I have been thinking a lot lately about my grandmother, Grace Elizabeth Bissex Thomson. I called her Nana, which is where my mom got her name when my children were born. My Nana's mom, Josephine Hinchman Bissex (1884-1971), nearly died, back in 1914, bringing my grandmother into this world. She would never have another child, so my grandmother was an only child and an only grandchild. "It was lonely sometimes," she told me, "There is nothing like family."
|My grandmother, on the right, in a 1936 picture with her friends.|
Her parents loved her well, though, and she was happy. When she was fifteen years old, in 1929, her father (Paul Bissex, 1886-1973) helped build a house for the family on Chestnut Street in Haddonfield. Years later, my best friend and I spent hours upon hours playing in the woods at the end of this street. We both lived only a few blocks away. Sometimes in our games we would come upon the crumbling cement remains of an enormous swimming pool, surrounded by trees, and so reclaimed by the earth that you had to have great imagination to picture its original use. This was Mountwell Pool, created by a dam in 1913, a year before my grandmother's birth (the cement pool was added in 1937 as a public works project, and the whole thing was closed in 1971). My grandmother spent her childhood days here. Later, as a teenager, she met my grandfather, Clarence Thomson (1911-1984), though everyone called him Tommy. "I still remember how he would run by me on his way to the pool, tap me on the head and say 'Hey shorty,' before jumping in," my grandmother told me several times, "It made me so mad! (my grandmother was especially tall). But he sure was handsome."
They married in 1938. Knowing how important family was to my grandmother, I can only imagine how she suffered as she tried to have a baby for nearly ten years. I am not sure how they came to consider adoption. She never talked about it. She only talked about how much she loved my mother and her brother, and how lucky she was to have them. That was her way. After my grandfather died suddenly, in 1984, my mom took her back to her house from the hospital. She was devastated. Still, she told my mom, "I am just going to go to bed and pretend that never happened." Years later, my mom told me this story and said, "Living that way worked for her, and I admire her for it. But it just never did for me."
But I will get to that later. For now, my grandmother. She taught first grade and was known as a "loving but firm" teacher. From what I have heard, that was her style as a mother, too. She relaxed as
|"Window Box, 1995"|
Nana was in her 80s then, and eventually it was another stroke that forced her to move from her Haddonfield home on Jefferson Avenue, where she and my grandfather had raised my mom and my uncle (and where she always had an oatmeal cookie for me, held in the canister above the refrigerator, when I biked over to visit her as a child). She didn't want to go, but she handled the move with her trademark cheer and stalwart heart. The most I ever heard her complain was, "This growing old isn't for the weak." Then she would laugh.
Nana died in April of 2003, a few months before my oldest daughter, named for her, was conceived.
|Grace Elizabeth, named for my Nana, looks a lot like my mom's sister|
And that knowing led to some of the sweetest moments of my mom's life, even as she battled for her life. She learned she had a younger sister, too, and then the three of them started corresponding daily, catching up on a lifetime apart. Sixty-five years of separation.
"Selfishly, I wish my mom had kept your mother," my one aunt told me, earlier this year, as we reflected on how it all unfolded. There is such sadness in the years that were lost to secrecy, and how little time they had in the end. "Yet I know that then your mom wouldn't have had the good life she had. She and your dad would never have been married. You wouldn't be here. Your children wouldn't be here. And those are all good things." She paused, "I just wish I had gotten a letter when I turned 18 that I had a sister." We were both silent with this thought.
|My grandmother and grandfather on their wedding day.|
Yet when you are adopted, there are also others to whom you belong, and who belong to you, even if you never acknowledge them. When, at age 47, my mother let my grandmother know that she was searching, my grandmother supported her, though I know it was difficult for her (she had once told my mom, "I just like to think that you came right from me"). And I know that if Nana had known of the humiliation my mom had to suffer in searching--then pleading-- for the truth of her life, she would have done everything in her power to help her. If she had known what it would mean to my mom to know her sisters, she would have helped her. She loved her, after all.
Yet she didn't know (perhaps because she didn't want to know, but whatever the reason, she didn't know). There is nothing that can be done about this now, because she has died. My mom has died. Time beats on. Still, those of us who are still living are left to speak for those of us who are not (and those of us who cannot speak up). The stories matter. Right now, both New York and Pennsylvania (and I'm sure others, though those are the states I know of) are fighting to change laws that seal adoptees' birth certificates from them forever. They are not having an easy time of it. Over the years, justification for sealing records have ranged from "It protects the adoptee from the stigma of being born out of wedlock" to "It protects the adoptive parents from interference from the birth mother." The current justification is that "It protects the birth mother."
I've read enough of these arguments and learned enough about adoption over the years to believe none of these. I've learned that there are other, terrible reasons behind sealed records. Sometimes, adoptive parents even side with the opposition (though to be fair, there are also many adoptive parents who support adoptee rights). I imagine those fighting for sealed records are motivated by the same fear my grandmother had; or perhaps it is a desire. "I just want to pretend you came right from me," she told my mom. And my mom loved her, so she listened, and she tried. This hurt her. In the end it may have cost her life, though of course we'll never know for sure.
I know this would have been terribly upsetting to my grandmother. It is tough now even to write it. But I also know that had the laws been different -- had society been different -- my grandmother would have followed suit. She would have done what was right. She was a good person. And perhaps then my mom would have met her sisters in her 20s, and they would have known and loved my grandmother, and she them. I would have grown up knowing my aunts and my cousins, and I would have met my uncle, instead of just hearing about what a wonderful man he was. Perhaps my mom would have learned about the family history for melanoma and been diagnosed sooner, and saved. Perhaps. For now, I'll take a page from my grandmother's book and just make the best of what I have, which is a lot. But for those adoptees still living, and for those future adoptees, there is a better way. I hope all those involved in adoption can overcome their fears, and their pain, to do the right thing and make it happen.
|My Nana's parents - Josephine Hinchman Bissex (1884-1971) and Paul Bissex (1886-1973) with my uncle soon after he was adopted. Haddonfield, NJ (1949?).|