FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee in a conservative Catholic family never felt quite right to me. I loved my parents- my adopted parents. Sometimes I would declare vehemently- they ARE my REAL parents when people asked me how it felt to be adopted. It felt as if I was being ungrateful for them, if I didn’t call them my real parents.
One of my earliest memories was watching the Sonny and Cher show- I loved Cher-I wanted to BE HER when I grew up. She was beautiful, exotic, foreign looking, dynamic, a free spirit. All of the characteristics that I wanted to embrace and exude. But none of those qualities were particularly admired in my all girls Catholic school where blond hair and tiny button noses were the norm. I never felt like I fit in with my dark wavy unruly hair and olive skin, and I often wondered if I were an alien, if I had ever been born.
I remember when I was four years old, singing God Bless America and waving a tiny American flag in a crowded auditorium. This was my naturalization ceremony in 1974 when I officially became a US citizen. So where did I come from? I knew from about 4 years old that I was adopted. I was told I was special and chosen and that I was born in Berlin, but that’s as far as the details went.
When I was a little girl, I had a friend down the street who was adopted too. That was our special bond, and I didn’t feel so weird being the adopted kid, since she was too. However, my mother always told me it was our family secret as people just wouldn’t understand, so I often reminded not to tell people I was adopted. People often remarked on how much I looked like my mother, something she enjoyed hearing so much. Our relationship was and still is challenging, however, I don’t attribute this only to being adopted. I know many people who were not adopted and have a difficult relationship with their mother.
THE EARLY YEARS
Until about the age of 12, I was pretty compliant, and as long as I expressed thoughts and opinions that my parents approved of, all was peaceful. When I began to think for myself and express myself, my opinions were often shut down. I was an only child, and since I was “special”, I often felt guilty if I thought differently from my parents. But I KNEW I was not like them on some inexplicable level. That feeling of being different permeated my adolescence.
I was always curious about the details of my adoption, but I felt such guilt for being curious, I was reluctant to ask. I didn’t want to hurt my parent’s feelings for wanting to know my birth story because I believed they would be hurt and offended. It felt like a betrayal if I were to search. I didn’t ask questions because I didn’t want to cause them pain and I deeply feared being rejected if I expressed curiosity about my adoption. Our relationship became increasingly strained throughout high school. I “rebelled” and my father once said “Get on the bandwagon!” I would explain that I wasn’t rebelling I was trying to be me, however, in Memphis in the 1980s, there wasn’t too much tolerance for anyone marching to the tune of a different drummer.
In 1988, I went to the University of Texas at Austin- back when Austin was a small diverse oasis in Texas, a town of only 300,000 people. The slogan Keep Austin Weird was born around this time. On a campus of 50,000 students, there were as many types of self expression. This global community of students from every continent, world class professors, people who dressed in all sorts of ways from various religious and spiritual backgrounds, the exposure to such brilliant diversity inspired me to grow into ME.
The contrast from the life I knew for the previous 18 years was profound. I took Italian at university and wanted desperately to study art history abroad in Italy. That desire was met with such strong resistance from my parents that I quickly let that dream go. By the end of university, I had to know the whole truth about my roots, and I pushed for answers. I remember the day my father gave me the big file of documents- he said Branden, we CHOSE you, some parents don’t choose their children, but we CHOSE you. His words confused me and that familiar feeling that I was somehow betraying them with my curiosity came back. I was frustrated because I knew I loved them as my real parents, yet this part of me wanted to understand where and who I came from. I wondered if the thought I would renounce them as my parents and run away to Italy. It seemed to be their biggest fear but because we didn’t discuss feelings in my family, I didn’t ask. I remember reassuring them that they could never be replaced; I simply wanted to understand where I came from. They had kept me so close- I understand- to protect me, because I was the center of their universe, their only child, and the glue for their marriage. I felt, and still feel at times this pressure to be their golden child and hero. I realize now, that when I was young, I felt responsible for their happiness and some part of me believed that if I sought to meet my birth parents it would be cruel and unloving to them.
