Connections That Bring Joy!

Recently, I told my son that when I packed up my things after my freshman year at UMass Amherst, the elevator in my dorm was out of order. My room was on the 7th floor of Emily Dickinson in the Orchard Hill complex. My parents had loaned me their car, but the ‘packing up’ was my responsibility. So I carried my things down, trip after trip. I had a relatively heavy portable sewing machine my parents gave me for Christmas a few years prior. Fortunately, I found a pair of winter gloves and carried my treasured sewing machine down 7 flights and put it in the car. At this point in my story, my son looked confused and said, “Why did you have a sewing machine in your dorm room?”

I know it never occurred to me to not have it with me at school. I think I was always  either sewing or planning the next sewing project. Yes, it was much like my passion for my piano! I sewed lots of clothes—many of my friends made their own clothes too. I sewed for family and friends and friends’ kids—clothes, toys, Christmas decorations, table linens, you name it. I made my wedding gown and a complicated winter coat. I still have both!

My winter wedding gown

 How did this passion begin? And where did it come from? As I mentioned in my Mother’s Day post two weeks ago, my mom taught me how to sew. I was an elementary teacher for years, but I have often wondered how my mom learned the “best practices,” as we say in education, to teach my friend and me how to sew and use a sewing machine—I believe we were in grade 4. She instructed Mary and me to go downtown to D’Aoust’s general store in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue and buy fabric and matching thread to make our own skirts. Mary chose a mauve fabric and I chose light blue. Step by step, Mom had us spread out our fabric on the living room rug: measure, cut, gather, sew, and hem. We sewed hooks and eyes on the waistbands—no need to fuss with buttonholes at this stage in our development! She had won us over! That skirt was the first thing I made using a sewing machine.

After I identified my birthmother, I was excited to learn that one of my maternal ancestors was a seamstress for the British royal family. Then a year ago, after I finally identified my birthfather, I learned about an even closer relative who sewed for a living. I admit, I love finding connections between my life with my parents and the birth family I never knew. My long search has truly enriched my life.

Emily’s Katie Lee–1990
A handmade Victorian doll for my daughter.

An Ever-Important Attitude of Gratitude

One wintry day in February 1960, an unmarried young woman named Rose gave birth to a healthy, handsome baby boy. She named him Louis. Rose and her family lived in Verdun, Quebec, Canada on the Island of Montreal. Rose could not provide for her son. She had no choice but to relinquish her parental rights. The infant was adopted by a French-speaking couple who gave him the name, Marc . They raised Marc in a French-speaking community in Welland, Ontario. Welland is located on the Niagara Peninsula between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, barely 26 miles from Buffalo, New York.

Marc at 10 months with his Mom

Marc had a happy childhood. He lived with his parents and his brother and had a close extended family. In his career, he specialized in Information Technology (IT) and worked for a major company in Ottawa, Ontario. Over time, Marc’s curiosity about his birth family grew and he decided to get his DNA tested. FamilyTreeDNA posted his results sometime around 2010, I believe. Unfortunately, he did not receive a high match for years and stopped checking regularly. 

I had tested only with AncestryDNA until a friend recommended I branch out and test with other companies, especially because AncestryDNA was not yet available in Canada. Having been born in Montreal, I realized she had a great point. In 2016, I tested with FamilyTreeDNA, Marc’s company. My results came back with our high DNA match!  I was elated, shocked, and mystified—who was this person? While I waited for Marc’s response to my email, I asked folks in Facebook’s DNA Detectives and Free Canada Adoption/Family Search and Reunion about our match. Everyone agreed that Marc’s birthfather and my birthfather were brothers—we were first cousins! 

It was a Hallelujah moment! We were both very excited. We’d found the needle in the haystack—our shared DNA. Marc lives in Ottawa, I was living on Long Island, NY at the time and through DNA, we learned that our fathers grew up together in Verdun, Quebec. It was magical! I was also thrilled that Marc speaks both French and English.

However, even better than finding our DNA link was finding Marc—friendly and funny, down-to-earth, kind, and smart. Everything that intimidated me in our search became a simple to-do task for Marc. I keep telling him to this day, we’d be back at the beginning if he hadn’t followed the leads the way he did. Today, we message, text, FaceTime, and talk on the phone for hours. He has visited us here in Western New York and we got together last summer in Montreal to meet new biological family. We became partners in the search for our identities, determined to unlock the secrets in our closed adoption files. Now, we have become cousins. Thank you, Marc.

