Posts tagged gratitude

The Best Birthday Ever!

A “speed limit” birthday – what a ride to 55 and for all that lies ahead!

Here we are on November 21, 2020.

National Adoption Day is a collective effort to raise awareness of the more than 120,000 children waiting to be adopted from foster care in the United States. A coalition of national partners — the Dave Thomas Foundation for AdoptionCongressional Coalition on Adoption InstituteAlliance for Children’s Rights and Children’s Action Network — founded National Adoption Day.

My 55th birthday AND National Adoption Day – how appropriate that they land together – especially this year.  2020 has been a unique year, to say the least. And this birthday, has been, for me, the most unique of all.

I didn’t see the TWO voice messages on my cell that morning in September.  Then a few hours later, my house phone rang.  Thanks to “Caller ID”, I saw the caller.  I so wanted Rae to be home when I called because I had no idea what the outcome would be (I will take a risk but I am more comfortable with a plan!).  My curiosity won – I couldn’t wait for her to be home.  I called back.

I wish I could have recorded the call, but I didn’t.  I was excited, apprehensive, nervous and petrified all at the same time I was convincing myself that in the end, this wouldn’t change my day-to-day, or maybe it would; this would be a defining moment in my life, of that I was sure. 

She picked up. “This is Jane”, I said.  And we began a conversation that lasted over an hour.  Details about her and her mom, how they wound up in all the places they did, and how I came to be.  I told her of her half-siblings located not too far and her father, whom she had never met.  I started this journey to possibly make a connection then realized that my connection was secondary to my birth mother connecting with her siblings and father, most of all.  We planned a call with the siblings which was one of the most amazing calls I have had – a collection of amazingly intelligent, accomplished, warm and welcoming people.  My uncle was happy that he was no longer “the oldest” and we shared many questions and laughs along the way.  My grandfather’s 96th birthday was upcoming and a Zoom celebration would be planned.  Ninety-six and completely aware that he was speaking to his oldest daughter for the first time as well as a granddaughter he even imagined.  It was the most amazing call!

With COVID restrictions (at the time) being somewhat eased, I met my birth mother.  Masked protocols followed, we could not help but to embrace each other and she said to me, “I waited 54 years to do that!”  We talked and talked and shared details about our separated lives.  I told her about my parents and she explained why she chose an adoption plan for she and I. 

She told me she struggled with her decision and that was why I was adopted at five months old.  I never thought that was different, but she explained that it was time she needed.  Did she think of me? Yes. She didn’t know if I was told of my adoption and she held back from contacting me because she did not want to upset the life I had.  And the biggest question? The why.

An answer so truthful – “I wanted you to have a mother and father – a family.”  She had grown up with an amazing mother but did not have her father in her life.  She wanted a different way and she was in control of that narrative for me; she also had to make the best decision for her as well.  My birth mom was sure to tell me that she knew my mother was my mother – who raised me, changed diapers and who did every other thing for me.  She always respected that.

There has been levity in my series of posts and I appreciate every one of you who have read along.  I want to be quite clear in a few things – first, my parents, my family are MY FAMILY.  All the scrapped knees, school events, music lessons, and family gatherings are the indelible marks on my life that make me who I am.  Secondly, know that in no way was this search an attempt to disavow, disrespect or forget who my mother and father were and will always be to me.  My love for them will never change, as the love for my extended family, cousins, aunts, and uncles will always remain.  Finally, this was something I needed for ME – to answer questions that only a few of my friends (Frann, Frank, Dolores, to name a few) and my cousins (Matthew, Kristen, Christopher and Annalisa) could share as fellow adoptees.  Things have been made clear for me and I finally acknowledge the good in everything that has happened over these five and a half decades.  Anyone who has ever rattled me by questioning who I was, the character I have or the motives behind my deeds is now just a mere blip on the screen – I have been made complete in this final piece of the puzzle.

I am looking forward to many years ahead getting to know a whole new set of my aunts, uncles, and grandparents, through talks, pictures, and memories.  I hope for a time when we can all be in the same room to do that.  I am so excited to have been blessed with the connection to my birth mother – I truly thank her for making my life possible.  It may sound cliché, but it really was the most amazing gift someone could give another.

