It’s been a long-running inner debate since the time I was born. Abandonment will do that to a child. It’s been my sickening suspicion that my life has been a waste. This suspicion was probably implanted in me as soon as my birth parents scattered from my presence. The fact that I was left in the care of strangers who couldn’t quite get past the impression that I was a stranger in their midst was never lost on me. With my identity as an adoptee not yet fully realised or solidified so early in life, there were days when I felt unmoored. Not knowing what it truly felt to be loved by my own blood, I would wish only to be expelled from the love and care that had been handed down to me by those who tried to convince me they only had my best interests at heart. The residual resentment of not knowing whether my father and mother loved me and wanted me with them has coloured the way in which I distrust myself with the feeling and act of loving someone. I remain convinced that there is something wrong with the way I love and how I have sought love from others. Even allowing love for myself was never an expectation. Love is a thing that people always said they had for me but could neither show nor explain to me because how can you describe something that seems to be only pulled out of thin air at one’s own convenience. As a youngster I grew up with the nagging feeling that I was thrown in with a lot of people to live in a random place that I didn’t share a history with, but was coaxed each and every day to respect and appreciate by saying “I love you” whenever it was my turn to speak. Affection and companionship were thrown at my feet with the admonition to take them or leave them. I mirrored customs, expectations, and incentives to love, but what was missing was a genuine and clear-headed comprehension of what it means to love and what happens to your mind when you decide to show love and receive love. Absent any key discussions and explanations, my young mind could only play along and follow the unwritten rules when it came to familial bonding, early crushes, and soul-mating. Because of my pretend existence and ignorance of my innate truths, I conducted myself like a laboratory technician whenever the atmosphere softened around me and I started to tingle all over when my eyes settled on a girl at school or in casual passing. In my head, I had all the flasks, tubes and chemicals available to concoct a love potion that I could sprinkle over the brow of the one who had caught my eye at the time. The sad, self-defeating thing was, though, my feelings, thoughts, words, and so much of my personality resided solely in my head. This self-imposed silence, masquerading as humility and reservedness, had the effect of extracting sympathy from a potential lover. I then used this sympathy to position myself as the man who could rescue them from pain that others had inflicted, from histories of spouse/partner abuse and from their own self-destructive habits. My ego always got a kick out of playing savior, exalted as it always was by any reciprocal affection. Selfish were these gambits, nay, habits of involving myself in a person’s life so as to ostensibly use them to help me remind myself that I am a good person, even though I feel myself drifting out of humanity’s fold as each year passes.
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. And proceed they did, in remarkably large numbers.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
In Sweden where I grew up, people like me are called adopted. It’s easy to spot an adopted. We look like we are from somewhere far away but we don’t know our native language or culture. This creates confusion wherever we go. It also creates confusion within ourselves.
Who are we? Who am I?
We grieve our traumas in silence because as soon as we share our sadness, we are told that we should be grateful: to our new amazing country and our kind adoptive parents.
This is something a Swedish biological child never has to hear: that they should be grateful to live in Sweden! This creates a sense of being worth less compared to everyone else; that we exist in Sweden on other terms compared to our peers; that it’s conditional. In many cases, our adoptive parents didn’t take good care of us. They disregarded our traumas. And they didn’t understand the racism all of us had to endure, both as children and adults. We were unprotected. We were fair game.
When you are adopted you sometimes grieve and think about your mother. For some reason you don’t think very much about your dad. I think this is because we are under the impression that our mothers were clueless and young, perhaps drug addicts, perhaps prostitutes. And that our dad was just some dude. The part with the prostitution, by the way, is part of the narrative that adopted girls are handed when they are young. “If you stayed in your country you would have been a prostitute, so why aren’t you grateful?!” Can you imagine what this message does to us?!
Daddy, like most of the other adoptees, I have spent time wondering about my mother, but I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about you in the past. Now, I think about you all the time.
As a child, I remember playing near the burn pits that laid by the small village of unpainted traditional Korean style homes (Hanoks). They nestled below a small outcrop of mountains, located in central Korea. My brother grabbed my hand to take me to see the prize he had found lying in the small garbage heap near our modest home. Among the charred remains of the trash there laid a couple of discarded light bulbs glistening in the harsh summer sun. We laughed as we smashed the bulbs into small shards of glass.
