When I received the email, I was skeptical.
From the beginning of my being a minister, I had received phone calls, letters, and emails asking for historical information. Who knew that baptismal records could substantiate one’s history in the procuring of Social Security benefits? I went into the church record books a number of times for that purpose. Other folks were searchers of branches on the family tree. I was always glad to help.
This request was way different from those. They never told us at seminary that we might field stuff like this.
Elaine (not her real name; I will provide no real names or specific details as to people and places, so as not to give away information which has remained private), wrote that she had found an obituary, which she thought might be that of her birth mother, and I had officiated the funeral. She wanted to know if she could ask me some questions.
Elaine had been on an off-and-on search for her birth parents for years, not because she lacked at all in life—she would come to tell me of wonderful folks who adopted her—but, well, you have to be an adopted person to truly understand the gnawing curiosity. Finally, this felt like the lead she needed to have an answer regarding her birth mother. She had exhausted every legal avenue, having learned at one time that the adoption record had been sealed, and at another time that the adoption service no longer existed.
Her email felt legitimate, so I replied. Soon, she emailed me some questions and, before long, we were talking on the phone. From the sketchy information she had, and the information I could supply, we both felt that we had a match.
Elaine’s likely birth mother came from a family of local Lutherans. She had several siblings, some of whom were still alive, and one, Martha, was a member of my church. Even more, if we had the correct woman, Elaine had half-siblings.
I knew Martha well enough that I felt comfortable giving her a call. Elaine wanted to visit our area, even if only to see the former home and grave of her birth mother. Not wanting Elaine and her husband to make a long drive without more concrete information, I called Elaine’s probable aunt and asked questions that Martha never thought she’d hear.
“Martha, is there any chance that your sister, Edna, had a child before she married Alvin, and gave the baby away? Did your folks ever send her away to have a baby, because it would have been a scandal in those days? Did Edna ever tell you?” Martha, not a young woman, was taken aback by the question; not offended, but certainly flustered. She struggled to give answers. They went something like this:
- No, her parents never sent Edna away.
- Edna did, however, leave home quite young to find work.
- She dated a lot.
- Edna had never revealed to Martha that she had a secret pregnancy.
I felt like Martha had an inkling about her sister that she did not want to embrace. This was, after all, a decent, God-fearing family of people, and respected in the community. Though we were talking about events of more than fifty years earlier, not to mention that her sister was no longer living, I heard between the words that the possible besmirching of Edna’s name disturbed Martha.
Gently, I asked my questions, rephrasing things, prodding Martha’s memory. Finally, a breakthrough. Yes, she admitted, this sounded possible. The time frame fit. There always was a mysterious air around Edna during those years. Even more, she thought she knew who the birth father was. She didn’t know if Edna ever told Alvin, who now was deceased, but she didn’t think so. She was confident that their children did not know.
Martha now wanted to hear what I knew. When I told her of Elaine, she was interested, even excited, to meet her. Whew! I was hoping for that, rather than what I feared, that Martha would not want to get any further into this.
Soon, Elaine and her husband, Bob, would be making the trip to our town. I drove them by the home that Alvin and Edna had made, then we were onto the cemetery and, finally, to visit with Martha.
This story now seemed as much about Martha’s entire family as it did about Edna. Yes, Martha said, looking at Elaine she saw her sister in her face. (We all had.) Martha explained about the young man she suspected to be the father, told what she knew about his life, and that, sadly, he, too, was no longer living. She pulled out a photo album, and Martha used the pictures to help us to get to know young Edna.
I must have asked Martha a dozen times how Edna’s secret never came out. “I’ve come to know you as a close-knit family. How could no one ever have known?” Martha was equally baffled. “She was my younger sister. I was as close to her as anyone. She never told me, and I really never knew.”
Confident that we had made a correct connection, we spoke about the children Edna had with Alvin. How did Martha feel regarding telling them about Elaine? Some lived in the area. Martha was in regular contact. It would be easy to talk to them.
Martha decided that she wanted to get the opinion of a niece. I urged her to stress that this needed to remain top secret. I knew the niece; I believed she wouldn’t blab so that soon the half-siblings would find out about their mother.
Our visit concluded, Elaine and Bob were on their way home. Martha was quick about contacting her niece, who then called me. We all agreed that if Edna had never told her secret, it was not our job to reveal it.
I thought this was the end of the story. Not. Even. Close.
A bit of time went by, then I received a new batch of emails from Elaine. She had found a new avenue for finding court records regarding her adoption. She copied documents into her emails so that I could read them.
Something wasn’t jibing. The father and mother were correct. Other information lined up regarding them. But the date of the baby’s birth wasn’t right. This female had been born more than a year later than Elaine’s birth date.
Had Edna given birth to a second daughter before marrying Alvin, also giving her up for adoption? With the information Elaine now had, the answer seemed undeniable. Yes, she had.
And she had been able to keep from her family not one, but two births.
Upon hearing this second revelation, Martha shook her head in amazement.
Nowadays, Edna’s two pregnancies without being married would cause no more than a bit of chatter in a family such as hers. In the days in which she was a young woman, however, one such pregnancy would have been scandalous, and a second might have permanently branded her a wanton woman.
We, who now were in the know, decided that we needed to leave this information among only us.
A couple of years later, I moved on from that church. Sure, with email and now social media, I could reach out to Elaine, a lovely woman with whom I had formed a friendly relationship, but I decided to leave it alone; let her contact me if she wanted, or to tell me of new developments.
Since no one else in the family ever contacted me, I am confident the half-siblings have not learned about the two girls their mother had before their parents were married. I hope so.
Elaine and Bob told me that they were satisfied. They learned enough. The long-cold trail finally led to the destination Elaine was seeking. They were content to leave it there.
I was impressed that Elaine felt more strongly not to risk upsetting Edna’s other children than to get to meet them. Sure, Elaine wanted to know her half-siblings, but this is one case where the wise choice was to let Edna take this secret to her grave.
There’s the lesson for all of us. When someone prefers to keep private their personal business, it’s our job to do the same.