Don and Deniece Cummings gave up their first-born child, a girl, for adoption in I960. They went on to build a stable family of four, but not without the depression and long-term trauma associated with their decision.
Their baby, Karen, was adopted by a family in Connecticut. Although the adoptive family was solid, loving, and financially well-off, Karen developed a strong need to find her roots.
This is a story of searching, the silent bond of genetics, the strength of love, and the joy of reunion.
hristmas Eve morning, 1959: Deniece Cummings lies in hard labor, bathed in sweat, the baby pushing hard to get out. She is nineteen years old and in deep new pain, This is her first baby. All she wants is for it to be over. She is alone in a two-bed room in a holiday-deserted hospital in Middletown, Connecticut. Now, as the thin winter morning light creeps into the room, a nurse checks on her, then goes to prepare the delivery room. Deniece’s husband, Don, waits outside, a knot in his stomach and his strained eyes fixed straight ahead.
The nurse and an orderly roll Deniece into the delivery room and arrange her on a table. A man wearing a surgeon’s cap and mask leans over her face. ’Are you going to nurse this baby?” he asks. Deniece avoids looking into his eyes. “No” she says, her voice a rasp. The doctor then gives her two shots. One to knock her out, and one to dry up the milk in her breasts.
Deniece had met Don a little over a year earlier when she was a freshman at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. She was wild with the desire to get out: out of the strict, almost emotionless family in which she felt unloved, out of the inbred small town she had been raised in, and out of the personal hell she thought her life had become. She was looking for a ticket out.
Don was a senior chemistry major on the verge of graduating and stepping out into a new world. He was a dreamer, and his biggest dream, like Deniece’s, was to get out. He felt that his parents’ life had been one long, grueling trap; that they had never enjoyed life. But he was going to he different. He was going to have a college degree and get a high-paying professional job.
Then Don started dating Deniece. They had fun, maybe too much fun. In April, she turned up pregnant. They discussed abortion, but didn’t know where to go. Don gave Deniece quinine pills because he’d heard they caused abortion. Deniece tried turpentine douches. Nothing worked. Slowly they realized that they were going to have a baby.
In their furtive, desperate attempts to escape their traps, they had suddenly flung themselves back in, very, very deeply. Trapped all over again. Don agreed, to marry her, and Deinece sullenly accepted, her ticket out. “All those dreams,” Don says now, thinking back, staring into space. “All those dreams went down the tubes.”
They were married. July 2 at Deniece’s parents’ house in Iowa Park outside of Wichita Falls. That night they left for Houston, where Don had a job interview. They had not told anyone that Deniece was pregnant. The Houston job fell through, and at die end of three weeks, broke and depressed, Don resigned himself to working as a common laborer. Then came a reply to one of the hundreds of résumés he had sent out: Pratt & Whitney, a defense contractor in Middletown, Connecticut, wanted to interview him. Don put on his only suit, the one he was married in, and flew up there. Deniece took a bus back to Wichita Falls and wore a girdle to hide her growing stomach from her parents. Things broke their way when Don got the job as a junior scientist for $515 a month-good pay in 1959. They moved to the small town of Higganum and rented a third-story apartment in a house.
They had escaped, undetected. No one even suspected. Deniece was pregnant.
Deniece woke up in the hospital recovery room and immediately wanted to see her baby. Before she could ask, a nurse silently brought in the baby girl, and Deniece held her, fed. her from a bottle, and cried.. The baby had dark, almost black hair, growing as though it had been combed, forward, and she didn’t scream. She seemed quiet, pensive. Then the nurse came and got her, and the baby was gone-forever, Deniece thought.
Deniece tried to tell Don how wonderful it had been to hold her, but he wouldn’t liston. She begged hirn to go across the hall and look at the little girl, her baby, Terri Lynne Cummings. Don was furious. Why had she named it, he thought, when she knew she would be giving it away?
But there were three other people in the room, and Don didn’t want to make a scene. He went to the window and looked in. Deniece got out of bed and tottered up weakly heside him. Don looked at the baby’s face. Her nose was strangely flattened.. It was an image that would haunt him. He turned, abrupdy and walked away. Then Deniece collapsed in her bed., exhausted..
