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Why the Wolff Howls

A warning dear reader, this one is long; far longer than usual. And it is really all about me; there is little about internal vibrations or reincarnation. This is to more about affording you a look from the inside of the Wollf’s eyes. We are what we’ve been. And the journey shared belong should help better define my direction in previous and future posts.

So, by way of introduction – I have had three mothers, four if you count my beloved mother in law who always called me, and considered me, her son.

First, obviously the biological birth mother. I don’t know her; don’t know her name, her eye color, or a single thing. Nothing. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Same with the biological father. I do know one or the other’s surname (although that discovery took 17 years, but I am getting ahead of myself.)

Understand please, that this rambling is 1) useful to better understand future posts, 2) is spotty because it is pieced together through years of bits and pieces of conversations, thousands of questions (and a scant handful of answers), and hours of rummaging through dusty boxes in the attic and basement, and 3) affords you, dear reader, some insight to my personal perspective of living life.

I was “placed” – interesting term isn’t it? “Placed.” Like an object, a thing. Better than dropped, which is what is closer to the truth.….. Anyway, I was placed into an orphanage immediately after birth. I was adopted a month or two later by my adoptive father (dad #2) and mother (mom #2). I learned many years later that they thought they were unable to have children on their own. My name was legally changed and all evidence of the adoption, along with any acknowledgement of it ever happening, were rapidly hidden and buried.

Well life has a way, as we all have surely learned for ourselves in our own lives. And around age five, mom (#2) just died.

To this day, I do not know what took her. Obviously something sudden and powerful for she was alive on Friday and gone by Sunday; or so I was told years later. I sort of do remember her; I have fleeting images, thought to be snippets of dreams for most my life until I was finally able to view pictures of my past life and things in my images showed up in photos, confirming their reality. But mostly there are a jumble of blurred images in my mind. All nebulous and most of them are dubious at best and I will never know if they are borne of an actual memory of out of the anguished mind of a 5 yr old boy, so I tend to ignore them (can you still hear them screaming Clarice?)

I was also told she was pregnant when we lost her. Both were lost.

Dad was certainly devastated, this comment not from my personal memory though but stories told to me later in my life when the truth was finally spoken. I am told I was a bit of a wreck myself. Certainly don’t remember any of that and that is probably for the best! Oddly, (I will never know) I think I just might have a memory of my final day with her. I have this vision of being in a car. We stopped in front of a small neighborhood store – two big bay style windows with the front door sandwiched in between, up three concrete steps. She needed…….apricots I think. That’s it. Maybe it’s just a wish.

For years, I knew none of this. No flashbacks, no memories, no questions. When she died Dad totally freaked out, as did her parents. Everyone lived in this altered reality of attempted normality despite being savaged by shock, loss, and agony. Dad remarried within a year or two (mom #3) – he could not raise me alone. Men in the 1950’s just didn’t do that. Dad had a fabulous custom built home he had designed himself – actually built a complete scale model of it first to make sure the cabinets would be clear enough from the kitchen table, etc. (He was an engineer, brilliantly smart) He has a surrey – yes, a surrey, with a fringe on the top. (Younger readers, Google that as it is written). He had a great job. And he had an airplane. A real airplane – a Piper. I think I have one memory of climbing in it and taxiing out and then going up into the blue with him. Maybe.

So as I said, dad freaked. He and mom #3 could apparently were not able to build a life in the house he had built with his first wife; even more so with her parents over at the house every day, suggesting that “this chair always looked better over there” and such things that surely drove mom #3’s blood pressure to the upper limits of the stratosphere. And after some amount of time, they fled. Like thieves in the night; like gypsies. They quit their jobs, sold everything – surrey, airplane, house and all – and moved north to RI. And did so in the dead of night without telling mom #2’s parents or anyone else. Imagine losing your daughter, and shortly after, having your only grandson disappear off the face of the earth. I personally grow nauseous at the thought. Horrific. But dad was in survival mode. I have no idea what I thought, no recollection at all of any of this.

 But then one day, around 8 or 9, I was playing in the house. Mom kept peeking out the front window and was obviously upset. Suddenly the front doorbell rang. Rather than run to answer it, she screeched at me in this horrifying whisper/scream “Go to your room and don’t make a sound” Confused, I did so and cowered in my room in a corner while the doorbell rang and rang. Fast forward either some hours, or a day, and the same people were back at the door and this time, were allowed in. They were my grandparents.