Sunday is Mother’s Day

If I can ever write purely from my heart, I pray it is today. My thoughts are on motherhood. After all, this Sunday is Mother’s Day. I am the mother of two children, a son and a daughter. My son’s wife, Kim, is the mother of our three amazing grandkids. My daughter, Emily, has a beautiful baby daughter, our fourth grandchild. We will all celebrate this weekend and wish each other, Happy Mother’s Day! My family will not be surprised when I admit that I am already a bit teary-eyed. Ahhh, family!

My mom was a wonderful mom. For many reasons, life was not smooth-sailing for her. But when I was almost eight months old, I became her daughter and we were very close. I have many memories of her creative project ideas. I was about seven when she suggested my friend and I could go door to door in our little neighborhood and ask for old, empty perfume bottles.  We stirred up a lavender/water  concoction and refilled the bottles. That’s all I remember—I sure hope we didn’t charge anything for our eau de lavender! Mom taught me how to sew—another activity I loved, as much as playing the piano. Close to the end of her life, my mom continued to do crossword puzzles. She died from breast cancer at the age of eighty. I know she is still with me. 

The adoption triangle consists of the baby, adoptive parents, and the birthmother. Without the birthmother, there would be no infant, no triangle. Unwed women in our culture, especially in the last century, were criticized by their families and communities, sent away to give birth without support, told to get on with their lives, and to forget about their child, and to never search—“You gave up your parental rights!”  As you can imagine, this is not possible for most women who carry a child for nine months and give birth. The trauma stays with them. Many think about their baby and stress about losing the baby for the rest of their lives. 

An unexpected pregnancy caused serious difficulties when my birthmother was pregnant with me. Her parents came up with an adoption plan. I have had years to search for peace and understanding about my birthmother and my adoption. She was successful at work, generous, and always lent a helping hand to her family. I refuse to judge her and think ill of her! Over time, I came to believe that she did her best at nineteen in overwhelmingly difficult circumstances with no support. 

And so, I open my heart to women who lose a baby to adoption. Let’s not forget that an adoption triangle starts with them. This Sunday, I will think of all the wonderful mothers in my life, including my birth mother.

Handmade Mother’s Day Greeting Card

Nature and Nurture at the Piano

Mother’s Day is May 12th
My Mom’s Favorite–Lily of the Valley

Handmade Greeting Card

First and foremost, parents-to-be look forward to welcoming a healthy baby—ten fingers and ten toes! We also expect to see our baby’s inherited traits along with interests that evolve from our environment—the old nature/nurture balance. My parents received a healthy eight month old baby. However, they had no information about my birthparents and my ancestry—they had to wait to see my inherited traits and interests. My dad was a scientist. He knew about genetics and enjoyed finding out about his daughter as time went along.

I think I was in third grade when my brother begged to stop taking piano lessons and take guitar lessons instead. I immediately jumped in and said I would love to take piano lessons. I remember thinking this would solve their problem because they would still have one of us taking piano! Logical, right? I took lessons through high school. Every day, I practiced because it was what I loved to do. On occasion, mom suggested that perhaps I’d practiced long enough for one day! 

Our piano was a tall upright. While planning our move from Quebec to Massachusetts, my parents took measurements and determined that the upright piano wouldn’t fit around corners and down the hall in our new house. Their solution was to buy a new piano for me! They chose a standard upright in light oak—it was a treasure. When Paul and I moved to Buffalo, we brought my piano with us in a U-Haul truck. Years later, we downsized to a smaller place. I decided to give my piano away. One of the music teachers at my school had inquired about getting an old district piano. I knew she would provide a perfect home for my piano and play beautiful music on it for years to come. She came to see me shortly before I retired—we’d formed a bond with our love for that piano. It was a fond and somewhat emotional farewell.

Playing the piano was just so much fun! I was never competing. I had pieces I loved to play, and I learned a few difficult ones with my teacher’s guidance. My parents couldn’t have been more supportive. The provided me with lessons and music books, a beautiful piano, and then they left me alone.

In 1988, I was thrilled to learn that my grandfather on my birthmother’s side also loved the piano and was the organist at St. Clement’s Anglican Church in Verdun, where the family worshipped every Sunday. My parents never knew that. After all, they didn’t need to—it would have been no surprise to them!

St. Clements Anglican Church
Verdun, Quebec, Canada

United States to Canada – “Where were you born?”

I was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The City of Montreal is on the Island of Montreal in the Saint Lawrence River. I think there is a certain mystique about Montreal—it has an international reputation for culture and style and design in its rich history. Montreal is my birthplace–that much I always knew!

