sitting at them. I requested copies of enrollment records for fall of 1966 and spring of 1967. After a while, a woman handed me two heavy stacks of warm, photocopied paper.
I ran my hands over them before beginning to compare semesters and highlight in yellow the names of young women who might be my birth mother. After the first three pages, I paused. There were not going to be just ten or twenty names. I was highlighting several per page. What had happened to all of the girls who disappeared?
There were more than two hundred first-year girls enrolled in the fall of 1966 who had disappeared from school by the spring of 1967. How could I find my birth mother among all those names? I scanned the list of names—many of them looked Scandinavian.
I spent the rest of the week at municipal libraries in small towns looking at high school yearbooks looking for evidence of swim teams and Norwegian surname, driving around farm communities and stopping into irrigation supply stores to ask old timers if they knew of the family I was looking for. But I didn’t make any headway, and it was time for me to leave.
I felt defeated. I had budgeted my savings so I could survive without earning a paycheck until the end of summer, and I was running out of money. The vast expanses of eastern Colorado, Utah, and Nevada lay between my hometown destination and me. I had a lot of solo miles to roll across in my car in the next week or two.
I road-tripped with the list of two hundred young women’s names propped up on my passenger seat like a traveling companion.
Driving highway 50 through Nevada, dubbed The Loneliest Highway in America, I listened to hour after hour of talk radio on the AM stations for lack of any other choices.
It was the only tree of any stature I’d seen in hours. I pulled over to the side of the highway beneath the tree. Its verdant leaves rustled in the wind, a welcome swath of green on the desert’s dun palette.
Looking up, I saw that every branch was hung with shoes, all kinds of shoes: shiny soccer cleats, canvas high-tops, leather work boots, shredded hiking boots, you name it. Any shoe that could be suspended from a tree branch was represented there. Why were they there, swaying, mysterious and lonely, in the harsh, high desert wind? I marveled at the display of human artifacts in such an unlikely place.
I felt exposed beneath the soles of hundreds of shoes fording their ghostly paths through air, signs of people who had passed by before me. The shoes echoed those hundreds of names I’d found in the archives, young women who had dropped out of college. Why had they left? Marriage? Pregnancy? Tragedy? Emptiness rang and clacked as the wind gusted, guttural whispers in a language I couldn’t understand.
Andrea Ross is formerly a wilderness guide and ranger, currently a writing professor, mother, and activist. Always an adopted person. This essay is an excerpt from her memoir manuscript, Natural Selection, which is in search of a publisher. She lives in northern California with her husband and son, and teaches writing at UC Davis. Andrea wrote a piece for the 2016 Portrait of an Adoption series.
Find more of her writing at the following links:
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter