Tuesday, 17 April 2018

My Dad's Birthday

Goodness, my Dad would have been 100 years old today! I'm fairly certain he wouldn't have enjoyed it much. He always made it clear to me that he valued the quality of his life over longevity. I see the sense in this but I'm not sure I would say the same. Perhaps I'll hold his view if and when my health is such that it interferes with enjoying myself.

Working with the volunteer lawyer over this past year, he was able to obtain a copy of my Dad's adoption records from the courts. It is a surreal experience reading the letters my Grandma B wrote asking to adopt a child, written in her familiar handwriting. I found it amusing that she initially asked for a little girl. Mom always led me to believe they were disappointed that I wasn't born a boy, as Grandpa and my Dad were the last of their surname, at least going back several generations. They asked for a healthy, bright looking child between one month and one year of age. They asked on 4 December 1918 and received on 24 Mar 1919, only a few days after my Dad, his brother and his birth mother, Mary, were brought to the Bethany Home.  Grandma's letters are lovely to read, with hope and happiness - tinged with a bit of anxiety, that's how she was - over the course of the adoption procedure.

The terms of the adoption are rather strange. They had 90 days to return the child (at their expense) if dissatisfied with the product (my word). The Minnesota State Public School (at which my Dad was never actually a ward) could take him back anytime until he was 18 years old.  They were agreeing to keep him until his 18th birthday, 

'maintaining, educating, and treating him properly and kindly as a member of the family, to provide him with suitable and sufficient clothing for week days and for attending public religious worship and with suitable food and other necessaries in health and sickness; to have him taught the occupation of (blank completed with) something useful and the branches usually taught in the common schools, causing him to attend the public school where he resides, fully complying with the compulsory school laws of Minnesota.'

At the expiration of the agreement (the 18th birthday presumably), they were to 

'furnish said child with two good suits of clothes, and will pay for the benefit of said child on the order of the Superintendent of said school, the sum of   $75 ($50 for a girl) and if said child shall not remain in his family the full term of said indenture, he will pay pro rata for the time he does remain, such pro rata to be paid promptly when this indenture is terminated.'

I'm not sure I follow all this, but it does sound as though my Dad was considered indentured rather than 'adopted'. That said, it was early days in the history of legal adoption and they may have been finding their way. I know from my visit to the Owatonna State School that children could be either 'fostered' - which was definitely a form of indentured servitude for many of them - or they could be adopted, which may in some cases not have been a permanent arrangement.   It was certainly a permanent arrangement with my Grandparents and the letters that follow are full of joy (from Grandma) and satisfaction (from the school). My dad is a 'fine boy' who is 'developing splendidly under their care'. 

Then comes October 1939 and a letter from my Dad's birth mother, Marit/Mary. He is now 21 years old. She is distraught as the people who adopted/fostered her elder son, Albert, have contacted her to tell her he has died at the age of 24 years, drowned in the Mississippi River. I cannot really imagine what possessed them to contact her. I've tried to find a good motive in their actions and the closest I can come is 'Just thought we'd let you know you needn't worry about Albert any more. He's dead.' Can you put a better face on it?

In her letter, Mary feels they failed him in their care and is frightened for the well being of her younger son. It seems clear that her children were taken off her, she didn't relinquish them. Considering that women in the US didn't have a vote until 1922, I'm not terribly surprised that she had little recourse once the State was interested in her situation. She and her children were apparently taken into the Bethany Home, her children were sent to the Public School (Albert) or their new home (my Dad) and she was committed to a State institution for the feeble minded on the basis that she'd had two children out of wedlock. Her letter is rambling and she references the kidnapping of the child of aviator Charles Lindbergh, which occurred in 1932. On the other hand, she spells better than Grandma B...

There is another letter from her, then another letter written on her behalf by a family friend at the Lutheran Seminary and a final document in the file recording Mary's visit to the State School on 3 Jan 1957.  I was chilled when I read the date, as I was 7 months old then, my Dad was 38. Mary was 78 years old, drawing old age benefit.  She is described as a 'most unhappy person and has a considerable dislike of all "welfare agencies". Small wonder, that. Mary couldn't understand since her child had reached majority why she could not be made known to him. Of course the adoption system didn't work that way.

They sent her away with the assurance that should he get in touch, they would help make the connection between her and her son. This never happened as my Dad was never told he was adopted. I'm in little doubt that my dad had a better life with my Grandparents than he would have had in the family of a single mom with a potential mental handicap. Her family doesn't seem to have supported her very much and so far as I can tell she made her way alone in the world as much as she could. I also believe she loved her children as much as any mother could and I think her story is among the saddest I've come across.

I'm waiting for records about her case from the Bethany Home. I'm also looking through DNA matches to find a paternal grandfather. My guess is that Albert never had children and perhaps he and my Dad were the only children of said grandfather, so it will be a long reach back with no name to hunt. But I have a couple of leads on which I'm working...