For my birthday this year, I received a very early morning text from the one person who was there when I came into this world – something so many people take for granted.  It will be in my opinion, the best birthday ever!

Searching to find the one…

Or two or a whole family….

These DNA kits – oh, these DNA kits. Which one to use? One of them, two – maybe three. A few years ago, I decided to take one of these tests. A little bit of saliva in a tube, send it in, wait a few weeks – at the very least, I would know what kind of blood was coursing through my veins – maybe not who’s blood but at least where said blood came from.

23andMe and Ancestry both done and both showed more Eastern European, a lot of South American, and smaller percentages of almost one-third of the globe. So the Balkans, maybe Russia, possibly Germany, Hungary, and a half dozen other places I wasn’t too familiar with. One test connected me to many third, fourth and fifth cousins; another test showed an uncle/cousin and a great-uncle/grandfather/uncle result. Well this was promising!!

I sent an email to the uncle/cousin match and crossed my fingers. Not too much information, just that I was adopted, looking and did he know any relatives who might have been in New York in the 60’s. I knew from the information in the test results that we shared a female relative, most likely, my birth mother. A day later, I received an email that said he would be happy to help me with my search. As my incredible luck in 2020 goes, my uncle/cousin was extremely well-versed in DNA and genealogy – this almost seemed too good to be true. (I honestly thought it was a program that the testing kit company was offering but, hey, if he could help and was willing, well, I would be happy to accept the help.)

Let’s make something clear, this had not been an all-consuming-I’ve-gotta-know thing every day of my life but if you know anything about me, I’m curious. My favorite word was “Why?” and heaven-help the person who would say “Because I said so” to me. But at the strangest times, during the oddest moments, I would wonder if there was someone who looked like me out there – was my birth mom thinking about me, did she remember my birthday, would I ever get a chance to meet her? So the ride began and I definitely wanted to be in the car!

End of year busy-ness, travel and then a world-wide lockdown. It would be months before I would hear from my uncle/cousin. I gave him my birth mother’s name and the few dates we could find through immigration records. In May, I received a phone call from the Middle East and suddenly, my family has expanded to include an uncle, two aunts, and a grandfather – 95 years young and living outside of Beirut. My new found relatives were closer than I would have ever thought – although “Uncle” and “Grandfather” were in Beirut, my aunts are but a few hours drive from my home.

My uncle spoke to his father who fondly recalled the girl he fell in love with in Germany in the late 40’s. Allied-occupied Germany, “Grandfather” had to return to Syria, while my “Grandmother” left for Paris after she had their daughter. At 95, he clearly remembered my grandmother – “She was beautiful!” he remarked with a smile. He did know of his child but was unable to meet her. Europe to America in the 1950’s and New York in the 1960’s – my “Grandmother” appeared on paper to be an independent soul and she and her daughter forged a life together. Not much more information on where or who they could be but at least it was a start.

I sent a letter in March – not sure if it would reach its destination as it was mailed two days before the lockdown here. My birth mother, the woman who carried me and made what I believe is one of the hardest decisions a women could, was not that far. The distance? Another state over or so. Would she answer the letter? I let it go over the summer. I figured things went so well so quickly, something was bound to get hung-up. But….

Who am I kidding? You know I sent another letter.

My address, my e-mail, my cell phone, and my house phone number. I told her to look me up – check to make sure I wasn’t a crazy nut! In all my letters to my new uncle and to my birth mom all saying the same thing – I didn’t want to bother them or upset their lives in any way. I sent the second letter in September and three days later, the phone rang.

Two Family Trees

That is my new reality – I have TWO family trees on Ancestry.com

TWO. That’s the theme for this – the SECOND part of my series of posts. TWO. That’s the number of family trees I have on Ancestry.com. And TOO – I hope not to confuse you, too as in also, along the way!

As they would say in the soap operas of old, “When last we left our heroine, she thought about the mysterious envelope that would be resting quietly in the mailbox at the bottom of the stairs….”

