I shared part of this story here a year ago. Today I am sharing “the rest of the story.”
I have written about my own adoption several times on this blog and even shared my thoughts about my birthmother on a Mother’ Day podcast. Though I had not ever made any serious attempts to do an adoption search for her, she was in my heart and mind through the years I was growing up, especially during my first pregnancy. I wondered what my daughter would look like and spent many hours pondering how painful it must have been to carry a baby and give her up for adoption. Several times I spoke with those who kept records at Crittenton Home where I was born but since they were only able to give me what they called “non-identifying information,” there was really little for me to go on to begin any sort of real search.
Three years ago, in November, adoption law in Illinois changed to allow adoptees born during a certain time period to obtain their original birth certificates from the state. The day they were available, I mailed in my money and request.
A couple days after Christmas it arrived and I opened it with most of my family here and looking on. To my disappointment, the name of my birthmother was left blank and the only new information was that she was 14 the day I was born, she had been born in Illinois, and my given name was Karen Sue Gilmore. “I am a Gilmore girl!” I announced and we all laughed.
Immediately everyone took to their computers and phones, googling “Gilmore” and “Peoria” but none of us really knew what to do with this information. I called the Department of Records in Springfield to ask about the missing name and was told that this was a common practice at homes for unwed mothers in those years. So I tucked away the paperwork in a large manila envelope, along with the other information I had, and placed it back on the shelf in my library.
With my own grandma, mom, and dad, circa 1957.
The past few years had been pretty full in my life, much of the time spent caring for my own mom who was suffering from increased dementia. Even in her better days I felt she probably would not have accepted any contact with my birthmother so I continued to keep this search on the back burner. She passed away in April of 2013, right before her 91st birthday.
Fall came, and as usual, I began to think a lot about my birthmother. I began to look forward to my 60th birthday in October. I wanted do something special and personal so I arranged to have a tour of the Crittenton Home building where I had been born.
Then, in September, I received a phone call from a woman in Florida who had also been adopted and was looking for a half brother. She believed my husband might be him because she had a list of six men who were born in a certain town in Illinois on the same day and he was one of them. I assured her that he was not adopted but joked that I had been! ”Have you ever done a search?” she asked me. “No,” I replied, sharing with her about my disappointment when receiving my original birth certificate. “Have you tried researching with the 1940 census?” she questioned. “It really is an amazing tool!” She explained that this document was the most accurate and thorough record available for finding someone born before 1940 and encouraged me to use it. While we were still on the phone, we became Facebook friends so we could encourage each other and she invited me into several online adoption groups.
That afternoon I pulled up the 1940 US Census on Ancestry.com and began to look through the list of young women named Gilmore. Since I knew my birthmother had to have been born in 1938 or 1939 in Illinois, I was able to find a list of 27 women who met that description! I started eliminating those with older siblings because one of the pieces of information I had from Crittenton talked about younger half-siblings. Suddenly, if the name Gilmore was accurate, I had narrowed my search field considerably! Since their parents’ names were also listed, I began working my way through obituaries.
The next few days I was able to check several women off my list as the obituaries I found didn’t match with the information in my records. Then one evening it came to me that if I were to contact the Crittenton records department, perhaps they could give me her name since it should have been in their documents. After I was finally able to get to the right department, I reached a sweet young woman who told me, unfortunately, she could not give me the name. She pulled up my records on her computer and together we lamented the injustice. Before I hung up, I asked “Well, can you at least tell me if the name Gilmore is an accurate name?”
“Yes, that would be correct,” she told me.
A chill ran down my back. I knew my name WAS my name!
“Because,” I continued, “You see, I am using the 1940 Census list and have found 27 women with the last name of Gilmore and now know it has to be one of these. I appreciate your help.”
I started to say “Goodbye” when she interrupted, “Well, tell me, what names do you have on that list?” she asked.
“I have a Marilyn.”
“No,” she said.
“I have a couple Barbaras,” I told her.
“Ummm, no, that wouldn’t be accurate.”
“I do have a Lois Jean,” I told her.
“Why yes, that would be correct.”
“So you are confirming that my birthmother’s name was Lois Jean Gilmore?” I began to tear up.
“Yes, that is correct,” she said. We both got weepy.
I got off the phone and had to soak it all in for a while. I googled the name and it took me back to Ancestry.com where someone had done a family tree that included her name and there it listed the four half-siblings that had been mentioned in my original paperwork! It stated that she had died 15 years ago. I then googled the name of the man who had recorded the research and within 5 minutes found his phone number and was talking with him in California. He didn’t know her married name, he told me, but he could find it. He took my e-mail and in another 5 minutes he sent it to me along with her husband’s name, street address, and phone number in Peoria! At least I could make contact with family members!
Later that afternoon my son made a call to her home and spoke with her husband. He assured him that we were 100% accurate about the identity and that we had no expectations on him but would like any family medical history or pictures if he would be willing to share them. In the meantime I found a memorial record online as well as an obituary from the Peoria Journal Star. Within a few days I had pictures, a lot more information, and several close friends willing to share with me what they knew of her. A few months later I had the honor of meeting with some of these dear new friends for lunch and also had an opportunity to learn even more about this woman who gave me life! Clay and I visited her grave and plan to do so regularly in the future. Though I am sad not to have met her, I look forward to meeting her one day as I have learned that she was a believer. I have also found some answers about myself in listening to what her friends had to say about her, that she was a real people person and never knew a stranger, and I see me in her face, too!
It has been a year since I learned the identity of my birthmother and so much has happened. I have been welcomed into the home she shared with her husband for many decades and have met more family and friends. People have shared pictures and stories with me and I am so grateful for the new friendships I have made.
So, since today is my birthday, I would like to share, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story” with you.
We like to think of the post WW2 years as an idyllic time in history, when dads went to work at well-paying jobs and moms wore pearls and raised their children in quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods. There were many families who enjoyed those sorts of homes, but there were other families, where deep, dark secrets lurked and where children were not valued or treasured.
Sweet Lois Jean was born in LaHarpe, Illinois, not far from the Mississippi River and not long before World War 2 broke out. Her own mother, Edith, was only 16 when Lois Jean was born and barely a year later her father, George, died of cancer. One of the earliest pictures I have is of Lois Jean as a baby in her mother’s arms, taken the day of his funeral.
As the story is told, George, anticipating his death, asked an older fellow he had met at work to help care for his little family when he was gone. “Vic,” who was the divorced father of two, and 41 at the time, agreed to do so; within a year, he married Edith. Over the next 10 years, Vic and Edith had 4 more children, 3 boys and a girl. During this time, they moved to Peoria where Vic had a good job and provided well for his growing family.
As time went on, they divorced and Edith moved out, leaving behind all five children, including Lois Jean. The children were divided up and sent to foster homes but eventually Vic had both Lois and their oldest son back in his home. Not long afterward, Lois Jean conceived me. Through family members, I have learned that Vic was my birthfather; he was 54 and Lois was barely 14. Pictures of him as a young man show such a family resemblance that I have no doubt this is true; what I had long suspected was confirmed: I was conceived in both rape and incest.
Many people have asked me how I have been able to accept the truth about my conception and my response is that I can so clearly see God’s amazing plan for my own life through it all. You see, my birthmother went on to marry and had three more children. The first two had cystic fibrosis and died in early childhood; the third had drowned in a horrible boating accident when only seven. But God, in His sovereignty, chose to preserve my life, give me Christian parents, a wonderful husband, six children, and 14 grandchildren! What another had meant for evil, God meant for good!
The top picture is of me and the bottom one is of my three sweet half siblings.
Just recently, I was allowed to peek inside the cedar chest my birthmother had kept under the eaves in her attic. It was full of so many treasures: baby clothes worn by my siblings, their tiny hospital bracelets, a few toys, pictures taken on past Christmases, and baptismal certificates. At the bottom of the trunk in an old yellowed envelope was a single picture of a young girl, her round tummy just beginning to show a pregnancy, the date on the back matching the day my birthmother was taken to Crittenton Home. It was her only picture of me!
Lois Jean right before she was taken to Crittenton Home, June, 1953.
Today I am celebrating another year of life, a gift from God. I am so thankful for all the Lord has done for me, for His plans, for His providence, for His protection! My story has brought new meaning to Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
The blessing of family!