Over on The Fertile Source, I’ve just published Terri Elders’s short essay, “Dreaming as the Summers Die,” about her childhood longing to know about her birth mother, a longing that has sustained her throughout her adulthood as she considers the mystery of the woman who gave her birth. Here, I interview Terri on her thoughts about writing, adoption, and her ongoing curiosity about her birth mother.
Terri, your essay is a profoundly moving piece about your childhood curiosity, fear, wonder, and pain over your relationship with your “real” (that is, birth) mother vs. the mother who adopted you. What led you to write this piece?
I write true stories for anthologies and I saw a callout for stories about adoptions from Chicken Soup for the Soul, and submitted it. It was not selected for that volume on adoptions. I later sent it to Cup of Comfort for consideration. It was not selected, but another story was, “Magic and Miracles,” about the actual day my sister and I went to court for our adoption.
Did writing it dredge up old memories or did it feel healing to consider this issue through art?
I always find it healing to write about relationships and experiences. I’ve been writing since I was a child.
Towards the end of your essay you mention that your master’s degree helped you understand adoptees’ need to seek out their birth mothers, their need for answers. What is that need? What do you think birth mothers can do to help meet that need? What do you think adoptive parents can do to help meet that need?
When I was at UCLA getting my MSW, Los Angeles County Adoptions was my first year field placement. The emphasis was on the child needing a home, the adoptive family needing to parent and the birth mother unable or unwilling to provide for an infant or child. I did some research on adult children seeking connection, and talked with birth mothers seeking to connect with adult children. Because I actually knew my birth mother, having been adopted by relatives, my case was a little different. That she’d disappeared and nobody knew what happened to her, is what made it all such a mystery. Later my older sister disappeared for nearly 30 years, compounding the mystery for me. Later I learned that she had several more children and grandchildren…I felt devastated. I still write about our childhood experiences together, but have not had an adult relationship with her. We exchange cards and gifts on holidays, but I’ve seen her once in 50 years. When people drop out of your life unexpectedly, it complicates the grieving process. Sometimes I think it’s easier to accept a death than it is to accept a disappearance. It’s that not knowing that’s so haunting. Adoptive parents can understand that some adult children wanting answers may be an innate need to solve a puzzle.
In your seventies now, do you feel like you have found peace with this issue that has haunted you over a lifetime—who was your mother and what part of her is part of you?
I’ve been trying to find peace with all the tangled relationships…writing about them always helps. My late husband died without forgiving his own mother, and a few others that he had felt crossed him in some way, and though he claimed he had no regrets about not forgiving, I suspect he did.
What are you currently working on (artistically)?
I’m working on a piece about forgiveness. I’m thinking of calling it “Forgiving Charles Dickens.” There’s two meanings to that title. I just returned from the University of Cambridge International Summer School, where I studied Victorian history and literature. I have a lot of stories to write from that experience, and one is about Charles Dickens and his inability to ever forgive his mother for trying to return him to the blacking factory where he worked while his father was in debtors prison, and how I think that impacted his future relationships with woman, and how he portrayed women in his novels.