ADOPTION | BIRTH MOTHER | ADOPTION REUNIONS | MEMOIR | LIFE
Canned Peaches with Fern
Chapter 3 from Finding My Hero: An Adoption Memoir from World War 2
(forthcoming Fall 2020)
A story about the anxiety of adoption reunions, fear of being rejected again, and why you were adopted.
Unlike many adopted children, I never thought much about being adopted. I couldn’t remember not knowing I’d been adopted. It just was. I wasn’t quite sure how I’d ended up at the Colorado State Home for Dependent and Neglected Children. I was old enough to know the stork story was baloney. Young enough to think that maybe I fell out of the sky (minus the stork) and landed in an orphanage nursery. I knew nothing about my birth-mother and never thought about my birth-father.
Once I believed I was an exotic African princess . . . until a friend reminded me that African princesses weren’t blond with blue eyes. I was disappointed and stopped thinking much about adoption. Occasionally we’d drive through a poor neighborhood or see a shabby apartment building, and I’d wonder if that’s where my birth mother had lived. I must have believed that she’d been poor. Why else would one not want one’s baby?
In 3rd grade at Teller School I made friends with the kids from the Denver Orphan’s Home: Jane, Linda, and Sammy. I told my Mother that Jane’s older sister was going to have a baby. She said “Oh, that’s not possible because Jane’s sister isn’t married.” Hmm, I thought, funny that my Mother who’s much older than I am doesn’t know that women can have babies even if they aren’t married.
I‘d always assumed my birth mother wasn’t married (and I was right). One didn’t discuss pregnancy or sex with my Mother, even at an age that such would have been appropriate and important.
At East High, we were encouraged to volunteer for a worthy cause. I chose Mt. St. Vincent, a Catholic orphanage in Northwest Denver. It took a couple of buses to get there after school. In the winter, I’d get home after dark.
While at the orphanage, I would sit in a rocking chair gently rocking babies, humming or softly singing the Brahms’ Lullaby to them. I loved rocking babies. Maybe I was trying to experience the rocking I never had.
Oddly, my parents were fine with this, despite how far away it was, how difficult to get there, how dark when I got home, not to mention that it was a Catholic orphanage run by Nuns. My parents were church-going Methodists.
Juvenile Court Opens Adoption Records
In 1991 and no longer living in Colorado, I received a letter from my Mother:
I’ve enclosed an article from The Denver Post. The Juvenile Court of Colorado has opened the adoption records. Just wanted to let you know that if you want to search for your birth mother, it’s fine with me. Nana [my maternal grandmother] didn’t want you to do this, but she’s passed away. You are a grown woman with a son. I feel the decision is up to you.
The article explains the procedure. You’ll have to pay a confidential intermediary, but it’s not much. Let me know what you decide and what you find out if you decide to go through with it. Love, Moth (I called my Mother “Moth,” pronounced “muth,” not moth, as with the flying insect. Called my Father, “Fath” or “Gazelle.” How he got that nickname is another story. )
I felt excited, nervous, anxious, scared, exhilarated, terrified, confused, thrilled. I was dizzy with all these emotions at the same time.
Yes, I wanted to. No, I didn’t. What if she hated me? What if I hated her? What would it prove? But wouldn’t it be nice to know where I came from? What if she rejected me again and said “No, I don’t want to meet MaryJo”? After all, she’d put me in an orphanage. (Adopted folks, for obvious reasons, can be overly sensitive to rejection.)
I went through with it. Requested an intermediary, sent her $15, and waited. She called. She’d found my birth mother living in Layton, Utah with her oldest son. Chris, a long-distance trucker, was my half-brother. A brother? I had never imagined such!
My birth mother’s name was Fern Vesper Olson. My name had been Lorna Jean Vesper. I looked in the mirror over and over for days, repeating “Lorna Jean Vesper.” Such an odd and unreal feeling. I wasn’t Lorna Jean. I was MaryJo.
The intermediary gave me Fern’s phone number. Told me that Fern had said she “guessed she wanted to meet me as long as it didn’t cost anything.” This didn’t sound too encouraging.
But I’d come this far, so I might as well go through with it. Wrote her a long rambling letter about my life. She wrote back a much shorter letter with her phone number.
I dialed. I hung up. I dialed. I hung up.
