Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Unintended Gifts from Beyond

Note: This was first written as a Facebook Note on March 20, 2017

I spent last weekend in Orlando for my 50th high school reunion, packing every empty minute with visits to old friends in my hometown. I’ve been trying to figure out how to memorialize one very special meeting, and have decided to put it in a Facebook note.

The backstory:

I am adopted. I grew up feeling I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was always curious about my birthmother. With the help of a search organization in Dallas, I found her when I was 33. I called her home number. When she answered the phone, I ask, “Is this Gertrude Hodgkins Verburg?” When she said yes, I said I had been born June 22, 1950, had been doing genealogical research, and that my birth records indicated she might be my mother. (One always offers an out.) On the other end of the phone line there was a long pause, then she said, “I can’t talk to you right now,” and hung up the phone. There was another exchange several months later, with her acquiescence, at the end of which she requested that I never contact her again. I didn’t.

I was certain I was the only child she had ever had. She was almost 38 when I was born, late for pregnancy in 1950. She had spent the last few months of her pregnancy in Orlando, returning to her native Gloucester, Massachusetts, after my birth. A few years later, she and her brother moved permanently to Orlando. She married for the first and only time in 1956. And it was pretty clear from her actions and words that she had never told her husband about her pregnancy. Much later I was to learn that she had spent every Sunday morning of her life in Orlando in the nursery at her church, holding, rocking, caring for the babies.

In March, 2016, through the courtesy of the Ancestry genealogical website, I found a half-sister. My mother had not only had a baby girl and given her up for adoption in 1950, she had also had a baby girl and given her up for adoption in 1935! We were both shocked to find each other and thrilled out of our minds to find someone we were really related to. The icing on the cake was our similarities and shared interests.

My sister, Debbie, had searched for her mother much later than I did. Gertrude had died in April of 1998, and Debbie found her three weeks after her passing. Debbie had engaged a search agency to find her, and learned that Gertrude was a member of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Orlando. She contacted the minister there and learned more about Gertrude’s life. Shortly thereafter, Debbie and her elder daughter flew to Orlando to meet Pastor Bob Eckard. He spoke warmly of our mother, told Debbie of her work in the church nursery, and introduced Debbie to a Mr. and Mrs. Nordman, with whom Gertrude had been close friends. The Nordmans were completely surprised by Debbie’s existence. Not only had Gertrude kept her secret from her husband for 40+ years, she had kept it from her closest friend.

Now to today:

I am on the Ancestry site several days a week as I search for my elusive birth father. I have taken the Ancestry DNA test (as has Debbie) and frequently correspond with distant cousins who are connected to me by our DNA. A couple of weeks ago I received a note from a “cousin” mentioning Gertrude and her husband, Gerrit. I started sorting through possibilities in my mind and decided to see if I could contact Mrs. Nordman. While searching, I learned that Mr. Nordman had died in 2011 and Mrs. Nordman in late 2016, just a few months ago. From her obituary, I learned they had five children, and through further searching, learned that the youngest, Nancy, still lived in the family home.

I contacted her and she shared with me some memories of Debbie’s and my mother. She told me that a few days before her death, her mother had said she wanted to get in touch with Gertrude’s daughter, but couldn’t remember her name. When she said that to me, I immediately teared up, assuming Gertrude had shared my existence with Mrs. Nordman. But when I called Debbie to tell her of this conversation, she reminded me that she had met the Nordmans, and that they had not known of her before meeting her, nor of me.

Mrs. Nordman wanted to get in touch with Debbie, but couldn’t remember her name.

I assumed it was just a desire to again tell Debbie how special Gertrude had been to her.

During our conversation, I told Nancy I’d like to see the church and visit the nursery where my mother had spent so much time and that had been named for and dedicated to her upon her death. She suggested I come attend church with her on the Sunday I would be in Orlando, and I quickly agreed.

