Authors: Debbie White
Holidays were particularly bad for me. You’d think I would be happy surrounded by three beautiful children, a loving husband, and the family dog. However, I wasn’t. I wished for grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins for my kids. No matter what Charles would say to try and convince me we were blessed, I was always looking for more.
Aunt Toots, Margie, and Annie were in the first two kids’ lives, but they were getting up in years, and by the time number three came along they’d passed away.
On Aunt Margie’s deathbed, I asked her if she knew who my real parents were. She swore to me she didn’t. If she did, she took the big secret to her grave.
After their deaths, I was given a black metal box. I remembered seeing that box in my parent’s home.
As I thought about the black box, I also remembered my daddy made it out of some sort of tin material. It was crudely made, but it was fireproof and had a latch and a handle.
Inside it held two copies of the article that ran in the local Sioux City paper regarding me, a glossy bookmark style obituary of Irma, and the obituary from my dad. Also in the box were some trinkets; a ring that appeared to be homemade, dog tags, and my dad’s social security card.
Along with those items, I inherited a few picture albums as well. I opened each one and the story of me, and my family unfolded; starting in Iowa and ending in California.
In addition to photos of my family and I, there were pictures of Daddy when he was a young boy, and even some of a young girl who I would later find out was Irma.
I guess my aunts wanted to make sure I had some mementos of a happier time. Among the photos was one with Spunky and me, one with my cat, Joe Louis, and me and one with Mother and Daddy. There were also pictures of me as an infant, a toddler, and as a young teen. I’d forgotten all about them.
That was it. This was all that was left of my legacy - some old dog tags, a ring and some old photos. I tossed everything back in the box and put the box up in my closet.
I’d had flashbacks of my younger years in Iowa. I recalled some good times with my dad, and I remembered some not so good times with my mother. One of the bad memories I had was when my mother let me know that all I was really being kept around for was my dad’s social security check. I was too young at the time to really understand that, but years later Aunt Toots and Margie told me that Irma would boast about the money she received monthly. It was, in fact, my check that I was entitled to because I was a minor. I never saw a dime.
Irma would buy me boy looking clothes from the thrift store, and many times I’d go to bed hungry. She didn’t care about sharing any of that money with me. She made sure that she had enough to get her hair done, buy her alcohol, and of course, I don’t think Teresa, my dearest sister, went without much.
These awful memories are what made it hard to forgive Irma for the dreadful life I had. My heart was full of hate. I didn’t know a lot of things, but I knew if I didn’t relieve myself of all the pent up anger and hate I had for them it would be my demise.
I was sitting alone in the living room. The children were in school and Charles was at the office. I retrieved the old black box from our closet and held Daddy’s dog tags in my hands. I placed the metal ring on my finger. It was too big; probably made for a man or a woman with a fat finger, maybe Irma, I wondered, or perhaps Teresa’s mother.
It was during quiet times like this that my mind wandered, and I began to recall times in Iowa.
One of Daddy’s favorite past times was making moonshine. I saw him make it all the time. Mother made it too, and the both of them indulged in their craft many nights. It was par for the course. Make it, drink it, and get stupid.
They’d sell their stuff too, but not to just anyone. It had to be a friend or a friend of a friend. I guess someone got their nose out of joint because Daddy wouldn’t sell them any, and it resulted in someone ratting on him.
The cops were called out to the pool hall. I overheard them questioning Daddy about it. Not realizing it get him arrested, I led them right to the stuff! Daddy always hid it under a loose floorboard. Seeing what was about to take place, Mother hid hers inside the wringer washing machine, full of water and suds!
They hauled Daddy off to jail. I was crying and thought he’d be mad at me, but he wasn’t. He knew I didn’t mean to get him in trouble – I was just an innocent child thinking I was helping out.
After he’d been at the jail for a few hours, I pleaded with Mother to take me to visit him. She mumbled some not very pleasant things about both Daddy and me. When she knew I wouldn’t stop crying until she did what I’d asked, she took me.
