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No More Mistakes About Adoption: Episode 3

Sometimes you need more than love; you need special training and special help.

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No More Misconceptions About Adoption: Episode 1

Would he hate us for loving him this much? We didn’t know.

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Candid Conversations to Help Heal Adoption Trauma

An adoptive parent’s perspective

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Some Stories about Adoption (and ADHD)

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They Never Talked about The War

Until I Met Viet Nam Vets of the 101st Airborne

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My Life Without TV Until Covid and George Floyd

Early TV in a store window
Photo by Simone Daino on Unsplash

TV hit Denver in the 1950s but I didn’t care until I became a TV addict watching for the latest news about COVID 19 and then the murder of George Floyd and the protests for justice.

D-Day | TV | George Floyd | Covid 19 | Adoption

Watching TV in a Window

Nobody had a TV yet. My cousins and I stood outside the window of an appliance store watching what looked like a movie in a wooden box. My friends and I were intrigued. Some couldn’t wait until their Father would buy them this thing called a “television.”

Soon everyone in the neighborhood had a TV. Everyone in my extended family had a TV. Probably everyone in Denver had a TV except the Wagners who lived on Cook St: my father, my mother, and me. The Wagners who lived on Cedar Avenue had a TV. Grandmother Wagner had a TV.

My Uncle Buys a TV

On New Years Day, my Father would drive us to my cousins’ house. They had a TV. We watched the Rose Bowl Parade broadcast live from Pasadena. Oohd and ahhd at the floats. Drank orange juice and ate donuts.

Imagine if you will, the Rose Bowl Parade in black and white!

My Best Friend’s Father Buys a TV

My best friend’s father bought her family a TV. It was a sad time in our friendship. We’d be happily playing jacks or tether ball in Sharra’s backyard. Then she’d announce that she had to go inside to watch Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger on TV.

“You can watch too. Mama says it’s ok. She’s made a pitcher of Kool-Aid for us. I think she has cookies.” I didn’t want to watch TV, even with Kool-Aid and cookies. So I’d go home and back to the book I’d been reading.

My Father Buys a TV

Finally my Father, not all that interested in TV but not wanting to be left out, bought a TV. It lived in the basement.

He watched TV on Sunday night, on the condition that my Mother, my Grandmother, and I watched with him. He’d pound on the ceiling with a broom handle to make sure we knew to come downstairs to watch with him. After “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “What’s My Line” ended, the TV went off until next Sunday night.

My desk for doing homework was in the same room as the TV. One of my Mother’s friends discovered this. “Mary, how can you have the TV in the same room where MaryJo is supposed to be doing her homework? Surely that’s a distraction.” My Mother assured the TV wasn’t keeping me from doing homework.

It had never dawned on me that I might turn on the TV. Not that I didn’t find other distractions to keep me from my homework, but that’s another story.

No TV in Jersey

Chris, one of our sons, was critically ill in Denver while we were living in NJ. Knowing the situation was too much for Chris’ wife, Eric, my husband, took a leave of absence from his job to help care for Chris. Eric would be in Denver for four months before I called the cat sitter for Rabbie and Mitzi so I could fly out to Denver.

For four months, our TV remained silent. It never crossed my mind that I might want to watch TV. Why would anyone watch TV if one could read?

Turning on the TV in 1982

However, I did watch TV twice, once in 1982 and again in 1983. One morning I got out of bed, made coffee, wandered into the living room in my pajamas, and turned on the Television.

Tuning into the morning news, I was mesmerized by clips from old newsreels and radio broadcasts: Eisenhower speaking to the Troops before they boarded the C47s which would take them to Normandy. Roosevelt reassuring the American people on the radio. Edward R. Morrow, the famed journalist of World War Two, reporting on the paratroopers landing in Normandy, the troops storming Omaha Beach.

I had tears in my eyes. How odd? On June 6, 1982, I turned on the TV. I was watching the 38th anniversary of D-Day with no plan ahead of time, no realization of the importance of the day.

I never watched TV and certainly not first thing in the morning. And why did I have tears in my eyes? I thought of all the men in my family: my Father didn’t join the service. Nor did Uncle Harold. Uncle Bob did, but he was a medic stationed in California. Uncle Jack did also, but again he never left the States.

Nobody had ever talked about D-Day or the War. Despite having a PhD in American history, except for a book about women during the War and a movie about Rosie the Riveter, I’d never studied D-Day or the War.

A year later, June 6, 1983, I turned the TV on once more. Again, not planning to watch TV. Not realizing it was the 39th anniversary of D-Day. Stephen crawls out of bed, gets ready for school, and wanders into the living room. “Mom, what are you doing? You never watch TV.”

My Birth-Father on TV

Many years later, I would discover that my birth-father, John Derrick Halls, 101st Airborne, 506 PIR, landed in Normandy and died in the morning of June 6, 1944 at the Battle of Brecourt Manor. The actor, Andrew Scott, would play him in Steven Spielberg’s HBO series, “Band of Brothers.” (Read more about this story here.)

I can’t explain what led me to watch the D-Day commemorations in 1982 and 1983. But the tears I couldn’t explain at the time were for John Derrick Halls.

Fast forward: March 2020

Covid 19 hit the country. 100s are dying, soon thousands. The hospitals are overwhelmed without enough ventilators, PPE, and intensive-care beds.

