Mother’s Day is a time of reflection for me, as I think about the strong women that shaped my life. I’ll start with my one and only “Mom,” that took me into her arms at two-months old and raised me to be a man. Fond memories include her microwave cooking skills, birthday parties, bridge club, stamp collecting, photography, puzzles, miniatures, sunsets, and cheesy chicken. Her mother, Grace, was also a big factor in my upbringing, from Elwood to Corey Lake to Englewood, Florida. She gave my mom a great sense of humor that reflected in my personality, as well.
We just recently put to rest one of my mother’s last living relatives at age 92, and a fellow member of “Mom’s Club.” She was also the connection to my dad’s mother with ties to Simonton Lake, Cook’s Ranch, and Ox Bow Park annual family reunions. Facebook sadly now seems to be the only glue holding all of us cousins together. as they raise families of their own. These second and third generation mothers are spread all over the country, including Florida, New York, California, Wisconsin, Indiana, Washington, Oregon, California, and the Carolinas. Many of them I haven’t seen in years and would probably not recognize.
Considering divorce, re-marriage, and other child-bearing relationships, within the Johnston family hodge podge of motherhood are my 45-year old son’s mother; plus, the now-married mother of his oldest son, who also has a daughter; and his wife of 10-years, the mother of his other two children. In addition, my current wife of 19-years is the mother of two daughters. This may appear complicated, but nonetheless some of the many mothers that I honor today, from a distance.
My adopted sister is the mother of a daughter with two kids from different husbands. She also has a son with three children and two step-kids. I mention all this because most modern families are mixed, so the responsibilities of being a mother are even more challenging. We’re all one big happy family, regardless of the circumstances!
Everyone has a mom, and some have step-moms, while I have a bio-mom. It sounds very cold and impersonal, but we’ve never had a relationship beyond the womb. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t be writing this without her. She gave me life then passed the baton to “mom,” who gave me the rest. The woman who brought me into the world had four more children, two of which have sadly since passed. She’s now 87 years old and we’ll probably never meet, but that doesn’t mean I can’t wish her a “Happy Mother’s Day,” along with all the other mothers that have been part of my thankful, happy life.
I can’t call you “Mom” because that title only belongs to the woman that adopted and raised me. I could call you Edna but that doesn’t seem special enough, while bio-mom is too scientific, like something out of a Frankenstein movie. Birth Mother is probably appropriate, but we hardly even know each other. You spent nine months carrying me around, with mixed feelings about my existence. Then, I came into the world and we were together only long enough for you to give me the name Jerry Lee.
For over 30 years of my life, I never even knew your name. A friend gave me a piece of paper with Edna Faye Bannister written on it and an address that turned out to of the Suemma Coleman Adoption Home on Illinois Street in Indianapolis. Strangely coincidental, it was directly across the street from my office. I wasn’t even supposed to have this extremely confidential information, but it aroused a sense of curiosity. Up to that point, I never even thought of you, although I always knew that I was adopted. Out of love and respect for the couple that accepted me into their home, I moved it to the back of my mind. At one point for Mother’s Day, I visited the hospital where I was born and got a copy of my birth records. Included was a footprint from when I was born, and I gave it to my Mom with a card and appreciative note. This was one of the few times that we ever really discussed our adoptive relationship.
Once my parents passed away, this curiosity rushed to the forefront. I knew that I could never replace my love for them, but there were certain pieces of my life that were missing. I knew that the birth father was a Marine but little more. In one of the few conversations with my dad about adoption, he admitted that he too was aware of this detail, and found it haunting when I would play the Marines’ Hymn over-and-over on the piano. Mysteriously, this was long before I knew of any Marine connection in my life. I eventually got more details from the adoption agency about the two people that gave me life.
Slowly but surely, I began to put the pieces together, but the biggest breakthrough was from a distant genetic match who sent Edna’s birth records and a 1940 census report, identifying her family as having lived in Shelbyville, Indiana. This was after I had submitted to DNA tests on both Ancestry and 23andMe. The results connected me with thousands of missing ancestors, including close cousins and even a half-sister whose father was the same Marine. The circumstances of my birth began to unfold, and I began to meet members of this new family of Banisters.
This morning one of these cousins sent me a picture of my birth mother, Edna, on her 87th birthday. I don’t know if she’s in assisted living or stays with a family member? I was just glad to see that she’s healthy, especially in these times of deadly respiratory threats. Her birthday will likely be spent in safe isolation with few hugs. She at least got a kiss from the puppy in the picture. Sadly, another year of life has gone by without us making contact. She apparently prefers to keep me a secret, even though I’ve made attempts to contact her and her children. We’re running out of precious time.
