Discovering the Mystery of My Past

Jerry Harshman
Nov 10, 2020 · 8 min read

The secret of my real identity was kept a secret for 21 years.

Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash

rom my earliest memories I knew I was adopted. Doraline, my mother, told me that being adopted was very special because it meant that she and Ralph, my dad, had chosen me to be their son.

It turns out her instinct to tell me early was definitely the right thing to do according to Professor Amanda Baden. Most parents either don’t tell their children at all or some wait until their children are older or even adults to reveal the truth about their adoption.

Baden’s research indicated that “those in the earliest age group of adoption discovery, birth to 2 years of age findings showed that children who were told about their adoption from birth, reported both the least distress and the highest level of life satisfaction.”

Today many adoptees are spending a lot of time trying to locate their birth parents. They want to learn about their roots, but as for me I just wasn’t that curious. I knew I was adopted and I felt loved, safe and happy growing up.

The mysterious letter

Cheryl and I were newly married and I was finishing my senior year of college when I received a notice from the post office that it was holding a certified letter for me. It was the first such letter I had ever received so I quickly made my way to the post office to sign for the letter.

Photo by Liam Truong on Unsplash

As I opened the mysterious letter a picture fell out as I pulled it carefully from the envelope. The letter began by saying, “I am your mother and I am very proud of you.”

How could this be? Even though I knew I was adopted I had never really thought much about who my birth parents might be. So I did the cowardly thing.

I put the letter back in the envelope and failed to deal with the prospects at that time.

Cheryl recalled a conversation with my mom, Doraline, when we returned to my parents’ home to visit that weekend. Cheryl said she was standing in the kitchen with Doraline who appeared devastated with tears running down her cheek as she kept repeating, “She said she (my birth mom) would never do this!” When Cheryl asked Doraline what she was going to do she said she would help me do whatever I wanted to do.

In another conversation Doraline shared with Cheryl “how she had prayed to have a child and how badly some of Ralph’s family had treated her because she couldn’t have a child. When the opportunity to adopt me came she was so thankful God had answered her prayers.”

A little later Doraline asked me how receiving the letter made me feel? I guess the puzzled look on my face led her to share these facts about my past.

My mom, Doraline, was really my aunt. My dad, Ralph, was really my uncle. My uncle, Red, was really my grandpa. My aunt, Inez, was really my grandma. My grandpa, Ross, was really my great grandpa. My grandma, Katherine, who had did before I was born was really my great grandma, and finally my cousin, Peggy, was really my birth mom.

Doraline explained how she and Ralph had become my parents. My birth mom, Peggy had become pregnant, but during her pregnancy she was sentenced to serve time at the Indiana Girls’ School where she was unable to keep and care for me.

Her mother, Inez, was unable to help raise me at the time because she had a one-year old (Brenda) still in diapers. Peggy knew her Aunt Doraline and Uncle Ralph were unable to have children of their own so she asked them if they would raise me.

My new parents were thrilled to have a son and loved me unconditionally. Doraline and Ralph didn’t have much money, but they made great sacrifices to make sure I had the things I needed growing up. Many would say I was spoiled and they were probably right!

Despite only completing eighth grade they emphasized education and assured me I would go to college. They were so proud when I was accepted and eventually graduated from Indiana University.

Growing Tension

There always seemed to be tension whenever we visited Ralph’s family. We went to the annual reunions at the park. I even remember sitting on a blanket with Peggy, not realizing at the time she was really my mom. Ralph’s sisters would invite us to dinners in their homes, but I noticed how cold they were to Doraline. I could feel it, but I couldn’t fully understand it until just a few years ago. Supposedly, Doraline refused to let Inez (my grandma) see me growing up and my dad’s sisters were furious that Doraline wouldn’t tell me the truth about Peggy being my mother.

The fact that Doraline and Ralph had rushed to formalize my adoption didn’t help either. I’m not sure that was ever part of the original game plan.

Now as a grandparent I can feel the pain that both Peggy and Inez must have felt. Even today I grow restless when I haven’t been able to see my grown children for a few days. But, it would be heart wrenching to know that I couldn’t see and be near my three beautiful granddaughters whenever I wanted.

