Finding Family

Finding Family

By Suzanne Perryman


“My feeling of wanting, and separateness—that I was different from the family that raised me—and the connection of sameness I craved, led me to search for my birthparents.”


On the day I was born she must have said something final to me, some sort of goodbye, or wish or promise. Did she place me on her chest where the comforting sound of her heartbeat would have soothed me? And after wiping away her tears, with the slightest touch of her finger did she trace the outline of my face, the way I did with my first baby? Did she try to memorize the color of my eyes?

My birth mother didn’t honor that first goodbye. It was written in the adoption file I received at the start of my search, that she came again and again to visit me in the Catholic charities orphanage. I don’t know if she touched me, or held me when she visited the orphanage, but I know that for nine months after my birth she was unable to finalize our goodbye.

I was adopted at the age of one by a family I will always call my own. They taught me what it meant to be adopted, and that I was chosen. We share the same coloring and similar ethnic backgrounds, and we are all above average in height. We look enough alike that strangers don’t notice our underlying differences.

When I was a child, I searched new and unfamiliar faces for my own specific sameness. The shape of my face, the line of my nose, the color of my eyes, knowing that somewhere there must exist someone that looked like me.

I felt unsettled, not knowing anything about my birth parents or where I came from, and if I would ever see someone that looked like me—until I gave birth to my first child. My feeling of wanting, and separateness—that I was different from the family that raised me—and the connection of sameness I craved, led me to search for my birthparents.

*   *   *

I was 25 the first time I spoke to my birth mother.

Holding the phone tight against my ear, I paced back and forth, bare feet on cool white tile. Waiting, holding my breath, counting each ring, counting each tile, waiting for her to answer—until finally, a brisk hello.

I closed my eyes and released the rush of my rehearsed words. “Hi, I am looking for Pamela.”

“This is she,” came the quick reply. I began with my birth date, then my name and ended with…”I believe you may be my birth mother.”

I was in Arizona and she was in New York City, and even with her city street noises filling in the background, it was as if she were across the room from me.

I could hear confirmation in the soft sound of her tears. When she spoke, her words scattered around her steady cries.

“Were you okay? Are you okay?” She wanted to know.

Unprepared for her concern, I searched for an answer that would succinctly explain my twenty-five years. “Yes,” I told her. And then she told me she too, had been waiting many years—hoping to learn something. All of this I understood.

Our conversation found it’s own emotional rhythm. There were peaks of joy, even laughter scattered with crashes of sadness and more guilt, and from it flowed a subtle trickle of unspoken hope.

Finally, we ran out of our words. I hung up the phone and moved out onto the patio. With the warmth of the summer desert heat, her guilt and grief was heavy all around me, as I started to find the answers to fill in the empty spaces in my life.

Not long after our first phone conversation, Pamela sent a letter and with it her photograph. In detail, she wrote of the garden she had spent the summer shaping and there were pictures of the flowers too. But it was the details of her face that consumed me.

And when we finally met, I could see the same color brown—deep and dark in her eyes. My reddish brown colored hair matched hers that fell in loose curls. There was a familiar roundness to her cheek as she lightly brushed hers against mine. My own heart shaped lips kissed me goodbye. She was soft and kind, and was gentle in ways.

When we parted, she gave me a heavy brown book, it’s glossy well-worn pages filled with paintings by Renoir. She explained hesitantly that she had received this book more than 25 years before. I could see the way she cherished it as she placed it in my hands. Inside my birthfather had written a note: “In the interest of love” and she continued to lead me to him.

I was 30 years old when I met my biological father. First there was a letter, then a phone call, and then a plan to meet at his home.

That spring day, as I turned to face his house, I saw a line of dark windows; I knew he was looking out. I was curious and interested but didn’t know what else. I was there.

Before I could reach the front door, he opened it. “Daughter,” he called out in his gruff voice, and welcomed me inside. Somewhere in the words we strung together, his voice softened and the words filled the space between us.

The hours passed until it was time to say goodbye. That’s when my eyes found the photograph; it stood out from the gallery wall of artistic, crisp black and white photos. Faded and coffee colored with age, the photo was of a woman, and although her hair was different, she looked like me. I stared at the photo of my birth father’s mother and turned to face him again. The Pacific Ocean filled the window behind him.

