One’s Origins: A Journey from Adoption to Identity – Part Twenty-Two

“You will see light in the darkness. You will make some sense of this.
And when you’ve made your secret journey. You will find this love you miss.”

― Gordon Matthew Sumner (Sting)

In Part Twenty-One, I recounted the first conversation I ever had with my mother nearly 17 years after she passed away. I wept then, I wept writing about it, and I wept reading what I had written. I mourned the loss of a mother I will never know and who never knew me. What I wouldn’t give to have had just one opportunity to be with her physically. Little did I know, I would soon receive my very own Christmas miracle.

Following my visit to Pickering Beach I drove to Joe’s house about twenty minutes away to meet his family. The visit was short; just enough time to introduce ourselves to one another and ask a few top-of-mind questions. That was on November 10, 2020. A few weeks later, two days after Christmas, Joe and Derek were getting their families together for a small belated and downsized Christmas gathering and I was also invited. This day, December 27, marked 17 years since our mother’s death.

I arrived later than planned (it’s a hallmark of mine) and the Philadelphia Eagles football  game was deep into the second quarter. The season was dangling by a thread and was only a couple hours away from ending. The food arrived almost an hour before I did but there was plenty of leftover wings and pizza to satisfy a day’s long appetite. We stood in a circle around an extended counter between the kitchen and dining room. As I took care of a conspicuous hunger, we shared stories about this and that. I recounted a bit about my journey to this point thus far. I asked a few questions learning about everyone’s interests. There are many more things I look forward to learning and I will in time.

Not much gift exchanging was anticipated. I gave the girls each something art or craft oriented that I felt was appropriate for their ages and I expected nothing in return. I did, however, receive something in return that numbs me still as I write this.

Once things were cleaned off and the remaining leftovers were put away, all that remained on the counter were two envelopes and a box 2” by 4” by 6” wrapped in holiday paper. They were slowly pushed in front of me and Derek said, “Here Matt, we got you a little something.” I opened the cards first. Each card graciously had everyone’s name written instead of Love, The Nadels, or Love, The Rodgers. I struggled a bit at first with keeping the right names with the right faces and I now had a cheat sheet. I had already met Joe’s family but this was my first time meeting Derek’s wife and daughter. Meeting them reshuffled the names a little bit in my head. Sometime later Joe walked by as I was rereading the cards. “I am just studying for the name quiz.”, I said. We laughed and shared our sentiments on the importance of name recollection. It can be difficult sometimes. Now if they had only pasted thumbnail size headshots of themselves in the cards…

Next was the gift. Trying to be cute, I lifted it to my ear and gently shook it as people sometimes do trying to guess what is inside. No one laughed. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw Derek’s eyes pop out of his head. I began to peel back the taped ends to expose a simple dark box with no markings whatsoever. Two short additional pieces of scotch tape adhered the lid to the base and with a quick glide of my thumbnail, the lid was free. I removed the lid to expose something wrapped in white tissue paper. I lifted it from the box and removed the paper to see a small clear glass jar with a metal clasp lid. Inside was an off-white course powder and in a fraction of second I realized in the palm of my hand rested my mother’s ashes – our mother’s ashes.

Oh my God!” I gasped at the volume of a whisper. I gently placed the jar back on the tissue paper which laid in the box and brought my hand to my face covering my mouth to prevent an outburst. I felt tears on my cheeks and a sniffle in my nose. In that moment, all the emotions of Pickering Beach came flooding back. In front of, who until very recently were strangers, I cried. They cried. We cried together. I turned to pull both Joe and Derek towards me, and we embraced as I continued to weep.

Not all our mother’s ashes were scattered along Pickering Beach. Joe and Derek had kept a fair amount and had split it between them. After the three of us first met in October, Joe and Derek decided to redistribute the remaining ashes into three portions. After emotions simmered, Joe and Derek each raised up their jars and Derek said, “Now she is with all of us.”

Eventually the evening would draw to an end, and with it the Eagle’s hopes for post-season play. After our goodbyes, I departed for my 50-minute commute to where I would be spending the next couple days. I arrived at Joe’s alone, but I was not leaving alone. I now had a companion with me in the front seat. My mother road shotgun. On Pickering Beach, I had much to say but not this night. On this cold late December night, I drove mostly in silence to a place my mother and I have both enjoyed more than anywhere in the world, the solitude of the beach. Instead of speaking, I reflected deeply on what I just experienced. Two grown men and their beautiful families, whom up to three months earlier knew of nothing of my existence, were so overwhelmingly accepting of me that they felt it appropriate that I receive our mother’s ashes. For as long as I live, I will never again receive any gift as powerful as this.

