Human kindness has never weakened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Radio Address for the Mobilization of Human Needs, October 13, 1940
When I was a girl, in 1976, the bicentennial year of America, it seems to me I lived in a more benevolent country politically. I never remember anyone arguing politics, but then, I am from northern Wisconsin, and we tend to be rather even keeled here. Still, I remember Dad and Mom and their friend sitting around the table, discussing the issues of the day, and it was a good, comfortable conversation with none of the ad hominem attacks and vitriol that we see playing out all around us now.
I grew up during the decade of Title 9, which allowed girls to play sports in public schools. In 1976, I was seven years old, and excited because I was going to walk in the local Bicentennial Parade in Arena, Wisconsin. I had my little lilac colored colonial dress with a white Betsy Ross type cap. I carried my little flag and got to walk with my friend who was dressed in the same type colonial dress, and we sang the national anthem and ate lots of candy that was tossed on the street. It was a typical small-town America parade with the high school marching band, horse-drawn floats, and me, a little kid anticipating lighting sparklers later in the evening followed by fireworks.
That was as far as I remember politics going. Memory is a tricky thing, and I have had to ask my mother if she remembers politics being so divisive. She does not. No one I talk to who is older than me does.
One guy told me that he remembers going through wide swaths of time actually ignoring politics altogether. Washington DC was this far off place, and people voted in the presidential election, maybe even the midterms or the local election, but it was not a main driver in people’s lives.
I now understand that is what white privilege gave us, gave me. Other people in this country have not had that kind of luxury. And that has been brought home to me full force as this current administration has gone on, and I realize now, that for at least ten years, I have been saying, however unconsciously, a long goodbye to my country, to the values of the United States of America I have been raised with, which includes freedom for all, hope for new immigrants, the thrill and pride I felt reading the immigrant stories of Ellis Island where people came with what they could carry and made good in this rich country full of opportunity.
This is the idealistic story which has not been true for all. However, it is an ideal that I do not remember anyone ever questioning or dissenting; when I was growing up it was a point of pride to recall how great Grandma came from the old country with a trunk–until now. Right now, I am divested of the fable that America has always been benevolent, always been accepting, and always provided safe haven for those fleeing persecution and fear.
I am divested of that illusion forever, and I am watching as we all wrestle with the angels of our better nature concerning putting children separated from their families fleeing fear and certain death into internment camps, frightened and not knowing if they will ever see their parents again.
Because we’ve been here before. Today, it stopped being history of a faraway event to me. Today, it is real.
It is real to me because I am acquainted with loss, with being separated from my parents, adopted out. And even though my separation was not violent, the adjustment necessary to find my place in life–discover who I am through who I have been–has been a journey that has demonstrated how separation and loss has defined my life. As I write this, I am thinking of the children who have been taken from their parents on the border, of how their lives will be shaped because of being separated from their parents during formative years. They will be shaped by people around them, the place they grow up, the schools they attend and, like me, perhaps they will be on a lifelong quest for a sense of identity.
I was four years old when I was placed in foster care. There is a photo of me in a pretty purple jumper with tiny flowers on the white puffed sleeves. I have red bobbed hair done up in yarn ribbons, and I am holding a Raggedy Ann doll. My face is a study in complexity–I wear an uncertain smile, but my frightened eyes are filled with tears. I was separated from my parents shortly before the photo was taken. I remember being panicked yet trying so hard to be good and do what the adults around me wanted me to do.
I do not know why I was taken from my parents. I have snippets of memories from before being placed. I remember being with a baby brother and changing his diapers. I remember a locked room with a hardwood floor and not being able to leave for a long time. I remember being taken to a mall a number of times with my social worker who was, interestingly enough, named Grace. This was done so people who were interested in me could look at me without me knowing they were looking at me so that I would not be disappointed if they decided not to take me.
We went to the mall a lot, my social worker and I.
The foster home was pleasant enough. It was a large split-level house with green carpet and green and white linoleum in the kitchen. I remember scooping out a Halloween pumpkin. My mother has a photo of me in the foster home doing this activity. I remember there being a lot of kids in this home, and that I shared a room with two other kids. I had the lower bunk of a bunk bed. I also wet the bed with some frequency and continued to do so until after I was adopted until I was seven years old.
One of the teenaged girls who I am pretty sure probably aged out of the system used to read to me about a bunny rabbit who followed his nose. It was a scratch and sniff book and I got to take it with me when I was adopted. Her name was Julie, and she spent a lot of time reading to me and making gum wrapper chains out of Doublemint and Juicy Fruit wrappers for me. I cried when I couldn’t see her anymore when I was adopted out.
I had a little friend who was also a foster child. I do not know what her given name was. I called her Punkin, and she had a sandbox in her yard. I got quite close to her, but her foster family adopted her, and then I was adopted out, so one day we played together, and the next day, we were separated forever with no explanation except, “You’re going home with your new parents! Isn’t that nice?”
I grew up with a sense that I was unanchored, unwanted, not in control of anything, and subject to the whims of the adults around me, although I could hardly articulate that until relatively late into adulthood. I only remember feeling I did not fit in. I tried to adapt myself to my increasingly changing circumstances in order to survive and not cause any problems because I was always afraid that if the people who adopted me didn’t like me, they would give me back to the foster home.
I had a reason for believing that I wasn’t secure. My adoptive parents didn’t get along, and my new dad wouldn’t touch me. When I tried to sit on his lap, he shoved me off and harshly snapped “Don’t do that!” I asked about my biological baby brothers and I was told that they would not be living with us. Nothing more.
I do not remember asking about what happened to my parents, even in foster care. I think it was because young as I was, I already knew they were never coming to get me. At five years old I had already experienced the substantial loss of my brothers and parents, and I do not remember any adults ever talking to me about it. I remember being whisked from place to place–foster home to Head Start, Head Start to the mall, and back home again–in a repeating cycle that lasted at least a year. I did not make friends at my foster home because I was the youngest one there. Kids that lived there came and went. I clung to Julie.
My new parents managed to keep it together long enough for the adoption to be finalized. After it was finalized, my new dad promptly left my mother for someone else. I did not know that at the time. One day I woke up, and he was just gone. I thought he went away because I tried to sit on his lap. It was that day that my five year old self began to believe I had the power to make people I wanted to love disappear. On that day, although I did not realize it, I began to shut down emotionally. It would take me thirty years to recover from the separation trauma of my early years.
Eventually, my dad came back, and then we moved. We moved a lot. We moved once a year and a half or so for the first five years I was with them.
I went to five schools between six and 11 years old. I went from Marshfield, Wisconsin where I lived with my parents to my grandparents. Social Services came and got me and took me down to Janesville, in southern Wisconsin to the foster home I was in. When I was adopted, we moved from Arena, Wisconsin to Spring Green, Wisconsin, for kindergarten and first grade, then when Dad got a job on a potato farm in Monte Vista, Colorado, we went there for a year and a half, where I attended second and third grade.
I had a lisp, so it was there I went to speech therapy. I didn’t like to talk very much because of it. But I loved Colorado. That was where we were a family for the first time.
We’d go stream fishing in the mountains and camping on the weekends. I got to join Girl Scouts and did my Brownie level there. It was in Colorado I first began to love the water and nature. I felt connected somehow to the forest and the streams and the rivers. This bonding to nature would be my anchor in coming years which, though seasonally changing, was unchanging; rivers stayed in the same place and trees seemed to me to be solid and dependable. I spent many hours up a tree reading a book.
After the first two years when I’d make friends and we’d move, I didn’t make friends anymore. It was too painful to lose my friends. I felt the loss keenly. I figured, what for? We’d be gone in a year anyway. I was the new girl so often it seemed I had to adapt constantly to change.
I got more insular and spent more time in my room at home playing by myself. When I was around my parents, I would be bright and happy, and do well in school, and do what I was told. I wanted to be good. More than that, I wanted to be good enough. My dad was very hard to please. He told me more than once he wished I were a boy. I don’t ever remember him ever telling me that he loved me. He tore me down constantly. Yet that did not stop me from trying and trying constantly to be good enough for him. This pattern of disconnection and unequal relating with men would stay with me also for thirty years in my relationships.
We moved from Colorado back to Wisconsin to a place called Eagle River. We had a white two-story house in the woods with a lake nearby, as well as lots of snow, snowmobiles, and cranberry bogs. I went to the other part of third grade here. Eagle River was distinctive to me for one other reason: it was where my parents began to have fights. Loud, frightening fights that had me afraid in the dark at night.
I felt like I was on an island on my own, and in order to drown out the shouting and the screams, I escaped into books. I loved books. They became my best friends.
Books didn’t leave you. Books didn’t change. You could read the same story over and over again and go places without ever leaving the house. You could imagine different worlds. Even different lives. I fell asleep with a book open near me, and next morning went down and pretended nothing was wrong.
Everybody pretended nothing was wrong.
We were only there four months before things went south somehow. Dad went back home to Poplar in northern Wisconsin taking us with him. There we lived with my grandma on her big dairy farm.
My grandma was a small, domineering woman and I was afraid of her, but I was cheerful and she was good to me. I went to school at Poplar School, a tiny school in a tiny town whose claim to fame is being home to Major Richard I. Bong, the Ace of Aces during World War II. We were there a few months before my grandma found us an apartment in Superior, and we moved one more time. This time would be the last until I graduated high school. This time, the threads of connection started to grow without my realizing it.
It was here that I threw my anchor down, here in the land of this great inland sea which dictated life for all who live near her, in the moodiness that sank ships, in the weather that came from her, in its commerce and recreation. This place that would grow my identity even though I would live a lifetime in many places in the world, was the only home I ever really knew. I carried it with me like a secret song that water sings as it washes up on the sand, its choir the seagulls and the wind off the water, all of which woke my sleeping heart and, I think, was the siren song which called me back years later.
When you have very little nurture, as I did, you adopt the land and Lake Superior, the ore boats, the seagulls wheeling overhead and the dancing, undulating Northern Lights. I had my teachers; school became my safe place during the day, and at night the horns of the ore boats blaring goodnight and the sound of the waves rocked me to sleep.
Politics was never in your face here. There was no meanness, no “us” against “them” mentality. Fourth of July was and is an experience here. Fireworks are shot over the bay of Lake Superior, and the world is multicolored in the darkness with the reds, greens, and golds of liquid fire, snapping and intermittently lighting up the boats on the water that gathered to watch.
We couldn’t wait for the Grand Finale, feeling the anticipation in the crowd and hearing the loud explosions of color and sound and light, asking each other when we thought it was over, “Is it over? Is it over?” only to be greeted with one last final show of color sparkling overhead. Nobody was unpleasant. We were proud to be Americans.
I did not realize the connection I had with the land and the water; I only knew they were a place to escape to when the violence escalated at home. At Wisconsin Point, on the beach, I could rest. I could be enveloped in peace. I didn’t have to be anxious that a fight might start. I remained severely disconnected from people, but I became connected to the nature all around me and in that sacred place I came to know over a period of many years a gentle god outside of the church I went to which condoned the abuse at home and did nothing to stop it, where God was a harsh and cruel taskmaster. I came to equate “Church God” with my dad who used religion to support his abuse just as the Attorney General is doing now to support taking children away from their parents at the border.
I empathize with those children in a way that I was surprised to experience on such a visceral level–and then I realized that each of those frightened children finding themselves in a strange place completely dependent on people who do not have time for them, who are not allowed to touch them or hug them to assuage their fears–was me. I realized many may find themselves on the path I’ve been on in the quest for identity. My separation was relatively benign compared to being taken by a border patrol agent with no explanation, but I believe with all my heart that separation from a mother or a father, no matter how gentle or necessary in my case, is the most destructive force on a child’s identity that can happen in life.
As a result of the disconnected childhood I had, in the years to come after graduation from high school, as I learned the painful and complex path to self-love and connection, I traveled to many countries, went through years of depression and therapy, and bounced around moving to many different states, trying desperately to find “home.” I did not have many relationships because I was afraid of men. The relationships I had were with abusive users who devalued me and took advantage of me. I became completely connected but they did not. I came to realize I was making connections with the wrong people. I was connecting with others kind of like how someone tries to find a plug-in in the dark. Sometimes you get one prong in, sometimes you plug it in the wrong way and have to take it out to plug it back in.
