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

Identity, Lost & Found

It wasn’t until I was in my 40s (yes, you read that right), that I started making friendships with Latina women. By this I mean Latina women who grew up within their Latina families, language, and culture. Non-adopted Latina women. 

Why? Why did it take me so long to be able to make connections with other Latina women? Because from the moment of my adoption at age 2.5 months, my Latina identity and environment were replaced by a white, Jewish one. Now, there is nothing wrong with having a white, Jewish identity – if you are white and Jewish. But what if you’re not?

I grew up with so many truly wonderful people and things around me. There were hard times for sure, but there was always love, friendship, family, educational opportunities, vacations, warmth, food, shelter, etc. All feelings and things that no one can or should take for granted. 

Yet, still, something was missing. Not only the figment of mi mami in Colombia, but me, myself. My identity as the Latina I was born to be, thanks to all that had transpired in the lives of my ancestors.

It’s crazy hard to say these things, to say that I got hurt even though I was raised by people who loved me, who had the best intentions, but who wanted me to be – and who were erroneously told I could be – the product of their ancestors and not mine. 

Again, it all leads back to the damaging, majority viewpoints that have dominated the system of adoption since the late 1950s.
Telling adoptive parents that they don’t need to see color, that they should fully assimilate their intercountry transracially adopted child into their family, along with name change, new language, new religion, new environment, is to tell adoptive parents not to see all of their adopted child. It’s how it was done back in the early days of intercountry transracial adoption, and, sadly, much of this continues today even though experts – the adoptees who have lived this whitewashing – have started speaking up on how the impact has been harmful despite the intent being good.

I speak not to be hurtful but that, hopefully, guardians, foster parents, and adoptive parents of children of a different race and ethnicity than theirs can understand and learn to do things in a way that helps raise racially comfortable and competent individuals.

It took me decades to start breaking down my internalized whiteness. And it is an ongoing process. It started with legally reclaiming my original last name, Forero, about 20 years ago. This was NOT done to deny or disrespect my (adoptive) parents. Absolutely not. It was done to respect myself. To recognize I have always been here, that I have always been Colombian, that I have always been part of another family as well as my adoptive family, and that I have always had worth just as I was and always have been. 

My light brown skin has never been white. And that’s OK. 
My dark brown eyes have never been blue. And that’s OK.
Spanish filled my brain from within the womb. And that’s OK.
My ancestors didn’t come from Eastern Europe. And that’s OK. 
I was racially incompetent. And that’s NOT OK.
I am still surprised when I look at pictures of myself and see an Indigenous Latina woman. And that surprise is NOT OK.

Recognizing differences amongst people is not problematic. What’s problematic is discriminating against people based on visible and invisible differences. What’s problematic is pretending not to see people fully. When we put our blinders on to others, we put our blinders on to ourselves as well. Every child, every woman, every man has history that is carried in their genes. No one is less than anyone else. Everyone deserves to be seen. 

“Time’s much too short to be living somebody else’s life.”

Today, I dedicate I Ain’t Movin’, by Des’ree to my fellow transracial adoptees. May you all walk with dignity and pride.

(Originally posted on my facebook feed during NAAM2019)

Not Helpful

Uh oh .. did you write a review like that? Perhaps you bought something based on a review like that? Or like me, did you groan when you saw it because the review just isn’t actually helpful?

We’ve come to increasingly understand that representation changes the conversation through the different experiences that inclusion brings. We are seeing that when the writers’ rooms of Hollywood include women, people of colour and LGBT writers our understanding can dramatically shift altogether and deepen. Seth Myers team have shown this in great comic style with their White Saviour Movie Trailer.  

However, it hasn’t yet become expected that adoption stories should have adoptee advocates representing adoption. Adopting parents continue to dominate the narrative of adoption over adult adoptee voices both in Hollywood on social media and within our families. As Angela Tucker pointed out on Red table talks – “For me to talk about transracial adoption is to hurt somebody”. This creates an unusually weighted dynamic in which may adoptees remain silent, maintain the status quo or even promote adoption.  

I use amazon reviews as an analogy because you’ll often see gift givers reviewing products based on the fact that someone they gifted it to “loved it”. When I see that, I groan inwardly. This person is either humble, bragging or completely dismissing that many of us will feign delight over gifts we don’t like out of respect for the kindness of the giver. It doesn’t make the giver credible as a reviewer. This kind of review tells us nothing about the product itself in a thoughtful or useful way. Did the product deliver what was expected? Did it break after four uses? How does it fit?  

I wouldn’t claim that being a dancer is easy because I know someone who’s a dancer and they seem fine. Try asking a five year old to explain how to drive a car and you’ll get much the same level of coherence and reliability as a non-adoptee talking for adoptees. There are layers and layers of things you don’t even know you don’t know. Even adoptees need time, reflection and validation, to get clear about the experience. I myself have much greater clarity about how adoption affected me now that I can look back over nearly fifty years of patterns of behaviour. How can anyone expect to talk helpfully about it from the outside, when even adoptees can struggle to articulate it from the inside until they’ve processed it.

The only way to even begin to comprehend what adoption is really like is listen to adoptees. Quiet your minds while doing so, resist the urge to listen or argue. We are well used to talking with people listening while finding ways to discount with comments like, “but lots of people feel that way”. If I recounted an assault and the feelings of powerlessness, would you really think it was helpful to tell me lots of people feel powerless in their lives? Or would you consider the context?

Listen to understand, explore and most of all to validate. You can offer healing, you can find ways to empathise, you can be a part of the solution. If you don’t want to offer relief and healing to an adoptee, you really need to ask yourself why you don’t want to do that, what’s in it for you to avoid it?

About Juliette Lam

There Is Only Me

“All those moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain.”

I’m reminded of that line from the movie Blade Runner that was set in November 2019 and spoken by Roy Batty, the replicant who was fighting against time and against his creator who doomed him by installing a kill switch. Those words weigh heavy on this adoptee because I have chosen to stop my clock by not looking into my origins or searching for any blood relatives. Any memory of roots or of faces or events that would connect me to my own origin story I have chosen to forego because no one can claim me. I am no one’s son. My biological existence and furtherance are all now under the aegis of my force of nature. I know my face and other physical features are not reflected in anyone else on this planet, so I am free to take control of my own story, to tell it to myself without deceit, without manipulation. My name is in a passport within another passport, within another. My tree of blood is a stump in the backyard of a tenement where my body was found in Saigon, lost, then found again in a two-level suburban house in northeastern America that couldn’t keep me forever. Because forever is a fallacy to my adopted body. In my own body is where I belong.   

About Kev Minh

NAAM 2019 AdopteeVoices #9

At ICAV, we invited members to share during National Adoption Awareness Month what they would like the public to know. Here’s another of what some of our members are happy to share to the public.

The biggest thing I want people to know this month is that I’m not anti-adoption. If it weren’t for adoption happening to me, I wouldn’t be living the life I am now. I can’t say it’s necessarily a better life, it’s just a different one than the other life I could be living had I not been adopted.

Non-adopted people don’t think of what their ‘other life’ could have been like because for them, their existence wasn’t founded on first family separation and the traumas associated with it — there’s not an ‘other life’ option that enters their minds. For me, it is always there.

So, when I say I’m not anti-adoption, that means that I understand why it exists. As someone who was directly affected by adoption, I know firsthand its impacts and I’m not afraid to speak about them – all of them.

During NAAM especially, I want the world to know that I’m not fighting against adoption, I am simply fighting to be heard and seen. 

by Christina Williams

Everyone has a story: beautiful, terrifying, wonderful, heartbreaking, mysterious, coincidental, whatever.

Everyone deserves to feel a sense of belonging. 

Everyone deserves to discover their own identity. 

Unfortunately for some, the path of discovery leads to denial, rejection, abandonment, half-truths or hidden truths. Scars reveal themselves. Scars some of us didn’t know existed. We’ve been so busy building dreams and chasing sunsets, yet others have lived with a daily pain.

Fitting in, being misunderstood, different ones trying to do their best. 
Or not. 
It’s all part of the territory. 

Has anyone inquired of you lately, ‘How are you going with it all?’ ‘Where do you see yourself in 20 years?’ ‘How will your story end?’

One thing I have learnt though, through the processing of life and daring to ask our big questions, is that everyone of us has the power to decide our own destiny. As the ever-optimist, I’m believing that each of us would finish well.
Selah 🕊

by Jasmin Em

NAAM 2019 AdopteeVoices #8

At ICAV, we invited members to share during National Adoption Awareness Month what they would like the public to know. Here’s another of what some of our members are happy to share to the public.

It is more than being torn from birth family. It is being torn from the every day culture. Spiritual and cultural norms are absent and there is no connection to ancestral knowledge. It is our DNA and it is denied when we cannot connect to our culture. Once adopted, you are labelled , always.

by Kelly Foston

Adoption is often about the parents living out their dreams. Some believe they are making the world a better place. Some believe they are making themselves better. Isn’t the desire to be a parent ultimately a selfish act? But how many non-adopted children are expected to be ‘grateful’ for the rest of their lives?

