Getting Started Tracing Your Family – Part 1

This is a multi-part series in which I will intertwine my own history of tracing lost family with tips and resources on how to trace your own missing people. Come back in the following weeks for additional segments! If you are not familiar with my research, you can find out more from my website: www.motherandbabyhomes.com. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoy the journey!

 

During my research, there was one question asked of me consistently – was I adopted? My interest in the topic of women being sent to mother and baby homes, and being pressured to give up their children for adoption is a niche one (though I do wish it could gain a broader audience) and one in which many of the interested parties are those whom have been affected by it in some way. Either they or their relative were a mum sent to a mother and baby home, or a child relinquished to adoption.

The short answer to this question is: no. I was not adopted. But short answers never truly provide us with the full story, do they? It is true; I was raised by my mum who gave birth to me. We were close, had a loving relationship, and her death in 2007 has left me heartbroken for many years. However, I was the offspring of a fractured family whose immediate family tree was splintered and cracked again and again. As a result, I developed a great curiosity for tracing people. Tracking down these individuals whose names were like legends on my lips, their blood the same as my own, and yet I would not know if they were the server pouring my coffee or the dentist checking my teeth. I had names. I had stories of their origins. Stories of their loss. My mother was open and forthcoming about her history (at least it felt so when she was alive, in the years since she departed I’ve come up with a million more questions seeking answers!). She was open to my many prying curiosities, and yet they were like fairy tales to me. Caricatures of the lives they truly represented, their stories expanded and bloated with my childish imagination, these people out in the world living their ordinary lives, sharing my bloodline, cried out for my attention.

The first person I traced was my father. My parents separated when my mother was seven months pregnant with me. My father was younger than her, exploring the world with youthful indiscretion, and thoroughly unprepared to become a family man. My mother, the elder of the two, was a bit of a self-styled gypsy, a bohemian of the 1970s with three children trailing her flowing skirts; she was open to whatever the universe offered up to her. Their union, a brief one, resulted in the birth of her seventh child. Me. Snowed in a small cabin in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, end of December, no doctor or midwife to be seen, my mother gave birth to me. This was my legacy. A fatherless hippy kid with a gypsy mother.

Cabin of birth   Mom belly dancer

The cabin, c.1977                                            My mother, a belly dancer

When I started school, and received my first school photo, I had a strong desire to find my father and show him my picture. My mum had an old address for his parents, so I began to write him letters in my four-year-old handwriting. Proudly enclosing my picture, a young, blonde, green-eyed little girl, I mailed it off. And then I waited. Days. Weeks. Months. No reply. My youthful enthusiasm could not yet be dampened however, so I tried again. And again. A few years of this, me sending along my school photograph and awaiting a reply finally crushed my hope and I abandoned the cause. Any knowledge of my father became a still life. My mother described him – tall, blonde. These were apparent in my own growing features, the only blonde of my family. She had a single photograph of him, which existed until a fire when I was four years old consumed my family’s meager belongings. That photo became etched in my mind, a tall, slender, tan blonde man, shirtless and leaning over a woodworking bench. It faded, morphed, distorted itself with age as I tried to recall the features I could only conjure the silhouette.

Rose in 2nd Grade

2nd Grade school photo…the final one I mailed off.

When I turned twelve, I developed a love for the library. I would go in and peruse the shelves to see what they might offer. This is when I stumbled across telephone books dating back for many years and for many regions. I decided to pick up my search. My father’s unique surname helped, and I began collect calling the numbers (I was twelve, had no money, and didn’t want anyone to know what I was up to). I was never successful, and gave up my search once more.

At seventeen I was enrolled in a theatre course at the local college (similar to a uni in England). One day as we sat on the stage in a circle, stretching our limbs and warming our vocal chords, our instructor assigned us my most dreaded project: to develop a family tree. I did not know my father. Knew nearly nothing of my mother’s family. Mine was a short and broken limb, no tree to connect with. That day I was without a ride home, and my instructor kindly offered to give me a lift. On the way I explained my dread of the assignment and my lack of a father. She encouraged me, vociferously, to try seeking him out once more. Bolstered by her encouragement, I went home and picked up where I left off when I was twelve. I began calling everyone in the phonebook on the west coast of America that had the same surname as my father. This time collect calls were not necessary. Alas, I found his brother, to whom I explained my long, convoluted story in the hopes of reconnecting. He promised to have my father call. I spent the next two weeks on edge, waiting for my telephone to ring. It refused to do so. Unable to wait any longer, I returned to the task of cold-calling other numbers asking for my father. When I chanced upon a number who knew him (it turns out this was my grandfather to whom I was speaking) I did not explain who I was, I did not provide my story, I simply asked to be given his number. Thankfully, he obliged.

