By the time I turned 16 and started looking for my birth mother, I was angry. I was suffering from “mommy abandonment issues” and I wanted to find her so I could punish her. I’m not proud of that fact, but it is the truth. I’m thankful I did not find her then. Emotionally, I was not ready for a relationship to begin between the two of us and I’m afraid, had I found her, things would have quickly fallen apart between us. So I say with gratitude, my journey to find my mother was a slow process with a ton of road blocks in the way. I started my search before there were computers like we know them, so my process involved writing letters and making phone calls. On my adoption papers it said her name was Gwendolyn English and I was born in Montgomery, AL. That’s all I had to go on. For some reason, since I loved English so much as a subject, I just knew she and I were destined to meet one day. In my heart, I knew it was just a matter of time until I found her.
But all of my searching seemed to lead towards more and more dead ends, and there were so many monumental events that took place that I wanted her to be there to witness. My high school graduation. My marriage. My graduation from college. My son’s birth. My divorce. My stroke. Yet, it was almost another twenty years after I began my search at age 16 before I found the woman on my birth certificate – Gwendolyn English. I remember walking to her door, anxious, even though she said she couldn’t wait for me to arrive. When she hugged me for the first time in my adult life, I felt like I had come home. My adopted family, especially my daddy, meant everything to me; I was thankful that I grew up a member of the Jackson family. But she was always the missing component. And then I found out that I had siblings, and having grown up an only child, I felt blessed beyond measure. Not to mention all of the fabulous aunts, uncles and cousins I inherited. My life was moving toward completeness.
A few months ago, a television show called “I’m Having Their Baby” aired, and it became a source of conversation for the two of us. The show was all about women who made the decision to give up their babies for adoption. One day my birth mom said, while we were discussing the show, “I wish I could talk to those young women and tell them how difficult it is to give up a baby.” Shortly after she said those words, I approached her about doing this interview with me. I think she was a little hesitant at first, but eventually, she and I made the decision to share part of our story. So, here it is. My interview with the woman who birthed me into this world and set me free for just a little while – Gwendolyn English Pendleton.
Hi, Mom. Tell me about that first year after the adoption.
I didn't handle the first year very well. In fact, I was nearly a basket case. I was determined to keep the adoption a secret, leaving me with no one to talk to, and at the time, I didn’t have God in my life, so I truly felt lost and alone.
When I was little, I used to pretend you were a Queen in a far-away kingdom, and one day, you would come and find me. What are some of the dreams you had about me and my whereabouts?
In my dreams of you, you were always an adult. I never saw you as a child. And when I did dream of you, I didn’t find you in the dream, you always found me. You were at the front door of the house. I never saw myself taking you from your adopted family. It would have been the wrong thing to do. My dream was seeing my daughter as a young lady, knocking at my front door. And, it almost happened just that way.
You mentioned that after you put me up for adoption, you went back looking for me. What was it like for you when you found out I had been adopted?
It was sad and then again, it was almost a relief that you had been adopted early and you weren’t stuck in a dreary orphanage, like the ones in the movies about abandoned children. You were such a beautiful baby. I did have some mixed feelings when I found out you had been adopted though. I was happy for you, but I was also disappointed because my deep desire was that I might reclaim you. However, I realized that getting you back would have been a difficult task since I had already signed away my rights. Another part of me decided that my baby was in a good home and I should allow her to grow up there. This decision finally gave me a level of peace.
In what ways did the adoption affect your relationship with my sister and brothers?
It made a difference when they were older and their father and I divorced. Having given you up, I knew I would not allow another child to get away from me. It made me want to hold on to them more. The adoption, I believe, caused me to be a stronger mom, and a more determined mom who would fight to keep my other children and not let anyone take them out of my arms.
Describe what your first thoughts were on that day I called you for the first time.
That day you called, I knew who you were before you even said your name, a name that I chose for you – Angela Denise. I knew your voice. It was our voice. And when you said your name I thought, God did just what he said he would. He brought my baby home!! It was a miraculous moment. It was glorious. It was awesome.
Because my adoption was a secret to most members of our family, how did you deal with my sudden re-appearance into your lives?
I called the family together and told them the truth. They were so wonderful and so understanding. I'll never forget it. I thank God for all my babies and my other family members.
You and I have spent the last 13 years trying to get to know each other. What has been some of the challenges? And what has been some of the great moments?
We need to be seeing each other more – that’s the challenge. The great moments were the very first time I saw you as a young lady and every time I've seen you since. The challenge has only been the physical distance between us.
If you could give advice to mothers contemplating adoption, what advice would you give to them for surviving those years apart from their child?
To be honest, I have no advice to give. Every woman must decide for herself what the right decision is for her. Fortunately, I came through by the grace of God. I know that God allows us to go through things for spiritual and mental maturity, even when we bring these things on ourselves. Would I make that decision to give up my baby again? I don't know. I'm not that person anymore. She was only 19 and very confused. I don’t believe I would do it now, knowing what I know. How do I know I wouldn’t give up my daughter – give up you? Because I'm stronger and wiser, and I know that I wouldn't have to go through it alone.
Mom, thank you for doing this interview with me. We’ve been through a lot together, both when we were apart and now that we are in each others' lives again. Let me say what I have said before, I have no regrets. I was loved. I was nurtured. I made a difference in the life of my parents who really wanted me. You did the right thing.
If you would like more information about adoption, visit the National Council for Adoption website by clicking here. If you would like to read more blog posts by me, visit my blog, “Writing in the Deep” by clicking here. Thank you for visiting my blog. Don't be a stranger.
