For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba!Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8: 14-17)
This was the text I preached from this past Pentecost and Confirmation Sunday, the Apostle Paul's beautiful and assuring words that we are God's children. The Spirit "bears witness" that we have been adopted into the family of God, which is good enough in itself, yet we also are joint heirs with Christ. What an amazing inheritance we have! What a loving, merciful, and compassionate God we worship and serve!
I don't want anyone to read this post and come away thinking that I am against adoption. I am very much a proponent of adoption. My husband and I are praying about whether or not we are being called to adopt. I know many loving and gracious people who have adopted children. These folks are among my personal heroes. Some of them read my blog (Hi, Alex!) Some have adopted from within the United States, some from overseas, while some have adopted a child who was first their foster child. Some have adopted nieces and nephews and some have adopted their spouse's child from a prior relationship.
This last scenario was how my mother came to be adopted. I wish I could say that her adoptive family exhibited the "spirit of adoption" that I admire so much in my friends who have adopted, but that was not the case, sadly. No, she was never abused or abandoned or in want, except for want of acceptance from her adoptive father's side of the family.
My mother's biological father was newly married to my grandmother when he left to fight in WWII. He was a pilot. I'm told that he was quite the go-getter and extremely intelligent. This may be just family lore, but the story goes that he was the first person ever in the army to earn his pilot's wings who didn't have a college degree. Tragically, like so many young women at this time, my grandmother became a widow at the age of 23. My grandfather had been shot down over China on Christmas Eve 1943, less than one month after my mother was born.
Three years later, my grandmother met a young man fresh out of out the service and married him 3 months later. When it was decided that this man would adopt my mother, my grandmother made a mistake that, honestly, I have a hard time forgiving her for. She gradually lessened my mother's contact with her biological dad's family, until it was non-existent. The reason given: "We didn't want to confuse her because she had a new father and a new family." In fact, my grandmother would become angry whenever my mother would ask questions about her father, so she stopped asking.
My mother describes her adoptive father as, "distant, but I knew he loved me. Although he never told me so." The grandparents were very wealthy, very proper, very tall and willowy and very concerned about what other people thought of them. My mom, who has struggled with her weight since childhood and who by nature is quite gregarious and dramatic, often felt like an embarrassment to them.
After my aunt was born, my mom had a nagging feeling that her sister was loved more than she by the grandparents. Over the years, whenever this feeling would pop up, she would dismiss it as just her insecurity talking. She certainly never voiced this feeling to anyone. By and large, my mom had a happy childhood and was close to her mother's side of the family and her sister.
My mother graduated high school and enrolled in a Junior College about 40 minutes from home. (This was where she met my dad, incidentally.) Less than a month into her Freshman year, she got the horrible news that her dad had been killed in a car accident. My poor grandmother was yet again a widow and my mom lost her father, again.
My mom's contact with this side of the family gradually lessened over the years, mainly because my dad was always moving us here, there and everywhere. I remember we used to go visit this set of grandparents every year a few days before Christmas to have "Christmas" with them. Oh, how I hated going. Not because I hated them, but because of how much my mother would freak out beforehand. We had to dress up and be lectured about how we needed to be on our best behavior:"Don't talk loud. Don't get your clothes dirty. Smile and be pleasant. Don't be opinionated- Iris, I'm talking to you!" Jeez, I felt like I was entering a Jr. Miss pageant rather than visiting my great-grandparents.
Time passed and we all got older. This great-grandfather died in 1989 and although she had Alzheimer's, my great-grandmother hung in there until 1996. As I mentioned, they were quite wealthy and they had a considerable estate. My great-grandfather had set up an enormous trust to bestow on all the grandchildren. Well, almost all the grandchildren. My mother was not listed in the will with the other grandchildren. She was included in the will, however, with my grandmother, her mother. The wording in the will was: "($$ amount) goes to our son, C.'s widow, E. and her daughter, J."