They had not really decided on putting the baby up for adoption, at least not in the usual way a couple discusses and makes a decision. Don had more thrown the idea at Deniece like sharp jabs to the stomach, although the jabs landed just as bard in his own gut. He had delayed his dreams until this nightmare was over; he wasn’t ready to be a father and give them up completely. And they both were deathly afraid of their parents finding out that they had had sex before marriage; that they had broken one of the most stringent and sacred of Southern fundamentalist laws. They both knew they would not be forgiven,
So Deniece accepted Don’s decision that he wore like an iron mask. They buried deeply their sin and didn’t tell a soul. The baby was sent to a foster home awaiting a new family, and Deniece left the hospital wearing regular clothes and carrying a suitcase. As if it had never happened, she thought. She told her landlady the baby had died. Two weeks later the couple moved to a rent house in the seaside town of Westbrook, Connecticut, and winter moved in with a hard cold rain from the North Atlantic.
For these first few months after the birth, Don and Deniece drove through the New England winter every week to meet with Miriam Lerner, a social worker with the adoption agency. It was her job to make certain that Don and Deniece were firm in their resolve to give up their child. At first she was not convinced that Deniece wanted to do this. She detected some hesitation on her part, and directed that the baby he held in the foster home a little longer than usual.
When the time came to sign the final papers, Deinece balked. She said to Don, “I’m not going to do this ; I’m not giving this baby up.” Don says now that he considered it, but didn’t tell Deniece. “I was afraid I’d weaken and keep the baby,” he says. “And that would scare me completely out of my wits.” He looked at Deniece sitting there in the waiting room where the social worker had put them to work it out, and he thought that maybe he was meant to he married to her, and that maybe everything would work out all right. But not with a baby. He Just couldn’t accept a baby.
Deniece was thinking too. If she decided to take the baby and had to leave Don because of it, what would she do? She had no money. Her parents didn’t even know she had been pregnant. She didn’t know what to do, where to go. Deniece Just stared at Don with tears in her eyes. “For whatever reasons,” Don says, “we just went ahead and did it. We just signed the papers. Like signing somebody’s death warrant.”
n March 16,1960, a few days after Don and Deniece Cummings signed the final adoption papers, Lucille and Gerald Oestreicher were sent a letter from Children’s Services of Connecticut: “We now have a baby girl, almost three months old, in whom we feel you might be interested. If you care to hear more about this little lady, why don’t you call about an appointment.” They were elated. For seven years they had tried to have children of their own, but failed. Their doctor told them they should consider adoption, so they had adopted a little boy. But they des-porately wanted another child to round out their family and they had been waiting almost a year. A week and a half after receiving the letter, they went to see the little girl, fell in love with her, and took her home. They named her Karen Diane.
“She was the most unusual child,” Lucille says. “She would sleep all night, and you’d get up in the morning and her diapers were dry.” Her black, combed-forward hair fell out and she became a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, beauty. She could speak in well-constructed sentences at an early age. Lucille, unlike some adoptive parents, told both of her children all along that they were adopted.
“In the beginning you tell them little stories,” she says, “about how you have gone and chosen them, that you had had the right to choose this child, and that they were a wanted child. So they always knew they were adopted.” They knew, but Lucille wasn’t sure they really understood.
About the time Karen was learning to walk, Deniece became pregnant again. But this pregnancy was different. “It was like this was permissible now,” she says. “It was like I was never pregnant before.” She let herself feel this baby, the way it moved in her womb. Even Don would put his hand on her stomach to feel the baby kick, and he would smile. They told their parents about the baby, and they began to feel like a happy, growing family. When Rhonda was born, Deniece’s parents drove from Texas to Connecticut to see the new baby.
They made home movies of that event, and everyone looks happy and glad. But inside both Don and Deniece, way down deep, there was something that seemed to come out from their bodies and watch the whole proceeding with doubts and deep frowns. It was something-a repressed love, a hidden guilt-that badly needed to be let out.
It took another pregnancy to shake that something loose in Deniece. Don had grown tired of living in New England, which seemed like a foreign country to him. When LTV in Dallas offered him a job, he jumped at it, and they moved, to nearby Cockrell Hill. They were closer to their parents there, but closer also to what they had run away from just a couple of years before. They planned another child, and almost two years to the day after Deniece had Rhonda, Renee was born
Renee came out screaming. And she kept screaming. The sound reverberated in Deniece’s head until it vibrated in resonance with her hidden pain. Six weeks later, De-niece quit functioning. “I cried all me time, I ate all the time, I couldn’t do anything,’’ she says. She would stand over the kitchen sink and stare out the window. She ate until she weighed, as much as when she was pregnant, as if she were making herself pregnant again-regenerating the lost child.