Drama aside, I was waiting for that envelope. So antiseptic, so “NYC Record”-like. When I saw it, my heart started beating fast – it also sank a bit as I came to the realization that once I opened that envelope, my life and the life of the woman who gave birth to me would most likely never be the same. I was nervous (fast heart beat) but the sinking of my heart held with it so many things – what was my name? What was her name? Where was I born? Who was my father? Where did they live? Were they both alive? Am I going to look like them? And the scariest part of all, would either of them want to know me?

You see, as a child, my parents, Mary & Ernie, always told me I was special. I was the “gift someone gave to them so we could be a family”. I was an only child: the sixth grandchild of seven on my mom’s side, and the ONLY grandchild in my dad’s family. I was doted on by my grandparents albeit with disciplinary hands and my parents’ expected much and made sure I knew it every step of the way. I loved both my mom and my dad, my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. This was now something I never thought I would have to think through, nevermind live through – but just like the rest of 2020, here it was.

The mail was in, the envelope there. I brought it into the house and stared. Should I wait until Rae got home? What if the information was shocking? Well, how shocking could it be – I mean, it wasn’t like I was going to find out my parents were ostriches or something. Just open the envelope, I convinced myself.

And as my curiosity always does, it got the best of me – and open the envelope I did.

For all the things I knew already – they all checked out: 10:35am (time of birth), date was right too; born in Brooklyn – not at the hospital I thought but rather at Long Island College Hospital on Atlantic Avenue (that’s no longer there). Big blank spaces where my father’s name would have gone – surprisingly, I was not surprised and was mostly okay with it. My mother? An eighteen year old, in 1965. I always knew she was young and I could never imagine myself in the same position but my parents always talked about “the gift” she gave.

I now had her name – a unique one at that. And as I put the paperwork back in the envelope, I immediately took to 2020’s best private detective firm, Google, to see what I could find.

Late November back in ’65…..

Alright, the song goes "Late December back in '63".  Bear with me here - its all relevant!
Oh the things you’ll find….

Sometimes, we find ourselves connected to the strangest things – not getting rid of an old piece of junk, that you know is junk, that you know should be thrown out, but still, you keep it, time after time when cleaning out the basement or attic.

Funny how these things sometimes defy logic. But mind doesn’t always win over heart and a small token someone gave you can hold a treasure trove of emotions.

Some of us do indeed separate from things – others, rest on a scale somewhere between “saver” and “out of control hoarder” (hopefully, not one ready for a prime-time TV show). My mom was an extreme saver; I think an elementary hoarder as well because some of the things she became attached to and kept made absolutely no sense to me.

Cleaning out her house, I found a crayon drawing I made of our family when I was in kindergarten, many old pictures, two identical pink glass sugar bowls (replacements for the one we used, should it break), and a box marked “Janie’s Baby Clothes from Angel Guardian”. Inside, cleaned, pristine and kept as if it was Princess Diana’s wedding gown were the “onesie”, a slip, the dress and yes, even the shoes I came home from my first home, Angel Guardian, in Brooklyn. My father always talked about putting me in the car seat and my foot resting on the steering wheel. My mother’s “best day in her life” and for me, a day in transit with my little stuffed rabbit.

And while 2020 has been a year of distance, missed celebrations, illnesses and loss for so many of us, the year of the pandemic has made the connections I have had with family be a longed-for-continued-next-year occurrence, I have built my business during this year, making connections with some amazing people and companies and I have made connections I never thought possible.

Say what you will about our governor here in New York, but I will forever be in debt to Andrew Cuomo. You see, on January 15th of this year, he signed legislation that unsealed all the adoption records here in the state. So off my application and $15 check to the Office of Vital Records went and I waited patiently. I would finally have the piece of paper that everyone else has – no more “Certification of Birth” – an honest to goodness Birth Certificate. The name given to me at birth; the time I was born; what hospital I was born in.

So many answered questions. And the answer to one I had never thought possible – the name of the parents I never knew.

A month later, the envelope was in the mailbox.

