The color of her eyes.
The sound of her voice singing lullabies.
Did she even sing me lullabies?
Did she want to keep me?
On Mother’s Day, these kinds of thoughts singe the hearts of adopted children everywhere who’ve never met the woman responsible for their lives.
For Carmel Walter of Oak Harbor such pain is compounded. She knows that two powerful forces that should have protected her did the opposite. Walter is among thousands of babies born to unwed mothers in Ireland during the 1950s who were systematically adopted out by the Catholic Church with tacit approval by the government.
“Did my mother raise me for two years and then give me up?” she asks. “I don’t know. I want to know these things.”
Sitting in her small dining room, Walter leafs through the documents she’s accumulated looking for details about her birth mother, Josephine Moore.
“Moore, that name I learned is as common in Ireland as Smith and Jones are in the U.S.”
One document lists her birth mother as a “domestic.”
Again, not much help, she says.
“Everyone was called a domestic in those days.”
She has one photo of herself as a baby.
It’s a small black-and-white image used on her passport to travel by ship from Ireland to America in 1952. It took eight days. She got seasick. She arrived in New York harbor on Nov. 1, 1952.
“I came with what I wore on my back. I was wearing two sets of clothing. I had a little rubber elephant that squeaked and a straw cloth doll.”
She still has the doll.
Her new parents, Betty and Dave Baird, flew in from California and stayed with her father’s WW II buddies while they waited for their first child to arrive.
The young couple looked overseas for a baby because American adoption agencies thought they were ‘transient,’ moving around too much, Walter says. “Which is funny because they were the most stable people in the world.”
Walter grew up happy, healthy and loved. She knew she was adopted and her parents told her all they knew.
“My (adoptive) parents never hid anything from me. It’s just that they weren’t told anything.”
Walter’s story is the flip side of 2013 hit film, Philomena. It told the true story of an Irish woman, Philomena Lee, and the search for the son she’d been forced to give up as a toddler after being cared for at a convent taking in “fallen women.” She had been allowed to see him for one hour every day and spent most of her time doing laundry.
Stymied at every turn to get records of the boy she named Anthony, Lee finally found him. But it was too late. He had died.
Lee subsequently learned her son’s name was Michael Hess, he was raised in the Midwest, graduated from Notre Dame and worked in Washington, D.C. He had traveled to Ireland three times in search of information about her. Nuns told him that no records existed and that his mother abandon him. They didn’t divulge his aunts and uncles lived up the road.
Those same nuns later told Lee they had no information about her son. Yet he was buried on their grounds (in exchange for a large donation) in hopes his mother might one day find him.
In 2005,Walter’s adoptive mother offered to pay for a trip for the both of them to go to Ireland and search for Walter’s birth mother. “We spent two weeks. I spent a whole week doing research at different records offices. It took me years to piece this all together.”
She figured out her mother spent 38 days at a Dublin maternity hospital. She’s not sure why. What went wrong? Was it a difficult delivery? Did she have health problems she knows nothing about? At the maternity hospital, Walter was told all records had been destroyed in 1968. At an orphanage where her mother stayed for more than two years, Walter says a nun refused to offer any information beyond, ‘Well, you know the girls had to work off their debt.’”
Many mea culpas from many institutions poured forth after media reports exposed the widespread practice of forcing unwed Catholic mothers to relinquish their children, usually by age three.
It happened throughout the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Labeled “moral degenerates” who had committed the ultimate sin, many women never spoke of their first baby as they went on with their lives.
Stigma, shame and guilt kept the secret buried on both sides, by the mothers and the church.
The 2016 documentary, “Britain’s Adoption Scandal: Breaking the Silence,” estimated half a million children were given up by young women who were exiled by their families and had turned to “mother and baby homes” run by various agencies.
In 2011, the Catholic Church in Australia apologized for the forced adoption of 150,000 babies by Catholic-run hospitals.
In Spain, an estimated 300,000 babies were taken from their parents and sold for adoption over a period of four decades. Childless couples whom were deemed more devout and financially stable unknowingly adopted babies stolen by a network of duplicitous doctors, priests and nuns.
Birth mothers were told their newborns had died.
The United States and Canada also removed thousands of children from American Indian and First Nations families and placed them in non-native homes.
At age 80, Lee traveled to Rome in 2014 at the invitation of the Vatican to meet Pope Francis. “I hope and believe that his Holiness Pope Francis joins me in the fight to help thousands of mothers and children who need closure to their own stories,” Lee said afterward. An estimated 60,000 women were separated from their babies in Ireland, estimates The Philomena Project, created to pressure the church and the government to release adoption records.
At age 67 and retired after working 17 years at Oak Harbor Safeway, Walter’s had time to contemplate her life story. She often reflects on the role religion played in shaping her destiny.
“The fact is I was truly blessed to get two wonderful parents. I guess that’s why I put off so long looking for my natural parents,” she says.
Becoming a grandmother sparked the search for her roots. Not being able to pass on family history isn’t fair, Walter says.
“The fact is all these children like me were deported from their own homeland. We weren’t allowed to grow up with our own culture. That the Catholic Church had that much power they could throw out their own shame is terrible.”