When It’s Time to Go Home

In my first post, I stated my wish to share a couple of events experienced by few, if any, Greek adoptees. Finding my birthmother, Hariklea Voukelatos, when I was 30 was a gift beyond measure. Twelve years later Hariklea made a remarkable request that changed the lives of my family forever and makes my adoption story truly unique.

It was the summer of 2007, and I was glad to be back in Greece after two years away. My usual itinerary involved spending a couple of days in Athens with my cousins before I took the bus to Patras to stay with Hariklea, my birthmother. A phone call changed everything. When cousin Zoe phoned Hariklea to tell her I had arrived, I had an inkling something was up when their conversation lasted longer than what seemed necessary. Even so, I was not prepared for Zoe’s announcement: “Maria, Hariklea has made other plans for your weekend. She wants you to come to Patras today.” “Why today?” I asked. “Because Hariklea wants to go home to her village on Lefkada Island and you are going to take her there,” Zoe replied. Her comment was met with dead silence. Then everyone started talking at once and peppering Zoe with questions. She quieted everyone down and continued: “Hariklea left Nikolis 44 years ago as a frightened, pregnant, teenager. Now she is an old woman who wants to see her childhood home one last time before she dies. When you arrive in Patras, she will rent a car for the drive. You will stay with my parents, Thodoris and Marianna. Hariklea has even arranged for a translator for your visit. We sat in silence, each of us trying to get our heads around what this meant to the family when cousin Eve cut to the chase and stated, “Forty-four years ago your mother was forced to leave Nikolis because of you. Now 44 years later, she can return to Nikolis because of you.” In two short sentences, Eve had articulated the irony of Hariklea’s request. It was understandable and profound.

What a crazy morning! In two hours, I had gone from sipping coffee on the beach to a hard, wooden bench at a bus station. I had no idea what to expect, but the abrupt changes in my plans were small compared to the total transformation of my Greek family’s life. All these changes only heightened my anticipation of the upcoming trip.

I boarded the bus for Patras and settled into my seat. Looking out the window at the familiar countryside, memories of my first visit to Lefkada in 1996 returned. With God’s grace, a fork in the road and the letter “N,” Bev and I had found tiny Nikolis clinging to a steep mountainside on our first day of looking. My uncles were more than a little shocked to meet the child Hariklea was carrying when she left the island. Hearing the grown woman standing in front of them was their niece must have been like seeing a ghost from the past. We shared a meal that started with a bit of tension but ended with Thodoris welcoming me to the family.

Three hours later I arrived in Patras and took a taxi to Hariklea’s home. Parked out front was a funny, little, purple car with an anemic three-cylinder engine. Perfect for our trip, it suited the narrow roads and got good gas mileage. We stowed our bags and climbed in the car. Settled in, Hariklea looked at me and said, “Pame” (“Let’s go”).

Driving together for hours with an unavoidable language barrier made for a challenging trip. We managed to converse about simple things, and while there was not much said, a lot was communicated. Barreling down the road, I wondered what could be more reasonable than a mother and daughter driving home to visit the relatives. Nothing, except we were no ordinary mother and daughter, and the home had remained unseen for four decades. The significance of what we were doing was not lost on us at all.

Five hours and 15 hairpin-turns later we pulled into Uncle Thodoris’ driveway. There were hugs and kisses all around as he and Marianna came out to greet us. Once inside, we were introduced to our translator, Kalliopy, a friend of Thodoris. Hariklea and I got settled in our room before joining the others at the kitchen table. We stayed up for hours talking, laughing, and drinking Thodoris’ homemade krasi (wine). Around midnight Kalliopy returned home and we went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.

We were up the next morning sipping coffee when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find a tiny, senior, man with his hands in his pockets, watery eyes, and trembling lips. He was shaking as he asked to come in. The minute he saw Hariklea, he shuffled to her as fast as he could, embraced her and sobbed. Kalliopi explained his name was Andreas Adipas, a childhood friend from Nikolis. They sat close together on kitchen chairs, holding one another like old friends do and sharing their news. The tender scene unfolding in front of us brought everyone to tears. How sad these two friends had lost out on a lifetime of friendship. Andreas was the first villager to welcome Hariklea home, and that meant the news had spread: Hariklea Voukelatos was back on Lefkada.

The excitement in the house was palpable as we changed clothes and prepared to leave for Nikolis. We were all expected for lunch with Nikos and Zahareena. There were five of us, so Thodoris and Marianna led the way in his truck with Hariklea, Kalliopi, and me following behind. The drive was short, but no one spoke along the way. I wanted Hariklea to have time to prepare herself as we drove over the steep, windy, roads she had not seen since she was a teenager. We passed the field where her mother’s dowry of nine olive trees still grew as well as the olive press our fathers had shared. I turned right at the sign that led travelers to Nikolis and within minutes parked in front of Hariklea’s old home.

Details about Hariklea’s return home after 44 years, can be found in my recently published book: Beyond the Third Door: Based on a True Story (Vancouver, WA, 2019)

About Maria

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

About Maria