Telling My Mother

Maria Heckinger today

I am Maria Heckinger and at age 66, I am one of the older adoptees posting on this site. I am honoured to be asked by Lynelle to share a couple of stories unique to my adoption.

First, a little history about the Greek adoptions. It was the early 1950’s and WWII had taken a huge toll on Europe, leaving no country unscathed. During the war, Greece was occupied by armies from three countries; Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. The Nazi Occupation was followed by a protracted Civil War, which left the Greek economy and infrastructure in ruins. Mass adoptions from Greece to the United States started as early as 1950. Then, in a humanitarian gesture, the United States passed more broadly conceived refugee relief legislation in 1953, allowing the immigration of European refugees and foreign adoptions to proceed. It is a little-known fact that Greece was the first nation in modern times to open its borders and allow intercountry adoptions.[1] And proceed they did, in remarkably large numbers.

Hariklea Voukelatos, my birth mother

In 1984, I was 30 and back in Greece for the first time since my 1956 adoption. While on that trip I found the orphanage where I spent my earliest years. Overlooking the coastal city of Patras, it was a massive building. Sitting in the director’s office, I did not expect to find such detailed records—or the director’s willingness to show them to me. All the notes, religious charms, and legal or informal documents left with babies were saved and were kept in big ledgers. When the director showed me the note written by my mother, and the declaration she filed at the local City Hall asking the orphanage to take over my care, I was left stunned. After the tour, I returned to Patras and, within two days, I found my birthmother, Hariklea Voukelatos. At 30 years of age, my life changed in an instant. I spent a joyous week with Hariklea and my half-sister, Katina. It was the beginning of a 36-year relationship that led to meeting uncles, aunts, and cousins. My elation at finding my birth family was tempered, however, by anxious thoughts of how to tell Ellen Pace, the only mother I knew and loved.

The following excerpt is from my book, Beyond the Third Door Based on a True Story. Vancouver, WA (2019).

I was happy my story had touched people so profoundly, but there was one person I worried about telling, Mom. Dad had passed away the year before, and she was alone after 43 years of marriage. I did not want to add to her pain. Having to tell Ellen about finding Hariklea was a scenario I never dreamed I would face. Ellen had wanted a child so badly I didn’t want her to think I was ungrateful, disloyal, or she was losing me to my real Mom. Ellen was the most selfless person I knew, and I loved her more than anyone in the world. She had adopted and loved me unconditionally, and I would take this secret to my grave rather than hurt her.

Ellen Pace, my mom as a young woman

With my San Diego plans complete, the only thing left was to put my photographs into an album. Unlike Mom, who was motivated by love when she selected my album years before, my motivation was fear as I chose one with easily removable pages. I was still undecided on what to tell Mom, so it gave me options. Upon arrival, I picked up my car and headed to Mom’s home in San Diego’s backcountry. The baseball-sized knot in my stomach was a constant reminder of what lay ahead. I tried to ease my apprehension with thoughts of how receptive Mom had been about adoption – not just mine, but my three siblings as well. She had spent countless hours making scrapbooks filled with their adoption artifacts too. Richard Jr. and Deirdre’s albums even included their mother’s name. In the past month, I had found a mother and a sister, discoveries I was still processing. I was excited to know my new family, but I wanted to protect the one I had. It was a delicate balance I struggled to maintain. My fears of hurting Mom took on a life of their own and nearly blinded me from believing she could accept such a truth. With her house in sight, the knot in my stomach was now the size of a basketball. I pulled off the road and gathered myself before I continued. Mom knew I was on the way, so there was no turning back. With no guidebook on how to handle this type of situation, I had only one choice. Face the music and trust the Mother who loved and raised me. Pulling into her driveway, Mom came outside to greet me, and I hugged her a little longer than usual. Her arms around me felt like home; safe and familiar.

I was putting my luggage in the spare room when Mom came to the door and asked a question that stopped me cold. “So, did you meet any relatives while you were over there?” I busied myself with my suitcase, and after a long pause, I managed a weak, “Yes.” Her next question was the one I dreaded: “Who did you find?” My throat constricted and I could barely speak, so I deflected with a question of my own. “Mom, guess — the most unbelievable relative you can imagine?” “You found your mother, didn’t you?” I mumbled, “Yes.” “Oh my God, you found your mother? I want to hear all about it,” Mom proclaimed. Stunned, I stood there like a statue, unable to move or speak. The weeks of angst had been for naught, and my fear of hurting Ellen had consumed me unnecessarily. Mom’s questions made this more comfortable than I could have dreamed. Relaxing a bit, I wondered what had prompted her initial question. Had Mom suspected I was hiding something during our telephone conversations? Could she sense I was carrying an emotional burden? I knew it was now or never, so I went to the bedroom, grabbed the album, and set it on the kitchen table. I patted the chair next to me, invited Mom to sit, and began. The photos were invaluable as I led Mom through my two months in Greece. I moved through them at a deliberate pace, hoping we wouldn’t spend too much time on the pictures of Hariklea. As we neared the photographs of her, my fears returned, and I was overwhelmed by feelings of betrayal. I looked away and questioned my decision as Mom examined the woman who had given birth to “her” child. I hope Mom doesn’t think I look like Hariklea. Should I have included the photos with my arm around her? What about the pictures of Hariklea, Katina and me, arm in arm at the taverna? “She looks like a nice woman. What’s her name?” was all Mom asked. “Her name is Hariklea, and she is nice. The young woman is her daughter, Katina.” Mom was surprised Patras still had an orphanage with such good records, but she was bowled over when I described how we found Hariklea. I didn’t know much yet, but I shared what she had told me about her life. When I told Mom about my week in Hariklea’s home with Katina, she was happy for me and wanted details of our time together. Mom couldn’t imagine dining by the sea with your feet in the sand, but she laughed when I shared stories of Hariklea’s bossy personality. I concluded with a comment about her generosity but did not mention the soul-crushing guilt she still felt over losing me. Mom didn’t need to hear that. We finished looking at the album and enjoyed the meal she had prepared. After we washed the dishes, I went for a walk along the stream running by her house. I knew Mom needed some private time with her thoughts and the photo album. I was gone for a half-hour but returned to the back of the house so I could peek through a window and see if she was finished. There she was sitting at the table, hunched over the album and staring at the page. I knew which photos Mom was glued to, and I couldn’t imagine how she felt right now. Did she feel threatened by my birth mother? Was this the day Mom feared might come? Would she worry I loved her any less? I felt happy, sad, and vulnerable as I watched her study the photographs of Hariklea. Tears sprung from my eyes and ran down my cheeks as I quietly watched her. I wanted to give Mom all the time she needed, so I went for another walk. The second time around, I made a noisy entrance via the front door to announce my arrival.


[1] For more information on these early waves of international adoptions from Greece, see Van Steen, Gonda (2019). Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro quo? (U of Michigan Press), 77-78.

Orphanage photo of Maria Heckinger

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