Alas, the moment had arrived. His phone number scrawled on a scrap of paper in my hand; threatening, encouraging, whimpering for my attention. I scoured the house for a cigarette, came up with little, and dove in. I dialed. Ringing…once, twice… “Hello?” A deep breath, and then I asked – is this Steve? “Yes.” Oh. And here comes the clincher. “My name is Rose. I am the daughter of Elon Rickels, and you.” Silence. A lot of silence. Long, painful, creaking silence. And then… “I always thought you’d come after me with an ax.” Yes. Those are the poignant, encouraging, loving words my father first spoke to me. “Ummm…why?” He explained his fears – he believed I would hate him for leaving, for letting my mother leave, for never reaching out. He believed she would speak ill of him, berate his absence, blame his silences. She did not. My mother, never once even when pushed, said a bad word of my father. He was simply absent. He must have a reason for it. My lack of ax explained, we continued through a jilted conversation, making arrangements to meet.

A month later, shortly before my eighteenth birthday, with a hiking pack, camouflage trousers, and a friend at my side, I stuck my thumb out on the highway leading to my father’s home ten hours away. The journey took two days and was an adventure of its own. My dear friend Nora shivering beside me on the freeway, sipping endless cups of coffee at Denny’s to get through a long night with no money, avoiding creepy men with beds in their vans, laughing as the Stephen King look-alike bought us lunch and someone who had stayed up all night winning at poker bought us breakfast. Tired, road-weary, and bleary eyed we finally appeared at my father’s doorstep. We knocked…silence. That same, long, creaky silence. And then the door opened, and there before me, hunched over, greying, pale, this grizzled man who represented half of my DNA reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and showed me the fading picture of his young, blonde, green eyed little girl.

Rose in Kindergarten

Kindergarten. The first photo I ever mailed.

The father I have known in my adulthood has never matched the distorted photograph formed in my youth. Our relationship has had many starts and stops, small victories, crushing failures. We have come to know each other with a thin and diaphanous thread holding us together. What the experience offered me, more than anything in retrospect, was answers and a taste for seeking out the ghosts of my childhood. My father kept a journal during those years in which he met my mother, and allowed me to read through it. I gained a new understanding of the world I was conceived in.

The research though, the hunting down those legends of my youth, became a new passion. With one success under my belt, I turned to the others waiting for me to find them. I will return on another day to share those stories, but in the process I learned to trace not only the missing who still live, but also the misplaced ancestors who flow through my veins and have been given stories once again.

I want to give you, dear reader, an equal opportunity to seek out your lost legends. To do this, I offer up a host of resources kindly shared with me by the Natural Parents Network and Adoption Search Reunion, along with resources gathered from my own research. This week I will just offer up some first steps to getting started, in future weeks I’ll include more extensive resources as you continue your journey.

Step One: Obtaining your birth certificate

The first step is to make sure you have as much information about your family origins, so you need to have a copy of your original birth certificate, which will contain identifying information about your birth mother and birth father if it has been recorded on the birth certificate. If you do not have a copy of your original birth certificate then you need to apply for a copy.

If you were adopted before 12th November 1975 and do not know your name at birth, you will need to apply to the Registrar General for Access to Birth Records. You will also need to meet with an adoption advisor so that arrangements can be made for the Registrar General to send them the information needed to apply for a copy of your original birth certificate. One of the reasons you are required to meet with an adoption advisor is because prior to 12th November 1975 promises of lifelong confidentiality were given to birth parents and families. At that time it was understood the adoption order would mean that all legal ties to the birth family were severed and that there would be no further contact. If you were adopted on or after 12th November 1975 and before 30th December 2005, and do not know your birth name, you can apply to the General Registrar for the information to enable you to obtain a copy of your original birth certificate.

You can apply for Access to Birth Records and a certificate of your original birth entry by contacting the General Register Office (GRO) on 0300 123 1837 or ordering them through the GRO website:

www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates/

You can read more about your right to access information about your origins on the Adoption Search Reunion website:

www.adoptionsearchreunion.org.uk/search/righttosearch/accessinfo.htm

If you already know your original name then you have the information to apply directly to the Registrar General for a copy of your original birth certificate. Contact information for General Register Offices in the UK can be found on the Adoption Search Reunion website:

www.adoptionsearchreunion.org.uk/help/websites/#gros

If you were adopted on or after the 30th December 2005 then you need to apply to the Adoption Agency that placed you for adoption.

Step Two: Tracing Agencies. For many, the most direct way to trace your family is to use an agency which specializes in this. This list offers confidential, bona fide tracing services which you may find helpful in your own search. To find out costs and range of services offered, please get in touch directly with the individual company.

