Wednesday, September 04, 2013

A Step Into the Past

Last month the Jazzman and I drove to Maine for a week of vacation. We decided to spend the final two nights a little closer to home, to cut a couple of hours of the last day's drive, and found an inn in Ipswich, MA. My ancestry, back to around 1630, lies in Gloucester, MA, just a few miles away from Ipswich. As I had recently uncovered some previously unknown genealogical information, I suggested to the Jazzman that we drive into Gloucester and out around Cape Ann. We would couple my research with a stop in Rockport as we drove out around Cape Ann to visit the recently-sold home of a relative of his. He had visited this home overlooking the water several times in his life. We would be walking through our minds a little on this trip.

In research I had done over a year ago, I learned—to my great sadness—that my birthmother had lost her father, whom she adored, when she was 16. How did I know she adored him? When I was 33 and she was about 70, I found her. I tried to speak with her on the phone, but she simply said, "I can't talk to you now," and hung up the phone.

My darling daddy—in a quite astonishing turn of events—was her doctor. He didn't realize she was my birthmother until I solved the puzzle.

When he learned she was my birthmother, he pulled her medical file from the file room in his office. That way, if she came in to see any of the doctors in his practice, the nurses would be searching for the file, and he would know of the visit. Voila! One day a few months later, a nurse started looking through the files on his desk while he was sitting in his consultation room. He asked what file she was looking for and, when she said "Gertrude Verburg," he replied, "Tell her I'd like to speak with her."

So when she was situated in the examining room, before starting her appointment, she was visited by Daddy, with pictures of me and my sons in his hand. He said she had no look of joy or familiarity on her face. She showed no emotion. When she looked at the pictures, she simply mused, "Oh, aren't they nice." She was having hip problems and had surgery scheduled later that month. She said she would accept a letter from me if I'd send it to Daddy. He would take it to her while she was in the hospital, preventing her husband—who had no knowledge of my existence—from seeing the letter. A few weeks later, I got an envelope from Daddy in the mail. Inside was my letter to my mother. She had written me back in the margins of my letter. What she revealed shocked me.

She had never felt her mother loved her. (Ding! Ding! Ding!) She was very close to her father. (Ding! Ding! Ding!) She lived for Sundays when he didn't work and they would spend time together. I could not believe the parallels in my life and hers.

And then she asked me never to contact her again. Which I didn't. About ten years ago, I learned she had died in 1998. In the past week, I learned that her husband died last year. Done. Book closed.

I've thought so many times about that girl who lost her beloved daddy at age 16. How that must have changed her. Her oldest brother moved to Pennsylvania to work. Gertrude and her brother still lived at home with the mother who couldn't show her daughter she loved her. Then, five years later, at age 21, her mother died. At 21, she's all alone with her brother who was fifteen years older. She was only 21. She was barely an adult. She had no parents to turn to for guidance and nurture. She had only her brother, himself never married. They lived together in Glocester for several years, then he moved to Florida. To Orlando. When she got pregnant at age 37, she went to stay with her brother to hide her pregnancy. To hide me.

I had also, about a year ago, determined the location of Hodgkins House. To that point, I had thought it was the house my mother or grandmother grew up in. But when I started examining and comparing dates, I realized that could not be. More research revealed that my great-uncle, Harvey Monroe Griffin (my grandmother's year-younger brother) and his wife, Amy, had been the owners of the house. Why the painting was entitled "Hodgkins House" has been lost over time. My grandmother's married name was Hodgkins. It is unknown what relationship the Hodgkins family had to the house. I know my great-grandfather Hodgkins was a carpenter. Could he have built the house? There were numerous "housewright" designations in my ancestry. I never determined the provenance of the name, but I now knew where the house was, and I was determined to see it in person.

After standing in front of the house where my mother had grown up and taking a few pictures, we drove out around Cape Ann. On the north shore, as we were heading to 505 Washington St., we took a wrong turn, so we turned around and went back to a beach we had passed. We got out, admired, the view, snapped a few pictures, and talked to some divers. I had no idea how serendipitous that wrong turn and the time taken to enjoy the view would be.

Getting back in the car, we continued on around to Washington St., just a couple of miles further down the road. After so many years of admiring the photograph of the painting, I recognized it instantly. The Jazzman pulled to the curb and I got out to take pictures. He drove ahead to find a place to park.

As I was taking pictures, I noticed a woman leave the house and get into her red Mini. As she drove down the driveway, she looked over at me. I smiled and held my hand to my heart. She pulled across the street into the driveway next to where I was standing, rolled down her window, and asked, "Are you a Hopper fan?" I smiled and said, "No, I'm a Hodgkins." For the first time in my life, I had said, "I'm a Hodgkins." I felt who I was. She asked more and we talked about the Griffin/Hodgkins connection. She also told me about having found the headstone of an ancestor, Moses Hodgkins, in an outbuilding when she bought the house. It now sits in her second story studio.

Our conversation drew to a close, and she handed me a card with information about her recently published novel. I glanced at the house again, and ran across the street to get into the car and recount the incident to the Jazzman.

And we drove to Oak Grove Cemetery.

As soon as the city offices opened that morning, I had called the Archives Department and asked if they had a master index to all the cemeteries in the area. I gave the woman who answered the name I was seeking—John Hicks Hodgkins—and she called me back half an hour later, telling me exactly where the grave was located. We pulled into the cemetery, which is situated across the street from the Derby Street home where my mother grew up. I looked at the cemetery map and, after scratching my head a little, suddenly saw a monument marked "Griffin." I raced over there and saw names both familiar and unfamiliar.

Lying in this plot are the caskets containing the remains of my great-grandfather, great-grandmother, great-uncle, his two wives and the son he had with his first wife, my grandfather, and my grandmother.

Let me just say here that I cannot speak for all adoptees, but much of my reading has indicated—and many adoptees I've spoken to in person have indicated—a sense of not belonging. It was not until I first discovered the microfiche of the 1920 census in the National Archives in Washington, DC, that I felt I belonged on this earth. That I had an entitlement to walk on this planet.

Walking around that cemetery last Friday gave me the same feeling. I had to fight back the tears as I tried to elucidate my feelings to the Jazzman. Those were my ancestors. We had driven through the cemetery and seen lots and lots of surnames that are in my family tree: Babson, Lane, Hicks, Allen, Swift .... These were people who would have acknowledged my existence. They would have loved me, as my grandfather loved my mother, or they would have tolerated me, as my grandmother tolerated my mother. But I would have belonged.

My heart was full.

You can read about the rest of our vacation and view more pictures on my travel page.