Some suggest that perhaps we should let all those over 65 die. I gasp. I panic. Someone thinks it’s ok for me and Eric to die from the virus: a mom, a dad, a grandmom, a granddad, a great-grandmom, a great-granddad. It’s not time for us to die. Our family needs us.

We don’t understand if other countries can squash the virus, why can’t the U.S.

Now Eric and I are watching TV news every night, night after night. I’m wearing a mask to the grocery store, arriving when it opens at 7 am on Tuesdays for seniors. I’m staying home and worrying about Eric who goes to work each morning. He’s considered an essential worker. Sometimes in the middle of the day, I turn on the TV for more news.

Eventually the daily number of deaths start going down. Politicians stop suggesting old people should be left to die. I calm down for myself, for Eric. We have health insurance. But we’re appalled at the high percentage of Black and Latino Americans who are dying from COVID 19 because they don’t have health insurance.

We’re still watching TV every night although not three or four news shows one after another.

May 25, 2020

Then George Floyd is murdered in Minneapolis by a cop with his knee in Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. We’re re-addicted to hours of TV news.

In addition to the number of deaths from COVID 19, we’re grieving, once more, the death of another unarmed Black man. We’re old enough to remember the Civil Rights Movement, the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act.

Now, 56 years later, we gasp at how little progress has been made.

I look again at a poster from 1943. Once upon a time, we did the right thing. American troops liberated starving Jews from Hitler’s concentration camps: more than 20,000 prisoners at Buchenwald. Our troops also liberated Dora-Mittelbau, Flossenbürg, Dachau, and Mauthausen.

We have fought for liberty. We have fought for justice. We did it in Europe. Why can’t we do it at home?

I am sad. Maybe I wouldn’t be so sad if I could go back to the days when I never watched TV.

World War 2 poster: Americans will always fight for liberty
Photo by Boston Public Library on Unsplash

Watching D-Day 39 years later on TV is part of my longer story about my birth-father’s death on D-Day.

You’ll find me at For a list of common adoption challenges, grab my free Adoption Checklist for Women: 25 Life Issues.

“Shooting Myself in the Foot describes the fear some adopted folks have over going against their parents’ wishes . . or how it took me four years to write a master’s thesis and what I did with it! More adoption stories include Losing the Letters of Willa Cather: An Adoption Story about Unworthiness and the trauma of Losing a Father

In addition to writing about adoption, I also offer words of wisdom for ADHDers. (Not only do I suffer from ADHD, but so do a large number of adopted folks.) One trick for ADHDers is To-Do lists. Keeps the overwhelm down . . . until you have too many to do lists. Get your To Do List help now. Or read Why I Love ADHD. If you’re a writer or a wannabe writer, take a look at my week of Writing a Memoir challenge.

You might also like musings on Staying at Home because of COVID 19: The Good, The Bad, and the Not So Ugly.

Thanks to ADHD, I’m writing two books at the same time: “Finding My Hero: An Adoption Memoir from World War Two” and “Growing Up Adopted: Love Wounded.” (One is the story of my birth-father and his family. The other, the story of the family who adopted and raised me with love . . . and made lots of mistakes. (No family is perfect!)

My Life Without TV Until Covid and George Floyd was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Losing a Father | Trauma | Adoption

Losing a Father | Trauma | Adoption

The Empty Chair

Suddenly Losing a Father: The Trauma and Emotional Consequences

Empty chair with open book on table
Licensed by 123rf, copyright Katarzyna Białasiewicz


I hadn’t planned on traveling home at Christmas during my first year away from home since college. My Father and I had argued about my going to graduate school. He didn’t want me to go. I went anyway. He insisted I come home for Christmas. Furthermore, I’d have to pay for the trip myself. After checking the price of a plane ticket, I got a round-trip Trailways bus ticket. I stood in an unruly mob, everyone trying to board the bus at once. No orderly line. I was apprehensive. Next stop Indianapolis where I held my seat mate’s baby all night. Then Kansas City where I stayed in the lounge of the women’s restroom waiting for the loudspeaker to announce “now boarding for Denver.” Too many single men wandering around on the main floor made me uncomfortable.

The bus was late. I called my parents from a bus stop off the highway somewhere in the middle of Kansas. My Father was cross that I didn’t know my exact location. I have no memories of that Christmas after my parents picked me up at the bus station in Denver.

I assume we put up a Christmas tree, that my parents argued about whether to put tinsel on the tree. Surely we went to church on Christmas Eve after opening our presents. My Father probably ushered. We must have gone to my cousins’ on Christmas morning to look at their presents and pretend once more to be amazed at my uncle’s tropical fish. Surely somebody in the family had Christmas dinner at their house. Maybe it was our turn? Maybe I set the table? That’s what we’d always done.

After Christmas, I took the bus back to Ohio, my attic apartment, and graduate school.

That Christmas would be the last time I saw my Father. Unlike my Mother, he enjoyed Christmas: the tree, singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” at church, eating too much chocolate, getting a new necktie and a book or two.