The Other Mother Theresa

I would venture to guess that almost everyone in the world knows of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Teresa. Although diminutive in size, Mother Teresa was a giant in stature. This past week has brought that same acknowledgement closer to home for my family and those we know as we celebrated the life of our own “Mother Theresa”, Theresa Russo.

I met our Mother Theresa in 1985 – introduced to as and called her “Mrs. Russo” until the day she passed. Over the course of 31 years, she went from being my friend’s mom to being my “other mother” and my friend. Even at the whopping 5 foot, 1 inch she originally stood at, she struck me upon our first meeting as a woman who was dutiful yet strong in her own right, someone who lived by a set of rules and raised a family with respect and gratitude. I was always afraid of not “doing the right thing” in her eyes and often worried if she was upset with something I may or may not have done, you know, like some of us are with our own parents.

Theresa Russo was born in 1928, the same year Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse. That was always our private joke – I would always comment on she and Mickey being the same age, referring to him as “her brother”. She would laugh and shake her head and we would always have a good chuckle about it. I always had a fascination with the stories people would tell of their lives, however mundane they may have thought those stories were, I found that people are always happiest when they regale in the stories that shaped them, good or bad. And if you remembered those stories, you tended to make a connection with them more quickly. So, I listened and learned.

Funny, that the “listen and learn” comment came in here as that was an expression often used by Theresa’s husband and members of his family. But the one thing I learned in spending over 31 years in Theresa’s company was just that – listening. As a very young child, Theresa became quite ill, so ill in fact, she almost didn’t survive. But survive she did and grew to possess a strength of will if not in body. She always smiled when she told her daughter Rachael and I about those childhood stories – going to the movies with eleven cents, ten for the price of the ticket and a penny for candy, at a time when “movies were movies”; coming home for lunch, having her mom serve lentils and her refusal to eat them, and her mother turning the bowl over on her head!

She always smiled broadly when she spoke of her father – how she and her sister would wait by the window, peering down the street to watch for their father’s return home so they could signal their mother to throw the pasta in the water, timing Sunday dinner to be perfectly placed on the table by the time he sat down. Her father who worked his own business many hours during the day but would meet his daughters by the train station to ensure their safe return home at night. Theresa’s mother, would always say that when she walked down the street with Theresa in the carriage, people would always remark on what a beautiful the baby was.

Over the course of her lifetime, Theresa married, raised four sons and a daughter, supporting her husband in his business ventures while keeping the home, as women of her era did. Having five children in six years, she quickly learned to appreciate the help and support her mother was able to give and she navigated all her responsibilities and charges in to an “organized chaos” – a home filled with activity and love.

In the thirty-one years I knew her, we shared stories, many meals, vacations and countless hours just talking. As she watched all of us become adults and begin our own lives, she settled in to the role of guide, mentor and friend. Laundry, house cleaning and how to save money when you shopped were in the fashion she explained. Our conversations always resulted in laughs and teasing about how her daughter, Rachael, would be “telling her what to do”, resulting in the two of us referring to her as “The Warden”. As the summer of 2016 wore on, Theresa became more and more ill. Although visits to various doctors became the norm for her, this was much more than ever before. After four stays at the hospital, my poor friend’s body could not take much more. We lost Theresa when God called her home, one day after her husband’s passing twenty-five years before and on the same day her mother passed at the age of 99 eight years earlier.

Rachael and I prayed with her the night before she passed (I know she was probably laughing as she always shook her head at my “fallen way Catholicism”). But it gave me a strange peace, a connection to the realization that she was truly my friend too, not just my friend’s parent. She welcomed me into her house and family from the time I was nineteen years old. She taught me a tremendous amount of things and always to be aware of people and the things they do and say. She was “old school” and traditional. She made up her mind about things and often wouldn’t be swayed in any other direction. She was strong in her family and in her faith. We celebrated her life this week, where twenty-five priests concelebrated the Mass of Resurrection for her at The Church of Saint Mark, fully decorated in Christmas splendor – her favorite holiday. As I stood with my family during the service, all I could think of was Theresa seeing all this and saying, “All this…. For me?”

Yes, indeed, Mrs. Russo, all of it was for you – you were so special to all of us!

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