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. 

This Greek Cinderella Fends for Herself
By Robyn Bedell Zalewa

I am not really sure yet why God chose the path he did for me, but here I am, sixty-two years later. It has been a difficult journey but, nonetheless, an eye-opening one.

I was adopted from Greece in November of 1958 by Wade Jr. and Mildred Bedell from San Antonio, Texas. Admittedly, I have blocked out most of my childhood memories. But I do remember 1961, when I was in kindergarten. One of my teachers was concerned about abuse happening at home. She was concerned about my father when in reality my mother was the perpetrator. I wanted nothing to do with her.

I remember day trips with Grandpa (father’s father) and his girlfriend. Those are among the only good times I remember from my childhood.

There are no good memories of times spent with my adoptive father and mother.

My days were spent at home doing chores. Looking back, I was basically learning how to survive on my own. My mother did teach me all the domestic essentials: cooking, cleaning, ironing, etc. but there was no laughter, no fun. I was not allowed to have friends over to the house; I never had a birthday party. I remember we would travel to Colorado, where we would spend the entire summer, visiting my mother’s family. My mother’s family accepted me more than she did. They could see what was happening and they sheltered me. That was my safe place for the summer.

My sister had the lion’s share of attention and was clearly the favorite daughter. My sister had blonde, curly hair, was always dressed in lace and pretty colors and was ridiculously spoiled. She eventually turned to drugs and alcohol when she was 14, using her “horrible” life as an easy excuse and taking every opportunity to blame others for her problems. She was adopted as a newborn, and was 14 months younger than me. But she was adopted from the States, not from a foreign country. My sister was a bully, and, for some reason, never trusted me.

I kind of felt like Cinderella. My sister never had to do anything. Just because I was from a poor family and a foreign country, I was made to feel like a second-class citizen. Like I didn’t deserve a kind upbringing. I was garbage. My mother called me a “gutter snipe.” If they hadn’t “saved” me, I would still be in the gutter. That was drilled into my head. Ever since, I would gravitate toward anyone who would offer any kind of positive attention.

I got kicked out of the house at age 16, and that led to more abuse. If I thought that the frying pan was hot, the fire was unbearable. The abuse this time was at the hands of a very sick man, five years older than I was. It was physical and sexual abuse at their most extreme. When I was finally able to run away from this guy, I called my mother to come and get me and she said no.

I was pregnant and alone. My father was the one who came to the “rescue.” I ended up going back home, having an abortion, and then was quickly back to the same old chores I was used to as a child, but now I was paying rent, and paying for my sins another way. The garbage had come home. That’s the way my mother saw it. That’s the way it stayed until I got married to get out of the house when I was 17. This was probably the first serious relationship of my life. He cheated on me after two years of marriage and filed for divorce.

I married my best friend in 1985. I was 28. We were married for five years. We had a lot of fun, but the partying had to stop. After a miscarriage, I decided I wanted a family of my own and apparently that was not something that was in the cards for us. Divorce, this time, was my decision. I really wanted to get out of San Antonio.

Then, mother got sick, and I got the call two weeks after I was married for the third time. It was only the second time in my life that I saw my father cry. The first time was when his mother died, and this time, it was because he had to call me to come home to take care of my mother. He didn’t want to do the job. She had told him in so many words that she was not ever going to take care of him.

The last two things my mother said to me were, “I’m sorry you had to come back to take care of me,” and, “I’m really amazed that you turned out to be the better daughter.” I took care of her until her death in 1992. I remember a few moments when we looked deep into each other’s eyes. But the words that really would have made the difference were never spoken. I’ll make do with her last, left-handed compliment for now.

My husband and I moved to Connecticut and we started our family. And while my third marriage also ended in divorce, I can say that today I have two amazing children, whom I regard as my greatest achievements. That’s all I ever wanted: to be a good mother and take care of my children; to break what could easily have become a cycle of abuse.

And then on the morning of November 27, 2007, after many years of chasing dead end after dead end trying to find my birth family, I received a phone call from a man named John in Greece. He told me he was the husband of my sister, Sophia.

That day I was overcome with joy. I felt like I had started a new life. I thought how my children were so fortunate to share this with me. They would now know where I came from and experience the most precious thing in life, family. My family. I would soon learn that had I two sisters, Georgia (who had unfortunately passed by this time), Sophia, and two brothers, Dimitri (whom I have since nicknamed Taki) and Christos.

This is the letter I received from brother Christos (translated from the Greek):

Beloved little sister Yiannoula,

Always good health, that is what I wish for you, too. You cannot imagine the joy that came over me when I learned that you had made great efforts to find out about your parents and your siblings. Many years have passed and the image that comes to mind is from when you were a baby. I would hold you by the hand and take you for little walks. I think of you a lot and I want to see you and be able to talk to you up close, embrace you, and cry tears of joy together.

Yiannoula, I was worried every single day about when this would happen, after so many difficult years passed. We will finally be able to meet again and talk up close.
Don’t ever think I was not thinking of you for all those years that you were gone from me, your brother. When you come, God willing, you will understand how you were being missed. Greece is beautiful. If only you would be able to stay forever, near us, your very own people, your siblings, those who genuinely love you.

You were probably too little to remember me. I would hold you by the hand and take you out for short walks until our mother would come home from work.
When I lost you, however, you would see what I went through when I learned that our mother had given you away…but let me not sadden you any further.

Therefore, I am so anxiously waiting to see you. With love,
Your brother Christos

It was all I had ever dreamed of. This is the point in my life when I learned what unconditional love is. I found it when I went home to Greece. The attached picture shows us, Greek siblings, reunited after half a century of family separation that brought no benefit to anyone—after an adoption that should never have been allowed to happen.

My birth mother, then recently widowed, never really wanted to give me up but, destitute and in despair, she saw no other option. The outcome would have been infinitely better for all parties involved if my birth mother had just received a little extra support from family members or institutions, to help her through the rough patches in life.

As fate would have it, I was able to see her for the first time just a few weeks before she died (see attached picture). I looked into her eyes and said, “Hello, I’m here.” She was bed-ridden and very fragile by then but she realized who I was and kept calling my name, “Yiannoula!” We had no language in common, but she did speak the words that made all the difference.

I have always known I was a survivor. I still cry every other day, wishing things could have been different. Life just wasn’t meant to happen any other way than it did, I guess. But, I have learned about life in a way that most people would not.

Maybe this is the perspective God wanted me to have. And maybe that’s why I can now share it with you, and perhaps with those who can prevent this kind of adoption story from happening again.

Robyn is a 62-year-old mother of two amazing kids. She has learned how to be a survivor despite all of the obstacles that led me to where she is today. Her kids, friends and now her family keep her motivated to embrace the road that she has traveled and is still traveling.