Christmas tree
Photo by Walter Lee Olivares de la Cruz on Unsplash


Six months later, out of a sound sleep, I heard loud knocking on the door at the bottom of the stairs up to my little attic apartment. Mrs. Parks, my landlady, called out “MaryJo, wake up, wake up. Come downstairs right away. Your Mother is on the phone.”

I was a poor graduate student at Ohio State University, renting from a lovely woman whose house was too big for just one person. She rented the ground floor to another graduate student, his wife, and a new baby. Mrs. Parks lived on the second floor. I lived in the attic and shared the bathroom and telephone with her. We were good friends. I paid $50 a month for my cozy two rooms, a stove and sink under one gable and my bedroom under the other gable, so short I had to bend over to get in bed.

I ran down the stairs, barefoot in my nightgown, into Mrs. Parks’ bedroom to answer the phone. “Hi, I’m here.” One of my uncles, the doctor in the family, answered, “Your Father had a heart attack. He expired a few hours ago. I’ll let you talk to Mary.” My Mother got on the phone, no tears, just her firm, stoic voice. “You must come home immediately. Frances (my aunt) and I will meet you in Chicago so you don’t have to wait alone for the flight to Denver. Frances bought your ticket. You can pick it up at the airport. Take a cab if Mrs. Parks’ nephew can’t take you.”

“Expired?” I’d never heard that word for “died.” And I’ve never heard it since. But I knew what it meant. I told Mrs. Parks that my Father had died. He was 61. In good health. Didn’t smoke. Didn’t drink. Wasn’t overweight. When he had lawyer business to take care of, he walked from his office in the Equitable Building on 17th St. to the Denver Court House. He had walked to the Court House that afternoon.

Photo by Mike Meyers on Unsplash

Going Home

Back upstairs, before the shock and grief hit me, I was sure I couldn’t go home right away. A stack of blue books sat on my desk. I had my students’ final exams to grade. In the morning, I called my advisor, explaining what had happened. He told me to bring the blue books to his office. My graduate student colleagues would grade them. He agreed with my Mother that I was to fly home as soon as possible.

The morning after I got home, I walked down stairs from my bedroom, looked into the sun room, and saw my Father’s favorite chair. It was empty.

The book on the table next to it was open so he could quickly pick up where he’d left off. I could see the latest issue of The Saturday Evening Post sticking up from the magazine rack on the other side of his chair. This was the chair he sat in every night since I could remember. The same chair we sat in together when I was so little I could sit in his lap while he read The Chosen Baby to me.

There was no television in the room. Next to his chair, just books to read, magazines to skim, and a Reader’s Digest open to the “Word Power Quiz.” He was proud that he always got 100% on the quiz. My Father liked words.

The grief of losing him was overwhelming, but I knew my Mother would scold me if I started crying.

Dr. Babbs, the minister from Park Hill Methodist Church, came. I sat quietly as he and my Mother discussed the funeral arrangements. My mother wanted it in the Little Ivy Chapel at Fairmount Cemetery, the same cemetery where my Father’s parents and grandparents were buried. The cemetery where my Father’s ashes would be put in the ground. But

Dr. Babbs insisted the funeral be held in the church sanctuary. “Mary, that little chapel isn’t big enough. Everyone loved Raymond. This is a terrible shock, and lots of people will be at the funeral.”

My Mother and I discussed the music the organist would play. I insisted on Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Schubert’s “Serenade.” “Well dear,” the organist instructed me, “you know we don’t play the Schubert “Serenade” at church. It’s not religious music and not for organ. Furthermore, I don’t have the music.”

I insisted and for once my Mother didn’t contradict. She knew the Schubert “Serenade” was my father’s favorite. He had played it on the piano by ear. I told the organist I’d give her the piano music and was sure it wouldn’t be hard to play on the organ.

Pipe organ
Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

The Funeral: More Trauma
On the day of the funeral the family gathered at our house. The black limousine arrived, and I panicked. I couldn’t ride in it. My Mother and my Aunt fussed at me. Admonished me not to be so emotional. Finally an understanding uncle intervened, “It’s ok, Mary. MaryJo can come with me in our car.”

I sat in the front row with my Mother on one side and my Aunt on the other side. During Dr. Babbs eulogy, even though I tried not to cry, tears started flowing quietly. My Aunt handed me her handkerchief with roses embroidered in the corner.

After the service, my Mother and I stood in the receiving line while friends, lawyers my Father knew, businessmen who met every day for lunch in the Denver Dry Goods Tea Room, people from church, neighbors, and several people we didn’t know told us what my Father meant to them, about his kindness and generosity.

Later my Mother wanted to know about that older woman wearing the gray hat with the black ribbon. Who was she? I didn’t know. She asked me about a couple other people neither of us knew. Dr. Babbs was right. People loved my Father.

Back at our house, my Aunt and my Mother chastised me for crying at the funeral and embarrassing the family. Didn’t I know better? Fifty years later and not long before my cousin Peggy died, she asked me if I remembered how I’d “ruined” my Father’s funeral by crying. Did I remember how upset everyone was at me? How could I forget?

Now, I’m mature enough to realize I had done nothing wrong. That my family’s response was cruel and crazy. Why on earth would someone think it was naughty and embarrassing for a daughter to cry at her father’s funeral?

