INQUISITIVE. DOGGED. IMPASSIONED.
I am a step-adoptee. Until three years ago, I never said these words to myself. It’s not that I didn’t know that my stepfather had adopted me, I just didn’t think it was important. Then, in 2018, something wonderful happened that sparked in me a hunger to know everything. I subsequently set out on a quest to uncover all that I could about my biological father’s story.
My mother left Canada in 1958 at age 18 to attend the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While in Israel she met my future father—a struggling opera singer who was working as a telephone technician at the national post office. My mom was a sucker for struggling artists. They fell in love, married in 1959, then moved to England with the hope that my father might break into the European music scene. But he didn’t get the big break he was hoping for, and so they decided to move to Canada with their new baby (my older sister). Five difficult years passed in their marriage. My father could not find a foothold in his new country, his career, or in his marriage. My mother thought having another child would save their relationship and it was under this enormous pressure that I was conceived. Such resuscitation schemes usually fail, and it would be no different for my parents. They separated before I was born, and, in the year after my conception, my father sunk into an even deeper depression. He died by suicide three months after my birth.
Most of the above was unknown to me and my sister growing up. My sister was five when our father died, and so his sudden departure was difficult. But our mother was determined to leave trauma and sadness behind and married another struggling artist (a poet) two years later. This man adopted me and my sister—a decision legalized by a court decree—resulting in the change of our last names and the sealing up of any records that identified us by our birth names. Almost nothing was said of our previous lives from that point onward. Whenever my sister asked about our father, our mother would cry and defer. “When you’re older,” she always said to my sister’s questions.
Having no answers was hard on my sister; the not knowing affected her entire life. Not mine. (Or so I thought.) I convinced myself that I was lucky to have escaped the pain of absence that my sister endured. My duty was to be happy with the family I did have. My stepfather loved me, so why would I want to hurt him by asking questions about someone that had no relevance to the life I was leading? I believed my job was to take care of my older sister; she and I were bound by a secret that made us different, and I was the only one she could talk to about her longing for our father.
Decades passed. One day our father’s family in Israel gave me twenty-five audio reels that had belonged to him. They said it was his music. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have the equipment to play old-fashioned audio reels and didn’t have the time or interest to seek it out. So, I sent them to my sister. “He was more your father than mine,” I said. “You should have them.”
In 2018 she finally had them digitized. I waited for her to tell me that they were all just boring opera music. But she didn’t. The reels contained much more than opera music. Our father had used the technology of his time to document his everyday life. He recorded himself singing to popular records, practicing his compositions, speaking to customers and friends, and—most importantly—interacting at home with his family. When my sister heard the recorded family scenes more than fifty years later, she was overcome with emotion. It was something she had waited all her life to hear. She contacted me over Skype so that I could listen.
I didn’t know what to expect. I knew she was hoping for a big reaction from me. I was determined not to have one. I thought I was safe from being sucked into the vortex of unanswered questions and futile searching that had relentlessly pulled at my sister. But when I heard my father’s voice, it was as if the earth opened up and swallowed me whole. In that moment, I began to care. I had never thought of my father as an actual person until the moment I heard him talk and laugh. And once I did, I realized all at once that something very important was missing in my life. I needed to know.
I started with the hundreds of letters my mother had kept from that period. They needed indexing and translating, which took nearly a year. From those letters, I found friends still alive and interviewed as many as I could. Then, of course, there was the information guarded by government bodies—some, but not all, released to me only after I successfully jumped through countless hoops. I had no idea how long my search would take me, and as the months dragged on and the obstacles multiplied, I asked myself, “Why do I care so much?” For the longest time, I couldn’t answer this question. I only knew that I couldn’t stop.
As I searched, I wrote. In the beginning, I thought I would tell my father’s story as a straightforward account of a life uncovered through research and diligence. A memoir that excluded me. What I didn’t expect was that the quest and the writing would transform me. I realized that in learning the details of my father’s life I was, for the first time, able to fill in my own missing history. I had been missing Chapter One of my life, as psychologist Michael Grand describes in his book, The Adoption Constellation. Finally, I had my answer to why I cared so much.
As of the end of 2021, it has been three years since I embarked on my quest. In many respects, the search continues. Hearing those tapes sent me down the path of claiming my history and understanding the importance of knowing my biological origins. I believe everyone has the right to know their story. I am overjoyed to finally know mine!
Learn more about Michèle.