We met in the church vestibule at 10:30 Sunday morning. She was holding a sign that said, “Welcome, Jan.” Then she introduced me to her eldest sister. We sat down and I noticed the quilts all arranged along the railings at the front of the church. They have a quilt guild that makes bright child-size quilts to donate to the children’s hospitals in Orlando, and Sunday was “quilt blessing day.” What a treat! As we were waiting for the service to begin, Nancy leaned over and pointed out a gentleman sitting on the back row of the choir. “That’s Pastor Eckard. I’ve arranged for us to have lunch together.” I had to stifle a sob. I had known he was no longer at the church, but assumed he had moved on to another church. I was wrong. He retired and he and his wife still live in Orlando and attend Grace Covenant. He knew my mother for over 30 years!
I enjoyed the service very much. The Presbyterian hymns are similar to the Adventist hymns on which I grew up. Same tunes, same words. The version of the Lord’s Prayer they say has the words “debts” rather than “trespasses.” All familiar. All comfortable. When the service was over, Nancy and I walked up to the front to get a closer look at the quilts. After Pastor Eckard took off his choir robe and put his music away, he joined us and we walked to the other building to see the nursery. Next to the door, a brass plaque was affixed to the wall, engraved with the words, “Gertrude Verburg Nursery.” We walked into the bright and cheery room, and talked about Gertrude’s Sundays there. The woman who had been working there that day had also known Gertrude. She talked about how, later in life when she couldn’t get around very well, they bought a comfortable rocker for her to sit in. Upon arrival, she’d settle in and they’d bring a baby to her to rock.

She gave away two daughters because she was unable to care for them, then spent several hours every week for the rest of her life holding and talking to babies. My eyes fill with tears of regret and tears of respect every time I remember that fact.
After visiting the nursery, Pastor and Mrs. Eckard, Nancy Nordman, and I left to drive to a nearby Italian restaurant for lunch. After we sat down, Nancy said, “I have something for you in the car.” She ran out and came back in carrying two recyclable grocery bags. Nancy said that Gertrude had left some things with Mrs. Nordman when she and Gerrit moved into a retirement home and then, ultimately, to a nursing home.

The first bag contained a large and very heavy silver chest, loaded with sterling silver flatware. Nancy’s mother’s handwritten note inside stated that if Gerrit ever needed money, these were to be sold and the money used for his support.
In the other bag was a plastic shoe storage box filled with various plastic bags, envelopes, and bank envelopes. One envelope contained an exquisite antique necklace and matching earrings. Another held about 20 bills from various foreign countries. I assume her husband collected these during his career in the United States Navy. A couple more envelopes held coins. A small leather box held a large pocket watch. There were several more pocket watches and two beautiful gold bangle bracelets. Plastic bags held two lockets, one with a curl of very fine hair. (My sister's? Mine? Our mother's?) Then Nancy pulled out one last envelope and had me hold my hands together, palms up, as she poured about twenty rings into my hands!!!!!

I slipped several onto my fingers, and they fit my large piano hands perfectly. Several are engraved. One plain wedding band has a 1909 date in it. Unbelievable!!!

Nancy told me she had been praying for me that morning before church, and had felt that these items that had been passed down in Gertrude’s family would help Debbie and me assuage our grief at having grown up without our mother and without each other.

I expressed my overwhelming gratitude to Nancy (and ultimately, her mother, as this was - of course - why she wanted to find Debbie before her death) for having thought of us and given us this very kind and generous gift.
We left the restaurant, I retrieved my car, and before setting out on the next leg of my afternoon journey, I pulled over in a parking lot to call Debbie and tell her this incredible story.

After arriving back at my hotel, I pulled the rings out on the bed, looking through them, touching them, touching my mother whom I had never known. I found one delicate ring and slipped it onto my finger. Now I carry her with me every day.


risaryan said...

Oh, Jan. I opened your blog today, thinking that you might have posted something about Bali. Finding the story about your mother was such a joy. What heartbreak for her, to give you and your sister up for adoption. She lived in different times, when women had so many fewer choices. I'm so glad that you learned that she was someone worthy of having a church nursery named after. That says a lot. Wow.

Jan Crews said...

Dear Risa, I just tonight saw your post from eleven months ago! Thank you for your kind words.
Much love, Jan