A note from Angela: I grew up a church girl. It was expected where I came from in Ariton, Alabama. Unless you had a fever of 110 and were too delirious to walk and talk, you were going to be sitting in a pew on Sunday morning, and in the case of my church, Mt. Olive Baptist Church, some Sunday afternoons too. Not to mention Wednesday nights and those long revival meetings during the summer. Oh, I whined about having to sit and listen to our minister go on and on about God and family and community. But really, I didn’t mind, and to be honest, so many of those heartfelt sermons preached by upstanding men and women still live within me today. And anyway, for all of us “church girls and boys,” our church was an extension of home. Going to church every Sunday was like having a weekly family reunion. I got to catch up with my classmates. I got to see my aunts and uncles and cousins. And I got to visit with the Godly women and men who taught me to love everyone – from the person sitting next to me in the pew, to that “wayward sinner” who was one kind word away from becoming a “saint.” I will confess. I have never found what I experienced at my home church all those years ago. And I’ve looked. But I have found a friend who shares similar memories of her time when she too was a “church girl” in a little rural town in Southern Illinois. So, read her story. Even if you’ve never spent a second in church, you would be hard pressed not to feel a sense of longing for the rural American experience she shares in her essay below. Thank you, Lauren, for taking us back to a time that for many of us was as close to idyllic as it gets.
The Education of Lauren: One Hymn at a Time
by Lauren Bishop-Weidner
I remember sitting in “our” pew in the Rosiclare United Methodist Church (third from the front on the right), pretending to be good. I’d fidget in my seat, swing my legs one at a time, then both at once, count ceiling tiles, look out the stained glass windows, annoy my siblings. My sister Joanie and I would play complicated games, hiding our mischief under innocent expressions. We’d write coded notes and stifle our giggles, or see how many words we could make out of the sermon title. I’ve heard that some of God’s little pirates managed to smuggle in books to read, but I never got away with it. My book would be routinely confiscated, and I would have to listen—again—to the tedious lecture about respectful attention in church. One preacher’s son, older than I, openly read comic books, but this did not impact my parents’ judgment—if he jumped off a cliff, would I follow? Eventually, I accepted defeat and turned to the two books that were allowed, the Bible and the hymnal. The hymnal was easier.
My first forays into the Methodist songbook involved the faded brown ones, worn on the edges, copyright 1935, with old timey hymns like “Revive Us Again,” “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Power in the Blood”—hymns with simple tunes, simple harmonies, simple messages. I would thumb through and look for the ones I knew. Sometimes I’d discover to my great surprise that I’d been singing them wrong. “Rescue the parachute, care for the lifeboat” was really “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying;” and “Par, par, par in the blood” had nothing to do with golf. Who knew?
Sometime in the mid-1960s, we got new hymnals, bright red, with a lot more stuff in them—new creeds, new rituals, new songs. The “first lines” index in the red hymnal didn’t always include the more common names of hymns, plus I didn’t see those foot-stompin’ melodies I recognized. Another index showed who wrote what, and the sheer number of hymns next to certain names gave a lesson in miniature about poetry, history, music, and the connections among them. Certain names stood out: Fanny J. Crosby, William Bradbury, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts. Sunday by Sunday I grew up immersed in the liturgy and hymnody of the United Methodist Church.
The hymns breathed new life into old Bible stories, cautioned against sin, celebrated salvation, preached social action. The poetry mesmerized me long before my vocabulary caught up, with lofty, ethereal words you don’t hear every day: “mighty fortress;” “healing stream;” “Calvary’s mountain;” “visions of rapture;” “balm in Gilead;” “sore distressed.” Truly, “words with heavenly comfort fraught.” There were exhortations to repent, to give, to share, to help, “touched by the lodestone of thy love.”
The poetic words settled into my bones, and thanks to a comprehensive music program in our school, the music did, too. Through the efforts of both classroom teachers and music teachers, I was able to hear the songs in my head as I whiled away the boring sermon time. As my knowledge grew, I put the harmonies in, and despite the fact that I’m not all that musical, I understood how the hymns sounded.
By the time I was into harmony-reading, I was also into folk music. The protest era marched across the sound waves accompanied by a motley mix of rockers and troubadours—Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary; the Doors, the Stones, Janis Joplin; Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples. In church, I checked out their inspiration, filed under “Folk Hymns.” There weren’t many, and they were all lumped together: spirituals, Native American songs, immigrant tunes, mountain melodies. Printed in the middle of the bleakest, bloodiest years of the Civil Rights struggle and the protest against the Vietnam War, the red hymnal—and the United Methodist Church—took a quiet stand for justice. Granted, the arrangements of the folk tunes tended to look a lot like those of the Wesley or Watts hymns. Still, their inclusion represented a deliberate statement.
The newest update to the United Methodist Hymnal (1989) reflects assiduous attention to retaining what never changes and revising what does. In some hymns, gender-neutral language replaces the now-archaic use of “mankind” and masculine pronouns, changing words and rhythms in ways I’m not sure I like. But I do like the philosophy that says sexist language is wrong. The spirituals and work songs from the African-American tradition are more authentic and harder to sing. There are languages and folksongs from around the globe, giving the casual hymnal reader a multicultural education steeped in the church’s devotion to inclusiveness, a philosophy surely shared by the Jesus who dined with both Nicodemus and Zacchaeus, the Jesus who spoke kindly to loose women and sharply to church leaders.
You really can learn a lot from reading the hymnal.
Thank you for stopping by and reading Lauren's phenomenal essay. Click here to read more essays by Lauren. Please feel free to leave a comment below for her OR share your own "rural America" life experience. Click here to FOLLOW me on Facebook which will give you easy access to blog posts like Lauren's and information about my upcoming book, Drinking From A Bitter Cup. Again, thank you for visiting my blog. Don't be a stranger.