A Move to Safety

Doraline had always told me “never get in the car with strangers.” That’s good advice. Right? It turns out both my grandparents and my birth father, Harold, had threatened to come and get me if they found me out by myself. Harold’s family had not agreed with Peggy’s decision to give me to Doraline and Ralph.

Even though we lived just a few blocks from the school where I would start kindergarten, my parents decided to move a few miles north into the country where I could be picked up in front of my house by a school bus which would take me to and from school. I really enjoyed growing up in a rural setting, but later realized the move was really for my safety and for my parents’ peace of mine.

The Unexpected Phone Call

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Fast forward 17 years after receiving that letter. I was cooking dinner when the phone rang. When I answered an unfamiliar man’s voice said, “Your mother would like to talk to you.”

I began talking to Peggy and realized she was in the hospital out of state and not doing well. After the call we began corresponding. We exchanged letters in which she included pictures of her and her family.

I discovered that while I was growing up in Indiana, Peggy had married Jim, they lived in Florida, and together they had a daughter, Bonnie, and three sons, Jimmy, Steve and Larry. After Jim died, she reunited with and married my birth father, Harold and they decided to contact me.

The Trip to Florida

Photo by Jorge Vasconez on Unsplash

Later that year my current wife, Sheri, and I traveled to Florida to see Peggy and Harold. Our children were small at the time so we left them at home with their grandparents. It still cracks us up to remember them saying we had gone to visit “Piggy and Carol.”

When we arrived in Florida, we were greeted by Harold, but learned that Peggy was in the hospital. Unfortunately, this was a fairly common occurrence since she had congestive heart failure. For adoptees, not knowing their parents’ health histories can be reason for great concern. I have had heart issues in the past few years myself. About five years ago I had triple bypass surgery. Today, much information is available for parents in open and semi-open adoptions according to Amy Renwick, MD.

During our stay we visited with Peggy, stayed in their home, and visited two of her children. First we met Bonnie and her husband, Rusty. We had an enjoyable afternoon on the Gulf in their boat. Later we met Larry who prepared a wonderful dinner for us.

Meeting Peggy’s children gave me a glance into their lives as I listened intently to their stories about how they grew up in Florida. A few years later I had the pleasure of meeting the other two brothers, Jimmy and Steve.

It was interesting to meet and discover some connections to my past, but I must admit I didn’t feel that strong emotional connection that adoptees sometimes feel when reunited with their birth parents. It helped me realize how lucky I had been to grow up the way that I did and to have the life I have had.

My Senior Picture

Photo courtesy of Jerry Harsman

While we stayed in Peggy and Harold’s home I was surprised to see my senior picture displayed on the mantel. Peggy told me that Doraline had written to her at regular intervals during my life and had shared pictures of me growing up.

“I told all of my kids that they had an older brother who lived in Indiana,” Peggy smiled.

I was surprised to learn that my newly discovered siblings knew a lot more about me than I know about them.

Peggy said, “You were created out of love.” I know it had to be very difficult to let me go, but I truly believe it worked out best for me and for her.

I had the unconditional love of two happy, doting parents and it might have been very difficult for Peggy, as a single mom, to have met and fallen in love with Jim.

God’s Purpose

It has become clear to me that the greatest purpose of my life was to fulfil the answer to Doraline’s prayer. She and Ralph were unable to have their own biological children, but God did provide another way for them to enjoy the fruits of parenthood and the joy of becoming grandparents.

The Hoosier Hornet

Looking back, life was just crazy sometimes.

Jerry Harshman

Written by

A retired teacher, coach, administrator and sports writer shares some of the humor and lessons learned during the past seven decades. Truly a sage on the page!

The Hoosier Hornet

This publication features the stories of this I.U. alum, who grew up as a a Rossville Hornet, experienced the pitfalls and rewards of college life and the satisfaction of a successful career in education.

Jerry Harshman

Written by

A retired teacher, coach, administrator and sports writer shares some of the humor and lessons learned during the past seven decades. Truly a sage on the page!

The Hoosier Hornet

This publication features the stories of this I.U. alum, who grew up as a a Rossville Hornet, experienced the pitfalls and rewards of college life and the satisfaction of a successful career in education.

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