My Best Friend and The Gazelle

Everyone had been at the funeral except my best friend and her mother. She and her family had gone to visit her grandmother in Kansas. As soon as they came home, I ran out the back door, opened the gate, and dashed down the alley to my friend’s. Her back door was open. I ran up the stairs and into the kitchen.

“MaryJo, whatever is wrong?” asked her Mother. “The Gazelle died,” I relied. They hadn’t seen the obituary in The Denver Post. Sharra’s Mother hugged me. Sharra had tears in her eyes.

My Father loved Sharra. She was his favorite of my friends. He played croquet with us, took us for Dairy Queens, and to City Park in the summer for band concerts. Took us to Elitch’s, a favorite amusement park (before it was torn down, rebuilt in a different location, and torn down again). She went with us on rare weekends to the elegant Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.

One day Sharra asked me if I thought we should have a nickname for my Father. Calling him Mr. Wagner” seemed too serious and formal for such a good and fun friend. I agreed. So we took this nickname idea to my Father. He liked the idea. We suggested various animals and told him he could choose. He didn’t care for “aardvark.” And finally decided on “Gazelle,” a graceful animal, both gentle and swift.

My Father died in 1965. Sharra is still my best friend. We still talk about The Gazelle. “Remember when we tricked The Gazelle into eating the coconut clusters in the box of Russell Stover’s because neither of us liked coconut clusters?” We remember and laugh.

a gazelle
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

Back to Graduate School

I stayed home for the summer and somehow managed to keep the peace with my Mother. We drove back Columbus to pack up the things in my attic apartment for storage. Mrs. Parks needed to rent the apartment, and I’d decided to share a “real” apartment in the fall with a friend. A few days later, we drove back to Denver.

At the end of the summer, I took the bus back to Columbus, leaving my beloved Colorado mountains behind. I would enroll in classes toward a master’s degree in musicology and greet another batch of undergraduate students. I taught “Introduction to Music History” to non-music majors who needed to fulfill a humanities requirement. I lectured. We listened to Renaissance music, to Bach and Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. I loved it.

And I grieved for my Father.

Photo by Juan Encalada on Unsplash

My Fault?

Years passed: marriage, a baby, a divorce, a PhD, and ironically returning to Ohio State to teach. Eventually I remarried and moved back to Denver. Deeply depressed, I began therapy where I discovered that on some deep level, I felt responsible for my Father’s death. Would he have lived longer if I hadn’t angered him by leaving home and going to graduate school?

The emotional fall-out of a death is often stronger for an adopted woman than for a non-adopted woman. Many of us can feel that if don’t do what’s expected of us, we’ll be rejected as we were by our birth mothers. That we are somehow responsible for our parents’ happiness and well-being, even though it’s not true. We are not responsible for our parents as children or young people.

I had taken it one step further: believing that I had caused my Father’s death. It didn’t make any difference when my therapist suggested that such a belief was narcissistic. That my Father certainly did not die from a broken-heart because I’d left home and even worse gone off to graduate school where girls didn’t belong. My therapist rarely talked about adoption.

But wait. My Father had rescued me, a very sick baby, from the orphanage. I owed him my life. He had loved me. I was his only child. I had disappointed him. I knew that underneath his anger, he wanted me to stay in Denver. To be close to him. To do things together. Marry a man who lived in Denver. Teach his grandchildren to play Parcheesi and take them for a Dairy Queen dipped in chocolate just as he had done with Sharra and me. Maybe he did die of a broken heart?

Ice cream cone covered in chocolate
Photo by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash

Logically, I know this isn’t true. He and my Mother were happily married, enjoying their life together. Except for whether or not to drape the Christmas with silver tinsel, they rarely disagreed, much less argued. The family blamed his heart attack on a heart murmur he’d had since childhood. We’ll never know for certain what caused the heart attack. But I do know that my Father’s death wasn’t my fault. He died of a medical condition.

Well . . . most days I know it wasn’t my fault.

This is the fifth story of the acronym: ADOPT. A is for Abandoned, D for Discouraged, O for the Overwhelm of ADHD, P for Procrastinate, and T for trauma. These five are common feelings and life issues that many adopted women experience. For a more comprehensive list, you’ll want to grab my free Adoption Checklist for Women: 25 Life Issues.

A is for abandoned shows up in my Memorial Day story about my birth-father who died on D-Day. Many years later an actor would play him in Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers. D for discouraged tells the story of “Shooting Myself in the Foot.

You might also like my musings on Staying at Home because of COVID 19: The Good, The Bad, and the Not So Ugly. Or perhaps my story about Losing the Letters of Willa Cather: An Adoption Story about Unworthiness.

You’ll find me at I also write about ADHD and random topics that strike my fancy. Thanks to raging ADHD, I’m writing two books at the same time: “Finding My Hero: An Adoption Memoir from World War Two” and “Growing Up Adopted: Love Wounded.”

In between writing, I coach adopted women, giving them tools that make healing faster than just talking.

Losing a Father | Trauma | Adoption was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Impulsiveness| ADHD | Adoption | Discouraged

Impulsiveness| ADHD | Adoption | Depression

Shooting Myself in the Foot

The Day I Used my Master’s Thesis for Kindling
and what I learned about adoption wounds

A foot splashed with paint.
Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

Starting To Work on the Thesis

Years ago I told the story I’m about to tell you. When an “expert” on doing webinars heard the story, he told me NEVER to tell it. People would think I am crazy.