When I read the documents about my birth I was in awe. I was born in West Berlin on January 16, 1970. In the packet of documents was my original passport- with a tiny black and white photo of me with the name Deborah Musicco. My name- my birth name. The story was that my parents, Francesca and Francesco Musicco were young Italian nationals living in Berlin working when they discovered they were pregnant with me. She had been a student of a wealthy family studying in Berlin when she met my father, Francesco, a carpenter hippy. They went to the Italian embassy to arrange for an adoption prior to my birth. A woman who worked at the embassy lived on the army base next to my adopted parents who were living in Berlin at the time, and my birth parents specifically told Nora, they wanted me to be adopted by an American family who could take good care of me. Because this would be in international adoption involving three countries, there was no precedent on the books. The documents stated that my birth parents would relinquish custody to my adopted parents who would foster me then take me to the United States. They would relinquish all rights to contact me or my adopted family. So on January 30, I was taken into foster care by Diane and Tony, and we stayed in Berlin until I was 6 months old. I entered the US in June 1970, on an Italian visitors VISA on my Italian passport accompanied by my soon to be adopted parents. The immigration official in New York also happened to be Italian and because my adopted father is Italian, even though I clearly wasn’t their child, no questions were asked and I entered the US. I was excited to have some of the missing pieces when I received all of this information, a portion of the puzzle was solved. However, it took me another 10 years to get the courage to seek out my birth parents.
After I graduated university, I traveled in Latin America, and then went backpacking in Africa. Travelling suited me- I felt my free spirited nature come to life, a part of me that had been stifled growing up – stifled both by my conservative parents and the southern culture. I met my son’s father in South Africa and lived there from 1996 to 2003. We had a bed and breakfast in a small town on the coast and we would host travelers from all over the world. The trance music scene was big in South Africa and many backpackers would make there way to our coastal village bringing music from Goa and Ibiza. I felt at home with this international community and thought I would stay there forever. Looking back now, living in Africa felt more like “home” than the US ever had. Sadly, my marriage broke down, and feeling that it would be too challenging to raise my son alone in a foreign country, I made the decision to return to Memphis to be close to family- the change couldn’t have been more of a shock to me. I felt as if I was suffocating back in the US and the confines of city life. That free spirited life I had inAfrica was gone in an instant and the grief I felt was tremendous.
Six months prior to leaving South Africa, I met a woman from Denmark who had been adopted and had recently reunited with her birth family. She asked me why I wasn’t more curious about my roots, my heritage that was vastly different from the culture I had grown up in. Those conversations with her inspired me to take the leap and begin a search.
emailed the Italian consulate in Berlin and sent them the documents I had from my adoption, including a copy of my birth parents’ marriage certificate. I left South Africa in a whirlwind and under a lot of emotional stress, so I had put any hope of finding them out of my mind. Six months after I left South Africa, I got an email from the consulate providing me with the home address of my birth father. I was excited, overwhelmed, and afraid. I sent him a letter immediately and a few weeks later I got an email from him. He thought my name was Sabrina. He poured out his heart how he had left his address at the Berlinconsulate in hopes I would contact him and insisted I was his daughter but that I was born in 1968! I was confused.
We emailed several times as I again outlined all the facts I had and sent him a copy of the marriage certificate as well as the papers proving I was born in 1970, not 1968.
Then he remembered me, his second daughter, Deborah. These emails he sent me in broken English revealed to me a snapshot of the adventurous life he and my mother had shared as young Italian drifters in Europe in the late 1960s. He shared that they had met while she was a student at university, he had no money and she would hide him in her underground apartment. Her parents hated him. They travelled around Europe in a VW bus, got busted for selling acid and then had a daughter named Sabrina in 1968. Sabrina would spend the days with them, then at night go and stay with Francesca’s family as they had no money. Eventually, Francesca’s family took Sabrina away from them and her uncle Claudio raised her. They never regained custody. Franco and Francesca fought frequently and Francesca went toBerlin- he said she was further into drugs at that point.
He followed her there after a few months and when he found her, Francesca was five months pregnant with me. They decided to give me up for adoption at that point.
Franco was so passionate when we finally spoke on the phone. I felt elated to speak to him, and saddened to hear the story of their tragic romance. I thought about how my life could have gone on a completely different trajectory if I they had not given me away or if I had been adopted by another family of European origin.
Its incredible how things line up- Nora, my parent’s neighbor in Berlin happened to be at the consulate the day they came in. Nora mentioned in passing about a young couple looking for an American couple to adopt their soon to be born child. My parents deciding to adopt a child even though they hadn’t entertained the idea until it were suggested. The stars aligned in those moments and the direction of my life began to unfold, weeks before I was even born. I was shocked Franco forgot about me.
I wondered, had he blocked this memory out because he was so distraught at having to give up a second child? Had he smoked the memories away? How could he forget they had had a second child? Yet when he remembered who I was, he spoke with such enthusiasm about wanting to meet me and my son. He offered to buy us plane tickets to Italy to be reunited with our “true” family, because to him, family was the most important thing. To this day, he maintains a close relationship with his four children in Europe. I was 33 when he and I finally “met”. I was living back in my parents home with my son, no money, having just left my husband and the beautiful life we had created, mired in soul pain and grief. Why didn’t I jump at the chance? In hindsight, I know that I didn’t go because it felt like a betrayal to my adopted parents. And, I believe a part of me was afraid to experience family with Franco and my half siblings because I may prefer it to the alternative- life in the US-that I had just returned to and despised.