Don came home from work one day and found her standing in the kitchen in her pajamas, shaking. Renee was crying and Rhonda was wandering the house, sucking her thumb, and hugging her blanket. Scared, Don asked Deniece if there was anything he could do. She said she needed, to see a doctor.
Her obstetrician sent her to a psychiatrist. The First several visits were fruitless. She sat quietly while the psychiatrist did most of the talking. He must have sparked something, however, because one day she told Don, “I think I’m going to tell this doctor about the baby we gave away.” Don looked, at her carefully. “If you think it will help,” he said.
She told the psychiatrist and he said, “Of course! Of course that’s what’s bothering you!” He said that she must tell her parents about it and relieve the burden of guilt and secrecy. So she went to her parents and told them the whole story. Instead of being angry, Deniece’s parents were relieved.. They didn’t know what was wrong with her either, and they were glad to help. They told her that everyone has a skeleton in their closet.
That was the beginning of Deniece’s recovery. She loosened, up, started, going to church and making friends, and began to enjoy her daughters and her life. But she wasn’t yet healed.. “I had gone against my own morals. I had sinned against myself,” she says. It would take something much greater to help her wipe away those sins. And Don’s secret was still deep within him.
Being adopted, didn’t seem hard for Karen. She Just didn’t think about it much. She had parents who loved. her, a big brother, and she thought they were just like every other family. But occasionally something would happen to drive the feet of her adoption to the surface. In 1970, when she was in the fifth grade, she was given an assignment to draw a family tree. She thought about it, but she knew enough about biology to know that for her there was no point in it.
She asked, her father, “How can I draw a family tree when I don’t know what I really am?” Her father smiled, and sat down at the kitchen table with her. “Well,” he said, “you can put down everyone in my family.” And he went through his parents and all his brothers. She listened, to him, but what he said didn’t solve her problem.
The teacher had told them to draw a circle for each porson with a line to their parents, and that if they came to an adopted, relative, not to draw the line. Karen drew out everything her parents had told her, but when she drew her circle, alone and unattached., she looked, at it for a long time, until an emptiness began to grow inside her. She realized, that she was a circle without a line.
Several years later, when Karen was a junior in high school, she was going through the family’s legal papers, looking for something for her mother, when she found a document with a strange name on it: Terri Lynne Cummings. At first she was confused.
When she was younger, her parents had kept some children whose parents had both become ill at (he same time. Was this something to do with them? Slowly she realized that this was her adoption decree. Her biological last name was Cummings. She had found the beginning of her line.
Less than a year later, when she was sixteen, Karen wrote the adoption service asking for information about her birth parents. Lynne Kimmel, an adoption worker, wrote back: “Depending on what information is in your file, we would be pleased to share with you the information available, excluding your genetic parents’ names and last known address.” But First names and an address were what Karen wanted. “I remember thinking, ’Aw, rats!’” she says. “I realized that this wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d hoped.”
She made an appointment with Kimmel, who was in Hartford, about forty-five miles away. She drove her mother to work so she could have her Mustang for the day, and remembers that it was the first time she had driven so far by herself.
Lucille had always known that Karen might , one day search for her natural parents. She had imagined how she would handle it, and she was afraid of what Karen might find. Lucille knew little about Karen’s natural parents, except that they had been married at the time of the birth. But she didn’t know if there had been drugs, or mental illness, or violence involved. She didn’t know how much hate had surrounded the couple’s decision. She tried to be supportive, but it worried her that Karen was heading so obstinately into something that might hurt her so badly.
In the meeting with Kimmel, Karen got clues, but no answers. She found out that her biological parents were from Oklahoma and Texas, that her natural father had worked for Pratt & Whitney in Middletown, that he had a degree in chemistry, and that they had lived at one time in Westbrook. But Kimmel wouldn’t tell Karen their names. According to Connecticut law, she couldn’t do that until a 1 petition for release of information had been filed, and Karen could not do that until she was eighteen years old.