Montreal is named for Mount Royal, a large hill or small mountain, whichever you prefer, just west of downtown. Mount Royal Park was originally designed by the American 19th century landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. It is one of Montreal’s largest green spaces. Olmsted famously designed Central Park in New York City. He also designed city parks across the United States, including Delaware Park in Buffalo NY, an easy walk from our Parkside neighborhood.

In 1988, five years after her death, I learned my birthmother’s name. Paul and I and Ron and Emily visited her grave in The Mount Royal Cemetery. I was relieved that this was her final resting place.

1988 – The Mount Royal Cemetery

In the southwestern part of Montreal is the borough of Verdun. Founded in 1671, Verdun is one of Canada’s oldest cities. In 2002, Verdun merged with Montreal. My birthmother’s family lived on the second floor of a ‘two-plex’ on Wellington Street. We visited their apartment during our 1988 trip. Wellington is one of the main streets  in Verdun. Verdun has had its ups and downs as most industrial communities have had over the years. Today it is a hub for young families, bustling with shops and restaurants. My birthfather lived a quarter mile from the Wellington Street apartment, on Willibrord Street. And so, I now know that I am a full-blooded Verdunite!

These days when I cross the border into Canada, I am more grateful than ever to say, “I was born in Montreal.” Years ago, as we prepped the kids for border crossing, Paul would joke, “Why were you born?” I’m not going there!

Dressing Up for an Easter Sunrise

Handmade Easter Card

Sunday school, Junior Choir, pageants, holiday services—I loved them all! My sister and I wore blue robes and sang in the Junior Choir at our little church in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, our home town, a suburb of Montreal. One Christmas, my sister, brother, and I put on a pageant for our parents and grandparents. Our brother played Santa. He wore baggy red tights and a sweatshirt. He was a skinny kid and everyone laughed when he appeared in the baggy red tights. He laughed too!

We moved a couple of times in my childhood. With each move, we found a new church. I remember babysitting little ones while their parents attended service. In high school, I really enjoyed the youth group. 

Dad claimed that he didn’t go to church because he couldn’t sing. Mom made sure we went to Sunday school and participated in activities we enjoyed. I don’t recall any coercion. However, I do recall vividly one Easter when I was about 14. Our church announced that there would be a sunrise service early Easter morning. My decision was easy—I had to go! I picked out a favorite flowery, spring dress. I can still see it today! As my family slept, I managed to get up, get ready, put on a light cardigan, and sneak out. It was about a mile walk to First Church Amherst. I was very excited in anticipation of a beautiful service during sunrise on Easter morning.

As I approached the church, I saw families gathering in the parking lot. There wasn’t another pretty Easter dress anywhere! I soon learned that the sunrise service would take place outside on a hilltop outside of town! How did I miss that part of the announcement? I have a vague recollection of someone offering me a warm coat and a ride to our sunrise service. As disappointed as I was in myself, the service on the hilltop as the sun rose on that Easter morning was beautiful and unforgettable to this day.

Happy Easter, Everyone!

Handmade Easter Card

Music in the Berkshires and Blueberry Pie!

Here in Western New York, there are buds on the trees and the spring flowers will bloom any day. When I was in high school in Amherst, Massachusetts, we also welcomed the warmth of spring and the chance to be outdoors. In the summer, my parents loved to drive to the Tanglewood music festival in the Berkshires. On Saturday mornings, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed open rehearsals. As I recall, there were folding chairs on a lawn under a huge tent. The music was beautiful. I was fascinated by the conductor as he paused the orchestra and spoke to his musicians. 

Dad loved classical music. He bought the best turntable and needle he could find, and even built the record player console himself. Dad also played the clarinet and my mom played piano. We were all very familiar with classical music. However, during one summer rehearsal at Tanglewood, I didn’t recognize a contemporary piece at all. Eventually, I turned to my dad and asked when they were going to stop warming up and play something. I can still see his smile.

On the way home, we traditionally stopped at a blueberry farm. Pick your own—so much a quart! I can’t say I loved picking blueberries, but the reward was delicious. My mom made the best blueberry pie. She made her own pie crust from years of experience—without a recipe. “You have to get the feel of it so that the crust will be light and flaky. Adjust the flour if it’s a humid day.” Oh sure, I thought. Easier said than done!

Over the years, I received various non-identifying information about my birthfamilies. I learned that I had English and Scottish roots, similar to my parents. And I learned that my birthmother and birthfather also came from musical families. It is clear to me that my parents and I were a good match—one’s DNA is only part of the story.

Mom and Dad at Our Wedding, 1970