I look forward to seeing you in Part Twenty-Three.

(Thank you Diana Rodgers for taking these pictures.)

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One’s Origins: A Journey from Adoption to Identity – Part Twenty-One

“A birthmother puts the needs of her child above the wants of her heart.”

― Skye Hardwick

Writing Part Twenty-One has been a challenge that at times seemed insurmountable. On no less than two occasions I deeply questioned my emotional stamina to continue on this journey. Ladened with this was a simmering frustration that I was letting myself down. In the latter part of summer this year, I learned information that put me on a hot trail to learning about my biological mother. As a result, two things became evident. First, I saw purpose for my months long writer’s block. There was a reason I was to hold off writing this part. My journey was not to end before its time. Second, Part Twenty-One was not going to be the last part but rather the penultimate part. Part Twenty-Two will be where my journey becomes consummate.

Part Twenty-One had been teed up to explore healing the relationship I have with myself. In ways that I could never have imaged, this healing found me – not the other way around. It almost feels as though all I had to do is stand still for a minute. I begin this part as I began One’s Origins in March 2019, with news of the existence of not one, but two additional biological half-brothers. This time however, it is our mother we share. This addition to the journey was not due to matching DNA segments but rather by digging through publicly available records. In addition to the brother with whom I was raised, I share a biological father with two men, each of us with a different mother, and I share a biological mother with two other men, each of us with a different father.

Right to Left: Matt; Joe; Derek

Among myself and my two maternal half-brothers, Joe and Derek, I am the oldest. My mother was 18 years old when I was born. Six years later, Joe was born and nine years after that, Derek. Unlike my paternal half-brothers, Dan and Scott, who grew up apart from one another, Joe and Derek were raised by our mother. They came along after our mother was in the position to raise a child. Also, unlike Dan and Scott who were both born in California, Joe and Derek are east-coasters and remarkably, the three of us grew up within 75 miles of one another. With Joe and Derek, I also now have two new sisters-in-law and three new three nieces. Just as with biological family on my father’s side, we have committed to remaining part of each other’s lives for as long as we live.

Grace Diane Vonarx circa 1967

From Joe and Derek, I learned a little more about the circumstances and most probable motivations for my mother making the very difficult choice of adoption. Answers to many questions surrounding the circumstances of my adoption have immeasurably helped me find solace. As to how I came to be, I do not yet know all the details – and some details might well remain forever unknown. This is what I do know. On September 5, 1948, my mother, Grace Diane Vonarx was born in Fort Benning, Georgia to Floyd “Louie” Eugene Vonarx (1911 – 1991) and Evelyn Starner (1917 – 2009) who married in June of 1936. My grandfather was in the army during World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He retired from the Army in Aberdeen, MD. Grace, who would grow up and spend much of her life in Aberdeen, MD and Dover, DE, was more commonly known by her middle name Diane and often called Dandy by her mother. My mother had one sister named Karen who was seven years older and had two daughters. My aunt Karen passed away in 1978 from leukemia at the age of 37. In her early fifties, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On December 27, 2003 at the age of 55, my mother passed away surrounded by family including Joe and Derek. I was 36 years old and I was still yet an unknown. My mother died never knowing what became of her first child.

Shortly after the summer solstice of 1966, my mother, Diane and my father, Lawrence crossed paths. She, a 17-year-old self-effacing young woman who cherished solitude and being at the beach with nothing more than a book and her deepest thoughts, and he a 20-year-old ramblin’ rebel with a restless heart and an affinity for fitness and musical instruments. Nine months later a beach loving, freedom chasing rebel with a thirst for knowledge and a restless heart, partial to fitness, music and solitude was born.

At the time of my birth, the circumstances were not favorable for my mother to raise me on her own as much as she may have wanted to. I learned that she even had a name selected for me. She would use that name when she spoke about me to those in whom she confided her anguish. Giving me up for adoption was something that weighed on my mother’s heart for the rest of her life. On occasion, thinking about me would bring her to tears. I have no doubt that she would be very pleased to know that I would quickly find a loving home with a man and his wife who both longed to and could provide a stable home and a nuclear family.