The small journey to the garbage pile and playing had worked up an appetite and I told my brother I was hungry. “Come follow me!” he called. I ran behind him as we raced down the trail towards the community garden. We stopped for a minute to catch our breath and we scanned the garden to find something to eat. There amongst the tall weeds, we found the brightly yellow-colored melons called chamoe. It begged us to bite into its juicy flesh. I grabbed one of the fruits hungrily and sunk my teeth into the hard flesh. The fruit wasn’t ripe and it had a bitter taste. I threw the fruit on the ground in disgust and we ran home to see if grandma could make us something delicious to eat.
By the time we arrived home, it was nearing dusk and my stomach hurt with the pains of hunger. My brother ratted me out, telling my grandfather I had tried to eat the unripened fruit. My grandfather gingerly placed me on his lap and started patting my stomach in a circular motion to reduce the pain. I immediately fell asleep and was woken up by the sounds of feet pitter-patting around the rice mat floors. It was the sound of my brothers and sisters getting ready for school. I too got up, to walk my siblings down the country dirt road to school. As we walked, I was chastised by my siblings and told to go back home. I stood at the end of the dirt road waving goodbye as I watched my family vanish down the road that wound amongst rice paddies and train tracks, covered by the cool mist of the morning fog.
When I was married and in my mid-thirties, I asked my aunt to give me the contact information to meet up with my half siblings who I remembered from my youth. We made a phone call and I waited anxiously to see if we could connect. The person on the other end of the line was the wife of one of my older brothers and she was scathing mad that I was trying to connect with my siblings. She told me, “This is in the past and that is where it needs to stay!”
Several months later, I called the family again hoping to get my brother on the phone. I was chastised again for calling and disrupting the family. I was rejected, never to be allowed to reunite with the family from my childhood memories.
I sat uncomfortably on the hard lino covered floor of a traditional Korean Restaurant. The smells, sights and sounds so foreign to me. Just moments earlier, I had felt like I was on an epic journey “around the world in 80 days” with my aunt. That same morning my aunt was waiting for me at the entrance of the military camp where I was stationed. We rode the 5-hour long journey using a variety of transport: the jerky movements and clackity sounds of a train, the bumpy, vinyl covered back seat on a community bus that bellowed black smoke, and then a short ride on the Hyundai cab to the restaurant. None of the transport had air-conditioning and the hot sun beat down on my black hair. My brain felt as though it was boiling from the inside out. Large beads of sweat flowed from my brow when I arrived to meet my biological family.
When I entered the small restaurant, I scanned my eyes around to look for my new family. I caught a glimpse of my beautiful sister and then my father. It was odd for me to see someone who looked like me but a much older age. I felt as though I were in a time machine to meet a much older version of myself. My father’s head was covered with thinning grey hair and a receding hairline. The sunken cheeks and the deep wrinkles above the brow were telltale signs of a defeated person. My father was looked down at the table in shame.
I was asked questions about my life in America and how I liked Korea. Once all the niceties were exchanged my father asked, “Why did you look for me?” I was dumbfounded by the question and as I was about to answer, a blur entered through the front entrance and walked up to our table. A short stout young man entered the room with a wide grin on his face. His light brown eyes scanned the room looking at his dad and then at me … his face was distorted with confusion and then he rushed up to me and gave me a bear hug and began sobbing in my arms. I look like a younger replica of my father and my brother recognized that I was his brother immediately.
As a child, I remembered the siblings I had grown up with. I never assumed my father would marry again but via his third marriage, he brought two more siblings into this world for me to unite with.
The pecking order went like this: the four half brothers and sisters I grew up with in Chong-Ju, my sister and I who were sent to America, and the two half-siblings from my father’s third marriage. My father was a success in being a prolific procreator. My father’s personal decisions led to his first two separations and sadly his third wife succumbed to illness when her children were beginning elementary school. I think I bonded with my half siblings because they knew how it felt to grow up without a mother.
Within a year of uniting with my sibling, my father had a stroke that made him fully dependent for care. My younger sister Mi-san faithfully went to my father’s home each day to feed and bathe him. I wanted to be part of my siblings’ lives but the language barrier prevented me from picking up the phone or arriving at their doorstep to visit.
A year after I kindled the beginnings of a new relationship with my new family, I received orders from the military to move back to the United States. There was a five-year separation where life was a blur and my day to day actives was filled with school and work. In 1998, I received another chance to reunite with my family in 2001 when I was given assignment orders to South Korea as a second lieutenant. I was so happy to again partake in their lives. I attended my sister’s wedding, the birth of her daughter and visited their small home that was established near the place of my birth.
Life happens in a blur and six years later, I was once again moved away in 2007 due to my reassignment by the Army. As I left Sth Korea, I assumed I would get the chance to hang out with my new found brother and sister when I retired from military service. I hoped I would again have a chance to play with their kids, go on trips and share in the bounties of life.
In 2011 when I was serving in Afghanistan, I received an email from my aunt stating my brother had died unexpectantly in his sleep. My heart was crushed and I immediately flew back to Korea to bury my younger brother. I learned one of life’s hardest lessons: that we cannot always look to the future to share and bond with those most important to us.
Taken for Granted
I was one of the lucky few adoptees to be adopted with a biological sibling. Initially, my sister was the annoying younger sibling that followed me everywhere. She was 2½ and I was 4 ½ years old when we were sent to the United States. I began kindergarten the same year that I arrived and learnt about American culture the hard way.
I was in trouble for going with the girls to the girl’s bathroom. I was chastised for not returning the books to the school library. I received detention for copying graffiti that was already written on the gym wall. I had no idea that the words, “the principal is a fucking retard” was derogatory! Life was a learning experience and nobody understood me at all.
My sister, on the other hand, was gifted. Life was unfair and it gave all the talent to one sibling but it was not me! She was a straight-A student. She made it to the State Finals as a gifted athlete. Even though I was 2 years older, she beat me when we raced towards the school bus. I later realised I was a pretty fast runner but my sister had that rare gift as an athlete. Lastly, my sister was way better looking. She won the local beauty pageant and after I joined the Army at 17 years old, I quit showing pictures of my little sister to my Army buddies because they would always ask me to set them up on dates with her. My sister had it all: she was stunningly beautiful, extremely smart and a gifted athlete who had the potential to compete at College or even at Olympic level.
Once my sister reached adulthood she chartered a different course and over time the energetic, bright young woman who I was familiar with, morphed into someone I could not recognise. The resilient person I knew became a shell of her former self. She sought out love and married at a young age. The love she was seeking was fleeting. At the end of 3 divorces, she lost everything that mattered to her, including her own children. She squandered her opportunities. She received the GI bill to pay for College but she never enrolled.
Time took its toll, her beauty faded and the life of constant defeat opened up a crevasse that allowed her to be defeated in everything she did. The desire to be successful was now a distant memory and today she stares in the mirror wondering who the defeated person is on the other side: the older woman with a scalp of thinning grey hair, wrinkled face from living a tough life, thin frail yellow nicotine-stained fingers that work minimum wage jobs to barely make ends meet. Every time I reach out she tells me everything is fine. Yet I hear from her children about the suffering she endures. Being evicted from her home, having to sell her car way below market price to make ends meet. I can read between the lines when she speaks to me. I no longer understand her and my privileged life cannot understand the difficulties that she faces.
My family search was bifurcated. On one side, the door was slammed shut and I was met with rejection. On the other, across the hall, the door was opened for me to meet my half-siblings. The hallway that leads to my sister has been eroded by the termites of life, treading down a once familiar path now filled with navigating around an unstable sister who has squandered her life away.
This is what life has taught me:
Don’t have unrealistic expectations when it comes to searching for family.
The range of emotions and outcomes will vary with each person’s journey.
If you are searching, be prepared you may be greeted with open arms to meet a family who may not want anything to do with you. What you think will happen may be something completely different. Treasure the journey.
I’m grateful for all the people who helped me along the way to find my family. Many people went out of their way to help and guide me through the process. Sometimes it takes patience and time for relationships to blossom. Of course, the opposite can also occur. Like in the case of my biological sister, our relationship has deteriorated over time and I can no longer recognize the person she has become.