March 30, 2007

My New Identity Crisis: Part 3 -- My Answer to Ruth

When I last left off, I was perusing a proposal from Ruth, the genealogist I had met online but had never met in person. She asked if she could help me find my birth family, and something that I had thought about off and on throughout my life was suddenly sitting in my lap.

What kid, who knows he or she has been adopted, doesn't think about finding his or her birth parents? I can't say that such a desire was at the top of my list of things to do, but it was always something I thought I would explore "someday." However, I can't deny that I hadn't thought about my birth mother and father, what they looked like. Sometimes at night on any December 29th, my birthday, before I went to sleep and as I lay there in the dark, I would wonder if somewhere out there someone was also thinking of me.

As I began to hit my forties, I think my mid-life crisis took the form of an identity crisis rather than an "Oh my god I'm halfway to death" crisis. I realized that, having been adopted after I was 2 years old, that I had no history before my earliest memory and that there was nobody that could tell me what I was like. I had no baby pictures. My earliest picture of myself was at 2½ years. For some reason, this began to bother me a little.

I knew I existed before two. I heard the stories. The rumor that was passed to my adoptive mom, Shirley, was that I was the product of an affair between the wife of a college professor and a milkman. I thought this was funny, but it was the only archetypal story of my "beginnings." I knew that at some point, I was placed in a foster home with a family for what was to be a temporary stay, but the wife, named "Mama" Joyce, became greatly attached to me and she and her husband intended to adopt me. She had been trying for nine years to be pregnant, and had for all intents and purposes given up. As luck would have it, as soon as they made that decision she became pregnant. There was some difference of opinion between her and her husband at this point, and she reluctantly gave me up. I was placed in another foster home for three months, with Thelma and Laurence Wills, and then I was adopted by Vernon and Shirley Hess.

My difficult childhood also fueled my speculation as to my birth. Without going into too much detail, I had a very difficult time at home. Vernon was an alcoholic. Shirley coped by trying to exert control over the home. Vernon also violated the lines separating appropriate and inappropriate attentions to me, to put it mildly. My younger sister developed anorexia-bulimia. To say that we were a dysfunctional family is almost making light of the gravity of the situation.

In these situations, it is easy for a guy to imagine "what ifs." What if I had not been given up for adoption by my birth parents? What if Mama Joyce had been able to adopt me? Don't get me wrong. I was happy with the way I turned out given the possibilities. But with a difficult past, it's easy to imagine somewhat greener pastures, or at least an easier time getting to the pasture in which I now stood.

However, the other part of the equation also included a lot of "what ifs." What if we can't find anything at all? What if we find something and my birth mother, father, or any family doesn't want anything to do with me? These were questions I had to reconcile if I was to move forward. I had heard too many stories of adoptees finding birth family only to realize that they were dragging up old wounds and re-opening old scars that were to remain forever closed. I did not want that for myself - I didn't want to be dragged into some new drama which would, no matter how hard I tried, affect others and even possibly my self-esteem.

After weighing all these questions in my mind, and talking them over with Megan my wife, I decided to go ahead. But Megan had one question that I hadn't thought of. "Why is Ruth doing this," Megan wanted to know? "What does she get out of it?" Megan was a little suspicious because it's not every day that someone just offers to help you without wanting something in return. And the fact was, I wasn't sure I wanted to put out a lot of financial effort to do this. I had been sitting on some paperwork from the adoption agency that handled my case for over a year. I had to pay $100 to get a copy of whatever was in their file on me. The file could include a waiver by the birth parents which would allow me to find them, or it could contain information I already knew. I had been reluctant to send in the money because, with my being a student, we were really only living on one full-time income plus whatever I brought in from some part-time work.

So I wrote to Ruth, saying that I would be interested but that I didn't really have anything to spend on this search financially, and if that was something that was expected I didn't think I could go through with it. I also said that if we go through with this, if there were any indications that going farther would result in pain and hurt to anyone, I would back off immediately. Ruth answered immediately, putting my fears to rest. "My family thinks I'm a bit daff," she wrote, because of her intense interest in genealogy. No, there wouldn't be any financial expectations. Perhaps if we ever met, I could buy her a piece of lemon pie at a little restaurant. And yes, I would have complete control over the process -- if she found something she would inform me first and ask me how to proceed. She would not commence contacting anyone unless she had my complete approval. She further wrote that she felt that I had been sent to her in some way and that her role in this adventure was to help me find what I was looking for, and she was willing to accept the role.