Daddy wasn’t mad at me at all. Moreover, in fact, he asked the guards if I could stay and have dinner with him. Mother huffed and puffed about what an idiotic idea it was, but the guards obliged him and we had a very nice spaghetti and meatball dinner; complete with salad and garlic bread.
They released Daddy the next day and not a word was ever mentioned about the moonshine, the cops, or the spaghetti dinner.
I also recalled another time when Daddy had drunk too much of his moonshine; Mother made him sleep out in the car. I begged and pleaded with her to let him come inside, but that only made it worse for the both of us. She tried hard to break up our little pact, but it didn’t work. I loved him dearly, and the day he died, I lost the one and only real parent I knew loved me the way I loved them.
Daddy would sit on the front porch and sing to me. Sometimes, my cousin, Whitey would play his guitar. Mother would come out, look at us with a stern face, and walk back inside as if to tell us we were bothering her. We didn’t stop. In fact, we sang even louder, and Whitey strummed his guitar with more force. We loved getting under her skin. If she’d only known what we said about her behind her back, she’d really have been angry!
It was these flashbacks that made it hard to forget about my past. After a while, it had me wanting to pursue looking for my parents – or at least the truth surrounding my birth. The days in Iowa pulled me back there, like it or not.
Thank goodness for technology and the invention of computers. Charles purchased one for the office and he encouraged me to use it. I was able to look up some things, like current events in Sioux City, birth announcements that had familiar names, and a host of other interesting things.
The few things I could do with this new modern machine satisfied me to a certain extent, but as time went on I began feeling frustrated. About that time, the new computers came out with more speed and capability. I was very excited and began more in-depth searches.
I looked up names I remembered, and I registered with genealogy databases and searched them for anything I could possibly connect to my past. I found census reports that listed Lyle and Irma along with me. I even found an earlier one that may have been my mother, Irma and a young child. The date would have put her around sixteen to eighteen years old. It showed the address as a convent in Sioux City. This really piqued my interest.
I vaguely remembered hearing that she wanted to be a nun and that she married Daddy instead. I also recalled pictures of crosses, churches, and bibles placed on shelves, which seemed hypocritical to the non-Christian way she treated my daddy and me.
I didn’t believe for a second that she really was ever a nun, or that she even joined the convent to be one. I thought all along it was just a ruse to cover up her un-Christian ways, and better yet, give her an alibi for her whereabouts during the early years. Everything was a mystery with that woman. How the heck did Lyle ever get in her claws? I wondered that more than anything else.
The big cumbersome box we called a computer helped me in some ways, but, for the most part, I had to depend on snail mail to obtain my information. I would request copies of censuses, school records – anything to aid me in my search. I’d wait so long for a reply; I sometimes forgot what I’d requested.
It would be years before technology improved with high-speed Internet. I appreciated when it popped on the screen. It helped me look for things faster, but I didn’t always get the answer I was looking for.
Years later, when Carole and her family moved out of state, she and I made use of chatting online. It was nice to be able to talk to her in real time and it saved money on long distance. I was thankful for the advances not only in computer technology but as the years went on, I was also pleased with the advances in medical technology.
I recall the day I told the kids. It wasn’t planned, it just presented itself. Carole and I had had a particularly stressful day.
It was like any other morning, with the kids getting ready for school. Carole was taking too long like any typical teenager. Looking back, I wondered if she actually was taking too long, or I was just impatient. I called up to her from downstairs telling her she needed to get a move on. I had prepared breakfast and it was getting cold. She didn’t respond to my yelling, so I tried one more time. By this time, I was angry. I stormed up the stairs to find her mimicking me in her mirror and the anger overcame me. I don’t even remember doing it, I reached out and slapped her across the face. She turned to me, touching the red, warm spot from my slap.
“I hate you! You’re crazy!” Carole yelled as she ran down the stairs.
“Don’t forget your lunch,” I called out as if nothing had happened.
I stood in the doorway of her room for a moment, my breathing labored, and my heart beating a mile a minute. What had I just done?