I can't even imagine what that must have felt like to my mom. She cried more than I have ever seen her cry before in my life. And these were not merely self-pitying tears, they were tears that come from having your heart broken in a thousand pieces. Although to have been included in the trust would have helped our family immensely, my mother wasn't crying over the money. This will had confirmed what she had felt intuitively since she was a little girl, that in the eyes of these people she wasn't family; she was someone else's kid that their son was forced to raise.
In the weeks and months afterwards, my mother grieved over this sense of loss, not only of this family, but of the one she had never known. I was 24 years old at the time and was living with my parents for year while I completed a year of AmeriCorps service. So, I was the one who listened and cried with my mother again and again and again. I internalized much of this hurt that my mother was experiencing and, I'm afraid, that bitterness and anger took root so deeply that it became a part of me. I'm just now beginning to see that.
Four years ago, the family that I had created with my husband, son, and daughter (in-utero) moved to this city in the Bible Belt. I haven't mentioned yet that this is the city where my mother was born and was raised in and around. A couple of months after we moved here, I announced to my mother that I was going to call her biological uncle, my great-uncle, who lives here in town. My mother had never met him and I wasn't even sure if he knew that I even existed. At first, Mom recited the "family script" of ,"No, don't bother him. Why do you want to shake things up?" I told her that shaking things up was my role in the family and that I, too, felt cheated that there was entire branch of my family tree with which I had never had any contact. "Besides," I said, "I'm looking at his name in the phone book right now and it will drive me literally insane if I don't at least try to make contact." My Mom said, "Okay, maybe if you break the ice, I'll be brave enough to meet him when I come to visit you after the baby's born." She was cautiously excited, I could tell.
On Labor Day weekend, while my older sister was visiting, I called him up. I said, "Uncle M., my name is Iris and I'm your great-niece." He was, understandably confused, until I told him that I was J.'s daughter. Silence, and then, "Oh, I was hoping that one day I would get to meet J." My sister and I went to his house the next day. He was visibly excited to meet us and was more than willing to talk about our grandfather whom we never knew. We promised to bring our mother by when my parents came to visit after my daughter was born the next month.
I can't even begin to articulate how it felt to introduce my mother to her uncle. We stayed for hours as Uncle M. told stories and we asked questions about this part of our family. Uncle M. and my grandfather were extremely close, so we couldn't have found a better person to describe to us what my grandfather was like. Well, my grandmother could have, but she wasn't willing.
I had no desire to make contact with the other family.
Why is all of this coming to the surface right now? Yesterday was Memorial Day and my family decided to go visit the graves of my biological grandfather and my great-grandparents (my grandmother's parents whom I absolutely adored.) We visited my great-grandparents' graves first. My kids asked lots of questions and we took pictures. Their graves are right next to a pretty little pond with lots of ducks, geese, and turtles, so my husband suggested that we take a walk. We were halfway around the pond when I realized that we were right by the graves of my Mom's adoptive father and his parents. Since my husband and my kids had never been to their graves, I decided to show them. My husband suggested that he take our picture and I couldn't believe the feelings that welled up inside me. "No," I said, "We've already seen my great-grandparents' graves and they are on the other side of the pond. These people were not my family!"
Within 15 seconds, a couple came up to the grave and the woman put fresh flowers on the great-grandparents' graves. I wanted to just walk away, but instead I asked if they were relatives of this family. The woman said, "Yes, they were my grandparents." I identified myself as J.'s daughter,(you'll notice not as their great-granddaughter or her cousin.) She and her husband seemed happy to see me. They knew that I lived in town and that I was a pastor. I suppose my aunt had told them. We chatted politely for a few minutes and then went on our way.
I'm not sure what to make of that. I had just made a speech that demonstrates how bitter and angry I am about this piece of my family history and at that moment members of that family show up. I know that God wants me to give up the anger and outright hostility I feel. I believe that I am more bitter than my mother is. Perhaps I felt that I had to take it on for her because I felt that somebody needed to be loyal to her. I don't know.
I do know that God, always the ultimate opportunist, has made the most of our time here in this city!