In fits and spurts over the next two years, Karen looked with what information she had. At random she called information for cities in Texas and Oklahoma, asking for the numher of any Cummings. She was afraid to place the calls, and gave the numbers to Kimmel. But Karen wasn’t pushing very hard. She was waiting for her eighteenth birthday, and her day in court.
Trie summer after she turned eighteen, after her freshman year at Wheaton College, she went to Kimmel and said she wanted to file the potition for release of information. Kimmel helped her fill out and file the forms, and a court date was set for August 14, 1978. But that was a whole summer away, and Karen wanted to know now. In the library, she found a book that listed the degrees offered at all American colleges. She copied down the names of every college in Oklahoma and Texas that granted chemistry degrees-about seventy. Then she typed, letters to each of them saying that she was looking for a lost cousin named Cummings.
She got three responses. One was from Steve Holland, assistant director of university affairs at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. He wrote; ’According to our records, a Donald G. Cummings did graduate from Midwestern State in 1959. Unfortunately, we apparently ’lost’ him sometime in the 1960s.” Karen was elated. Now she had a first name. But that wasn’t all. Holland provided current addresses for three of the school’s seven chemistry graduates of 1959. One of them, he said, might know where Don is.
But Karen didn’t call any of them. She gave the letter to Kimmel, hoping she would do it for her. She was afraid of finding her natural parents too easily, of disrupting their lives. “I kept thinking I could call one of these guys and say, ’I’m looking for Donald Cummings,’ and he could say, ’Oh, he’s right out in the back yard eating a hamburger. Let me get him for you.’ ” She didn’t want to do it that way. She wanted the Cummingses to have a chance to say they didn’t want to see her without having to tell it to her face.
Karen walked the streets of Westbrook, imagining what it would have been like to live there eighteen years ago. She asked some shop owners if they remembered a Donald Cummings. One man said he thought he did, but it was so long ago.. .he wasn’t sure. She knew from her adoption decree that she was bom in Middletown, and she went to the hospital there and found the records lady. But she was rude, telling Karen she would grow out of her desire to find her natural parents.
Karen’s petition was granted in August, which made it legal for Kimmel to search for Karen’s biological parents. But Kimmel had other things to do; Karen was not her only case. The search foundered, and Karen went back for her sophomore year at Wheaton in the fall, unaware that her search was close to an end.
At school, Karen would read and reread the information Kimmel had given her. She knew that her natural mother’s name was Patricia Deniece Knight Cummings, and she inferred that Don had coerced Deniece into giving her away. And occasionally she would look at the Texas map in her atlas, dreaming of where they might live.
When college was out, in the middle of May 1979, she decided it was time to find her natural parents. So she gathered her courage and called one of the three men from Midwestern State: Edwin Carr in Dallas.
“I said, ’Hello, I’m looking for Don Cummings,1 ” Karen recalls. “And the guy said, ’Oh, yeah. I think Don’s at LTV. I saw him a few years ago. I think he lives in Irving now.’ ” Karen was excited. Her heart was racing. She called Irving information and got the number for Don Cummings. She dialed the telephone, the receiver trembling in her hand.
It was Saturday, May 19, 1979, and Rhonda Cummings had just walked in the front door, taking her three o’clock lunch break from her job at Minyard’s. Rhonda had turned eighteen the week before and was going to graduate from high school in two weeks. She was tired and not in a good mood. No one else was at home, which meant she had to fix her own lunch and eat it alone. The phone rang.
“Hello,” Rhonda said.
“Is Pat there?” a voice asked. “
There’s no Pat here. You’ve got the wrong number,” Rhonda said with exasperation. A moment later, the phone rang again, and the same thing happened. Rhonda was ruder this time. She wanted to eat lunch, go back to work, and get the day over with.
Karen was shocked. She didn’t know that Deniece had never gone by Patricia, her legal first name. She built a little scenario in her head: the woman on the phone was Don’s second wife. He and Pat had gotten a divorce, and she had spoken to the second wife, who was mad that anyone would think that Pat still lived there.
Karen heard her mother coming in from walking the dog, so she went downstairs. “I found them,” she said. Lucille, the sunlight behind her in the open door, looked at Karen. “Oh, Karen,” she said. She was stricken with conflict as she said it. Oh, Karen, I’m so glad your hard searching is over; Oh. Karen, I’m going to lose part of my daughter.