1. Tracing your Roots — Family Tracing Service for Adoptees

Sara Jones, based in the Wirral in the North West of England, works closely with Adoption Matters in Chester, and she also provides a professional, discreet family tracing service, specialising in finding birth families of people who have been adopted throughout the UK. Contact Information: Sara Jones. Tel: 0151 608 0503 (ans). Email: sara@tracingyourroots.co.uk www.tracingyourroots.co.uk

2. Adoption Services for Adults (Ofsted Registered)

Jean Milsted, specialises in birth records counselling for adults adopted before 12th November 1975, who want to apply for their original birth certificates; access to information from adoption files; also searching, tracing and intermediary services. Workshops are also run for adults affected by adoption. Contact Information: Jean Milsted. Tel: 01628 481954. PO Box 4621, Marlow, SL7 9DG Email: jean@milsteds.plus.com. http://www.adoptionservicesforadults.org.uk

3. Family Tracing and Locating Services

Linda Cherry started Family Tracing and Locating Services, and works hand in hand with Adoption Services for Adults, which allows her to continue helping birth relatives and adopted adults, and also enables her to work with other adoption support agencies worldwide. Contact Information: Linda Cherry. Tel: 01843 223646. Mob: 07828 078041. Email: lcherry.ftls@btinternet.com

4. Birthlink

Birthlink is where to go if you or your child were adopted in Scotland. If you have been affected by an adoption with a Scottish connection in any way, as a child, parent or relative, and are either looking for somebody, some information, or just someone to talk to, Birthlink can help you. They offer a range of services including search and mediation and also hold The Adoption Contact Register for Scotland. Contact Information: www.birthlink.org.uk  or 21 Castle Street, Edinburgh, EH2 3DN, Scotland UK. Tel: 0131 225 6441

5. Adoption Search Reunion

www.adoptionsearchreunion.org.uk

This website provides information for adopted people, birth relatives and also adoptive parents in England and Wales. It is an excellent resource for getting started on your own without a tracing agency. It also provides information for agencies, professionals and volunteers who provide services for adopted people and their birth and adoptive relatives. The information available on this website applies to adoptions that were made before the 30th December 2005. This website includes a comprehensive listing of Mother and Baby Homes in England, including dates in which they provided services and location of archives.

That concludes this week, but please follow in the coming weeks for more resources on how to trace your family, and my continued journey in tracing the lost legends of my youth.

To learn more about my research, and to find additional resources please visit: http://www.motherandbabyhomes.com

Have you traced your family? Please leave your searching tips in the comments below so other readers may learn from your experience too!

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Lending a Voice: Website Launched

A distinguished oral historian, Alessandro Portelli, noted that one of the great values of oral history is its ability to amplify the voices of communities, movements or individuals by taking them outside, by breaking their sense of isolation and powerlessness by allowing their discourse to reach other people and communities. This achievement is my greatest goal in developing the project on mother and baby homes, and what brings me such joy in announcing that my project website is now live! You can visit it at www.motherandbabyhomes.com and I hope you will take a moment to comment in the social forum on your impression of the site and its content.

 Mother and Baby at a Home

Women share their stories of time in the Homes

This project began with an oral history assignment, an assignment which suddenly married my passion for learning women’s stories…particularly their marginalized histories, with a new love for oral history methods. Methods which allow women to speak, in their own words to recount their histories, and then to bring those histories alive by joining them with others who had similar experiences. Suddenly a single, intimate, painful memory becomes part of a collective voice demanding attention. Just as this subject matter demanded my attention. I sought out a single woman to interview, to fulfil an assignment, to quench a curiosity. But the stories were too rich, too alive with a history not yet fully in the past, that I couldn’t bear stopping with just one interview. Instead the subject haunted me, women emailed me with their willingness to participate, charity shops I would pop into suddenly filled their bookshelves with stories of unmarried motherhood and these homes. Old friends began recounting their own experiences of illegitimacy and relinquishment. News articles, television shows, books, films…suddenly the topic was embedded in everything I saw and my only recourse was to relent and pay attention. To reciprocate by making my own contribution to this history which still lives in the everyday thoughts and actions of women and their children today.

Mother and infant at a Home

History alive today in the women and children impacted

The website, the culmination of this research to date, has been live just a few days. And yet I have been receiving visitors and comments from people around the world. People who find resonance in the content, who have spent time in these homes, who have sisters and mothers and daughters who spent time in these homes, people who were adopted and have found or are seeking their birth relatives, academics and authors who have studied similar topics, and individuals who have never known such a history existed. Their words literally brought tears to my eyes, and I suddenly realized I am neck deep in this research and have no desire to escape it. I am moved each time I listen to the words of these interviews, when I hear the joy, the struggle, the pain, the humour, the healing that has taken place. I hope this is an issue I can continue to pursue, to research, and to find ways to give a voice to.

