Uncovering the Truth and Trauma Behind My Family Tree
Before I even open my eyes, I hear the sounds of nature coming to life all around me. Unfamiliar chirps and buzzing tickling my brain. As the first light of day touches my consciousness, my eyes flutter open, adjusting to the dim light. Reaching for my glasses, I begin to stretch, slowly realizing I am not at home with my family in Florida. I am alone in the woods of New Hampshire.
Oddly, I am unafraid.
Feeling excited and ready to start my day, I glance at the clock illuminated on the small microwave. It’s 5:30 a.m. Coffee time! I smile to myself as I jump up and start the brewing process.
After preparing breakfast, I open the red and white plaid curtains. On one side, I can see a forest. Beyond the tall trees, I can see the Pemigewasset river as it swiftly flows by.
A tiny chipmunk catches my eye as it darts towards the water. I want to go down there and walk in the footsteps of my ancestors! Coffee first.
After a steaming hot cup, I am ready to fully engage all my senses and step out my cabin door.
As I get dressed, I think of my intentions for the day.
After nearly 30 years of tracing my family tree, I recently realized I know next to nothing about my mother’s side of the family.
Half of my history was missing. I decided I needed to do something about that.
Fully vaccinated, sober and armed with two years of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, I spontaneously booked a flight, rental car and cabin for a nine-day solo journey to Campton, New Hampshire.
That is where my mother’s great-great-grandparents, Oliver and Delia, married in 1902. They had 11 children and were married for 38 years.
They are buried here together at Blair Cemetery.
In his most formative years, my father’s emotional growth was disrupted. Ripped away from the only parents he knew. Placed in a home with strangers. It helps to explain, if not excuse, his lack of empathy and inability to nurture and love.
Now, I need to know what happened to my mother’s family.
Generational trauma continues until it’s dealt with. Healing cannot happen until the stories are told. My passion for seeking lost souls began the moment I laid eyes on Gertrude.
In 1980, before he put me in foster care for the second time, my father discovered he was adopted. A woman named Gertrude was his real mother. My dad’s dead “father,” was really his grandfather! The lady I always knew as Grandma, was really my dead great-grandfather’s wife!
After being turned away by her family, young Gertrude found herself on the doorstep of The Evangeline Booth Home for Unwed Mothers in Boston.
It was six weeks before her due date. She had, “no prior prenatal care.”
In the paperwork I have, in very neat handwriting, the intake nurse describes she “had an encounter with a gentleman at Fenway Park, her girlfriend introduced her to the man, she kept company with him for a few weeks, never saw him again after that night.”
The bartender/gentleman was fined $100 for his part in the Red Sox rendezvous. Considering my father is a huge Red Sox fan, I find that rather hilarious.
For six weeks after the birth, the young mother was observed feeding and interacting with her baby. Then, when the time came, the young woman left the home and her baby, and went on with her life.
Inexplicably, the final adoption fell through nearly two years later, when a judge deemed the prospective adoptive couple too old to adopt a child.
The responsibility of placement returned to Gertrude.
Gertrude’s father and stepmother had been married for eight childless years when they finally decided to take in their own grandson.
They also decided to keep the whole thing a secret.
The truth came out one evening inside my grandma’s tiny mobile home. My siblings and I were waiting outside in the powder blue 1968 VW sedan.
I could hear crying and shouting. Pretending to be asleep on the drive home, I learned all the juicy details.
The forged birth certificate.
The decades of deception.
My dad was pissed!
When I became a ward of the state in 1980, along with my broken heart, I had a burning desire to find my father’s birth mother. All I had to go on was a name, the memory of her photograph and my desire to remain attached to my family in some small way.
This was what tracing your family tree was like before Ancestry.com and 23andMe.
Sending handwritten records requests to rural New England towns. Talking on the phone with little old lady genealogists. They told me stories and sent me photographs. The whole time I could see my estranged father in the same family tree chat rooms, searching for clues just like me.
It took me 20 years, but I finally found my father’s beautiful and mysterious birth mother.
That story is for another day.
Being a mother is more than instinctual. Ideally, positive traits, skills and resources are shared from one generation to the next, building resiliency and strength.
Although I know these things intellectually, I’ve never actually experienced them. That is why motherhood has been so difficult for me. You can’t teach what you don’t know.
For as long as I can remember, my mother was gone. The only memories I have indicate a severely traumatized person with mental illness. Someone lacking the necessary tools to handle life’s simple tasks. Unable to keep her children safe.
The rest was told to me by my father.
Fat. Lazy. Disgusting.
Just like me.
What happened to my mother?
Why couldn’t she be a good mother?
How can knowing what happened to her help me heal today?
Can that knowledge help to heal future generations?
Original photo by author