On Monday, Karen asked Lynne Kimmel to call Don in Texas, so that he would have a chance to say no, he didn’t want to see her. But the social worker didn’t talk to the Cum-mingses until the following Thursday.
Renee, sixteen, answered the phone that day. A woman asked for Patricia Deniece Knight Cummings, and Renee thought that was really weird; nobody called her mother that. She put Deniece on the phone. It was about five o’clock; Don was still at work. “Is this the Donald Cummings residence?” Lynne Kimmel asked. “Yes,” Deniece said. “And are you Patricia Deniece Cummings?” Deniece said yes. “Did you have a baby on December 24, 1959?” Deniece was heginning to cry. She knew what was happening now. She knew that her baby had found her.
Kimmel identified herself and said that Karen wanted to make contact, and asked if that was okay. Deniece said, “Of course.” Don came home then, and Deniece took him into the bedroom and shut the door.
When the phone rang again, Don ran to answer it in the living room, and Deniece grabhed the extension phone and closed herself back up in the bedroom. Don was talking to Karen and Deniece was crying on the other line. Don felt something strange and excited inside of him, like something trying to get out. He asked Karen what her name was, how to spell it, and had her say it several times. Deniece asked if she had spaces between her teeth, and Karen said yes.
They wanted to meet as soon as possible, and Karen said she would fly to Texas. They arranged for her to come Thursday, May 31, one week later, the day of Rhonda’s graduation. Everything was set. They hung up.
Don went back to the bedroom to talk to Deniece, when the phone rang again. Eton answered. It was Karen. “Don,” she said. “Do I need to bring a sleeping bag or anything?” Don laughed and said no, they had an extra bed.
Don and Deniece had to go to the airport to buy the tickets for Karen, and they told Renee, “We’re going for a ride. Don’t go to bed until we get home.”
When they came back, they faced their waiting daughters. Don called them to the dining room table. He was worried how they would handle the news, but he took a deep breath and said, “We have something to tell you. You have an older sister.” Deniece was crying, a slow, purging cry. The girls were crying too, because this was so unexpected.
Don explained what had happened, then Deniece explained, as well as she could, why it had happoned. The girls were more shocked than sad. They asked what Karen looked like and where she lived. Then they went to call their friends, to tell them they suddenly had a new sister.
The next weekend, Don flew to Oklahoma City to tell his parents. “They didn’t understand why,” Don says. “And I didn’t even try to explain to any great extent. I’m sure it was a hard deal for them.” But the burden began to lift from him. The secret locked in his internal box was beginning to come out.
The rest of the week was spent in a tense state of waiting. Deniece wrote Karen a letter: “I knew you would find us someday-I’m only sorry it took so long.” She wrote that she would be carrying a tan shoulder bag at the airport with the initials DKC in big letters on the side. Don and Deniece went alone to the airport. It was a little after noon when Karen’s plane arrived.
When Karen walked down the ramp and looked into the crowd, she saw them immediately. They didn’t look like she expected, but she saw the bag with the initials. She walked up and said, “Deniece?”
Deniece threw her arms around Karen and started crying. Karen was surprised. “She didn’t hug me like a little hug, I mean it was like a body choke. I don’t think I felt particularly comfortable. I didn’t feel the same overflowing of emotion that she did.” Don just looked at her. Her nose, he thought, had straightened out.
Don didn’t hug her then, but he said that he’d been thinking for years what he would say to her if he ever saw her. “I’ll take anything you’ll give and I’ll give anything you’ll take,” he said. It was awkward, but he meant it. Then they put her between them in the car and drove home.
In their living room Don had installed an upholstered porch swing. They put Karen on the swing. Don sat on the couch and Deniece on the floor. “Now,” Deniece said to Don. “Tell her why we did it.”
Don started, but Deniece told most of the story. If this was the only time they ever saw Karen, Deniece wanted her to understand one thing-that they were not the messed up kids they were when they gave her away. Deniece also thought that one reason Karen had come was to find out why they had done this terrible thing to her.
But that was not what Karen wanted. She felt no reproach; she held no grudge. And as she listened, she began to understand what was happening. “It was like catharsis for Deniece and Don.. .all this stuff that they had heen carrying around with them for all these years. Finally I’m here, I can fix them.”
