My Heart Was Full and Complete in a Way I Didn’t Know It Could Be
Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
Anxious, I sat outside the restaurant on a bench, watching every car pass, wondering if she could be inside one of them. I had arrived 20 minutes before it even opened; I wanted to be there first. I had driven almost three hours to get there; I would have driven further.
The whole way, I listened to songs that reminded me of her, of my life over the last four decades, and of the relationship we might have: Ohio, a song about returning home to your mother. I Bet My Life, a song about choices made — good or bad — and the price paid without regret.
So there I was, sitting outside on a beautiful day, waiting for her. I was forty years old, and I was meeting my mother for the first time.
I had always known I was adopted. My parents were very forthcoming about it. They knew nothing of my birth mother; the adoption had been arranged through a private attorney. But they told me they were sure she loved me very much.
Other than wondering whom I resembled, I didn’t give my adoption too much thought as a child. I went through phases as I got older. I was a little bitter as I wondered what could have caused her to give up a baby, her baby. I assumed she was unmarried and in a relationship with a guy who got scared when he found out just how much of her he’d had to love. But that was all in my head.
I had conducted a cursory search for my biological parents when I was in graduate school. I was born in Ohio, and adoption records were sealed by law. An adoptee could ask for demographic information about her parents from the probate court, so I submitted my request.
A few weeks later a letter arrived in the mail that contained basic information: my parents were Catholic. She was twenty-four, he twenty-six. She was a nurse, he a store manager. More important to me than the facts written on the page, however, was her handwriting. For the first time in my life, I saw a sliver of my mother, a very tiny glimpse into her life. I saw her handwriting, and I wept.
For the next fifteen years, I would continue to wonder. There was nothing left for me to find, nowhere else for me to look. Her name wasn’t listed in the newspaper for hospital admissions on the day of my birth. The registry of Ohio nurses was filled with hundreds of names of women who were twenty-four years old in 1973.
The closest relative I could find on 23AndMe was a second cousin, but I never got a reply to my query. During that time, however, a dedicated group of adoptees and adoption advocates were lobbying the Ohio legislature to open the sealed adoption records. Finally, in 2014, they did.
At nine a.m. on March 20, 2015 — the first day the law allowed for birth record requests — I dropped mine in the mail at the local post office. And I waited. On April 14, nearly a month later, I received a reply. My original birth certificate had arrived, and I finally learned my mother’s name: Betty Tallmadge.
The space under “Father’s Name” was empty. I texted my dear friend and expert researcher Jennifer Hershberger for help. In a half hour, she had Betty’s married name, the names of her children (one named Catherine!) and ex-husband, her past addresses, and her current address.
With that in hand, I sat down to craft the letter I would write to my mother. An introduction of myself, a welcome, an invitation. But a letter that also thanked her for allowing me to have the life I did, the loving parents who raised me, and an assurance that I was asking nothing of her.
I sealed my hand-written letter in an envelope and mailed it the next day. Yes, I was sending off the most important letter of my adult life on tax day, the busiest mail day of the entire year. Nine days later, I received an e-mail from her: “Yes, I am your mother.” And so began the start of a relationship that was unlike any I could have ever fathomed.
Minutes after the restaurant unlocked its doors at 11 am, I saw her come around the corner of the building. I stood up, and her smile reached her eyes.
“Katherine?” she asked. With tears streaming down my face, I stood and reached for her. She came to embrace me, but before she did, she laid a gentle kiss on my cheek. I felt in my heart she had waited my entire lifetime to do that.
Both of us crying, we wrapped out arms around each other. My mother held me in her arms for the first time in her life.
We had gotten to know each other through phone conversations and e-mail messages over the past few months. She was about to retire from being a nurse and was dating a nice man who wanted to take her to Europe.
I learned that my sister Elizabeth was married, and my sister Katie was due with her first child that August. This visit was more about getting to see each other, and about asking and answering the hard questions about how she came to the decision to find another family for me.
Over the next three hours, between bites of pizza and soup, I learned that Betty had been in a two-year relationship with my father, Gary Schmidt. The relationship was ending when Betty found out she was pregnant.
Neither one of them wanted to get married, and it was nearly impossible for a single woman to raise a child in 1973, especially when she did not have the help or support of her parents. So Betty would carry me to term, made arrangements for my adoption, and give birth to me alone in a hospital in Columbus.
Per hospital policy in 1973, she was neither allowed to look at nor hold me. Rather, a nurse immediately took me from her and left the room. Two weeks later, Betty went home to northern Ohio for her sister’s wedding, and no one spoke of the pregnancy.
In the forty years between my birth and my letter to her, she had never ever spoken with her own mother about me.
We spent our time that afternoon holding hands, smiling, laughing, and crying. We shared stories and photographs about growing up. And then it was time to leave. With a last long embrace, we parted ways. My heart was full and complete in a way I didn’t know it could be.
The Rest of the Family
I would meet my sisters the following year. Betty wanted to wait until after Christmas to tell Elizabeth and Katie about me. By then, Katie would have had her daughter, and Christmas would be over.
Gary had died fourteen years earlier, an alcoholic and a heavy smoker. He had been married and divorced, and had one son, Gregory. Jennifer found those records as well and provided me with Gregory’s mom’s name and address. I wrote Marilyn a letter telling her about myself and my connection to Gary. I asked her to tell Gregory about me, in the event he might be interested in reaching out to me.
About six weeks went by with no word from him. Then, on Father’s Day, my phone rang. I answered the call from an unknown number, and it was him, my brother.
We shared a father, and he called me on Father’s Day to introduce himself. That is exactly the same kind of corny thing I would do! Marilyn had told him just a few years prior that he had another sibling; Gary never mentioned it. But at least he knew I was out there.
My relationships with my siblings have grown through phone calls, e-mails, text messages, and visits. Gregory is incredibly personable. He has a contagious, warm laugh and is incredibly compassionate.
Gary was not involved much in Gregory’s life, so the two of us have become close as we reconnected with Gary’s family and learned about the Schmidt family history. Elizabeth and I have an uncanny connection: we think about each other at the same times on a daily basis and have similar senses of humor. Katie is articulate and welcoming. The three of us share a smile. Most importantly they have all accepted me with open arms.
A little over a year after Betty and I found each other, she hosted a family reunion at her house. My family and I were the guests of honor. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and even my grandmother came to meet me and my family.
Every single one of them welcomed me. An entire family – most of whom did not even know I existed – brought me into their circle without hesitation.
My dad Gary is present in his own way. I see him in my similarities with Gregory. I feel him in myself when his first cousins and Marilyn have said, “Oh my gosh! You’re such a Schmidt!” My energy, constant movement, talking with my hands, and laugh; that’s all Gary. That’s the Schmidt in me.
And now, when I look at myself – not only in a mirror but look inwardly – I can see all four of my parents. I recognize the physical and behavioral traits that have been passed to be my Betty and Gary, and I identify the values that my mom and dad instilled in me. My understanding of myself is complete.
Katherine is a stay-at-home mom to two busy daughters who fills her time by volunteering at local museums, libraries, and schools. She credits her full life to her biological mother, who made the choice to give her a chance at a better life, and to her late adoptive parents, who loved her with every ounce of their beings
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter