In 1969 my aunt Doris, a single, 28-year-old woman, gave birth to a baby girl. She placed the newborn with an adoption agency and resumed her globetrotting life. My aunt never married or had other children—and never told anyone about her daughter.
By the time Dina, Doris’s daughter, connected with us, almost 40 years later, my husband and I had adopted our daughter, Cecelia, from Vietnam, as an infant. Our family is a living, breathing symbol of how adoption has transformed over time—evolving from hush-hush to open and obvious. Doris never mentioned Dina or her adoption. Today, strangers know at a glance that my nine-year-old daughter and I aren’t biologically related. But even though their stories differ, I expect my daughter and Dina share many of the same questions about their beginnings.
Aunt Doris was a larger-than-life character. Whenever the spirit moved her, she’d quit her job and fly to Turkey, Argentina, or any corner of the world. Months later, she’d re-emerge, bearing gifts for her nieces: delicate jewelry from Venice, wooden puzzle boxes from China.
Doris volunteered at her city’s International Center, an organization that supported newcomers to the U.S. It must have been there that she met a man named Iraj. He was a young Iranian dentist, studying at a free clinic for children in low-income families. According to a friend who lived downstairs from Doris, they were a happy couple. But at the end of his year of study, Iraj returned home. He probably never knew Doris was pregnant.
Doris flew across the country and worked as a secretary in San Francisco while she was expecting. Given her wandering lifestyle, six months in California didn’t raise any red flags with her family or friends.
Her daughter, Dina, grew up happily in a middle-class family in California. As a child, she never seriously longed to meet her birth mother. But watching one of her sisters track down her birth mother through a private investigator—and have a joyful reunion—made her reconsider.
In Dina’s case it wasn’t so effortless. Doris had died in 1993. Dina asked her investigator to locate other biological relatives and, in time, the woman called my parent’s quiet Colorado home. As they spoke, my mother remembered a detail she had pushed aside. While sorting Doris’s papers after her death, she had found my aunt’s medical history. Under Pregnancies, it said one.
Bringing the Story Full Circle
Last summer Dina traveled to Colorado to meet 15 new relatives in one week. A whirlwind of family storytelling followed. I quietly marveled that I had turned out to be both a member of a birth family and an adoptive mother.
Although we discuss adoption and her Vietnamese heritage, my daughter, Cecelia, has no interest in finding her birth parents. I know that might change. Dina didn’t look for her birth family until she reached her late thirties. Cecelia hasn’t yet connected the dots and asked why Dina’s life was a secret from our family for so long. I plan to tell her that we don’t know why Doris or her Vietnamese mother chose adoption. We only know that they made good, thoughtful decisions to give their daughters the best possible lives. And I doubt Cecelia will ever get the detailed answers that Dina is finding through her connection with us.
For now, Cecelia is content to keep her adoption history in the background. Dina brought her parents and her two young children along on her latest visit. As I watched her daughter catch ladybugs on the lawn with Cecelia, it seemed right—we felt like family. Dina’s parents talked easily with my parents, and we all talked about Doris—Doris, who would be a grandmother now.
Photo courtesy of Suzanne Newman