You be the judge.

It all started when I’d completed the requirements for a master’s degree in musicology (that’s a fancy word for music history) from Ohio State University. Now it was time to write a master’s thesis.

This involved choosing a composer of the Middle Ages or Renaissance about whom little had been written. A composer for whom music still existed but had never been transcribed into modern notation.

Permission from 123rf, copyright isaccoc

One would dig around in the archives to find such a person. That was easy. And then you’d start looking for the location of the music itself. You’d cross your fingers that the music hadn’t been lost or destroyed during the War.

I found Thomas Simpson, an English composer who had written music for viols. (String instruments of various sizes from viola to cello.) I was in luck. Nobody had written about Simpson other than a brief biography in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians. I wrote to a scholar in England who had written the entry. He replied that he barely remembered the entry and had no more information. Dead end.

Now to find the music. Without it, I had no thesis. Eventually I discovered the manuscript in a library in Germany that had been saved from the ravages of the bombing. I ordered Thomas Simpson’s “Consort for Mixed Viol,” sent an international money order, and waited. And waited some more.

My Mother Plans the Wedding

In the meantime while waiting for the music to arrive, I was getting married. My Mother was all in a tizzy. The wedding had to be perfect. Perfect by her standards for a middle-class Protestant wedding: not too showy, simple but proper, no liquor at the reception in the church. Guests would enjoy cake, two bowls of salted nuts, mints in pastel colors, and coffee or overly sweet red punch. (If a guest preferred tea, too bad.)

Wedding cake
Licensed from 123rf, copyright marysmn

My Father, who had signed my adoption papers all those years ago and who had raised me with love and humor, had died suddenly just the year before. I was still grieving. That my Father wouldn’t be there to “give me away” at the altar was unthinkable. The idea that an uncle whom I was not fond of would “give me away” was too much to bear.

My Mother and I argued. I wanted something small with only the family. We continued to argue until I finally announced that Max and I would chose the music — no Mendelssohn Wedding March, no Wagner wedding processional from Lohengrin. We would choose the minister. I would choose my dress. It would be simple, tailored, perhaps linen — no frills, bows, lace, tulle, or satin. Mother could do everything else, the plans, the arrangements, the invitations. I would be out of the picture. I would spend the summer in the library working all day on my master’s thesis. So, no more arguing.

The Gray Box Versus the Pearls

In the middle of all this, a cardboard box with a gray shiny lid arrived from Germany. It was the untranscribed music of Thomas Simpson.

Oops, more unpleasantness with my Mother. Unfortunately the box arrived at the same moment my aunt and the walk-me-down-the-aisle uncle arrived with “real” pearls for me to wear on my wedding day. My Mother was not pleased that I found the gray box more interesting than the pearls.

Cutting pearls
Photo by Mariana JM on Unsplash

But we still had our agreement. My Mother did the wedding. I hid out in Denver Public Library, working on my thesis.

After the wedding, Max and I returned to New Haven, CT where he was finishing a PhD at Yale. I worked on my thesis. The next year he was offered a year-long Congressional Fellowship. We moved to Virginia for easy commuting to the Senate Office building in D. C. I worked on my thesis.

Still Working on the Thesis

We moved back to New Haven. I worked on my thesis. Max received his diploma and accepted a teaching job at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island in BC. We moved again. I worked on my thesis.

Now I’ve worked on my Master’s thesis for longer than most work on their PhD dissertation. Using a fountain pen and special ink, I transcribed 30–40 pages of the original manuscript onto music paper. I typed 30–40 pages of text on a manual typewriter with footnotes at the bottom of each page. I sent a couple of drafts to my advisor.

He made a few minor comments. I made the corrections and retyped the pages with footnotes at the bottom of the page. Little did I know at the time that with a computer and a decent word processing program, footnotes at the bottom of the page would be no big deal.

old manual typewriter
Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

I corresponded often with my beloved music history professor from my undergraduate days at Colorado College. He encouraged me, promising that when I’d finished the thesis, the Colorado College Music Press would publish the music. My name as the one who had done the transcription would appear on the front page. I was thrilled!

The last letter from my overly-pedantic Ohio State advisor suggested that I change the style of the footnotes to correspond with the latest revision of the Chicago Manual of Style. (It had come out just a couple weeks after I’d sent him my last draft. (And given that the CMS is revised more times than make sense, it didn’t matter.) I was discouraged. Too discouraged to answer his letter. Too discouraged to redo the footnotes and retype the text with the footnotes at the bottom of each page.

Going, Going, Gone

In a flash of impulsiveness, I picked up the thesis, the music, my transcriptions, all my advisor’s letters, and threw them on top of the blazing logs in the fireplace. The thesis was gone. The music was gone. My transcriptions were gone. No back up copy. Nothing!

Blazing fireplace
Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

My Colorado College professor was disappointed for me. Nobody else cared. My advisor didn’t care. My family and friends were probably tired of hearing me say “I’m working on my thesis.”

Burning my thesis was an impulsive act. I regretted it, but oddly not nearly as much I thought I would. I never got a master’s in musicology from Ohio State University. I’d shot myself in the foot.