But for now, at this moment, I hope you will explore the website and share it with anyone you feel might appreciate its content. Until next time, my very best and my gratitude for your continued reading of this blog.

http://www.motherandbabyhomes.com

The Limitations of an Historian

If there is one thing I’ve learned as an historian it is this: history is not some singular experience, some faded snapshot, or morality tale which we can reach our dusty paws back and draw out. History does not exist as a ‘thing,’ it is rather the many millions and billions of experiences of every individual that took place before this moment. There are large arcs in history which give us common markers to share: battles and wars, movements and leaders, WWII or The Beatles. But how each and every one of us experienced (or not) these individual moments from the past will be different. They may share similar markers, like watching the television reporting JFK being shot or reading about the tearing down of the Berlin Wall on the cover of the daily newspaper. But what those moments meant, who those individuals or politics were to you, whether you were ironing your uniform for work or standing on the sidelines watching it happen. Or perhaps you were one of the “history makers,” individuals creating change. Pulling at the bricks of the Berlin Wall, riding that bus through Alabama, or sheltering the evacuated children of London during the war. Whatever you were doing, wherever you were, whoever you are, your history is a unique one. And that, dear readers, is the simple point I’ve taken far too long to make.

 Child Evacuees        Kennedy assassinated Guardian front page 23 Nov 1963        Berlin Wall tumbles

Moments in history – where were you? How did you experience these moments? 

As you read this blog in the coming days and weeks and months, as I hope you will, you may discover pieces of history that you experienced quite differently. To that I beg your kindness, for this very reason: much of my research is drawn from interviews with women sent to mother and baby homes in the 1960s in England. While many have shared qualities (the ubiquitous staircase!) there are also every possible kind of variation depending on the uniqueness of each woman with whom I spoke. The second reason I beg your kindness is this: I was not there. I did not live through the 1960s, I didn’t experience the evolution of courtship norms from a Victorian past clashing with the sexual revolution. I have studied, read, researched, interviewed. And what I am more clear about after all of this is not that I have some amazing insight into this decade I did not experience, but rather that no amount of research will ever allow me to truly understand what it was to be there. What I know is the 1960s were revolutionary, in big ways and small, and for many they were the best era to have ever lived through.

books research books research 2
A small sampling of the tools of my trade

I ask each of you, current readers and future followers, to give me the freedom to share with you my discoveries with these understandings. And, if you find a point very different from your own, or very similar, or just something that peaks your curiosity, by all means send me a message (oralherstorian@gmail.com) or leave me a comment below. I welcome your input, your insight, your questions or feedback. Just be kind…and keep following the journey as it unfolds.

Researching Homes for Unmarried Mothers

Standing on the doorstep of another home I’ve never before seen, meeting another woman I’ve never before met, I wait with anticipation for the stories to come. More than stories, HIStories, HERstories…the recounting of past loves, passions, sorrows, of a different era and a different way of communicating with our parents, our lovers, our friends. This gathering of stories is more than sheer curiosity, this is research for my MA Public History dissertation which explores the Mother and Baby Homes of 20th Century England and the women who spent time in them.

Falloden Nursing Home in Leeds Yorkshire from leodis.net

Falloden Nursing Home, Leeds, UK.

Mother and Baby Homes existed in England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, America…these residences for unmarried mothers were humanitarian, but experienced by the women in the homes as many different things. For some it was refuge, others imprisonment, an only hope or a last resort. They are remembered with fondness, with horror, with pain, with distance. They were run by voluntary organizations, local authorities, and a range of religious groups including  the Salvation Army, the Church of England, the Catholic Church, and more. Most were large converted estates, some purpose built. They peaked in 1966 with 172 known homes sprinkled throughout England, and were said to serve between 11,000-12,000 of the nations 70,000 unmarried mothers each year. Most frequently the women who resided in these homes arrived around six-weeks before their due date and remained about six-weeks after. Leaving after their babies had been adopted, whether or not they personally desired such a permanent separation.

I am drawn by these stories for the raw emotion, the sense of another time, the choices offered or made during a difficult time. In my own family I’ve had siblings lost, both through adoption and divorce, which I sought out many years later to reunite with our tribe. I am the child of a single mother, and watched earnestly as she struggled to provide for myself and my siblings. I have friends who have spent time in a home for unwed mothers, giving up their children for adoption and being reunited decades letter. I am passionate about exploring the experiences of women faced with these difficult decisions, and curious about the institutions that sought to help in a way they believed to be appropriate given the social restrictions of the day. I am endlessly honored to bear witness to these very personal histories and am eternally grateful to the women willing to share their pasts with me.

Join me as I journey through these histories, and follow this blog to stay tuned as I prepare a website unveiling the fruits of my academic labours. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and please, share this blog with others you may know that have lost a child to adoption, are searching for or have been reunited with their birth family, have spent time in a mother and baby home, or are interested in the stories of these homes, the women and children who were in them.