A mother reveals 70-year-old secret

Article from The Boston Globe:

Adoptee now seeks truth of his past

KINGSTON -- When David Adams celebrated his 70th birthday in 2004, he took pride in being someone who knew himself. The retired postal worker was a family man, with a loving wife, three grown children, and eight grandchildren. He was proud of his Nova Scotian heritage and had every reason to believe he had many good years ahead. His mother, still sharp enough to do cryptograms, was almost 100 years old.

Then one morning last year, his past and future were instantly transformed. Adams and his wife visited his mother, who had moved into a nursing home near the couple's home. Normally cheerful, she was somber. She asked her son to come sit close.

"I've been wanting to tell you something," she said in a near-whisper. ``But I was afraid."

Adams leaned toward his mother, whose curly white hair framed her narrow face.

"David," she said, looking straight at him. "You're adopted."

The family secret rocked him to the core. He would not be the first adult to learn about an adoption so late in life. But few people face the news as late as 70, from a parent who has concealed the secret for decades.

"I was very upset," Adams recalled about his initial reaction. "Imagine, you're 70 years old, and you've lived your life, and this comes up."

Hours after learning the truth, Adams and his wife drove to their 3-year-old grandson's birthday party. There, he pulled aside his grown children and relatives. Nobody could believe it. Why did Grandma wait until now to tell?

Three generations of the Adams family now had a new, mysterious genetic line coursing through their veins. And this man, once looking ahead to the final chapter of his life, now stared back at his beginnings. Might his birth parents still be alive? Could he have siblings?

Adams did not want his past to be a mystery. He wanted the truth to be part of his future, however painful the facts.

"Even if she said, I'm your mother and I gave you up because of this. . . . OK, well, at least I know," he said.

From his mother, he could only learn that in fall 1934, his parents, Bessie and James William Adams, went to St. Mary's Infant Asylum in Boston, seeking to adopt a child because Bessie had had multiple miscarriages. The couple were told they could choose between a 2-year-old boy and a 4-month-old baby boy. They chose the infant, whom they renamed James David Adams.

The couple told no one but Bessie's parents.

Adams turned next to private investigators, who were able to obtain some records about his adoption. Investigators warned that information from the period was sometimes falsified to protect the identity of the mother and child, so fictitious names could have been used.

Records show that Adams was recorded as Joseph Walsh, born June 25, 1934, to a woman named Mary Walsh of South Boston, who may also have been called Rose Marie. He was placed at St. Mary's. A registry has the number 20 next to her name, probably a reference to the age she gave. If she were alive today, she would be about 92.

Records indicate that months after the baby went to his new family, his legal adoption papers were completed by Catholic Charities of Boston on March 14, 1935.

Adams is considering asking a probate court judge to unseal his adoption records, though he has been told the process can take months and is likely to yield little new information.

Since learning about his past, Adams often feels confused, even angry. Taken from him, among other things, was the pride he felt in his blood connections to four grandparents from Nova Scotia. He has been haunted by questions: Would he have turned out a different man if he knew the truth as a child? The most familiar narrative of his life, solidified over seven decades, also must be recast.

"It's like I've been living a lie all these years, really," he said.

Still, he understands his parents' mindset seven decades ago, when many families kept adoption a secret. People saw as shameful the reasons behind many adoptions: a married couple's infertility, a single woman giving birth.

Adams said his hopes of identifying his birth family are fading. His queries to adoption reunification websites have not yielded anything. He has grown used to the idea he may only gain a faint sense of his origins, as an infant boy at St. Mary's and a mother who, perhaps, had the common name of Mary Walsh.

This summer, Adams has kept busy chauffeuring his grandsons to their baseball games, watching his favorite movies, and reading a Babe Ruth biography. He maintains his upbeat demeanor.

His new identity as an adopted person comes up now and then. During one doctor's appointment last year, he told the physician, ``Remember all that personal medical history I gave you? Well, it's all false."

One of his sons occasionally jokes and calls him Walshie. In the past month, Adams received a note from a longtime friend, Maureen, who urged him not to dwell too much on his mysterious past.

"Those of us who know you and love you already know who you are," she wrote. ``Your identity as a good man, a real Christian, a loving husband and father, a wonderful neighbor, is what we know," she wrote.

He now realizes why many people said he looked like neither parent, and why his mother, an avid photo collector, never had a picture of him as a newborn.

Adams said he would love his parents the same if he had known the truth at a young age. Adams was 13 when his father died of severe asthma, and he made sure to care for his mother. The Hyde Park High graduate returned to Boston soon after completing his Air Force duty in 1956. Even when his mother remarried Ernest Oldham, Adams always stayed in the Boston area to be near her.

At the Bay Path nursing home in Duxbury earlier this month, Bessie Oldham, now 101, smiled when she saw him walk through the door. She has told him as much as she knows about his adoption, including that she cried herself to sleep many nights, feeling guilty that she had not told him earlier. She never knew much about the birth mother, other than ``she has a good background. "

Sitting in a wheelchair in the shaded courtyard, she said she didn't know what made her talk to her son when she did. But it was a relief, she said.

"I know I kept it too long," she said.

She recounted going to an orphanage where she was shown the two boys.

"It was me picking you out," she said to her son, now 72. ``I want this one."

Adams grinned.

His mother spoke softly, thanking her son as he wrapped a white sweater around her shoulders. ``That's my baby," she said, looking at Adams.

When noontime came around, Adams looked at his watch. Lunch was being served in the dining hall.

"Come on, Ma," he said, steadily wheeling her back inside.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com 

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