All I could see was endless blue water, and at first I thought the calm that had come over me, was the ocean, yet when I closed my eyes, the calm was still there, and then I knew I had found what I had been looking for.

Suzanne Perryman is a writer, reader, wife and mother. She writes at Huffington Post Parents, Blogher and celebrates the simple every day one story at a time at Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Pediatrician Switch, the Family Medical History Form—and How the Grandmothers Saved the Day

The Pediatrician Switch, the Family Medical History Form—and How the Grandmothers Saved the Day


grandparents' dog -- on a surprise visit to preschool

 Grandparents’ dog — on a surprise visit to preschool

Recently, we decided to switch pediatricians.  Predictably, this meant I was bequeathed a ream of paperwork to fill out. This included family medical history forms, one for each of my four children. I pretty much know about our parents’ health histories; to fill out the histories for the three I gave birth to required only memory. This isn’t true for my daughter, though. During the flurry of those early days of my daughter’s infancy, I don’t think our old pediatrician pressed for complete medical history. We were focused upon the present—and the quite small baby and her health and the rest of it, the three bigger children. It might have been difficult or felt difficult to ask, had the pediatrician pushed, as everything was so new and felt so fragile. Whatever the set of reasons, I didn’t have comprehensive knowledge of my daughter’s health history. Five years later I stared somewhat blankly at the paper that I must have filled out once before.

This time, though, I scanned the list for the most pressing heritable conditions, such as heart disease or cancers, arthritis and on, and I emailed both grandmothers: my daughter’s mother’s mother and her mother’s stepmother. I asked the stepmother about my daughter’s grandfather and the mother about herself and her daughters. Within hours, I had all the information I needed.

I found myself teary as I read the emails. It wasn’t because there was shocking information—much of it I already knew. I got teary because a small gift open adoption gives was made real right then. To know one’s family medical history is one of the things people put squarely on the plus side of open adoption: that questions like the ones on the family medical history form are answerable. Rather than wonder in adulthood whether the condition you have ran in your family, you could know that answer. I’ve heard people describe medical histories as puzzle pieces. I guess I got to have it on my daughter’s behalf that day. I got to know she’d have this information. I almost felt a little “a-ha” about open adoption just then.

But it was more than the history and more than some theoretical positive about adoption or wholeness or anything that made me teary—I felt the willingness and love from the grandmothers in those emails just to be her grandmothers.

Unlike my mother or stepmother or mother-in-law—yes, keep count, there are five grandmothers all told—I didn’t meet these two grandmothers until our daughter, their granddaughter, was born. Those are two of the many brand-new relationships formed around this little girl, which were intimate—family—and entirely unfamiliar at the very same time.

I am sure I could have asked for information from the grandmothers five years ago or at any time in between then and now. It might have felt much more loaded, even a little scary to ask right away. I felt comfortable when I asked. By now, we really do feel like family.

The family we gained on our daughter’s mother’s side includes four grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. To our daughter, it’s a wash of people she knows but doesn’t entirely always know. Somewhere inside her, the way the medical history answers meant a lot to me, my daughter responds similarly: she loves, for example, the toy horse her birth mom gave her and calls the horse Taco, the name of her birth mom’s horse. She sleeps with a blanket her aunt made for her when she was an infant. It’s as if there’s conscious knowledge and knowledge that isn’t conscious. Both have to work to try to wrap a heart around what adoption means, and what it feels like. Both are required to integrate something this huge, and this full of specifics.

Meantime, we’ve never met the one other grandmother we know about, the birth dad’s mom. We haven’t met him or seen a photograph. So as I scribbled all over the medical history form with asterisks to explain why the daughter’s family medical history is different than the brothers’ histories, I wrote that we don’t know anything about the dad’s family. I have an appointment set up to meet the new pediatrician without my kids in order to discuss concerns. I want to have a chance to feel the doctor out about adoption and make sure I’ve answered any questions before he meets my daughter. I can file this under a thing I hadn’t considered before becoming an adoptive parent: how to talk to the pediatrician about adoption and family medical history.

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