The Son Rises

Given up for adoption as an infant, the author sets out to climb his family tree

I spent the first months of my life in a Kalamazoo orphanage with the Dickensian name of St. Agnes Foundling Home. It is a place I will never know, since I was adopted from there at three months of age. It was Columbus Day to be exact, and when I returned decades later the orphanage was gone, erased like the record of my lineage.

A foundling, left at the door with a blanket and note, I wasn't. My admission to St. Agnes was prearranged at the Catholic hospital next door, where my mother, nineteen and unwed, was sent by her parents. She never saw me but put me in care of the good sisters there to await adoption.

Following protocol, the nuns interviewed her. Years later I read the paragraph summary and marveled at her predicament. She was from Detroit, of Irish-German descent. Light brown hair, hazel eyes, five-foot-six. A college student. Her father, who sold cars in Detroit, had multiple sclerosis and walked with a brace. And if those were the bare bones of her description, my father's image is drawn from smoke and vapors. She described him as "muscular, a leader in high school." He too was from Detroit. No ethnicity given. He was in some branch of the military at the time of my birth. I hoped he was an enlisted man.

The author as a three-year-old with a department-store Santa in Grand Rapids. Adopted from a Kalamazoo orphange at three months, he grew up an only child.
All photos courtesy of the author
The author as a three-year-old with a department-store Santa in Grand Rapids. Adopted from a Kalamazoo orphange at three months, he grew up an only child.
Adoptive mother, Virginia Stage, who felt that “nothing your dad or I tried to teach you rubbed off”
Adoptive mother, Virginia Stage, who felt that “nothing your dad or I tried to teach you rubbed off”

This was during the Truman years, the Korean War. I like to step back to the fall of 1950, create a romantic scenario: Home on leave, overseas orders in his pocket, he visits his high school flame, a college freshman perhaps halfway across the state. Too young to marry, too impatient to wait, they wind up in the back of a Chevy...oops, zygote. If he was among the 54,246 casualties of that forsaken conflict, he may never have known he had a son.

On a Saturday morning, I ran across the street to tell my best friend, Dick, what my parents had just told me. We went to our secret clubhouse, the laundry room in Dick's basement, where I told him my news. We didn't even know such things happened and tried to digest the implications. We imagined the orphanage as a sort of supermarket, where adults strolled down the aisles with shopping carts, inspecting babies and saying, "Oh, this one's too pudgy," or "This one's too mewly." We wondered how my parents had gone about choosing me.

The information didn't make me feel rejected or bitter; instead, I felt different from other kids, sort of mysterious, like the Lone Ranger on TV at the time. From an early age, I had an empathy for my birth mom, who I was certain loved me and would have kept me if only she could. Instead, I was placed in a lottery and came out a winner, matched up with nice people who couldn't have kids of their own but had love to give. I never thought of Bill and Virginia as my "adoptive" parents. They were always Mom and Dad.

The decision to start a search is often emotionally charged; if you're the seeker, you're setting yourself up for some major hurt. How will these people take being found? Will they be guilt-ridden or angry? Will they reject you a second time? Or perhaps, having grown so far apart over the yawning space of time, you'll reject them. The entire prospect is a big, anxious question mark. I was fortunate. When I eventually found my blood family, they embraced me, even as the fabric of my own small family was unraveling: I was moving through the bitter aftermath of a divorce, my son and I were at odds, and increasingly my adoptive mother seemed to shun me.

Finding my birth parents was never an obsession but more a series of half-baked attempts. In the 1970s I tried, both by legal means and feeble ruses intended to dupe record keepers, but could only obtain "non-identifying information" -- physical features, age, education level, occupation -- achingly tantalizing, yes, but so general as to not be usable. After hitting brick walls, I simply gave up. It wasn't that important, after all.

My mother Virginia, meanwhile, had begun attending meetings of an adoption support group. Only recently did she tell me why: She was hoping to find my real mother, she said, in the hope of understanding her problem child. "Blood is thicker than water," she told me. "I wanted to talk to her to know why you're so contrary, so belligerent. Nothing your dad or I tried to teach you rubbed off."

I admit it: I had a budding career as a juvenile delinquent. In grade school, I was a lifer in the time-out corner. In high school, detention hall was my eighth period, and I was arrested half a dozen times for drinking, brawling and mouthing off. I was allowed to graduate only on the condition that I see a psychiatrist once a week. Didn't help. Had I been born ten years later, I'd have been coked to the gills on Ritalin. As it was, my dad berated me and my mom wept every time the cops or a teacher would call. They were beside themselves with frustration, but what could my real mother have told them?

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