All of a sudden a distant memory came flooding into my mind. My own mother had done a similar thing to me, but when I was much younger than Carole.
When the kids came home from school, they walked into a house filled with the smell of warm chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven. This is how I would ask for forgiveness. I guess it worked. No one made mention of my hysterical outburst or rotten behavior regarding this instance, or any other.
Later that evening, over a dinner of favorites, Charles and I told the kids about me. Peter was not particularly moved by the discussion. But Carole and Charlie were all ears; especially Carole. I think it eased their minds somewhat, but I also believe it caused some anxiety. They realized I was dealing with heavy-duty stuff and this caused them to always wonder when the other shoe would drop.
“That’s kind of cool, Mom. You may have brothers and sisters you didn’t even know about,” Carole boasted.
“I don’t know about that, Carole. I do have a sister. Her name is Teresa,” I said not really wanting to share that part.
“Aunt Teresa,” Carole remarked.
I nodded. “Listen. It’s not going to be anything glorious here. We’re not going to reunite with lost family, and pick up where we left off,” I explained.
“Mom, you don’t know how it will turn out. It’s been so long,” Carole said.
“I can tell you that, there is no love lost here, guys. That’s the truth. I’m just telling you about my adoption and my life before California…in case anything comes up about it,” I said matter of factly.
I also told them the story of dropping out of school and enrolling in secretarial school. I was nervous about their reaction, but the reality was, I was the one who’d help the kids with most of their homework; especially Spelling, and English. Charles would assist them with their Math. He was good with numbers.
I was self-taught in so many areas, which made the fact I only had an eighth-grade education easier to hide. I loved to read, and I tried to learn as much as I could on many subjects. Charles never thought any less of me for not having a high school education. Even so, I knew it was the one thing my children would get. I’d see to it.
The children just stared at me. Charlie Jr. took it all in I suppose, Carole was trying to make sense of it all, and Peter…well, Peter couldn’t have cared less. He was too young. His concentration was on baseball, and football.
As Carole became a young woman, she and I would have deep discussions about it. She never held it over my head; she’d just say every now and then, “Secrets aren’t good. It’s not a healthy way to develop and foster relationships.” I could hear the sincerity in her tone voice. I vowed to her, no more secrets.
I felt such a big relief – a weight had been lifted. Now I could begin to heal. Now that I’d included the kids, they were a little more curious and occasionally would ask me what I’d found out if they saw me on the computer or looking over documents. I created a binder to keep everything organized. Carole helped me by putting them in a protective sleeve, and as she placed them in the binder, she would read aloud what they said.
“Mom, why does it say Irma was an inmate at the convent?”
“I believe that’s the terminology they used back then when an orphan lived there. I’m not really sure, though. I guess it’s one of the mysteries, huh?” I said, loving that she was interested in my journey.
After my last outburst with Carole, I promised Charles I would make an appointment with the doctor.
“Pat…Carole came to me. She’s worried about you,” he said in his always calming voice.
“I didn’t mean to slap her. It just happened,” I said in between sobs.
“I know you’d never hurt any of the kids,” he said hugging me softly.
“I think it’s time you talked to someone. I don’t care who, but a professional,” he said with a little more tone than he would typically use with me.
I realized he was right. I loved my family so much. I had to break this ugly chain of always lashing out and for no reason. I needed professional help. I couldn’t let my adoption, or the hatred I felt for the only mother I’d ever known ruin my relationship with my own children or my husband.
I made the appointment with my primary doctor, and she referred me to a psychiatrist. We’d meet once a week and just talk. She was instrumental in helping me let go of the hatred. She reminded me that many people suffered worse situations than I had. She also reminded me that we are all in control of our own destiny and that we can’t hold others responsible for the outcome. She was right. It was what Charles and I had taught our own children.
“I understand completely what you’re saying. I believe it to be true,” I concluded to the doctor during one of our visits.
“Believing is half the battle,” she said calmly.
“How do I keep the bad thoughts from creeping back in?” I asked.