Life went on. I changed fields, getting a PhD in American history. I wrote a dissertation which the University of Illinois Press accepted for publication. I never completed the corrections for publication. And my editor at the press retired.

Unlike the consequence of burning my thesis. I did get the degree, but my college teaching career was short-lived as I had never published my dissertation. I didn’t have a book. I had shot myself in the foot again.

Must Be ADHD

Years, later, having been diagnosed, I blamed the impulsiveness of tossing my thesis into the fireplace on ADHD. After all, “impulsiveness” appears on a long list of behaviors common to people with ADHD.

woman with ADHD
Licensed from 123rf, copyright Ion Chiosea

But Wait?

Was it really just impulsiveness from ADHD? Exhaustion from working on the thesis for so many years? My advisor always suggesting just one more correction?

Could It Be Connected to Adoption?

We know that adopted women often become people-pleasers. Down deep at an unconscious level, we wonder if we don’t make them happy and do as they say, will they un-adopt us? Would I be taken back to the Colorado State Home for Dependent and Neglected Children?

Never would my parents have thought such a thing! But that’s my logic brain, my conscious mind thinking, making sense of the world, knowing I am deeply loved. It’s not that hidden unconscious part that so often screws things up. The catch is, because it’s unconscious, it’s often hard to discover what’s under an odd or self-destructive behavior or negative feeling that seemingly comes from nowhere.

It’s taken me fifty years to understand why I burned my thesis. Why I never published my dissertation.

The summer before I went off to graduate school, my father stood at the top of the stairs yelling at me: “No daughter of mine will ever go to graduate school!” I yelled back from the bottom of the stairs, “I’m going! You can’t stop me!” My Mother ran around the house closing all the windows so the neighbors wouldn’t hear Raymond and MaryJo yelling at each other.

Six weeks later I was on a plane headed for Columbus, Ohio and graduate school in the Music Department at Ohio State University. I had displeased my Father. I’d gone against his wishes. I’d gone against his code of behavior for women: Go to college. Marry a lawyer or a doctor. Work for a year. Have a baby. Stay home.

I burned my thesis because I couldn’t displease my Father — even though he’d passed away several years before. I was married. I did the right thing. I would have a baby. I did the right thing. I stayed home — at least for awhile. I did the right thing. Getting a master’s degree and publishing some music wasn’t the right thing.

Adoption wounds and our behaviors because of them can often move us in strange ways. Cause us to do self-destructive things. Cause us to burn our master’s theses. Cause us to not publish our dissertations. Cause us to shoot ourselves in the foot.

This is the second story of the acronym: ADOPT. A is for abandoned, D for Discouraged, O for the Overwhelm of ADHD, P for people pleaser, and T for trauma. These five are common feelings and life issues that many adopted women experience. For a more comprehensive list, you’ll want to grab my free Adoption Checklist for Women: 25 Life Issues.

A is for abandoned shows up in my Memorial Day story about my birth-father who died on D-Day. Many years later an actor would play him in Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers.

You might also like my musings on Staying at Home because of COVID 19: The Good, The Bad, and the Not So Ugly. Or perhaps my story about Losing the Letters of Willa Cather: An Adoption Story about Unworthiness.

You’ll find me at I also write about ADHD and random topics that strike my fancy. Thanks to raging ADHD, I’m writing two books at the same time: “Finding My Hero: An Adoption Memoir from World War Two” and “Growing Up Adopted: Love Wounded.”

In between writing, I coach adopted women, giving them tools that make healing faster than just talking.

Impulsiveness| ADHD | Adoption | Discouraged was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Losing Willa Cather’s Letters

Mother and Adopted Daughter Relationship

Old handwritten letters
Licensed from 123RF — copyright habrda

Losing Willa Cather’s Letters

An Adoption Story about Unworthiness

Adoption, for most of us, is good so why can we still feel rejected, unworthy, as if we don’t belong? We’re often uncertain about who we are, feeling anger and sadness we can’t explain. Obsessed with events from the past as if adoption itself was in the past, rather than a current and permanent state of who we are.

Adoption was Being Part of a Loving Family and Feeling Unworthy

A family in the 1940s
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

“We’re leaving as soon as possible to drive down to Reno to Bicky’s. We’ll stay overnight. She wants the Willa Cather letters back and asked that you deliver them in person so they don’t get lost in the mail.”

I was startled. “What do you mean she wants the letters back? They’re my letters. And besides, nobody but me is interested in them.”

“Well, you need to remember the letters belong to Bicky, not you. After all, they were written to Auntie Trix and Uncle Sid, Bicky’s parents. You will return them.” Trix was my great-aunt, my maternal grandfather’s sister. Bicky was my mother’s first cousin. They were all family.

“But Nana (my grandmother) had them and when she died, you found the letters in her things and gave them to me. Bicky never had them. She could have taken them from Trix a long time ago, even before Nana had them.”

But underneath the discussion of who gets the letters, those old feelings came up: undeserving, unworthy. After all, I was adopted. Maybe I didn’t belong in the family after all? Maybe I didn’t really deserve the letters.

Me and Willa

Trix had been one of Willa Cather’s schoolmates and friends. Trix’s husband, Sid Florence, was an officer of the Red Cloud bank. Much in the letters isn’t interesting, just requested business transactions to Sid and a few newsy tidbits to Trix. But I cherished the letters. I was the historian of the family and the biggest fan of Willa Cather.