I was part of a miserable time in her life. She had to give up her senior year of high school and be hidden away from an embarrassing pregnancy. Her family undoubtedly made her give me up for adoption and she may have had some regrets or guilt. To make matters worse, her lover went off to the Marines, probably unaware of my existence, and married someone else. It was surely a lonely, sad summer – something she still wants to forget, especially on her birthday.
This daily blog is the only chance for me to send Birthday wishes. I hope she’s happy and healthy, and surrounded by family once this ugly Coronavirus passes. I’ve been advised to sing “Happy Birthday” twice while frequently scrubbing my hands in an effort to destroy any harmful germs. Today, in honor of the occasion, I’ll sing to Edna. Should I ever get a chance to talk to her, I would tell her that I have no animosity for the path my life has taken. I’m 69 years old with three grandchildren, and living a comfortable retirement life. I have a great marriage, and a successful career, appreciating the joys of my labor while relishing all the memories. It’s unfortunate that she had to sacrifice so much of her young adulthood in the process. Have a happy and healthy 87th Birthday my dear Edna.
There have been several adoption twists in television shows of late to the point where I almost expect it. Recently, it’s been part of a Grace and Frankie episode where Coyote meets his birth mother but she does not want to expose this secret to her new family. This is common in reunion stories. In the Netflix series Safe, based on a Harlan Coben novel, a daughter stalks her biological father in an effort to reveal their secret relationship. This one thankfully turns out positive for both of them. Adoptees and bastard children have certainly risen to the forefront of modern entertainment drama.
I’m obviously more sensitive to these situations than most because I am an adoptee, but first a lovable bastard. I have admittedly stalked and written to my birth mother, but have received no acknowledgment. I even circumvented the scenario of keeping the secret discreetly between mother and son, by also writing her family. Still no response. On the other hand, the birth father has long passed, but his family was graciously receptive to my inquiries. I don’t know where to go from here?
I could have popped-up during a different chapter of their lives, but there were no inheritance issues, rights to the throne, or other claims that are too often Hollywood-ized. I want nothing except some questions answered and perhaps some insight into health genetics. I’ve tried to find some of this information by building an Ancestry.com family tree and finding common DNA connections. I have now identified about 200 DNA relatives on my Jerry Banister Family Tree, including a separate test that I took on 23andMe. There are now over 22,000 people that have been added to my branches just to find these 200 close connections. It’s a very cumbersome process that has taken over 3 years, considering that in order to find one match on the tree it’s necessary to add 100 more names.
The challenge is that most all the voluntary DNA testing has been in recent years, excluding those who are no longer living and never had access or reason for testing. This means that the majority of my DNA connections are with younger generations whose identities are often only revealed in the obituaries of their parents or grandparents or finding more intrusive sources. Ancestry was designed to maintain privacy for the living, so seeking information through other member trees is often marked as “private.” You need permission from family members to see the newest members. I haven’t really been accepted into the Ban(n)ister family, with a few exceptions, so my work might be considered to most as stalking – just like in the movies.
Today would have been my dad’s 99th birthday. Mom was one day behind him. They adopted me just before they turned 29 and my sister four years later. It takes a special couple to take-in someone else’s baby as their own. I couldn’t have asked for better parents, although I still did my share of making life difficult for them. I regret not being more grateful at the time and for abusing my good fortune. I was especially mean to my mom who did everything for me, when I was really nothing more than a guest in their home. I would like a do-over on being their son.
As I continue to explore the family that shares my DNA and put-together an Ancestry.com tree to understand the connections, there’s a certain sense of guilt that washes over me. These are all complete strangers, while my “real” family has nothing to do with genetics. While my adopted parents were still alive, out of respect I had little interest in looking for strangers. My heart was definitely in the right place, but I didn’t always show it. As I reflect on growing up, I should have shared my feelings, expressed my love. Instead, I was selfish and in need of a do-over.
In this life, you don’t get do-overs! You have to live with your mistakes, as I am with mine. After all, it was a likely mistake that brought me into this world. Two strangers attracted to each other got together without anticipating the consequences. It gave my parents the start to a family and me the opportunity to raise a son of my own. It turned out to be a chain reaction of good fortune. Granted, I could have been a better son, but most people don’t understand this until they take on the role of being a parent themselves. In my case, I also grew up in a family that also had the resources to provide me with a college education. I’m not sure that would have been the case without adoption. Not to mention the personal nurturing and attention I received as part of a stable household. All things consider, I would never risk a do-over or even consider giving up the love that I will always feel for my mom and dad. It’s their birthday and I miss them!