“In retrospect it was amazing that I didn’t die or crack up then,” Don says. “To me you were looking at everything from a baby to a grown person, like trying to look at the whole electromagnetic spectrum all at once and trying to see the whole creation. It’s like she’s a baby, and yet she’s a grown person. I wanted to count her fingers and toes.”
Deniece says that when she saw Karen, all her guilt and fears evaporated. The vision of Karen as a little helpless baby disappeared. She saw that she was okay; she was healthy and happy. That satisfied her.
After the initial outpouring, they lapsed into the telling of little, seemingly insignificant stories that make up the history of someone’s life. They found they each had a lot to learn.
Their reverie didn’t last long. Don had to go to work, Don’s parents were going to show up any minute, and Deniece had to prepare the house for Rhonda’s graduation. Before the evening was over, Don finally hugged Karen. Once he started, he says, he didn’t want to stop. They stayed up that night and talked until 4:00 a.m. That first meeting was the end of Karen’s search, and the end of nineteen years of repressed guilt for Don and Deniece. But it was the beginning of a long-delayed relationship. The three began to get to know each other. And they found that, beyond being lost relatives, they liked each other.
The first bond to form and strengthen was between Karen and Deniece. When they were together they concentrated on each other almost to the total exclusion of everyone else. Don and the girls felt left out at first, but after Karen and Deniece’s relationship stabilized, Karen turned her attention to Don, Rhonda, and Renee-even to Deniece’s parents.
After Karen’s visit, Deniece wrote to Lucille in Connecticut- She said she thought she understood what it must have been like for Karen to come to Texas, and that she hoped they could he friends. Lucille wrote back, thankful that Deniece understood.
In 1979, Karen returned to Texas for a visit in the fell and at Christmas (which was also her twentieth birthday). And in 1981, when Karen graduated from Cornell with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Deniece went to Connecticut and met Lucille for the first time. That firmed their relationship, and Lucille wrote to Deniece: “I’m so glad that I was the person in the right place at the right time to he there to take Karen when things were out of control for you. Circumstances none of us could control brought us together and joined us in a special bond.1’ Lucille says now that, even if something were to happen to Karen, she would still maintain contact with Don and Deniece. They are like family to her.
Since Karen found her natural parents, they have all had time to reflect on the possibilities-what might have been if Don and Deniece had kept Karen. But they all agree, intellectually if not viscerally, that Karen was better off the way it happened. Deniece says that she and Don probably wouldn’t have stayed married if they had kept Karen, and even if they had stayed married, they couldn’t have raised her as well as Lucille did. And Karen agrees that things have worked out well for her, especially now that she has found Don and Deniece.
The family triangle grew still stronger on June 6, 1987, when Karen was married. The Cummingses sat behind Lucille and her son in a Catholic church in Meriden, Connecticut, as the priest joined Karen to yet another family. At the reception afterwards, Deniece and Lucille hugged each other and sat together on the edge of the activity talking for a long time, each one looking up from time to time to keep an eye on their daughter.
Karen has a law degree now and is practicing commercial law for a firm in Hartford. She lives with her new husband in Hig-ganum, where Don and Deniece lived when Karen was born. And although Karen’s circle in her family tree is firmly placed in Connecticut, her line extends all the way to Texas.
In Search of Birth Parents: Some Sources
In Texas, adoption records are closed or sealed, and adoptees have basically four ways to gain access to those records. The first is to contact the agency that handled, the adoption.
The second is to get a court order to have the records opened.. The adoptee must petition the judge in the district court in which the adoption was approved..
The third method is relatively new; the 1984 State Adoption Registry Law requires adoption agencies to set up a system in which adoptees and birth parents sign a register giving consent for records to he opened.. But the law is loaded with restrictions, so the register doesn’t work very well. Edna Gladney Center in Fort Worth, for example, has had no matches.
The fourth method is to contact one of the following private agencies: Adoptee Liberty Movement of America in Austin. (512) 480-9060; Hope Cottage in Dallas, (214) 526-8721; International Soundex Registry, RO. Box 2312. Carson City, Nevada 89702-2312; Searchline of Texas in Irving, (214) 445-7005.