Nine months had run into ten during those medically unsophisticated days of the devastating 1930's. "Oh, don't worry about it, Maudie," the doctor had avowed, "I've had several new mothers fill out a ten month term."
My anxious parents had been ecstatic over thoughts of their first baby, but now the doctor solemnly rendered my father an agonizing choice. "Either the child, or your wife, George." Leaving 34-year-old Maudie and 42-year-old George steeped in sorrow, their lovely dark-haired daughter died in birth.
Facing long and painful confinement, Maudie's dreams of motherhood had been brushed away forever, like so much dust. George handled the simple funeral arrangements alone and in agony. The baby was laid next to her maternal grandmother with a simple prayer and a flood of tears coursing down his cheeks. It was crushing telling Maudie of the woeful day while grasping onto small bouquets and holding each other tight in the bleak white hospital room.
Week upon week slid by routinely for George. To work, a sprig of violets for Maudie, and home to ascend the stairs where there loomed the bright and lonely nursery still awaiting it's child. In misery, George laid in bed at night unable to sleep while thoughts of living their lost destiny seemed only a dream.
He found himself spending evenings at the Washington Children's Home. It's said they had to sweep him off their porch each morning. Although these were depression years, he had job security, babies were plentiful, and he aimed to start adoption proceedings immediately. They would have a child to take home.
George would have to be blind not to notice the smiling wide-eyed girl baby with just a hint of red hair so different from his own lost infant. "She's such a happy and healthy three-month-old," the ladies gloated. "Our best recommendation amongst so many." George visited all the babies often, but always returned to my shameless playful flirtations and unconditional love. He had become smitten even before discussing the idea with Maudie.
Christmas was nearly upon the couple when George consulted Maudie's doctor. "She can go home for the holidays and I see no reason why she shouldn't care for a baby. It'll do her good," declared the doctor. The plan was in motion and George could hardly wait to introduce me to his beloved wife. They sipped wine, talked excitedly, and held hands across a candle-lit table in the most fashionable spot in town that Christmas Eve
At the appointed hour, the pair entered the hushed and dismally outdated Children's Home reception area. A starched nurse entered and placed me in the arms of my father. Without hesitation I smiled up at the familiar face, cooing and flailing my arms and legs in utter joy. Jubilant tear-filled eyes met for the supreme moment when George placed his gift into Maudie's longing outstretched arms. A thousand tiny butterflies fluttered aimlessly up her spine as pure exaltation pervaded her very being. "Oh, honey, is she really ours?"
Holidays were awesome in our home while family, young friends and travels filled legendary photo albums. Only once in grade school, can I recall being teased about being adopted. I proudly told my friends that I was specially picked. Nor did I have burning desires to know who my biological parents were. It simply never mattered.
I had adoring parents and a father who wanted me more than anything in his whole life. He had taken the bull by the horns to soothe a tattered soul and awaken his tenacious spirit. It mattered not our days and years together, our typical highs and a few lows, for becoming his daughter was ultimate bliss. He had chosen me, and I chose him.
George passed on and Maudie was now living in our Montana mountain home suffering from wretched Alzheimer's disease. My husband, Ken, and I agreed we couldn't relegate her to some nursing home so far from us, a place scarcely aware of the ailment. She became our child for five heartbreaking years.
A copy of my adoption papers was discovered amongst Maudie's treasures upon her death. I was mystified to learn that my birth name was Hannah Lee Batchelder. For the first time I experienced curiosity pangs and the need for a biological search. A kind soul felt sorry for my endless quests on microfilm and gave me the name of WARM (Washington Adoptees Rights Movement). Washington State still held adoption records closed, but I hoped I had one-up on most adoptees by revealing my birth name.
"One or both of your biological parents could be living with family, in a rest home, or even deceased," warned my intermediary. This kindly soft spoken person had been a devoted and tireless volunteer adoptee herself. She told me her own story briefly and had been kind enough to warn of the pitfalls of a search in my late 50's. The possibility that I was born out of wedlock, or abandoned in the wake of the country's horrific years, was considered. The truth might even be more than my biologicals would want revealed in their decline. So, with unrelenting curiosity mounting, patience and understanding would serve as my daily agenda.
More years passed, and I was frankly on the verge of giving up, when quite unexpectedly my intermediary phoned. She had just come from a delightful visit in the Oregon apartment of my biological mother. I paced back and forth eagerly devouring her every word as she described my birth mother. Wilma Batchelder Chalmers, a perky 76-year-old divorced redheaded woman who was still running her floral business while recovering from a stroke. So that's where my red hair came from!
Since I had instigated the search, I felt it my place to contact Wilma first. I thought about calling her for several days, but it never seemed quite right. A few days passed, and while alone one evening, I simply took my heart in my hands, picked up the phone, and introduced myself. She apologized for her slightly impaired speech, but was the most up-front and gregarious stranger I had ever visited with. We discovered more about each other as people, our families, our joys and sorrows than could possibly be absorbed in one sitting. We were strangers no longer.
Wilma had been placed in a home for unwed mothers, far from Oregon. An elderly maiden aunt had offered to make arrangements for Wilma's care, my birth, and eventual adoption. After all, society didn't look favorably upon young ladies caught in this condition in the '30's, and utmost secrecy seemed crucial for her affluent family.
"I held you just once," as Wilma's words faltered in a rush of tears. "Signing you away was the toughest day of my life and I've thought of you every day since, my dearest girl." My insides were beset with shivers as my dream came true hearing her sweet voice spilling out her inner-most secrets. "I have a lovely son, Jim, and beautiful grown granddaughters," her words ringing proudly. "He must never know about you and I won't talk about your father who is long dead and gone."
I promised. Over the next weeks Ken and I made plans to join her in Oregon in the fall.
In early October, I answered the phone to the sound of a polite voice introducing himself. "Hello, Kathe, this is your brother, Jim." I quickly grabbed the nearest chair and crumpled onto it while groping for words. He told me the family had just buried'our mother,' that she had suffered a second fatal stroke. My heart sank. Jim and family had found my letters and family pictures in her desk and he insisted we proceed with a family reunion soon. Wilma Chalmers had unwittingly brought her sweet and selfless 58 year old son into my life.
Our reunion was a smashing success in San Francisco. Jim and Ginny and my lovely new nieces arrived bearing flowers and a gift album of ancestral photos. While reveling in stiff and staid forbearers, we wiled away hours in a lovely place while Jim guided me through my legacy. Tintypes and ragged-edged black and whites of my ancestors, a precious keepsake from a new and loving half-brother. How odd these ancients looked, seated and standing so stiffly as though the slightest breeze would do them in. Dark clothes, long tresses done up in buns, and ever-present stoic features seemed to distinguish none from the rest of the world. And yet here I was, member in good standing with a pedigree, connected to ancestral dots and feeling reborn. I am not Irish, as I had always surmised. I am English and Scotch, lovingly bestowed upon my lineage at conception.
Our new nieces sat in awe watching me eat and talk. They could hardly believe I wasn't their beloved grandmother right down to speech and hand gestures, the sting of Wilma's death easing our celebration of her life. Jim also revealed that unbeknownst to Wilma, her entire family had always known about 'me.' Our mother was the spirited one amongst her siblings, and at 16 had fallen prey to the amorous attentions of the local postmaster, an older married family man. This would be all I would be privileged to know of a biological father.