Grandma Gertie always said there's not a savory dish that can't be made tastier by just a touch of tarragon.

Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Ghost of a Chance

Now you tell me...if you live alone, aside from a blind dog and some cowardly cats, does it pay to read ghost stories in the wee small hours? I stayed up until 1:30 this morning to finish The Woman in Black, and no, I have not seen the movie with Daniel Radcliffe, as much as I'm just wild about Harry. (A brief aside inserted here for full disclosure...I did get the video from Netflix and intend to scare myself silly again by watching it tonight.)

Stories of the supernatural and paranormal have haunted me for decades. It all started with Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher in 8th grade English. Next came Thorne Smith. Mama and I plowed through his Topper novels and conjectured about what kind of ghosts we'd turn into should we meet an untimely demise.

By the time I hit college I'd graduated to Henry James and The Turn of the Screw. Other favorites over the years have included Rosemary's Baby and The Shining. I'd give a lot to recall the name and author of a strange book I located in the Seychelles National Library, since I'd love to read it again. It featured a young heroine who moved into a house somewhere in the south, where she heard strains of a music box playing the Stephen Foster ballad, "I dream of Jeanie." You just know this is going to be traced to the ghost of a Civil War soldier.

But for ghostly times and places, I doubt that anything can shout "fright night" in such spectral overtones as the isolated English moors and marshes in Victorian and Edwardian times. Hence the appeal to me of The Woman in Black. Plus, the protagonist is accompanied by brave and winsome dog, Spider. I sure hope she trotted into the movie. As I approached the conclusion, I found myself reaching down beside the bed to pat my faithful Natty atop his furry head.

After the video I intend to begin Anne Rivers Siddons' The House Next Door. From what I gather from Stephen King's introduction, this might have a might actually be a haunted house without a ghost. The house itself might be malevolent. It is set in the south, after all...and you know how Gothic that part of our country remains.

I probably don't have a ghost of a chance of getting to sleep early tonight! Especially not if I hear the tinkling tune of "I Dream of Jeanie" echoing up the stairs at 3 a.m. The only music boxes I have play suitable lullabies such as "Camelot," "Toyland," and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

Incidentally, the lyrics of "I Dream of Jeanie" have haunted me all my life. My middle name is "Jeanne" and if you've read my previous blog you'll know that I was named after a birth mother who remains ever elusive.

Skip the ad on this video and move right to the recitation of Foster's lyrics.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mystery Partially Solved

Mother's Day is now 100 years old...and, as always, on this day I reflect on Mama, who raised me, and on the mysterious woman who gave me birth. This time, though, I have some news which sheds some light on the mystery of who she was.

Several years ago I wrote a story, "Dreaming as the Summers Die," which eventually was published in Mike O'Mary's book, Saying Goodbye. An online magazine, The Fertile Source, also published it...and interviewed me on the subject of adoption.

Here's the interview:

The Fertile Source has 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.

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?

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. 

Here's the link to the "Dreaming as the Summers Die"...which I conclude with my puzzlement about my birth mother's birthdate and the spelling of her name.

And here's my big news, just in time for Mother's Day. Yesterday on, I located my birth mother's birth record...and she was born in Spokane, WA, on May 12, 1917...and her name actually was Jeanne, with a double-n, like my middle name. I still can't find records of her after the 1940 census...but who knows what I might discover next!

Friday, May 9, 2014

The House of Burgesses

Grandma Gertie (Solander) Burgess, Albert, Luella, c. 1917
Luella Alma (Burgess) and Paul French, 1960
Back in 1976, the bicentennial year, before Mama started to slip into her long goodbye, the dementia which eventually took her life a decade later, I'd been regaling her with the plans Bob, my husband, and I had made to visit Hawaii that summer. Initially, I'd hoped for a trip to the east coast. I longed to see the Tall Ships, and visit Philadelphia. Who wouldn't want to take a picture of the Liberty Bell to celebrate two hundred years of independence?

But Bob and I waited too long to make travel arrangements, back in those pre-Internet days when prospective travelers had to book an appointment via Princess telephone with a certified travel agent. By the time I got to my agent's office, all reasonably-priced motels and B&Bs were fully booked.

Glancing around her office at the travel posters, I fixed my gaze on Diamond Head.

"I've never been to Hawaii," I confided. "Let me check with Bob tonight and I'll phone tomorrow. Maybe this could be an alternative." Bob concurred and we booked a tour via AAA of Oahu, Kauai, Maui and Hawaii.

I'd been going through the itinerary stop by stop, my voice rising in excitement, until Mama held up a hand.

"Good Lord," she said, "Why in the world would you`want to go to that tourist trap? I bet it will be just like Tiajuana."

Greatgrandfather John Burgess, c. 1919
Mama's travels had been limited to occasional forays across the California border into Mexico and two airplane trips with my father, accompanying him on business trips to Chicago and to Miami. She'd complained bitterly about the weather in each of those cities, living all her life in temperate Los Angeles County.

"Don't you have any curiosity about the rest of the world, Mama?"

She started to shake her head, and then paused.

"Well, if I could find out where my father's family lived in England before they came to America, I'd want to go there and see if I had any cousins or other relatives."

Nobody really seemed to know. Grandpa Joe had died in the early '40s and Grandma Gertie didn't keep in touch with the remaining Pennsylvania relatives as often as she did her own Solander siblings and their families. Besides, in 1976 she was 86, and her memory was fading.

Last week I finally discovered where they'd come from...and it was through a wonderful genealogy website that traces the history of the Burgess family back to northwest England. I'd Googled Grandma Gertie's name, hoping to find the date of her death, and a link to a website called Burgess of Davensham came up. I wondered how Grandma got on that website so followed the link. Grandma had made a Most Wanted list! I read this plea:

Joseph Burgess and Gertrude Solander of Los Angeles
Joseph Burgess was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Watts, Los Angeles Co. California. Where he is found on the 1920 and 1930 census He is know to have had at least 2 children Albert (born 1909) and Luella (born 1914) Any information on this family would be greatly appreciated.
I surfed around the website a little, and read this:
This site is dedicated to the Burgess family originally from Davenham, Northwich, Cheshire, England. Our earliest recorded ancestor Peter Burgess married Mary Burrow in 1772. My line then moved to Bakewell, then to Matlock Bath and finally to Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Enjoy your visit and please alert me to any corrections.
You could have slapped me upside the head and called me Philip Marlowe...that's how powerful a detective I felt. I rummaged through the photos I'd stashed in my duffel bag and recently sorted when my sister died the end of February. I fired off an email with updates on Grandpa and Grandma, their progeny and my complicated relationship to both Albert, my birth father, and his sister Luella, my adoptive mother.
Though I've been to England over a dozen times, I'd never actually been to Northwich, but I'd been at the railway station at Chester in Cheshire, on a train trip from Manchester to Holyrood, Wales. I'd no idea of course, that this is where those ancestors had lived during Victorian times. I'd heard the family rumor that Greatgrandfather John had been a gardener for the queen...and my newly discovered distant cousin in Canada, who maintains the website, verified that rumors have abounded for decades that some members of the family might have been in service to the royal family.

I'm still browsing and uncovering information. But,'s my Mother's Day present to you...though you never got to these places, my next trip to England I'll visit Matlock Bath, where our branch still seems to have roots. 

I wish I could take you with me, Mama, but I know you'll be with me in spirit.