I was the one who had read everything Willa Cather ever wrote. Death Comes for the Archbishop four or five times. My Antonia at least three times. All the short stories. And then read everything all over again while recovering from chemotherapy treatments. I was the one who had watched O Pioneers, with Jessica Lange playing Alexandra, at least three times.

I was the one who would go to Red Cloud, visit the Willa Cather Museum and the Willa Cather Center. Drive by the house Cather had grown up in and the Harling/Miner House, the prototype for the boarding house in My Antonia.

I was the one who would ask the Center for a copy of Sharon O’Brien’s recently published biography, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. O’Brien had been the first scholar to write openly about Cather as a lesbian. Of course, the Center didn’t sell the book. I was told they didn’t carry it because it told lies about Cather!

I already owned a dog-eared copy of the book and intuitively knew the Cather Center wouldn’t carry it. That was 1986. Fortunately, the Cather Center has become more progressive.

I was the one who would go to the Old Burial Ground in Jaffrey, New Hampshire to place a small rock on top of Willa Cather’s gravestone in the plot where her partner, Edith Lewis is also buried.

I was the one who has had a poster of Willa Cather hanging over my desk for the last thirty-five years.

I couldn’t imagine why Bicky would want the letters. But I stopped arguing, xeroxed a copy of the letters for myself, organized the originals in chronological order, and dutifully placed them in a large manila envelope labeled “Willa Cather’s Letters to Beatrice and Sydney Florance.

Yup, I didn’t deserve the letters. My Mother was right that we should “return” them to Bicky.

Giving Up “My” Letters

My Mother insisted we go in her car. She would drive. And drive she did! So fast I was afraid she’d get a ticket.

“Why are you driving over the speed limit?”

“We need to get to Bicky’s as fast as possible to return these letters.”

Really? Why the big rush? It’s not like we had stolen the letters from a bank vault and were being pursued by the FBI. Bicky knew we were coming with the letters. Had my Mother lost her mind? On the other hand, my Mother’s rush made me feel guilty that I had been given the letters.

As soon as Bicky opened the door, I handed her the letters. She offered us coffee and cookies. Explained how she knew an English professor at the University of Nevada who wanted to use these letters in his classes. Really? They weren’t about Cather’s writing. In this context, the letters were little more than a novelty.

And how on earth did Bicky know an English professor at the University? I knew she’d made up the story, not realizing that I also taught at a university and would know it was baloney.

Nevertheless, deep down I felt that unworthiness come up again. I didn’t deserve the letters. Again, I thought maybe I didn’t belong in this family? After all, I’d been adopted because my birth mother didn’t want me. Maybe this family didn’t want me either?

And this English professor was probably tenured while my job at Ohio State was just temporary. (I was teaching in the Women’s Studies Program instead of a department. The “rules” said programs couldn’t have permanent faculty.)

At the same time, I wondered: Why did Bicky want the letters?

Nana, Dad, and Willa

Nana, was born in Red Cloud where Willa had grown up. Her father, Albert, born in Winchester, Virginia would follow his friend George Cather, Willa’s uncle, to New Virginia. This “clannish” community of Virginians, located close to Catherton, was just a few miles from Red Cloud.

Two adventuresome young men, naive to farming on dry, rocky land where drought was more common than rain, had been tempted by 160 acres of free homestead land, 320 acres if you were married. Little did they know that life on the Nebraska prairies was tough. Really tough!

Nana’s Mother, my great-grandmother, Mary Frank Robinson, had come to Red Cloud from upstate New York as a young schoolteacher. She met Albert Wilson, married him, and stopped teaching as the law required of married women. Mary and Albert would raise three children: Vera, Maude, and Kenneth. My Grandmother, Vera, the oldest was born in 1888.

Albert died in 1901. Some say he fell in a well and drowned. Others believed he’d gone swimming in a pond too soon after eating lunch and drowned from stomach cramps. I’ve often wondered if he had taken his own life. A year later, Mary died. The couple left three orphans. Vera was just 12 years old.

After the burial, the children were put on the train for New York and lived with their mother’s relatives for a while. Eventually the girls, old enough to be on their own, returned to Red Cloud and lived in the Miner boarding house, the prototype for the Harling House in Cather’s My Antonia.

My grandfather, Frank Mizer, whom we all called “Dad,” was also born in Red Cloud. That the Wilsons and the Mizers had lived in the same small town where Willa Cather, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning 20th-century American author, had grown up was a proud part of the family’s heritage.

We all knew about Willa Cather and the Mizers.

After my Grandparents were married, Nana quickly became friends with Dad’s sisters Trix and Josephine. Along the way, the letters from Willa to Trix and Sid ended up with Nana.

That Dad’s sisters Trix and Jo had gone to school with Willa Cather!

That Willa Cather corresponded with Trix!

That Nana had lived in the boarding house featured in My Antonia!

Yes, the letters were a big deal. Nana, 15 years younger than Cather, didn’t care for her. Nana reminded me that Willa was gay and too intellectual for a woman. Nana hadn’t gone to college. Perhaps hadn’t finished high school. Willa graduated from the University of Nebraska.