On Mother’s Day 2004, Joe and Derek scattered our mother’s ashes into the waters of the Delaware Bay at Pickering Beach in Kent County, Delaware. This was one of our mother’s favorite spots to enjoy her cherished alone time. The beach is quite secluded nestled two miles east of Dover Air Force Base. The beach faces east across the Delaware Bay towards the southern tip of New Jersey. Throughout my entire life I have driven past Dover Air Force Base countless times going back and forth between home and the beaches of lower Delaware, never knowing that each time I was driving within minutes of where my mother either resided or enjoyed her peace and solitude.

On November 10, 2020 I visited Pickering Beach for the first time in my life. With about five parking spaces available for nonresident vehicles, it is not for public use. The entire beach serves as the backyard for about three dozen old small fisherman houses, some of which are occupied while others appeared to be in disrepair. There was indeed an unmistakable feeling of solitude here. I parked in one of the four remaining spots, grabbed my notebook to journal my visit and set out for the short trek to visit my mother for the very first time since the day I was born.

As I walked southward along the shorelines, I extended my left arm out over the water so she and I could hold hands and I began to speak.

Hi Momma![1]

“It’s me, your first son. I have dreamed of this day for longer than I can remember. I actually was not certain this day would ever arrive. What kind of life did you dream and imagine for me? What was Lawrence like? How did the two of you meet?

“I’ve missed you and have thought about you often Momma. I wish I could see you, hear you and feel you the way an infant lies in its mother’s arms just as you longed that I could have from the day you had to say goodbye to me”.

In the sounds of the small waves rolling up on this secluded beach I heard my mother crying from both the pain of loss and the joy of reuniting. At this point I lost my focus for a few minutes as these waves knocked me a bit off emotional balance.

“Sorry Momma, I got distracted. I grew up with learning and behavioral challenges and it agonized me. I felt no escape from it ever. Outside the home where I grew up, I often felt like an outsider, like I was not being accepted. I didn’t know where to turn or who to trust so I turned inward and stayed there. It was a real struggle for me . Still is today. It damaged the way I viewed myself. I had big dreams when I was little, but I was too afraid to follow them. I still fear rejection more than anything. It still hurts today.”

“Damn this is hard.” I said to myself. “But this is damn good.” At this point a levee was about to break. Nope. Too late. I began to cry like a child seeking his mother’s comfort. I did do this very thing in my life with my mom countless times as a child, but never with my mother before now, and cry I did.

Ok. Recomposed for now, I continued to speak.

Pickering Beach, where my mother’s ashes are scattered.

“I certainly did not make things easy for my mom and dad who adopted me. As my joys were their joys, so too did my suffering become their suffering. My pain got the better of me and I lashed out and nearly destroyed myself in the process. My mom and dad made every sacrifice you could ever ask of them to honor the gift you gave them. You placed me into the most loving four hands you could ever have hoped for. I really wish you had known what a beautiful life my mom and dad worked so hard together to build for me. They raised me in a safe and secure environment. Every fall I’ve ever had they’ve been there to see to it that I got back up. I love them both very much Momma. They mean the world to me; I owe them all that I am. You would love them too. They love you very much.

“You would be proud of me Momma. I did the best I could, and I think I turned out ok. My damaged self-esteem still hurts today but I am getting better. I am going to be ok. I really am. I AM going to be ok.”

Second levee about to burst.

“I want to share something else with you Momma. I am realizing that being given away damaged my ability to trust and attach to others. I was angry throughout my life for being rejected. I was angry at the world; I was angry with myself and I am ashamed to admit that I was angry with you. I am so sorry Momma. I had no idea how much you wanted me. I now know much more of why you gave me up for adoption. It wasn’t your choice. I forgive you Momma and I am working on forgiving myself.”

Levee number two collapsed and I simply wept and wept. That evening as the setting sun filled the sky with the most serene blend of blue, orange and pink I sat down and grieved for the loss of my mother who I never knew until now and who passed away nearly 17 years earlier.

With twilight at hand, darkness was soon to follow. It was time to go. I was going to meet Joe’s family for the first time. As I stood back up I wiped as many tears away as I could from both sides of my face and then reached down to grab a fist full of sand. Since I had nothing to put the sand in, I simply filled the right front pocket of my jeans.

“Goodbye for now Momma. I love you. I promise to visit often.”

As I turned towards my car, I heard the bay breeze whisper,

 “I love you Peter”

I hope to see you in Part Twenty-Two.

[1] To provide continuity, I have, throughout One’s Origins, endeavored to vigilantly refer to the two who raised me as Mom and Dad and to those from whom I am born as Mother and Father. In this conversation between a boy and his mother, the term mother seems a tad formal so here I use Momma.