I think an adopted child has a double edged sword. They walk along that blade for the rest of their lives. On one side of that blade is the privilege of an alternate life path. On the other side is the disadvantage of missing their birth culture. As part of adoption month, I would like this to be acknowledged.

by Kristen Anderson

her name was maité, su nombre era maité

blossoming almond branch in glass by vincent van gogh

i have been told
of a sister
i have never met
she died at sixteen
in an accident
her name was maité

i dreamed of her
last night
soft, gentle
everything it seems
a sister might be
she was to me
through the night

i felt the feeling
one must feel
when they have such a one
as her
the not alone feeling
perfumey girl presence
it was a beautiful dream

she stayed with me today
in my waking hours
i smelled her
through the two thousand pesetas of
super
i pumped into my car

and when i worried about money
she reassured me
it will all work out
dear brother
she said

i stopped by the side of the road
on the way home
and picked her
a wildflower
that i know she’ll love
i’ll give it to her
tonight

her name was maité, su nombre era maité
mi boreal interior collection
j. alonso el pocico, españa
(c) j.alonso 2019

Poems by j.alonso may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the written consent of the author.

 

NAAM 2019 AdopteeVoices #7

At ICAV, we invited members to share during National Adoption Awareness Month what they would like the public to know. Here’s another of what some of our members are happy to share to the public.

I am adopted from Spain. Terrible experience. I hope any family adopting in America now receives an independent thorough home study, including military.

As a retired social worker I have approved quite a few adoptions. I am a lion for kids, so I know they were in very bad unrepairable situations and those families were golden.

There is absolutely a time and place for adoption, in my opinion. Also, shame on our country for allowing Mexican children to be stolen!

by Jesse Lassandro

The loneliness that comes from the separation of our culture and family creates a pain so unique that some survive and others get torn apart. Through awareness, education, and understanding, this can change.

In my own experience not knowing my identity was a huge problem that held me back from making healthy decisions when it came to choosing friends and making big life choices. That pain always reminded me, I was never good enough.

It wasn’t until I met my birth family that I felt a connection to something that was my own and I felt something inside me heal.

I’m not opposed to adoption but adopting is a big undertaking that will come with trauma so if you want to be an adoptive parent and reading this, don’t lie to yourself. If you’re not ready then wait. For any adoptee reading this, I feel your pain and please know you’re not alone.

by J Aucayse 

NAAM 2019 AdopteeVoices #6

At ICAV, we invited members to share during National Adoption Awareness Month what they would like the public to know. Here’s another of what some of our members are happy to share to the public.

I too feel the pain of adoptees who have to wonder if their child or grandchildren would need to contact them in a foreign country because of facing deportation, or prison — a result of an adoption that did not include citizenship.

This situation would only make me hate what adopters can do to us, from the time we’re gifted (of course for the right fee), till even later in our lives.

The governments, adoption agencies and adoptive parents are able to control what our futures may hold, so we are never living our lives, only what we’re allowed by society and their laws.

We get labelled “ADOPTEE”. To me this label ADOPTEE = SLAVE. Always someone owns us 🤬😭😢 🤬😭😢

At this point, even though I have my citizenship now, I do not rest or feel free. I wonder will laws be changed that may once again cause me the fear of being deported, or what if I were to lose any of my papers, ( kind of like a papered animal) or what if .. so I never feel safe or free.

I have a constant fear, constant anxiety😓😥😰😨🥵.
Adopted = Prisoner in my mind.

by Kim Yang Ai

Whenever a person or a couple tells me they have dreamed of adopting, I know that they haven’t thought beyond themselves. No child dreams of losing their parents and much more. The fulfilment of their dreams comes at the cost of another’s family.
No God that I would want to believe in, would give a person life long trauma in order to fulfil another’s dream.

by Hea Ryun Garza

prince of spain

i am a prince of spain
i stride across the land
in full view of the people
my identity not in question
the strength of it’s source
as sure as the continent
sits upon the sea

i am a prince of spain
i look through the eyes of ages
i obey the call of my heritage
she blows in my hair
like the june wind 
her song is a tide
throughout me each new day

i am a prince of spain
i am tall, like my king
the red and yellow waves
and my heart along with it
the riches, these wild expanses
adorn the good people
of which i am one
yes, i am one

 prince of spain
 (principe de españa) 
j. alonso
lubrin, españa 
(c) j.alonso 2019

Poems by j.alonso may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the written consent of the author.