My experiences with the last man to abuse me after I believed and trusted in our 25 year friendship broke me and freed me at the same time. I spent all kinds of time by the river near the house, sometimes in it–and one day as I held the gaze of a red fox, I was given an epiphany that I was loved for who I am, that I did not need to bend myself into a pretzel to please others for acceptance–that if people didn’t want me in their life, it was because they weren’t good for me.
I began to understand sometimes loss is a positive thing opening the door to better opportunities and better people who valued me and uplifted me. This epiphany came through lots of loss and bitter hard experience, and I still don’t understand completely how I came through with my own identity, a sense of wholeness on my own instead of needing another person or a man to fill that hole inside me. I only know where I am today, and somehow the land helped heal me. And the water, where I found that gentle spirituality and Presence. And the right nurturing people came at the right, pivotal times in my life and acted as teachers; even the ones who treated me badly taught me I was worth better.
Now I find my country practicing the politics of separation. The inhumanity of this act is the utter refusal to see Latino/a immigrants and children as human beings whose close connections are being severed without mercy and maybe will never be reconnected again. I have felt as I have observed the separation of my countrymen into two warring factions and the separation of reason from emotion, that I have been saying a long goodbye to my country; We have gone from a nurturing country desiring to connect to the greater world to a country cutting itself off from everything human.
We will one day need to find our identity again and that process is one I know to be difficult to navigate. We will need to confront our monsters in order to become whole again. Confronting our monsters, our history of racism which separated us as human beings into color-coded factions, which tore mothers and fathers away from daughters and sons because of a false belief in white superiority, has led us to this day where we put children in cages and spend time justifying why destroying human beings is good for all of us.
One day we will have to ask ourselves why we did nothing to stop it; if that is true of us, why we fought to justify it. But for the separated, as I have lived, the journey to repair the damage is a solitary one which no government can ever mitigate. Each of children, just as I was, will have to be called to the home that lives inside us, wherever it may be.
I was living by Lake Erie in Buffalo when I first heard the call. I was gazing into the western horizon of the lake, looking towards Superior, towards Lake Superior, towards home. I felt a pull on my heart like nothing I have ever known and I knew right then, in that moment, that I was homeless no more, and that my home was waiting for me and now was the right time to go. As I wended my way through Ohio, then Indiana, then Illinois and pointed my car due north, I could not stop crying for the joy of seeing familiar places once again.
There it is. The turnoff Highway 53. The long winding, narrow road through the trees that seems to go on and on without a hint that a beach and the wide expanse of the Lake lay just beyond. Wisconsin Point and Minnesota Point located in Superior make up the largest freshwater sandbar in the world. Long ago, the French traders called the larger river on the right the St. Louis River; the stream on the right was called by the Ojibwe after their word “ne-madji-tic-guay-och” for “left-hand river,” Nemadji. I can feel the history here, the ancient lake who has known many peoples before me. I and the people before me have been the second hand of time; the lake, the hours.
I stepped out of the car onto the white sand, where the cold wind off the lake enveloped me. This place knew me, and as I walked to the driftwood logs large enough to sit on, I saw in the distance my younger self, lying here nights on the beach watching the dancing aurora borealis above while the waves washed up on the sand. The beach remembered my bare footprints, washed away by the waves.
Here I saw her standing, gazing eastward to the long blue line of the horizon, and I knew she wondered if home lay on the other side of that blue line. Today she merged with me, her older and wiser self who had gone through separation, loss, fragmentation of identity, disconnection and distance, and discovered home was always there; I just didn’t know it already lay in my heart. I had to unbury my heart that feared closeness and connection in order to follow my heart compass homewards, to a place where I finally belonged and belonged to me.
I know those separated children for I have been one. America isn’t supposed to be about separation. It is supposed to be about unity and safe harbor and fresh starts without fear. That is who we should endeavor to be, it is what my relatives fought for in every war since the Civil War.
I have lived my journey to wholeness alongside the fragmentation of my country. It is the longest goodbye I have ever known and I am frightened for our future if severing children from their families is what we’ve come to as the best thing for all of us. I am permanently severed, no matter how many answers to my past I am given. I am irrevocably changed into a different person than I might have been before being adopted.
Whether for better or for worse will always remain a mystery.