Links to the posts on the search for my birth family in chronological order are below.
Happiest 2019 to all of you Beauties!! I wish for you all every good thing!
Here it is the first week of 2019, as I sit down to write I am bubbly and full to the brim with gratitude for my own 2018. Bad as it was on so many fronts globally, I had an amazing year both professionally and personally. You've read about my exploits as the months have gone by (or if you haven't here are some of the highlights).
2018 gave me the happiest day of my life, so far, when Mom sent me that incredible birthday package. How do I describe the joy in knowing that I had truly been loved and missed? I've always said and believed deeply that whatever the circumstances were which had led my mother to make the decision of giving me up for adoption, they must have been difficult. I didn’t dwell on how she felt about me. I just assumed it was difficult and I thought that that intellectual understanding ensured that I was not touched by a sense of rejection, but listen... the hole I had no idea existed in my heart was filled that day. If you haven’t seen that post- it is so worth taking a look at. I promise happy tears…
So where were we? Back in Louisiana in November, eminent journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered and there were rumors of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement, while fires raged in Paradise, California. Shirley and I discussed these and other current affairs as we ran around Shreveport, Louisiana preparing for our upcoming trip to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee where we would meet a whole slew of family for Thanksgiving.
I’m proud of the empathy and deep concern my mother shows, her sharp criticism of Trump. Immersed as we were in one another; that backdrop was impossible to ignore. More pressing though was the need to share all we could with one another of our lives and so many first times.
As I walked through the rooms of Mom and Randolph’s house I was thoroughly enchanted by the sheer blackness of the photos, paintings, knickknacks… and then coming across photos of myself in each room among the many photos of the rest of the family, well, it surprised me and gave me a jolt of such pleasure. Somehow it was unexpected that I would be integrated in this manner. Soothing the pinch of hurt that I had felt at not being included in my adoptive family history books which were sent to me by relatives on my adoptive maternal and paternal side.
At the top of the page on my note-taking app when I began this trip, I wrote: “Clarity, transparency, regarding this account, is paramount. No sugar coating- think David Sedaris.” Sedaris! I wouldn’t blame you for accusing me of overreaching with that comparison, you all would be so much happier, I imagine, if I had his remarkable ability in painting an amusing yet touching anecdote out of all this. Nonetheless, I can only really tell my own story, and I’m so grateful to my new found blood family for not only allowing me to tell it but to encourage me in “testifying”, in sharing this story for the good that it might bring.
Soon before the trip to Tennessee, I met my birth sister Rhonda who would be taking the 12-hour drive with us. Rhonda was perhaps the biggest revelation of the journey. While I had gotten a bit of an idea of what Casandra and Katherine are like from their social media as well as some conversations, Rhonda was still a mystery to me. She’s not active online, is reserved and an extremely devout Christian. Now I am one of those people (irritating? fey? new agey? alternative? just downright silly?) who feels as if they are spiritual while rejecting organized religion. Many of my songs, like Open Letter...
...are about my struggle with this. I tend to have a prejudice towards those who are fervently pious. There have just been, and continue to be, so many atrocities in the name of faith that I cannot feel connected to a higher power through those rituals. I’ve witnessed hypocrisy by so many who call themselves “true believers” as well, that I am wary in the extreme, but let me tell you about my sister.
Rhonda is one of the most beautiful, joyful, sweet, kindhearted, open, generous, loving, souls I have ever encountered. I know I know that’s a LOT of adjectives, and yeah she's my newly found birth sister. Remember my vow though: Transparency! Clarity! NO SUGAR COATING! Each can be fairly attributed to her and more- there are very deep waters running through her. She is without subterfuge of any kind and is thoroughly devoted to her family, her God, and her work as a nurse. I am, clearly, enamored of her in the extreme. Rhonda sees coincidences as God’s hand in the same way as I see them as a glimpse of some otherworldly pattern. Isn’t the faith in something other than this plane something we share after all? What is meditation and songwriting if not prayer of some sort? Rhonda, I’m so grateful. You’ve helped me realize that I hold too tightly to my bias in this regard. I’ll save my thoughts regarding my own spiritual beliefs for another post, suffice it to say that despite my inherent guardedness regarding the faithful I hold a deep respect for those who through their faith illuminate this world as she does. One Love.
So Tuesday, November 20th, at an entirely uncivilized hour, we all piled into the van to make our way to Tennessee. In the van were Rhonda’s husband Ivry as well as her sons Christopher and Ryan- Chris’s baby girl Christin, Ryan’s babies Greyson and Bailey, Mom and I.... 12 hours. In a van. With 3 young children. A recipe for disaster you might think, but quite the contrary. Even Rhonda’s emergency bag of distractions for the children didn’t need to be employed until the return journey. I was fascinated with everything outside the van and in.
Chris, Rhonda. Backseat Christin, Bailey, Greyson
Ryan, me, Mom Backseat Chris and Rhonda
I kept thinking, “I cannot, cannot!, believe I’m in the Deep South on a road trip with my blood relatives!” as the miles rolled out behind us and then there we were crossing the Mississippi River. We drove by Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Irondale. Birmingham and Trussville, Alabama. Chattanooga, Wildwood, Rising Fawn, Tennessee.
Those names - the weight of them. I wanted to get off the highway at each one and breathe. I felt ghosts all along the stretch- all that suffering, all that struggle. The newly acquired knowledge that my ancestors, my great-grandmother Melissa White and her mother Lula were slaves, kept me thinking of what life must have been for them. How their hardiness resides in me.
Melissa White Photo from Gwendolyn McShepard's 'zine for the 2003 White Family Reunion
Lula Riggs. Photo from Gwendolyn McShepard's 'zine for the 2003 White Family Reunion
We stopped a few times for fuel for the car and ourselves; encountering predominantly white faces and I was looking so hard. Really happy that it was nowhere near as scary as I imagined it might be. Self consciously aware of my northern accent, passing the time of day with all I encountered. Hearing those drawls, seeing them and beneath some, a superimposed glimpse of their ancestors. Most were beautifully kind and welcoming. But every once in a while underneath the jollity lay something else entirely, every once in a while there was a look, a hardness, a whisper of what was buried not too deeply beneath-sending goosebumps up my spine. That hard living, sharp-faced woman in her forties at the truck stop’s diner- long dirty blond hair. She'd be beautiful if not for that meanness emanating from her. I watched her reflection glare at me from the mirror and her sudden cold smile, when I faced her, which came nowhere near her calculating eyes. Made my heart beat faster and made me so thankful to all those who have come before and insured that, at least in this very public setting, she couldn’t give vent to her distaste without overstepping the line they’d drawn, though as I coolly returned her stare, I dared her to try. She dropped her gaze, and back to the van, I went.
Next up the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and meeting my beautiful birth sister Casandra, my wonderful cousin Gwen, my Auntie Selber and much much more...
Posts on the search for my birth family in chronological order here: