The possibility for connecting is always available to us, we just have to believe in it. Life is a series of asks. Maybe the reason it was so easy for me to connect with my birth family is because it was supposed to happen, and I leaned into the possibility by reaching out… ~ Elizabeth Brando
Here in our Stories of Grateful Living, we honor the voices of our community as we invite people to share their personal experiences with gratefulness. Join us in appreciating the explorations, reflections, and insights of fellow community members as we collectively learn what it means to live gratefully.
Elizabeth Brando shared the story below in conversation with members of the Gratefulness Team.
My story begins in Phoenix, Arizona in 1966 when I was born to a Cherokee mother but adopted out at birth to a non-Native family.
My parents could not biologically have children and turned to adoption. At the time, if you wanted a “100% perfect white child,” you had to wait three years. But if you were willing to accept a child of mixed racial heritage, you could have one almost immediately, and they were cheaper even. I am half Cherokee and half white. My brother (also half Native) and I used to tease each other because I cost (adoption fees) $300 and my brother was $500. Seriously! We used to fight, and he would yell at me that he cost more, so he was better. Sibling rivalry manifests itself in so many ways.
Adoptions back then were closed, and the records were sealed for 70 years. The government and adoption agencies didn’t want people to know any specifics. If you look at my birth certificate, you see my parents’ names but no mention of the woman who carried me. So my birth mom was this nebulous figure with a she-loved-you-so-much-she-gave-you-up type of narrative.
I always knew I was adopted. For some people, the fact that they were adopted gets sprung on them when they’re 12 or 18 or it’s their mom’s last dying breath or something like that. In terms of gratitude, it was nice to have always known. Even better, my parents told me that they would help me look if I ever wanted to know more about my birth parents.
When I was 16 or so, my dad, whom I was very close with, was the catalyst to get the process started. My parents were living in a small town called Casa Grande, Arizona when they adopted me. It was a farming community with a population of maybe a couple thousand. My dad went down to the courthouse where he knew the woman at the court register. He said, “I’m trying to get some information on my daughter. Can you help me?” And she said, “These records have been sealed for years and will continue to be. I have her file in my hands but you aren’t allowed to see it… but…I’m going to go get coffee…”
…one day, literally sitting at the downtown Phoenix Public Library, I found my birth grandmother’s phone number. I went home thinking well, I have this phone number, I should just call her. So I called her.
The result of that ask provided some information we could go on. I remember scouring the local libraries to search through the Oklahoma Yellow Pages and other sources. Then one day, literally sitting at the downtown Phoenix Public Library, I found my birth grandmother’s phone number. I went home thinking well, I have this phone number, I should just call her. So I called her.
Concurrently, I attended some adoption search group meetings that prepare you for the worst. Because again, you’ve been told this story that it’s a great and lovely thing that this woman cared about you so much that she gave you up, but you don’t really know the situation. This group prepared me for the possibilities that the birth parents may never have told anyone, or that they got rid of you for a reason, or that they’re in jail, or… it might not be all wonderful–just be prepared for anything.
When I made the call, a woman — presumably my birth grandmother — answered the phone: “Hello?” And I started, “Hi, this is…” but I didn’t say who I was. The adoption group told you that you don’t want the person to hang up on you. So I asked, “Hey, is Patricia there?” Patricia was the name of my birth mother. The woman on the phone said, “Oh no, you just missed her. Do you have her home number?” I said, “Gosh, no, I must’ve lost it.” She said, “Well, okay,” and gave me the phone number for my birth mom. I thanked her, and we hung up, and I thought, wow, that was easy. Now I had this phone number of a woman who is supposedly my birth mom, and the dates checked out, and the secret court papers that we’re not supposed to have seen checked out. Another amazing ask that worked!
Complete silence. And then she said, “Wow, wow. I wondered if this day would ever come.”
There I was in my kitchen with my birth mom’s phone number. She had no idea what was about to happen. I remember thinking, well, no better time than now. I called the number. A woman picked up: “Hello?” I said, “Hi, were you in Phoenix, Arizona in 1966?” She said, “I think so, who is this?” I said, “Oh, were you by chance…” I trailed off, and she said again, “Who is this?” And I replied, “Oh my god, just don’t hang up on me. I think you’re my birth mom. And my name is Beth, and I’m doing really good and don’t hang up on me. And I just want to tell you how great things are, and please don’t hang up on me.” Complete silence. And then she said, “Wow, wow. I wondered if this day would ever come.”
We had this lovely 20-minute chat, just kind of making sure it was real. She said, “Well, obviously, this is a shock. I have a husband, and he knows about you, but I have two girls, and they don’t know.” I said, “Well, I’m not going to show up on your doorstep. I just wanted you to know that I’m okay. Things worked out for me, I’m going to go to college. I play tennis.” She said, “Let me write you a letter.”
And she did. Even though I didn’t fly out the next day (It took me two or so years to physically go see her), we talked a lot and she became part of my life. Her husband was welcoming; he called me his third daughter. He’d call me up and say, “How are you doing?” When I finally flew out to visit, my two half-sisters — we look alike — picked me up at the airport, and we went out for Mexican food, and then went home and watched TV. It was a lovely relationship, and I feel very lucky about that — that they were so easygoing. Eventually, my mom met Pat when we spent a weekend together. They were two little old ladies bonding over their ailments — “my knee, my back” — magical.
I lucked out. I lucked out in that I was able to meet my birth mom, and that they — she, her husband, and my half-sisters — were welcoming. I was able to enroll in the Cherokee Nation and learn more about that aspect of my life. In 2006, Pat died of diabetes. Native Americans have a greater chance of having diabetes than any other U.S. racial group. It was very sad, and I even spoke at her funeral. Since then, I would love to say that I have this beautiful relationship with my half-sisters, but it’s not really as close as I would like. We talk once or twice a year, and it’s kind of strange, but it is what it is. We don’t hate each other, but there’s not as strong a connection as we used to have. Everyone is very busy with their own lives. But I am lucky in that, when my family does visit them, we will go to dinner and have a nice time.
Maybe If You’re Thinking of Me, I’m Thinking of You
Pat had told me about my birth father. They were freshmen in college and when she told him she was pregnant, he panicked and left, never to contact her again. She said to me, “Here is his name. Here’s a ring that he gave me that I now give you, and here’s a picture of him from a yearbook, and do with it what you will, but I don’t really ever care to see him again because he just left me high and dry.” So I let it go for about a decade. I had a daughter of my own and could relate to carrying a baby, but maybe men’s feelings are different.
I knew where he lived in New Mexico, and I coincidentally lived nearby for a year and never drove by his house. I just was never really sure. As I got older, I thought, everyone’s getting older, he’s going to die, and I will never know. And I thought Olivia, my daughter, really needed a grandparent in her life. My dad died in 2010, and my mom just wasn’t the cookie-baking grandmother type. So in November 2019, I wrote him a card. I wrote, “Hey, I’m not going to show up on your doorstep. My life is full. Maybe if you’re thinking of me, I’m thinking of you. If you’re not, it’s okay.”
So I’m very grateful. If you reach out to a stranger, you never know what will happen.
I mailed it off, and wouldn’t you know, he called me the day he received it. And he told me, “I wish you would’ve called sooner.” We talked for a couple of months and had a nicely awkward dinner together in February 2020 when I had to be in New Mexico for work. I didn’t take any pictures. I didn’t say, “You’re my dad.” He is a nice guy: Mr. Oklahoma, Mr. Cowboy. I was able to show him pictures of Pat.
It’s been over a year, and we talk to him close to every other Sunday, almost like I did with my dad. And I found my daughter a granddad and a grandmom (his wife); they let Olivia call them Grandpa Fred and Grandma Noemi. Olivia draws them little pictures. They send her little stuff in the mail. COVID-19 has precluded us from visiting in person but I just know that it will be like when I met Pat. We will meet at the airport, go eat food, and it will be a happy, casual moment.
So I’m very grateful. If you reach out to a stranger, you never know what will happen. I am kind of sad that it took so long, now seeing how it turned out. He said, “I just wish you would’ve reached out earlier.” He’s in good health. He’s not going to die tomorrow, but you just never know.
Everyone’s a Stranger Until They’re Not
I talked myself into reaching out to my birth parents by telling myself, it’s okay if they don’t want to reach out because I don’t really know them, and I don’t have a lot invested in this relationship as of yet.
But I think deep down inside, one of the reasons I waited so long to talk to my birth father was that I couldn’t handle rejection. I had this conversation about it with my husband, who’s extremely family-oriented, and the whole time we lived in New Mexico, he said, “We should drive by his house.” I thought, no, no…that would be the day we get a flat tire, and then there would be some weirdness.
The possibility for connecting is always available to us, we just have to believe in it.
But everyone’s a stranger until they’re not. I fundraise for a living. I talk to strangers all the time and ask them for money. I like meeting people. People are really interesting. Everyone’s got an amazing story. My story may be unique, but so is everyone’s. I actually married a stranger: I married Mike after five months, and we’ve been together 13 years. I’m very hopeful and positive, and I’m full of this sense that it’s all going to work out. I truly believe that.
The possibility for connecting is always available to us, we just have to believe in it. Life is a series of asks. Maybe the reason it was so easy for me to connect with my birth family is because it was supposed to happen, and I leaned into the possibility by reaching out: I was supposed to meet these people and that’s why it was so easy for me, and everybody was receptive because, of course, we’re all connected.
It’s funny, I was talking to Fred the other day, and he said something, and I said, “Oh my god, you sound like my dad. You know why? Because you are.” We had this huge laugh. It’s interesting. And nice.
In 1966, you could adopt an “Indian kid” pretty easily for cheap, and there was a huge push by the U.S. government to make that happen. There are some real atrocities — like in Canada, there was something called “The Scoop” where Native children who were taken from their families by social service agencies to be placed with non-Native families. The practice started in the 1950s and continued into the 1980s. This would happen right in front of the parents, who couldn’t do anything to stop it.
If they come up for foster care or adoption, their tribe has first rights because they are a community, and it takes a village to raise a kid.
In 1978, a federal law called the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed in response to the alarmingly high number of Native children being separated from their parents, extended families, and communities by state child welfare and private adoption agencies. In fact, research found that 25%–35% of all Native children were being removed; of these, 85% were placed outside of their families and communities — even when fit and willing relatives were available. ICWA protects the rights of an Indian child. If they come up for foster care or adoption, their tribe has first rights because they are a community, and it takes a village to raise a kid. ICWA requires something called “active efforts.” This means that the state must work closely with the family to ensure they receive any services necessary before a child is removed to prevent removal from the home, or — if removal was necessary — they receive services and support so that the child can be safely returned.
I started a new job in November 2020 at the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), the preeminent national Native organization focused specifically on the tribal capacity to prevent child abuse and neglect, which includes upholding the rights of ICWA. When I interviewed, I said, “I’m adopted. I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. I know about eight words, and I’ve only been to Oklahoma twice.” And my interviewer said, “You know, you’ve got way more going for you than some people do. You have knowledge of your Native culture and access to information if you want it. Some people seek answers to their past forever and never find it.”
So I’m very, very, very fortunate in many, many ways.
People ask me, “Well, gosh, if you would’ve stayed with your birth mom, would your life have been better? Because you’re well-traveled… and all the stuff you’ve done…” But I can’t even look at it that way. Pat was a lovely lady, and her husband was a great guy. They would’ve been nice parents. I just feel so fortunate, not better than. I don’t view anyone in my family story in a negative light — they are all special in their own unique way. I don’t want anyone to have the impression that my life is “better” because I was adopted.
And as I work to find my daughter “a family” I can’t believe my good fortune in how Fred and his wife Noemi have become a nice part of our lives. My brother died in 2010, my dad in 2016, and my mom just passed in December due to COVID-19. My husband and I are older parents, and my daughter is an only child. If I make it to 94, she’ll be 50. So I want to make sure that she has people in her world. My new job is bringing me closer to my Native roots, which will have a positive impact on my daughter.
You never know what’s possible until you ask.
Questions for Reflection
What feelings/thoughts/questions surface for you in reading Elizabeth’s story?
What arises in you when you consider the idea that “the possibility for connecting is always available to us, we just have to believe in it”?
Elizabeth is grateful that a door was opened rather than shut each time she “asked” — is there an ask out there for you?
We invite you to share your reflections below.
We invite you to share a story about yourself or another person, reflecting on the question: “How has gratefulness shifted a moment, an experience, or a lifetime?”
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Beautiful writing and story Elizabeth! Thank you! You took some vulnerable leaps and look where you landed. I appreciate that you didn’t attach expectations to your vulnerability, you accepted whatever the outcome might be. Write on!