Finally, “Hi Fern, This is MaryJo. How are you?” We chatted for a while. She called a few day later: “MaryJo, what church do you go to?” I told her I belonged to the Episcopal Church and sang in the choir at St. John’s Cathedral. She said, “Oh.” And abruptly hung up.
A year or so later Fern moved back Colorado and settled in a mobile home near the Ute Indian casino in Ignacio. We had also moved back and were living in Denver. I made the 5 1/2 hour drive down from Denver to see her.
Again, I wasn’t feeling sure about this adoption reunion thing. Still apprehensive. Still feeling uncomfortable about her odd call about my church and hanging up without responding. Did she hate Episcopalians?
I knocked on the door and her son Norman greeted me — obviously another half-brother. Without introductions or other pleasantries, Fern asked if I wanted some canned peaches. “Sure, I like canned peaches.” Then she asked if I’d like a cup of coffee. Despite all the coffee I’d consumed on the drive down, I said “yes.”
So over canned peaches and coffee, my birth mother told me her story.
She met John Derrick Halls at Mesa Verde National Park. He was a park ranger while she worked at a concession stand. It was love at first sight on her part. Not so much on his part as I would find out later. He was handsome, funny, charismatic, and he had a car.
They sometimes drove to Cortez, a small town in the Four Corners area, to go dancing. She loved being with him. Not long after he drove up to Pueblo and enlisted in the Army. He left for Fort Benning, and she discovered she was pregnant. Fern didn’t know you could get pregnant “the first time.” She wrote to him. He wrote back. He wasn’t coming home. He wasn’t going to marry her.
Fern would describe Dick as “the love of my life forever,” telling me how devastated she was when she found out he had died during The War. She was married at the time and had a son.
By the time of his death, I’d been born, and she’d left Colorado without me to work at the Hanford Nuclear Facility in SW Washington for well-paying war work. She met a new guy named Hugh whom she would soon marry. Fern and Hugh had two sons, Chris and Charles.
She asked about me. I told her I’d grown up in Denver. That my Father was a lawyer. My Mother a French teacher. That I’d gone to Colorado College. That as a child, I took piano lessons. That I had loved my piano.
She replied “Oh, you’re one of ‘those.’” I refrained from telling her I was a retired college professor with a PhD. I had nothing more to say about myself except that I had a son. She was intrigued and wanted to see his picture.
Three of her four sons hadn’t married. Only her oldest son had married and provided her with grandchildren, whom she had rarely seen.
Given the shame an unwed pregnant girl would feel and the ostracism she would receive, Fern’s only option was to leave her home and family in Durango. With her mother’s guidance, she moved north 337 miles to Denver to live at the Florence Crittendon Home for Unwed Mothers. I was born in the Booth Memorial Hospital connected to the home and run by the Salvation Army.
She told me it was her mother’s idea that I should be given up for adoption. That she wanted to keep me. That’s probably true but, I’m sure Fern already had the idea. She wouldn’t have truly wouldn’t want a baby without husband. Some have said she believed I had ruined her life. She was 20 years old.
What she didn’t tell me was that her mother signed the papers at the orphanage. And that I had been an arranged adoption. That part is still a mystery. Arranged by whom? Perhaps Fern’s mother knew someone who knew my maternal grandmother?
I certainly wasn’t chosen as I had been told. (That my parents had lied to me isn’t surprising as social workers told adoptive parents to emphasize to the adopted child that she had been chosen. She was special.) By the time my Grandmother Vesper signed the papers, I had tuberculosis and hardly a first adoption choice for a childless couple.
After dropping me off at the orphanage, Fern and her mother then left for Hanford. They probably worked in the kitchens or the dormitories.
Fern ended her story. We’d finished our canned peaches, sipped the last of the coffee. Now it was time to see Alpha.
“Who?” I asked. “Oh, she’s Dick’s oldest sister and I think the only one of the family who still lives around here.” I suggested we call first. But Fern didn’t have a phone number or even an address. She hadn’t seen Alpha for many years. I’m feeling awkward, not sure this is a good idea.
Arriving at Alpha’s front door with no forewarning seemed rude if not bizarre. (I had assumed at the time that Alpha didn’t know Dick had a child. I would learn later, she did know so my appearance probably wasn’t a big surprise.) Norman and I got in the front seat, Fern in the back. We drove aimlessly around. Fern wasn’t sure exactly where Alpha lived and Norman had no idea.