My initial impression of Franco was of an artistic, free spirited, passionate man who loved fiercely. He was a romantic, a world traveler, a spiritual man who mediated in caves in India, and had a house by the Adriatic Sea. I felt, in my soul being that I was more like him than my adopted parents. I wanted to travel to Italy and meet him and my many siblings, yet part of me wouldn’t take the step to buy the ticket. As our relationship developed, my desire to meet him in person began to fade as he shared more about his life path. In our conversations, Franco went on to tell me he met an American woman in 1973 and they had a son together. I have since made contact with them as they live in theUS. Franco moved to India, and had two more sons with a woman there, and several years later, he fathered two more children with a woman from Holland.
He maintains a close relationship with these four children- they travel together and in September, the family gathered to celebrate his 69th birthday. Two of his sons are DJs who travel the world holding raves and music festivals. Since 1974, he divides his time between homes in Italy and India.
Meeting Franco at this time in my life, when I had just returned from South Africa stirred many conflicting emotions. I was thrilled to finally know I had in fact, been born and to hear Franco’s version of our story. And at the same time, I was deeply saddened that I had missed out on what seemed to be an exciting and textured life. The incredible contrast between how I was raised and how my life could have been made the emptiness inside of me feel even greater.
The grief I felt leaving my home in South Africa and returning to a city I had hated growing up was compounded by the fact that Franco didn’t know where my birth mother was. If I had found him only months before I had left South Africa, I probably would have taken my then four year old son and moved to India. I fantasized about leaving the States and reuniting with my birth family – traveling the world, moving back to Italy. Franco and I would talk on the phone occasionally from 2003 to 2005.
He told me that he had last seen her in 1980. He thought she may be living in Berlin, but in a later conversation he said he thought she may have died. What I learned through these conversations with Franco, is that he loved to be the center of everything, he was larger than life, and his memory was spotty. If you were to view his facebook page you would see him, with wild long gray hair, piercing eyes, tattoos, beaded Indian necklaces dancing on the beach in Bali to psychedelic music. The nomadic life that he and my half siblings live seems so fascinating to me, and such a radical contrast, even to this day, as I still live in Memphis, working a 9 to 5 job, living in the home I grew up in. Am I romanticizing what “could have been”? Possibly.
However, the more I read about adoption, I realize that there is an emptiness adoptees feel- Betty Jean Lifton refers to it as the betwixt and between feeling of not having a sense of belonging anywhere. I can relate to this feeling and sometimes wonder, who’s life am I living?
When Franco began to speak ill of my adopted parents, I cut off contact with him. I developed a friendship with my half brother’s mother, Kate, who lives in the US, and she confirmed my suspicions about Franco. When he was 19, she took her son to Italy to meet Franco. After that he had no desire to have a relationship with Franco. I had hoped to meet my half brother, but he ultimately decided he did not want to meet. Kate and I have kept up over the years and for that I am grateful. She had seen my mother once in Rome in 1974, she remembered her.
That memory she shared is the closest I have ever gotten to my mother. When Kate and I began to communicate, I finally felt like I was real, that I was born, that I was not an alien or someone who just appeared on Earth. Her memory of my mother felt more like a homecoming than the conversations with my father.
I no longer have a burning desire to meet Franco in person or my half siblings in Europe. I wonder if not wanting to meet them stems from me experiencing the life I could have lived- BEING an Italian not an American, living life from an Italian cultural perspective, an exotic, culturally diverse life, living in Italy or India or anywhere but here.
I have a longing to meet Sabrina, my full sister, and my mother, Francesca and have begun that search. I want to know these women, these women who are a part of me. Will I finally feel whole if I find them? No, I understand that feeling of wholeness is an “inside job”.
My adopted father is 76 and was recently diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. As my adoptive parents age and the realization that one day they will be gone settles in, the familiar childhood feeling of not belonging anywhere, of not feeling connected creeps into my heart sometimes. We have had good times and I do love them dearly.
I feel a deep sadness, an ache in my heart, where something feels missing- a deep connection to my parents. There is grief there still, but also a curiosity of what is yet to be revealed. My hope is that one day I will feel peace in my soul and feel that I belong. That feeling of arriving home, I know that must rise from within.