Nana didn’t approve of unmarried women living in New York City while taking long vacations in Paris, spending weeks at the Shattuck Inn in New Hampshire while writing a novel about Nebraska. Such gallivanting about wasn’t proper.

Probably just as well that Nana didn’t know that Willa and Edith built a cottage on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick. Women artists and writers from New York City would gather in the summer at the Inn at Whale Cove on Grand Manan, absent the company of men. None of Cather’s books found a place in Nana’s bookcase. I have my Mother’s 1956 edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Despite Nana’s dislike of Willa Cather, she inherited the Cather letters.

How Did “My” Letters End Up in New Jersey?

In 2013 Knopf published The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. I bought the book immediately, read a bunch of letters, and then perused the index, never dreaming that “my” letters would be in this volume. I was wrong.

Of the 556 letters chosen from more than 3,000 letters, six were written to Sid and one to Trix, plus a few letters in which Trix or Sid are mentioned. So where did Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, two editors living in Nebraska, find “my” Cather letters? Had they found all “my” letters and chosen just a sample?

Not surprisingly, it was all about money. A wealthy graduate of Drew University in Madison, NJ had a passion for Cather. Barbara Morris Caspersen, a 1991 graduate, and her husband Finn dedicated themselves to buying all the letters and other writings they could find by Willa Cather.

The Caspersen’s collection, worth thousands of dollars, was given to Drew. With this generous gift, Drew University now boasts a major Willa Cather archive. (In March 2020, one could buy a single letter from Cather on eBay for $2,500.)

It’s my guess that Bicky gave the letters to one of her sons who then sold the letters to the Caspersens. My plan had always been to give the letters to the Cather archives at the University of Nebraska. It never dawned on me that I would sell them. Much less give them to a university in a place Cather had never lived nor visited.

I’m pleased that the letters are in a permanent collection in a university archive, not buried in a bank vault, stuffed in an old attic trunk, or auctioned off to the highest bidder. But the deceit involved in asking me for the letters hurt my feelings.

That the letters didn’t end up in an archive in Nebraska, or New Hampshire where Cather spent summers writing, or New York where she and her partner Edith Lewis lived for many years is disappointing.

Not that my sense of “right” means much in the world of university archives. Not all of Einstein’s papers are at Princeton. Not all of Bach’s music in Leipzig.

What’s the Meaning of This Adoption Story about Unworthiness?

The most distressing part is not that I didn’t get to keep the letters. Not that I couldn’t leave them to my son Stephen who had little interest in them.

Losing the letters triggered that uncomfortable but common feeling of being undeserving. I wasn’t worthy of the letters. Feeling undeserving remains a shared challenge of many of us who are adopted.

And for me, it was a triple whammy!

Nana, never adopted, was an orphan until she married. She felt she didn’t deserve cake on her birthday nor presents at Christmas. My Mother would inherit this same sad trait, sometimes returning presents. Or complaining that the wrapping of a present was too nice. I would inherit the feeling of not deserving from the two women I was closest to.

This learned behavior reinforced that early rejection by my birth mother. Rejection often leads to feeling undeserving, especially for adopted women. Intellectually I knew I deserved the letters and would have seen to it they were given to the appropriate archives. (Of course, I wouldn’t sell the letters. I didn’t deserve the money.)

What one understands and believes intellectually often pales in comparison to what one feels, especially for those of us who’ve been adopted.

Reframing: Your Solution to Release Feeling Unworthy

Suppose I had felt worthy of the letters. Suppose my Mother had felt I was worthy of letters. What if I had immediately written to the archivist in charge of the Cather papers that I would be giving the letters to the University of Nebraska.

What if I had said to my Mother, “Tell Bicky it’s too late. The letters have already been promised to University of Nebraska where they belong.” What if I had then xeroxed them, arranged them chronologically, put them in the manila envelope addressed to the Cather Archives in Nebraska instead of handing them to Bicky?

The past doesn’t change what’s been done, but it’s a powerful way to practice a positive response to an emotion such as “unworthy.” To practice a scenario in which you follow through with your desires rather than caving into someone else’s demands.

Always notice your feelings as you reframe a situation that you could have responded to from a positive place. At first it may be scary and uncomfortable. You might even cry. Do it several times. Notice as it gets easier and you begin to feel stronger.

If you’ve enjoyed this episode of “Adoption Was . . .,” you’ll want to read Were You a Chosen Baby? (Spoiler alert: You probably weren’t “chosen.”)

And be sure to get The Adoption Checklist for Women: 25 Life Issues now. It’s FREE. See how many issues you recognize in yourself. You’ll want to check out the “3 Ways to Help You” heal adoption wounds at the end. The simple but effective exercises will help you release your negative thoughts, feelings, and behavior that can come from adoption.

MaryJo Wagner coaches adopted women so they can live happier and more fulfilled lives. Many of her clients despite previous counseling and therapy still struggle. She helps women make sense of their adoption story and heal the wounds from that story. And she gives them tools that make healing faster than just talking.

In addition to reading MaryJo’s stories here, you’ll also find her at And on FaceBook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram. You can send her an email or make an appointment to chat with her.

Originally published at on May 12, 2020.

Losing Willa Cather’s Letters was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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The “write” way to touch a feeling?

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