With that out of the way, I gave Ruth the go ahead, and off we went.

Next post: Finding Mama Joyce

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March 28, 2007

My New Identity Crisis: Part 2 -- Ruth's Proposal

In the last post, I detailed how after a number of years of on and off searching, I finally got a clue about some of the story of Marion Hess Sr., the father of my adoptive father, Vernon. The clue came from a woman named Ruth who had posted some information on line, and when I contacted her, she was kind enough to tell me why she had an interest in Marion.

Ruth explained that she was indirectly related to Vernon's mother Norma, Marion's wife, who died in her early 3os. Norma was the product of a third marriage. Her mother, Lulu, had been married twice before, and had a number of children in those marriages. Ruth's family was an offshoot of Lulu's second marriage. Ruth herself is an amateur genealogist, and when she understood that I was looking for more information on Marion, she tackled the problem with fervor.

We traded a number of e-mails back and forth. I sent her the little information I had, including the social security application, and she used census records, enlistment records and the like to gather more information. Without belaboring the process, she discovered the following facts. First, Marion was from Northwest Ohio and had a sister. His father Andrew worked on a railroad line. Andrew also had a farm, where he raised horses for harness racing. This fit with what little I knew already. Vernon had told me that his father had raced "silkies."

Second, and this was the shocker, Marion had been married in Ohio, and had a son named Julian. At some point, Marion left Ohio never to return, abandoning his wife and son who continued to live with Marion's father and mother. Julian remained in Ohio, and eventually died in 1990 in Columbus. Marion, in the meanwhile, resurfaced in California, met Norma, possibly in the Santa Cruz area, married her and moved to Fort Bragg where they had five boys. Marion became a barber, was a piano player with a music group, and eventually became postmaster in his older age. I do not know if he ever legally ended his first marriage, and I'm not sure that his sons knew that they had an older half-brother in Ohio. I have not been able yet to question his sole surviving son, Robert, about this. However, I was able to send Robert all the information I obtained from Ruth.

Ruth was able to increase my knowledge of Marion by at least 1000% in that month that she went to work, and it was a treasure trove to me. My regret was that I did not get it in time to share with Vernon or his brother Marion, or even their youngest brother Jack who had done some looking on his own before he died in the early 70s.

However, it turns out that the search for Marion was only a step in a greater journey for me. For, in one of the e-mails that I sent to Ruth during this period, I happened to mention that I was adopted. Up to this point, Ruth and I were engaged in a common cause -- we both were interested in finding out information that benefited each other's knowledge of our own families. After I sent that e-mail, Ruth sent a proposal back to me. It seemed that she had helped an acquaintance who had been adopted find his birth family. This man had discovered family he never knew he had and it had been a resounding success. Would searching for yours be of interest to you, she asked me?

Coming in Part 3: My answer to Ruth

Question to readers: What would your answer to Ruth be and why?

Photo: (Holding baby) Lulu Ann Beswick Amaya Pacheco, Norma Pacheco Hess' mother and grandmother of my adoptive father, Vernon Hess

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March 27, 2007

My New Identity Crisis: Part 1 - Finding Marion Hess

My blogs have been coming infrequently I know, but I think that you will be getting a little flurry in my new multi-part series "My New Identity Crisis." What is my new identity crisis? Do you ever have these moments in your life where you wonder just what or who you are? That is where I am right now. I feel like I'm caught between two worlds, one of which is familiar, has been sprinkled with hardness but also has a lot of good in it, and is the place where up until now I have known myself. The second is a new, mysterious world, full of history that I don't know and possible traps I cannot see, but also exciting possibilities.

The Hess family early 1970sThe beginnings of my identify crisis began back in September or October, I can't remember which. First, some back story. I was adopted. I came to my adoptive family at age 2½. So, throughout this story I will use first names so that it won't be confusing because as I go on, believe me, it will get confusing. I was adopted by Vernon and Shirley. As I grew up, I began to realize that Vernon didn't know much about his father and mother. In fact, none of his brothers did either, and they didn't talk much to each other about what they did know. I became fascinated with the mysterious Marion Hess Sr. and his wife Norma Pacheco, who died when Vernon was about 7 years old, leaving five sons motherless with an erratic and moody man who said very little about his life before them.