Eventually we found the house. Alpha, obviously in poor health, was in the middle of cooking dinner for herself and two young boys. Clearly money was scarce, but the home was warm and friendly. The kitchen was old, the front fence dilapidated, and everything a bit helter-skelter. Alpha invited us in and Fern introduced me.
Despite Alpha’s hospitality, I felt we had intruded. Two kids waiting for their dinner, and there we are, unannounced, as Fern explains that I’m Dick’s long- lost daughter. After a few minutes, I interrupted, suggesting we leave. I’d get in touch with Alpha later . . . without Fern. Sadly, I didn’t see Alpha again as she passed away not long after the visit.
But Fern wasn’t to be stopped. She’s having too much fun. Didn’t I want to meet Bobbie? “Who,” I asked again. “Oh, Bobbie is your cousin. Her Mom died when she was little, and I pretty much raised her. I know she’d love to see you.”
I asked if Bobbie knew about me and wasn’t’ surprised when Fern said “nope.” Another awkward, unannounced visit. At least Fern and Bobbie saw each other frequently.
“Hi Bobbie, Meet MaryJo. She’s your cousin,” announced Fern. Bobbie, clearly taken aback, says, “My what?” Fern explained, as I stood tongue tied and embarrassed. But within a few minutes we were all chatting. The visit went well and I felt a bit less strange. Bobbie and I would become good buddies, going out to lunch on free pie Tuesday at Village Inn when she’d come up to Denver to visit her family.
I visited Fern again at the trailer. This time Lynn, a 2rd half-brother, greeted me at the door. Did I want to go to the Sky Ute Casino? Not really but I agreed. I got a $5 roll of nickels and rapidly donated them to the slot machines. We went back to Fern’s and had more canned peaches. A few weeks later, she sent me a $5 bill with a card. “I won your money back,” she wrote.
In the end, I’d met my birth mother, 2 half- brothers, a birth aunt who would die too soon, and a birth cousin with whom I’d be good friends. I still had two more half-brothers to meet and all my birth-father’s family but Alpha. Now I was feeling more curious than apprehensive.
And I’d gotten enough information about John Derrick Halls that it would be easier to discover more about him and find his family. Fern only knew Dick had died during the War — nothing about paratroopers, the 101st Airborne, nothing about Normandy or D-Day. She thought some of his sisters had died and that what family was left probably lived in Salt Lake. That was it. But I still had enough to go on.
I would find out years later that Fern had talked to Dick’s Mother who turned her away. Because she was protecting her favorite son? Because she already had a large family to care for and little money? Did Fern ask for money? Or ask Dick’s mother to take the baby after it was born? Who knows?
My story isn’t unusual. For most adopted folks, reunions are fraught with anxiety and uncertainty: Will they like me? Will they hate me? How will I feel about them? Why did they reject me? Some reunions turn out well as mine did. Others not so well.
In the end, knowing about one’s birth family and meeting at least one’s birth-mother is a good thing indeed. At an unconscious level, we still feel abandoned, but the mystery of our beginnings is solved. We didn’t just fall out of the sky. Or get taken from a crib in an orphanage among many other babies in cribs. Now we can make sense of the reasons for our adoption. Know some of those in our birth family, no matter what the circumstances of our being raised in a different family. It doesn’t, however, take away our fear of being rejected or abandoned again.
If you enjoyed the story of my birth-mother, you’ll like the story of my birth-father too. He died on D-Day in Normandy. Many years later an actor would play him in Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers.
“Shooting Myself in the Foot describes the fear some adopted folks have over going against their parents’ wishes . . or how it took me four years to write a master’s thesis and what I did with it!
You might also like my musings on Staying at Home because of COVID 19: The Good, The Bad, and the Not So Ugly. Or perhaps my story about Losing the Letters of Willa Cather: An Adoption Story about Unworthiness or the trauma of Losing a Father.
I also write about ADHD, writing, and random topics that strike my fancy. Thanks to ADHD, I’m writing two books at the same time: “Finding My Hero: An Adoption Memoir from World War Two” and “Growing Up Adopted: Love Wounded.” (One is the story of my birth-father and his family. The other, the story of the family who adopted and raised me with love . . . and a lot of harmful mistakes. (No family is perfect!)
In between writing, I coach adopted women, giving them tools that make healing faster than just talking.