“That’s the hard part, Pat. Not everyone is happy every second of the day. We have periods of sadness, and even to some extent, depression. You can’t let it rule your life. You have a lot to be thankful for.”
“Oh yes, I sure do,” I said smiling thinking of my little family.
“What you must do, if you can, is put it behind you. This doesn’t mean you forget. It’s part of who you are. You shouldn’t dismiss that. However, you’ve heard the saying, “Make lemonade”? I nodded I had.
“I’ve been thinking about revisiting Sioux City,” I said.
Nodding her head she replied, “That might be helpful.”
“I haven’t mentioned anything to Charles about it. It would be after the kids are older. It’s just a thought I had. Maybe if I could get some answers, I could finally put it to rest.”
“I think it’s an idea worth visiting. You and Charles can make that decision.”
I was content with our meetings, and Charles said he saw a lighter side of me. He thought it was working.
Our family was like most others. We had trials and tribulations, fears, and anger. We tried hard to move past all the things life threw at us, and for the most part, I’d say we were successful. Eventually, all the kids graduated from high school. Charlie went on to college. Peter went to trade school to learn computers, and Carole became a housewife and mother.
Soon the kids were all married and settled down. Charlie had our first grandchild, a son, who we adored. Peter came next with a granddaughter, and Carole had twins. We were so blessed with all the grandchildren.
We had family dinners, and every birthday and holiday we were together at one of the houses. Charlie had the larger home of the kids, but Carole had the loveliest backyard. We really enjoyed barbecues over there. Her flowerbeds were always full of vibrant colors, and in the summertime, her vegetable garden was overflowing with crops.
“You sure have a green thumb,” I’d say to her.
“Got it from Daddy,” she responded.
As a parent, the most joy comes from your children when they’re happy and healthy. Charles and I were ecstatic.
It was during one of our family gatherings at Carole’s that she dropped a bombshell on us. Her husband joined the military! They were young and struggling financially, so the service was probably a good choice. But now I was going to worry about her being alone raising twins while he went off to basic training.
“It’ll only be for six weeks, and then we’ll be joining him,” she said matter of factly.
And so began our next trial as a family. Carole would be leaving our town, and our close-knit group. We vowed to not let the distance keep us apart, but over time, with age and health issues, traveling to see her and her family became more and more challenging.
One evening, after a pleasant time at Peter’s, I brought up my idea of taking a road trip. I started off by saying we could discover America, and then I threw in about the visit to Iowa. Charles, being the professional investigator, picked up on Iowa right away.
“Let’s take a trip out to Iowa,” he said nonchalantly as if he’d just asked me to go to the movies or the store. “We can also stop and visit Carole and her family along the way,” Charles added.
Hearing that news really perked me up. It had been a couple years since we saw them. I knew the twins had to be in middle school by now. I was anxious to visit them.
I called the kids and told them of our news. They were all excited about our trip. They knew it had been a while since we took a vacation. I sugarcoated the reason for the journey; I didn’t want them contacting me every day with, “Did you find out anything?”
I merely mentioned that we’d be stopping in Iowa as well. Of course, Carole picked up on that right away – almost as quickly as her father!
“You know, Mom…” she started.
“I know, dear. I plan on turning over some stones while we’re there. I certainly don’t any high expectations. Whatever happens is meant to be,” I said.
“Yep, I totally get it. Just go there, do some digging, and see what it brings up. BUT,” she hollered. “You better tell me as soon as you know something interesting,” she said laughing in the receiver.
I let her know of our itinerary and when she could expect us to roll into her neck of the woods. She was happy we were stopping by. I wouldn’t miss stopping in and seeing her for anything. We talked on the phone weekly, but it wasn’t the same. I really missed not having her close by, but I was old school, and I believed your place was with your husband.
Charles and I closed up the business and the house. We didn’t know how long we’d be gone. The kids would check in on things, but for the most part, we were going to be gone indefinitely. I knew with Charles by my side we’d uncover as much as possible. I grew excited about the possibilities. I also knew that not all the news would be good, and I expected that. I was ready. I was ready for whatever. At least that’s what I told myself.