Vernon died in a fire in 1990. He had been preceded in death by his brothers Lonnie and Jack. I attempted to talk a bit about Marion Sr. with Vernon's brother Marion Jr., but Marion Jr. would only reveal bits and pieces and nothing very substantial. I soon figured out that this was because Marion Jr. didn't know very much about his father either, and was also seeking information.

Norma Pacheco and brother BudMarion HessThere were tantalizing clues about Marion Sr. A death certificate on file in the Mendocino County seat of Ukiah told that Marion was born in Akron, Ohio. In my 20s, driving to New York from Wisconsin on a business trip, I made a side trip to Akron and tried to look for a birth certificate in the public library there. Unfortunately, since I hadn't done much genealogical research before, I soon learned what all genealogists know -- you must have a lot of time and patience. Censuses aren't conveniently alphabatized, but soundexed. Birth certificates from the late 1800s or early 1900s aren't always available, because many people weren't born in hospitals, and of those who were, the existence of a birth certificate depended on whether the hospital made a practice of issuing them.

However, I was resilient. I sent in a few bucks to the Social Security administration and received a copy of Marion Sr.'s original social security application. From that, I learned that his mother was named Eldora and his father was named Andrew. No more information was forthcoming. And to make matters worse, all of his papers were burned in a house fire in the 1950s.

With the advent of the internet, I began every so often typing his name into a search engine to see if any information would pop up. Usually nothing did. Once, I thought I hit paydirt but then realized I got some information about Marion Hess Jr. I learned at that time that Marion Jr. had over 7000 vintage vinyl 78 rpm records, which were probably worth quite a bit. Marion Jr. died in 2004, I think. After he died, I assume that these recordings went to his sole surviving brother, Robert, who is still alive and living in Idaho.

This past October or so, my wife's sister sent a link to a website called Rootsweb that had information on her family. Just for the heck of it, I typed in Marion Sr.'s name again. I believe I had tried this before in a previous year but nothing came up. However, this time I found something! Someone had posted information about Marion Hess that I had never seen before. Not only did it list his and Norma's marriage but it also listed information about Norma that I certainly never knew, including her mother and father and their various marriages and children. There was an e-mail attached to the information, and so I e-mailed the person to ask her where she had gotten the information and what her interest was in my family. Her name was Ruth, and when she e-mailed me back, neither of us knew that it would set us on a journey that would reveal my own lost past.

Next post: Ruth's proposal

Photo 1 - The Hess family, early 1970s. From left to right: Michael, Vernon, Pauline, Shirley, Mari

Photo 2 - Norma Pacheco and her brother, Bud "Wealthy" Pacheco

Photo 3 - Marion Julian Hess, Sr.

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March 05, 2007

Red Elvises

Last Friday was Megan's birthday, and since I was out of town we celebrated last night with dinner and a concert. The concert was The Red Elvises, who call themselves "the kickass rock band from Siberia" and "your favorite band." We saw them last about six months ago in Santa Fe, and had a lot of fun so we were looking forward to their return.

The concert was about the same as the first one. A lot of fun with some great musicianship and songs in broken English. The lead, a hulking Ukrainian, would begin songs with a little intro in a thick accent such as "okay, now comes song about tragedy, The Strip Joint is Closed." He was accompanied by a blond flattopped Russian who played a bass shaped like a giant balalaika, a dour Ukrainian guy playing sax, flute and clarinet, a young woman in a spangly, shimmery red dress who simply looked like she was having an orgasm everytime she touched her keyboards, accordion, or other keyed instrument, and an American drummer who was quite good. All of the men except the drummer were dressed in loud, zebra or jaguar print suits.

The band is built for showmanship, and it doesn't disappoint. By the end of the evening, the crowd was doing everything the lead singer asked, whether it was moving the pelvis suggestively or simulating a disco dancer. At one point, he conducts the crowd in a scream off during a song, making it fit into the music they are playing. And always, after a song, he demanded that the audience roar its approval even more. The audience always did.

This band seems to be touring every day of the week, so undoubtedly they will be near you sometime. Check them out at their website. Oh, and here's our favorite song of theirs, "Closet Disco Dancer."