“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage — to know who we are and where we came from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness and the most disquieting loneliness.”- Alex Haley, Author, “Roots”
In 1996, my then 72-year old father began a years’ long search for his birth mother. As was the custom, his adoptive parents kept the adoption under wraps. However, they failed to consider gossip and childhood curiosity. At age eight, Dad heard himself referred to as an illegitimate bastard by a disgruntled family member. At age nine, he jimmied a locked drawer and found his birth records.
Dad’s parents never did discover the break in, which meant that the family secret became his secret as well. When his mother and father died in a car accident in 1959, they took the only link to the history of his birth family with them.
Secrecy around adoption records began early in the twentieth century in order to protect adoptive parents from being hassled by birth parents. Canada is the last Commonwealth nation keeping its records closed. Fortunately, for my father, British Columbia, Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Ontario are exceptions.
BC opened its Adoption records in 1995. One year later, my father applied for a membership with Parent Finders. They provided advice and paperwork assistance. On September 30, 2000, he made application to the Ministry for Children and Families. On February 1, 2001, the Information and Privacy Commissioner approved Dad’s request and he received his adoption records. The most significant and poignant record is the Certificate of Registration of Birth bearing his mother’s name and signature: Grace Cassiar Johnson. We thought her name both beautiful and unusual and because it was unusual, we felt certain tracing her would be easy.
However, receipt of the documents signaled the beginning of a frustrating journey. We looked everywhere but found no trace of Grace Cassiar Johnson. In 2000, a friend who is an avid genealogical researcher posted a memo on a genealogy bulletin board. It read,“Would the family of Grace Cassiar Johnson who gave birth to a baby boy on Jan 4, 1924 in North Vancouver, BC and later gave the child up for adoption please contact Adele Abernathy at _____________.”
In July of this year, 26 years after the search began and 12 years after Adele posted the notice, an email landed in her mailbox. It read, “Grace Cassiar Johnson was my great-aunt. My Aunt Dorothy has had me searching for Grace’s son for a very long time. Grace was born in 1906 on the Union Steamship Cassiar while the family was travelling between Vancouver Island and North Vancouver. She died in 1927 in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana.”
Why Grace was in Louisiana and how she died is a story for another time.
Dorothy and my father are 89. They have talked on the phone and my husband Paul and I visited the extended family in November. They live in Portland. We hope the two families will meet in the Fraser Valley in the New Year.