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One’s Origins: A Journey from Adoption to Identity – Part Twenty

“The ultimate experiment in nature versus nurture is the one who is engaged with in a constant battle between what he was an what he wanted to be.”

― Larissa Ione

In Part Nineteen, I shared my musings on labor as a means of exchange with the world. Part Twenty is a discussion of what I have learned about not only nature versus nurture, but more profoundly, how the two seemingly have a relationship that is both dynamic and beautifully symbiotic.

As an infant adoptee raised in a nuclear family and reacquainting with biological relatives as an adult, I believe I meet any and all reasonable qualifications necessary to weigh in on the topic of nature versus nurture. I have made huge strides in emotionally processing my identity from these two most powerful forces. This was, after all, the initial primer for beginning the One’s Origins journey. From these, might the classical thinker in me find solace in understanding more clearly my own composition? In so doing, I will be left with little debate. My genetic makeup predates any influence my environment could have had on me so I shall begin with nature.

Nature

Who am I by nature and how does my nature shape how I interact with the environment that has always provided me nurture? In Part Seventeen, I introduced my biological uncle and cousins during our union/reunion in July 2019. Here, I began to learn of a few genetic predispositions. To start, my father’s mother, Elvira (nee Taylor) was a beautiful writer who poured her pained heart out on paper. Her first husband, my father’s father, from what I have learned, gave her plenty about which to write. That’s her environment but I suspect her ability to emote came by her naturally. She also had a very curious mind and enjoyed learning new things. She learned braille for no other reason than to help the blind read. Physical fitness was very important to my father and he was smitten with strumming the six-string from what I have learned from my one remaining biological uncle Bruce. More beautifully for me to learn is that my paternal lineage is also rich in other artistic creativity. My cousins, through the struggles they faced together as children got through things in no small part thanks to music, more specifically, singing and dancing. Based on several stories I have heard; we are also a resilient lot. There are a few other genetic medical dispositions that, for privacy reasons, I will not discuss. I will only say that some lesser asked questions are finding their own answers as well.

I very recently came in contact with my father’s stepbrother George who shared this true story. “Buddy [my father’s nickname] was a free spirit and we were both living in Tahoe in the early 60’s. I remember him walking to work playing a flute with a half dozen big huskies and malamute dogs following him enjoying the music!”

I think it is fair to say that by and large, emotional expressiveness is a genetic trait. My nature mandates expression. My nature sees the world through the eyes of the romantic. As I reflect on my career in a world dominated by classical thinkers, I now understand the conflict that was always at least on simmer and occasionally eruptive like an active volcano. Let’s now see what nurture has to say about things.

Nurture

Nurture has quite a bit to say about several things. This section on nurture is more content rich but that does not mean its contribution is any higher. I am merely able to provide more detail as I write from a life lived in my environment. Too start, when it comes to music, by my mom and dad’s own admission, any draw to musical instruments little, if any, credit goes to them. They did support my interest in music as I touched on in Part Four.

Very much like my biological grandmother, Elvira, my mom has always been drawn to journaling. In the years following her brain aneurysm, my mom would often write how she was feeling. Over the years, I would stumble over a few notebooks lying around and would thumb through them. The words I read were heart wrenching. Her prose and poetry would be short, rarely an entire page. The words left no doubt of her sometimes sense of both helplessness and hopelessness. I was aware that she battled challenges with depression in the aftermath of her aneurysm. Somehow and for some reason, which for both, I haven’t a clue, I compartmentalized what I read and never brought it up. I guess I figured that was then and this is now.

Because my mom and I were in sync on curiosity, we were often more candid in conversation than I was with my dad. I will get to that in a minute. My mom’s curiosity would sometimes be about the most mundane and trivial things, in my opinion, but I could always appreciate the heck out of it even while rolling my eyes.

My mom is also an extraordinarily compassionate human being. She is not vengeful in the least. I provide the background for this in the book version of One’s Origins but in 1974 an incident occurred to our family, specifically my brother (he was five), where awarded damages could have easily surpassed seven figures, but all we asked for was that the best of care and treatment be paid in full. Beyond that would be nothing more than revenge. More recently, her wallet was stolen while she was at an appointment. The thief was caught days later and arraigned. All my mom wanted were prayers for the person who stole her wallet. My mom was more saddened by the life one must live to have to resort to theft. She vehemently stood against going after the weaker and more disadvantaged among us. Is it any wonder that I never got beyond level one of office political games? I grew up learning that taking advantage of people who are less fortunate is simply wrong.