Oh how they hugged me and kissed me – all so very confusing to me. I was told they were old family friends but to please call them grandmom and grandpop “to make them feel good.” And so I did. And they never once hinted at our shared, but secreted, past. Never asked, never told, never wavered. God bless them. But as I began to grow from a boy to a young man, I began to question, to wonder. Why did I have three sets of grandparents? And vague memories, flashes of something long lost, began to creep into my mind.

I was around 12 and for some reason, I was digging through the box of Christmas decorations. For some reason – I’ll never know why – I went all the way to the bottom of the box and then, to my great astonishment, upon moving the blanket on the bottom I found it was actually hiding the rest of the things in the box. There were crucifixes, pictures of a blonde woman, and other similar things. I quietly put it all back and retreated to ponder. Sometime later, I was in the garage with dad and asked him if I had ever had another mother. He snorted derisively and murmured his best effort at a convincing “no”. I let it go and so did he.

But the gates had been opened. I became a sleuth, always carefully seeking clues and hints, but almost always rebuffed. I think I was around 15 and they told me I was going to fly to Florida to visit “your grandparents” – the old family friends – for a week. Well dear reader, I wasn’t in their house for 5 minutes and grandmom shows me a picture of a blonde woman and asks “do you know who this is?” Either unable to wait for me to answer or too terrified I would say “no”, she immediately blurted out “this is your mom.”


The music coming from my soul at that point was most definitely deafening, chaotic, and piercing. I was so………shaken just doesn’t do it justice……..turned inside, that I swear I almost dropped to my knees. It was a week of gentle, loving discovery. They filled in many of the blanks, most of which frankly, I had no idea I was missing. (I’ve always been a bit obtuse.) To this day, to this very minute, I never considered for an instant that the whole trip may have been an intentional vehicle of discovery for me. I sit here, pausing at each word, contemplating the likelihood that my parent and grandparents had discussed the whole issue with me beginning to suspect there may been a previous mom. Discussed what to do, how to tell me, who would tell me, etc. And I now very strongly suspect that they hatched the trip to Florida to allow them to ease me into the knowledge of the past and all that pain.

But as things became clear and answers were found, more questions arose. I wanted, needed, to understand how I had lost my mom; to wrap my adolescent brain around what had taken her from me. Yet through it all, no one ever mentioned adoption; that little nugget of knowledge was still hidden away.

Fast forward a few more years – I am now 17. I now know much of my previous mom, but still no details on how and why I lost her. And so I continued to play Inspector Clouseau, trying to find more detail. And on one fateful day, I did.

Buried deep in the back of the bottom drawer of dad’s desk, were some files. Flipping through them I saw one labeled “death certificate”……with a deep breath I grabbed the file folder and I gasped – for behind it was a file labeled “adoption.” I went from the heady rush of the pinnacle moment of investigative triumph to confused uncertainty and indecision. I wish I could recall if it was minutes or seconds before I grabbed it and opened it – I am not sure. But open it I did. And then I learned the complete truth of my life. Not a lot mind you – no details. It was very clinical; some court papers, decrees, etc. A single acknowledge that I had been born Joseph Powell and nothing else. Certainly nothing on the biological units that had “placed” me. A few dates that helped clarify the timeline and that was it. I placed everything back and never said a single word to dad about it. Ever. He died without us ever discussing it.

After high school I went off to Notre Dame. But the hormones and call of the wild pulsing in my veins was far too overpowering and within weeks of my freshman first semester, I hit the road and hitchhiked from South Bend Indiana to Wickford Rhode Island. And I never looked back. (Well, funny story – I actually did look back ‘cause I took a wrong turn out of the main gates of the campus – literally turned left and after an hour found out I should have turned right to reach the highway…..)

So my parents were (obviously) upset and refused to talk to me or acknowledge me. They claimed that acknowledging me and bringing me back into their lives was a tacit approval of my actions to my brothers. So the lines of communication were decisively severed.

