Why I Travel to France

I was born in the Central Florida city of Tampa and am a “baby boomer.” My parents, grandparents, and several of my great-grandparents were also native Floridians. In the late 18th century my paternal grandmother’s ancestors traveled to New Smyrna from Minorca, Spain as indentured servants to Andrew Turnbull. Her father, who was from Scotland, worked for the Florida Eastcoast railroad beginning in the late 19th century, and the family lived in Miami for awhile at a time when it was complete wilderness. The story goes that my great-grandmother insisted they move to Tampa because of the nighttime sounds of panthers screaming in the swamps of south Florida. In Tampa, my great-grandfather went to work for the railroad built by H.B. Plant. My grandmother later married my paternal grandfather, a plumber in the shipyards, and his family completely disowned him because he had married a Catholic.

My great-grandfather on my maternal grandmother’s side was a concert violinist. Both my great-grandmother and grandmother attended college, rare for women at the time, and were very kind and gentle people. I’m not sure what attracted my grandmother to my paternal grandfather, but assume she liked the “bad boy” type, which is exactly what she got.

I know a good bit more about my family’s history, especially since some of my mother’s cousins have done searches and built family trees going back to the American Revolution, but assume you get the idea. However, all of this ancestry has really just been borrowed by me because, as an infant, I was adopted.

I never remember NOT knowing that I was adopted and give credit to my parents. I always felt loved and cherished. I was told they picked me out of the nursery at the hospital because I was “the most beautiful baby there,” and took me home three days after my birth. As I got older, I sensed that any demonstration of curiosity about being adopted caused a lot of pain, especially with my mother. She would tear-up and leave the room if I hinted I had questions, so I learned to keep them to myself.

I began to wonder more about my family background, particularly when the time came to write about our “ancestors” in school. Who did I write about? I knew the stories of my parents’ families, but as a child I couldn’t help wondering if it was cheating by claiming to be related to those folks?

I knew I was loved, but I was also different from everyone in my family. They were loud, gregarious, and out-going; I was quiet and introverted. They had numerous friends; I had a few very select friends. My parents were my parents, and my extended family (a very large one) was my family, but who had I really come from and what was my biological family background? I hadn’t a clue. For all I knew I came from Mars. This didn’t really bother me most of the time, but was always just “there.”

I was about 18 when my father finally began to open up to me about the circumstances of my adoption. My mother, who had several miscarriages and had been warned not to get pregnant again, had a physician who basically brokered babies. He arranged for young women who were pregnant and planned to give up their babies to come to Tampa from “New York,” though I suspect they were from various parts of the northeastern United States. The doctor worked with Catholic Charities to place babies with adoptive families. The adoption laws in the state of Florida were very loose back then and this doctor had a lot of power in placing babies in adoptive homes.

It turned out that the reason my mother became so upset whenever I tried to ask questions was because my biological family had tried to get me back at some point early on, causing my adoption to be rushed through by the doctor, my parents’ attorney, and the judge (I figured most of this out years later). My mother was constantly fearful that she would lose me, and now I had more to think about. They wanted me back? What’s the whole story here?

Whenever I’d go to a new doctor I could never answer family medical history questions. I assumed it would be nice to know what to look out for (or maybe it’s nice not knowing). When I reached my forties I became ill, and though it turned out to be something not all that significant I used the opportunity to apply to the Florida courts for the release of all my adoption records with the hope of getting medical and family background. Both my parents had recently died and I no longer needed to be protective of them. I got copies of my original birth certificate, adoption papers, and a report from the Catholic Charities caseworker, but not much else. The involved parties were either dead or had dementia, and both the hospital and attorney’s offices had lost their records in mysterious “fires.”

I also hired an investigator who specialized in adoptions to look into my case. The investigator met with many dead ends and concluded most of the details listed in my papers were fabricated. When I spoke with the adopted daughter of the original physician she told me her father had made up information for most of his adoptive babies to completely guarantee anonymity. At this point I was so frustrated I really didn’t care that much anymore; it just would have been nice to have some information. The report did state that I had older siblings. Could I have brothers or sisters out there somewhere? Do they even know about me? I will probably never know.

About seven years ago, on a whim, I decided to submit my DNA for testing since the process had become so easy. I didn’t expect much, but maybe I could find out that my physical traits came from what were supposed to be Scottish ancestors. Basically, through testing, and then a little more testing, I not only found out my ancestral heritage, I also had a distant match with someone else!

So, to skip forward over a lot of details, “Mary” and I contacted each other and, weirdly enough, she was adopted as a young child, too. Someone has a cruel sense of humor! However, when she was about fifty, Mary’s older siblings, who had been raised by their parents, found her and she was able to spend several years getting to know them before they died. Mary and I exchanged emails and talked on the phone. She also sent me a complete family tree of her maternal side, which is where our connection is, and it had the most wonderful names on it going back to France in the 1600’s! It seems many of my relatives were French Huguenots who immigrated to Staten Island, New York due to religious persecution. Their relatives later moved to New Brunswick, Canada about the time of the American Revolution, and then down into Maine, which is where Mary was born and raised.

So now I had a bit of family history and, coincidentally, I had just agreed to travel to France for the first time with a good friend who had planned a trip and didn’t wish to travel alone. I had never been to France, knew no French, and had forgotten most of what I ever learned of French history in school. I found my initial trip to be the beginning of a new, unique chapter in my life and I have returned every summer for a total of seven years. Each time I go I learn more about myself as a person and delight in the wonderful history and culture experienced on my trips.

Since getting the original results I’ve learned of a few more connections to ancestors of English, Irish, and Scottish heritage, but have not received anything close to the detailed family tree sent to me by Mary. I occasionally scan the Internet for possible relatives and have followed some leads via Mary, but I find I am content with this little bit of information. I am grateful to have been raised by such loving parents and in such a wonderful extended family, and am thankful for the richness my visits to France have added to my life. This year I will be traveling to the La Rochelle area where my early ancestors lived. I can’t wait!

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