Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Bio grandma

'Meeting' my mother's birth father has brought up the one memory I have of visiting with my mother's birth mother. She was a woman with whom I had had no contact growing up. I suppose it could have been different, but as a young'un I don't know if I had been given the option of meeting her.

Unlike Butterworth this woman didn't up sticks and leave, but rather she gave her child to an acquaintance so that---my words---she could be well cared for. This woman and her husband adopted my mother when she was 8 years old. My mom has a memory of going to the courthouse, not realizing that she was to be adopted. When my mother heard her first name being called with Butterworth following it she didn't realize that she was being spoken to. My grandmother had to nudge her and say, 'That's you'.

Family secrets are strange. Some are unearthed, some stay hidden, and some are partially uncovered. I had known who my mother's mother was. Like my extended family, she, too, had lived in San Francisco. One of her children had raised a family in my hometown of Pacifica. I have a vague memory of meeting my cousins just once when I was little. I don't know if I understood who they were, to be honest.

The story I had heard about my mother's bio mother was that she was a widowed mother of two young children by the early 1940s. She worked outside the home. In 1943 she had given birth to a third child, a girl. She may or not have been married a second time by this point. That girl was given to the woman who would eventually become my grandmother. My adoptive grandmother then gave the girl to her sister and husband to raise as their own. Unfortunately, theirs was not a happy home as it was tainted by alcoholism. My mother, born three years later, was again given to this same acquaintance. Unlike the first girl child, she was kept. The sisters were raised as cousins and none was the wiser until the 1960s.

These cousin-sisters had very different reactions to being told who their birth mother was. My mother felt betrayed. Her sister, having had a rather unhappy upbringing, in turn, was glad to know that she had a 'second mom', if you will. A relationship was forged. My mother wanted no relationship with the woman who had given her up. As a result, we had largely no connection to that other family.

I don't know whose bright idea it was for me to meet my bio grandmother for the 1st time when I was 19 years old. Was it my mother's? Was it mine? I certainly wish now I had handled that visit differently. I was kind of an a-hole. I had no tact. I had wanted to know who my mother's father was & I wasn't able to see at the time that my questions to this woman were painful for her. Or maybe I saw it, but I didn't care?

We met at her shabby apartment in a part of town that, too, had become run down since she'd moved in decades before. This was the Tenderloin in the 1980s and there wasn't anything 'tender' about it, let me tell you. I recall asking my bio grandma point blank what my mother's father's name was and she answered by telling me about the clock on the wall of her living-room. She told me that in thirty years it had not stopped ticking. I think I am recalling this correctly. I praised the clock and asked again. It didn't work. She told me she loved me. That felt weird to hear. I truly think she meant it.

She called one of her sons living in the area to come over and act as referee. We three went to a diner on the corner for lunch. He interpreted any questions I had for his mother and then they,  in tandem, gave vague answers in response. I didn't get the information I was looking for, but I did meet someone who physically resembled my mother: her brother. That was pretty neat.

This woman had had a rough go of it. She did what she had to do to live and that included giving up two children. I've recently seen a picture of her dated from the 1950s. In it she's sitting in a kitchen, smiling wide, cigarette in hand, a man that I presume to be her husband is perched next to her. She looks happy in the photo and that's good.


  1. I found out many secrets on my Mom's side when she died at age 40. She never told us anything about her early life as I think she was too embarrassed.

    1. Oh, my goodness. Of course, it was beyond your mother's control, but shame runs deep. I wish I had had the foresight to be gentler with my mom's bio mom.

  2. We're all idiots at 19. Interesting family history. It sounds like your mom lucked out in the adoption department.

    1. For sure Mom lucked out. Her sister did not.


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