But when I turned 21, I got a package from dad. In it were my adoption papers and a short note apologizing for never having told me. It took another 2 years before we all reconciled – they even refused to attend my wedding. Ultimately the impending birth of our first child was the impetus for reunion. We all picked up where we had left off, never talked about any of it….classic Wolff.

So all that to lead into where I wanted to go to with this post……

I am a loner and while I love my immediate pack voraciously, I don’t care too much about too many others being around me much. I am certainly not a unibomber but I am faaaaaar from a social butterfly. Even within the family. My wife’s family loved and seemingly lived for parties and cookouts – had them at the drop of a hat. There was a reason I always did the grill – it was hot and smoky and away from the tables and I could “be there” but still be alone – over to the side – grilling.

I lost my mom (#3) after a number of torturous years for her and dad; a story not for public discussion. (Hah! Kind of like “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” when Sherlock Holmes said to Watson: “Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson, … It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”)

Dad moved on, figuratively and literally, but ultimately left life 6 or 7 years later. And I as have previously mentioned to you in this missive, we never discussed any of it. And while I idly wondered about my genetic donators, I never pursued discovery of the biological birth parents. It seemed wrong; it was wrong. Mom and Dad raised me, loved me as a son of their own coupling. I adapted (love the cunning way the adapted is one letter removed from adopted) many of his mannerisms and behaviors. I was his son. To even consider trying learn who they were seemed a betrayal to me.

Even after they were both gone, I did nothing. But finally some years later I began to softly poke at the possibilities and prod the potential for parental pursuit. But as a self-confessed loner, why then chase familial connections that I don’t know exist? Not like I would invite them over for a cookout (unless I can grill – hah!)

But most everyone knows someone in their family line – mom, dad, brother, sister – they know at least a little about at least one side of the family – who was who – all that kind of thing. Roots matter somehow – a human weakness (or strength). So much evolves from knowing where you came from. Much of it is psychological and self-rationalization type things – “you take right after your granddaddy” or “you look just like your great aunt” or whatever. We all pick and choose what most intrigues or delights us from what is proffered through the family tree and tell ourselves we share that gene – that trait.

Even those you didn’t know, you know of.

But when you’re adopted, and have nothing but your own name – you are very much naked and afraid. Who was mom? Who was dad? What were their names? How old were they? Who were their parents? Did they have other children? Did I have brothers and sisters?

And of course deep at the core, way down in the roots – why was I given away?

I think all roads of adoptive questioning ultimately have that one question at the core, whether those folks seeking family tree answers admit or even know it or not. No matter how dogmatically that they claim their search is one of interest in heritage and family trees etc., should any of them ever track down and get to either of the parents, the “why” question will come tumbling from their mouth. True.

So as I said, I resisted and ignored any urges to look into my past while Mom and Dad were alive. But then I had my first little grandson Robbie and he liquefied my heart. And I suddenly desperately needed to know my genetic profile. I needed to know what “bad” genes I may have passed to him.

So I found an internet service that does genome testing. I paid my money, spit in the bottle, and waited. Turned out that I have a pretty clean background from a genetic disease perspective. Great news and great relief! But now the door was open a crack. You can’t easily peak through a door that’s been closed for over 50 years without taking more than a peak. I learned my geographical background and that my genes contain 2.7% Neanderthal variants. I learned about my genetic dispositions; likes and dislikes, etc. But I also learned, for the first time, that I had blood relatives out there: 1,058 third to fourth cousins! And……drum roll please……one deemed “close family to second cousin”, which could mean siblings, parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, first and second cousins.


I did try to reach out to this one person, but never heard back. So I still don’t know who they may be to me. And time has nudged on and people are dying and anyone who may be able to fill in some of the blanks of my very early life may not have much time left, if indeed not already gone. There is a chance one or both of my parents are still alive, but that chance grows smaller every day. And I still don’t know a single thing about that first month of my life.

I tried to build a family tree on the Ancestry website; after hours of effort I still had just the one square with my name in it. Without a mother’s and/or father’s name, there is no place to go. And of course, I still don’t know “the why”. But as the years have rolled on, and as my life has filled with children, and now grandchildren, I have my own tree growing. And it is a strong one.

And “the why” has paled and withered and crisped on the vine. I no longer need to seek where I came from; I need to build upon from where my pack came….

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