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Opinion Column
For the week of May 30 through June 5, 2001

I always thought I was Swedish

Commentary by JoELLEN COLLINS


In addition, I adored my family and often thought how inconceivable it was to think of being raised by anyone else. I felt blessed, fortunate and possessed of a true sense of belonging.


I was raised in a Swedish home. As her parents were both Swedish emigres, my mother couldnít speak English until she went to kindergarten. I learned my first prayers in Swedish, my home at Christmas could have been transplanted to Stockholm, and my motherís cooking left me with a taste for Swedish pancakes filled with lingonberries and for light, tender meatballs flavored with allspice.

Just a few weeks ago, however, I discovered that by genetics I am not Swedish: in fact, my progenitors were small-town Texans of English heritage. In short, I learned some of the facts about my history up until the time of my adoption more than 60 years ago. As usual, I want to share this part of my personal pilgrimage with my readers.

For all of my early life I was contented with what I thought was the true story of my adoption. According to that version, my 19Ėyear old birth mother was a student at U.C. Berkeley, where she married a young man her family disliked. She died giving birth to me, and her young husband, grief-stricken, left the state. Because records were (then) sealed forever, I accepted that tale and, indeed, had little curiosity about my ancestry.

In addition, I adored my family and often thought how inconceivable it was to think of being raised by anyone else. I felt blessed, fortunate and possessed of a true sense of belonging.

After my mother (the beautiful woman who adopted me) died, and my first daughter was born, I admit to an awakening of some curiosity about what my birth parents looked like. Still, I assumed that sealed records and a deceased birth mother made the process moot. In the 70s I even appeared on a segment of "60 Minutes" as an oddball in a panel of adoptees who were somehow discovering their birth information and calling up unknown women to spill the beans. I remembered thinking that this was unduly disruptive to the lives of many of those women, who had made a sacrifice, been given the assurance of secrecy, and gone on to pick up the pieces of their lives. Was it right to violate their confidence?

I swore I would never do that, even if, by some miracle my birth mother had lived.

Adoption laws changed through the years, but I still didnít push for more knowledge. Finally, at the urging of my grown daughters, who wanted to know more about their genetic heritage, I was able to obtain non-identifying information (a lot, but with the names withheld) from the Childrenís Home Society in California. I also signed a waiver agreeing to release my address to anyone who ever had inquired about me or still might. I found out that no one had searched for me in all these years, at least through this organization.

I pored through the information I was given, but one line most assuredly shocked me. It confirmed that my birth mother was a 19-year-old college student in Berkeley. However, she experienced a normal delivery and did not die in childbirth. She had briefly married the father, but they soon separated, and then mutually decided that, as the letter so well put it, "allowing you the opportunity of an adoptive family was the best plan."

So all these years there may have been a young woman who survived into adulthood and perhaps a long life, who may, indeed, have harbored a sense of loss. Perhaps she even wished to know what ever happened to the baby she signed away. Like me, she thought the records were forever sealed.

In retrospect, I am not surprised that I was told that fable; I understand that my loving adoptive family wanted to spare me from the unkind attitudes that prevailed at that time about "illegitimate" babies. Also, they probably didnít want me to feel abandoned. Surely, I imagine them reasoning, only death could have prompted my being given up and placed in an orphanage, where I spent some time before Helen (Johanson) and Ted Gifford took me home.

So I harbor no dismay. Both of those dear people are dead, and I will never know their reasons. But I am frustrated at the thought that I might have siblings. I can certainly imagine that young woman returning home, getting married, and raising children.

Also, of course, Iíd like to hear her story and see what she looked like at various times in our lives to see if there is a resemblance or if either of my daughters has any of her features. But most of all, I wish I could thank that woman, probably deceased by now, for my truly wonderful childhood, one where I was surrounded by a loving family who fully nurtured me. I did fine, and so did she. She gave me a rich life.

Actually, I feel Swedish, and I consider myself part of the extended family into which I was brought. I claim as my own my sea-captain Grandpa Carl Johanson, who met my grandmother Valborg Sundborg by rescuing her in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. I am still my brother's sister, my cousinsí cousin, still in my soul the child who was shaped by Helen and Ted. So to them and to those who gave me up, skoal!

 

 

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