Monday, 17 April 2017

My Dad's Birthday

Today would have been my Dad's 99th birthday. My fascination with detecting his past has been one of several reasons I've not been here of late. I've written before about only learning my Dad was adopted when I was in my mid-50's and when nearly everyone who had first hand knowledge was long gone. I'm pretty certain he never knew he was adopted, though he may have suspected. I think now that my grandparents moved from Minnesota to Wisconsin to keep him away from cousins who might tell him. 

The earliest photo of my Owatonna?

One of the most astounding things I've discovered is that my Dad had an older brother - I had an Uncle Albert. He is likely a half-brother, but who ever heard of a half-uncle?  

The fact that my Dad and I were both only children always seemed to me to be one of the major things that bonded us. Only-ness seemed to be a defining experience for us. No one else I knew understood the joy of solitude - or of companionable silence - in quite the way my Dad did. Something I ran across recently challenged readers to 'describe themselves in one sentence' and while I didn't know how that might go, I knew it would include 'only child' somewhere, maybe like 'Only child, addicted to reading, colour and textiles...' I'm sure there is more, but those are the first thoughts that come to mind.

Strangely, Albert's birthday is tomorrow (but 3 years earlier than my Dad). The part of Albert's story that I know is nearly as sad as their mother's. My Dad was placed in the Owatonna state school (orphanage) when he was 11 months old; Albert was 4. My Dad was adopted 10 months later; Albert waited 3 years to be adopted. So it is likely he always remembered that he was adopted. Whether he understood why these things happened to him I'll likely never know. Albert's adoption records won't be available until 2022. Hopefully I'll be able to get them then, if they still exist. Minnesota seems rather careless with some of their old records as some of my Dad's seem to have disappeared from Hennepin County.

Albert's birth certificate (now over 100 years old and so available on the Minnesota Historical Society website) says his father was named Albert Peterson, born 1876 in Sweden. My Dad's birth certificate - obtained with the help of the Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform - has no father listed, not even his given name (which according to the Owatonna records was James). It only gives his birth date and his mother's address. This is a large brick building near downtown Minneapolis (courtesy of Google) and I'm guessing she rented a room there. 

A maternal cousin in Sydney suggested I join an e-group called DNAAdoption, which I did. They are a group of 'experts' who volunteer to help people interpret their DNA results to follow the trail of their birth parents. I didn't ask for help, but I learned a great deal from them, enough to identify my Dad's mom (it takes hours and hours of work, mind). From that e-group I learned about the American Adoption Congress. They referred me to the Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform. Amazingly, a lawyer (who is an adoptive parent) contacted me and has worked on my situation for about about 7 months now, obtaining a court order for the release of records pertaining to my Dad's birth and adoption -- all for FREE! - can you believe it? He's a really nice man - I've spoken with him on the phone. He and his wife are visiting Edinburgh in May and I'm thinking it would be lovely to nip up there and meet him, if only for coffee or dinner or something. 

Getting records is all exceedingly slow and my patience has had a good workout. I'm currently waiting for frozen records to thaw (literally). If I get this right, there was a flood in the Steele County (location of Owatonna) archives and freeze-drying paper apparently is a salvage method. Given the anti-climax that was my Dad's birth certificate, I'm not holding my breath (well, as much not as I can). I'm thinking if anything it might tell me more about Grandma and Grandpa, the adoptive parents, and that would be nice, too. [Update: no records there, frozen or thawed, pertaining to my Dad's adoption].

Sometime around Thanksgiving, I finally worked up the nerve to contact some of my Dad's rather distant paternal cousins. I got a great response and they did their best with their local knowledge to help me find out more. One even came up with my paternal Grandmother's obituary (her name was Mary). (More about her next month, on - you guessed it - her birthday). From that obituary I knew where Mary lived in the last decade of her life. 

They also gave me some phone numbers to try for a 2nd cousin (we have the same great-grandparents). It took me even longer - a couple of months - to work up the nerve to ring him. Then I realised we are none of us getting any younger and I'd best get on with it. Turns out he is also a very nice man. [I begin to wonder why I'm always a little surprised by this.] Don's mother was Mary's niece and Mary lived with them from the mid-1960s until her death in 1976. Don will have been in his 20's and 30's and he remembers Mary. We've been writing back and forth as he recalls various details about her as a person. 

It's been an amazing journey - and I'm still on it. But hopefully I'll find time to squeeze in a post here and there!


Indigo Dragonfly said...

Who knew that digging into your relative's history could be so fascinating? This is amazing information! Good luck with future digging.

tess said...

Very much like reading about your family history.
Good for you for reaching out.