Unfortunately, the closeness my mom and I share, has not always been a walk in the park, especially for her. My mom was as many times too often the receiver of the brunt of some of my flare-ups. Too often, it was my patience that would be too quickly exhausted, and if she was in the room, I did not hold back my frustrations. I am ashamed to admit that if nearly anyone else was present, I would have held back. What a crappy way for a grown man to treat anyone but for the love we all hold dear, certainly not his own mother who is in her 80s; who, with his dad, chose him as their first adopted child.

Allowing myself to be more conscious of how I feel I am becoming actively vigilant against such things happening ever again. I still often stumble, and sometimes hard. But this vigilance I must keep practicing.

What about a boy and his dad? That’s no less instructive, I assure you. My dad grew up with his own issues as we all have. Self-esteem was often a challenge for him due in large part to the environment in which he was raised. He was the youngest of five in a family that was often too busy operating the family dairy home delivery business to address his childhood emotional needs. On Father’s Day a few years ago, I called him in the morning to wish him a happy Father’s Day and apologized that other events that weekend precluded me from making the two-and-a-half-hour one-way trip to visit him. He was weeping, which is something I haven’t heard him do since our family dog died when I was five years old. I asked him what was wrong, and he shared with me that he had no recollection of hearing either of his parents tell him they loved him. For the first time in my life I heard my dad speak a word of anything he was missing from his childhood. It was beautiful and I was not prepared for it. Nor was I prepared for what happened next. He told me how much he loved me, my brother Andrew and my mom. It was the first time I recall hearing him utter the words, “I love you.” With all my might I was holding myself together long enough to tell him I know he loves me and that I love him too. We hung up and I just sat there and immediately began to cry.

My dad was born in 1930 the year after the world fell into The Great Depression. His most formative years that would cement his world view for his entire life were spent in a decade where everything material was scarce, very scarce. Conservationism was, for all intents and purposes, his religion. As a child, this conservationist mentality was difficult for me to understand because I did not witness it much in other families. As a child, I internalized this as a shortcoming for which I somehow felt ashamed. As I got older, I began feel ashamed for feeling ashamed. Somebody stop the shame train! I gotta get off this thing. There is nothing at all to be ashamed about. In fact, I am both proud and grateful for “inheriting” a conservationist mindset from my dad. He was never a man of many resources, but he was resourceful. To borrow from the oft told fable, my dad never had many fish at once, but he knew how to fish, and he knew how to get the most out of each fish he did catch. Much more importantly however, he was grounded in understanding which fish were necessary and which were not. The lesson I learned was a catch of 10 fish was just as respectable as a catch of 100 fish or even 1,000 fish, as long as you knew that 10 fish is all you needed to provide the necessities in life. To this day I find myself conserving resource so they last as long as possible. In Part Twenty-one I will explain further how this has been critical for One Origins. For now, let me just say, “Thanks Dad!”

My mom and I have always been able to chat about many things but my dad and I rarely, if ever, got below the surface of anything when I was younger. This journey has helped shepherd me to a place where I can stand with him and love him for the man he is and all he sacrificed for me and not stand against him as the man whose dream I felt obligated to fulfill.

My relationship with my parents is not the only one benefiting from this experience. My relationship with Andrew is growing richer, at least through my eyes. He and I drifted down along the river in the same boat together as children and young adults. He came into a home with three inhabitants. He was hit from three sides with environmental influences, not the least of which was me who, early on, predictably saw him as a competitor for my Mom and Dad’s attention and affection. I squandered some opportunities to step up and be the best big brother I could have been for him when I was living recklessly many years ago. This means nothing at all for the opportunities to be there for him in the years ahead.

My conclusion as to who I am by nature and who am I by nurture is less complex than I might have imagined. In my paternal bloodline is an affinity for creative expression. I am an emotional being. By nurture, I am also an emotional being but one who pursued paths where artistic expressiveness was not particularly valued. My nurture put me on my life’s path. I am product of my past experiences as much as I am a product of my genetics.

“In the real world there is no nature vs. nurture argument, only an infinitely complex and moment-by-moment interaction between genetic and environmental effects.”

― Gabor Maté

I have been winding down One’s Origins examining my relationships with the world at large, followed by my most immediate influences. In Part Twenty-One, I will conclude One’s Origins with a fresh examination of the relationship I now have with myself. It is this relationship alone that defines every other relationship I have with all other beings. See you there!

 

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