It’s been about a week since my last Cleveland trip, since the day I finally drove to Euclid, OH to visit the street where my birth mother Judy was raised, where she went back to live after her parents death, and where she died herself in 2007.
Like me, my birth mother was also adopted. Like me, she spent time as a baby in the DePaul Infant Home before being brought to a small house in the Cleveland area, where she would live out her new life with a couple in their late 30s. Like mine, her adoption was shrouded in secrecy.
Only recently have I finally gotten Judy’s original birth certificate, and with it, confirmation that, like me, she also requested and received information about her birth mother that was originally kept from her. I wonder if, unlike me, she got to meet her birth mother. I hope she did.
Sitting in the car, parked about a block away from the house, I could confirm what I had learned online. The house was empty, foreclosed, and starting to look worn. The front screen door was dirty. The steps were in disrepair. In the car, I went over the names on my research list, names of people who had lived on the street when she was alive, and who still lived there today. As curious as I was about the childhood home to which she eventually returned, my work this day concerned other houses. My goal was to meet the neighbors.
For the past few months I had been searching in vain for the man who had married my birth mother three years after I was born, the man to whom she was still married 32 years later when she died. All evidence pointed away from his being my birth father, but he was the only human link I could find to the woman who bore me into this world, the only living relative. And he was nowhere to be found. I learned that the house changed hands in 2012, and I found a possible address where I thought he may may have moved. But my letter there was returned as undeliverable. So here I was, ready to do some old fashioned detective work, to see if anyone knew something that could help me find him.
It was the last day of a short Cleveland trip. I had visited my friend Tony, upheld our tradition of seeing a Browns game (they lost, of course), and spent some time connecting to my favorite hometown places. We’d gone to the West Side Market, the public library where Tony had helped me research more obituaries (still none to be found) and I had gotten to finally meet Betsie Norris from the Adoption Network Cleveland, the woman whose efforts are responsible for Ohio adoptees finally having access to what is rightfully ours, our own birth certificates. It was Betsie who really lit a fire under me to go to Euclid and talk to people. Online research, she reasoned, I could do anywhere. This was the kind of thing I could only do in person. “If you have the guts,” she said, “knock on some doors.”
Did I have the guts? I guess we’d see.
I’ve gotten the advice that it was not always wise for an adoptee to announce his or her adoption right away when searching. Some people, older people mainly, might still have some prejudices against searching for birth family. There are those who believe we should leave well enough alone, be grateful that we were given our new life, and leave the past in the past. These people might not be helpful, but they might let some information slip if you approach them the right way.
I had a real problem with this. Not the soundness of the advice, of course. I knew it made sense. I just wasn’t sure I could do it. I had spent so much of my life with my identity in the shadows, that I couldn’t stomach the thought of going back to that old familiar pose of pretending I was someone I wasn’t. I was done with phony identities. For better or worse, I am handicapped by the truth. I hoped it wouldn’t hurt.
So… I got out of the car, walked past the house and went next door. I drew a deep breath and knocked. The couple who answered was nice. But they hadn’t lived there long. It seemed my lists were not totally up to date. But their kindness put me at ease and bolstered my courage to try the other neighbors.
Another deep breath. Another knock.
The man who came to the door was maybe a little older than me, balding, and holding a beer. He seemed suspicious at first, and I didn’t blame him. I mean, really, who knocks on doors anymore?
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said. “But I’m trying to find information about the man who used to live next door. Did you know him?”
The man furrowed his brow and looked down. Then he looked back up, his face softening. “Yeah… that guy died.”
My heart sank.
“He died? You’re sure? When?”
“Yeah. A couple years ago. His wife died some years before that.”
“Yeah, I know…” I said. And then, as I knew it eventually would, my story spilled out if me.
“She was my birth mother.” I said. “I’m adopted and I just got my birth certificate this year. The law in Ohio changed…”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling. “I know. I have couple of friends who are doing exactly what you’re doing.”
“Yeah, so… anything you can tell me about them. Anything at all?”
He looked away again for a brief moment, as if pondering what he should reveal. Then he said, “I didn’t really know them. I mean they were just there…she was kind of an older lady. She didn’t really leave the house.”
Judy was 58 when she died. Not that old.
The man went on. There were no children, and there weren’t many visitors.
I felt numb. Not only had I just lost the only living connection to Judy, but this… this sad picture that was being drawn for me… it wasn’t what I expected.
“Sorry,” the man said, and he seemed to genuinely mean it. “I wish I had more for you.”
I thanked him and moved on, getting back in the car. I almost drove off then, but decided a few more houses couldn’t hurt.
Most of the neighbors were friendly, and I did manage to learn a few more things. Her husband’s sister, for example, had moved into the house after he died, but only lived there briefly. I learned that the sister had a boyfriend who helped people shovel their drives. So there are definitely more threads to pursue if I want to keep looking.
At one house, a dog came to the window when I knocked, followed soon by a hand that pulled it away by the collar and quickly shut the drapes closed. No one came to the door.
At the last house I visited, there was an older couple, both with thick Polish accents. The woman said she didn’t know who lived at the house but knew the people who lived there before. “Her parents?” I asked, getting excited. “You knew them!?” She paused, retreated, then amended. “Well my parents knew them. I don’t know anything.” The man with her gave me a big smile. “I don’t have hearing aid in,” he said. “I don’t hear a thing you said.”
The sun was setting, and I felt drained. I had a long drive back to Chicago, six hours to let all of this sink in. I felt like one of those ghost hunters on tv, convincing myself that I had seen something out of the corner of my eye… that I had heard a noise…
On the way home I considered passing by my own childhood home in Garfield Heights. It’s been three years since my parents, Norm and Pat Gladish, moved away from there… two years since it was sold, a year and a half since Dad passed away and Mom’s dementia took a serious turn. For a while the house had stood empty like Judy’s, but a new family lives there now. During past visits I couldn’t help but drive by and take a look. This time, though, I drove on.
Hungry, I stopped instead at a Steak and Shake. Mom and Dad used to enjoy going there together sometimes during their last couple of semi-healthy years, when they could still get out on their own. I imagined that for them, it was like a high school date night. Burgers and fries and an amazing milkshake. Cheap eats and table service with a smile, just like the old days.
I sat there, taking in and enjoying the black and white 50’s photos on the wall, feeling sure that Norm and Pat enjoyed seeing those pictures too, reminders of a time when they were a couple of teenagers, planning to get married and have children of their very own.
I like to imagine Norm and Pat that way sometimes. A couple of kids with plans.
I ate my cheeseburger, one of the best I’ve ever had in my life, then got back in the car and cried.
On the drive back, my ghosts rode with me. They are all a part of me now… those I knew and those I never will. Judy is a part of me, just as Norm and Pat are a part of me, and those two old haunted houses are a part of me.
This sadness and grief that I feel is a part of me too, and that’s okay. It is one part of this adopted person that I call me. It’s not a crutch, a shame, or a liability. It is a sadness that makes no judgements and needs no platitudes. It needs no fixing, minimizing, or cheering up. Sometimes, it just needs to be.
I feel this now as I felt it then, driving past fields and towns toward my home in Chicago, making that journey back, once again, from the places where I began.
Kevin Gladish is a writer, storytelling performer, and late discovery adoptee living in Chicago. His blog, A Story with No Beginning, chronicles his journey, beginning in real time with his discovery of being adopted and following his years-long search for birth family and healing. Kevin continues to write and perform, and he will soon debut his solo show, A Secret in Plain Sight, in virtual format at the Filet of Solo festival with Lifeline Theatre in January 2021.