March 8, 2009
Artist finds birth mother and, in turn, herself
By Juliane Hiam
Special to the Record
GREAT BARRINGTON — When Martha Archambault was 7 years old, she was on Martha’s Vineyard with her family and extended family for a summer vacation.
She was playing keep-away with her older brother and a cousin, when out of nowhere, the cousin let slip that Martha wasn’t really his cousin because she was adopted.
This was news to Martha, as well as her older brother, and given the impact it wound up having on her life, flew out and slapped her between the eyes with absolutely no warning.
Martha grew up in Newton, the second oldest child in the Selling family. Her parents, Irma and Ben, unable at the time to have children, adopted two children, Martha and an older boy (they are not biologically related). Then, as luck would have it, Ben and Irma found themselves able to conceive, and went on to have two more biological children.
As a result, Martha says she felt set apart and estranged from her family — and felt guilty for feeling so. She was an artist, a free spirit, a woman of quirky sentences and right brain tendencies. Her parents, she says, often described her as having “mixed up genes” and that she was “wired wrong.” She couldn’t be the college-educated rule-follower that they envisioned. Her artistic talent, her innate ability to Haiku her way through any linear thought process and her highly emotional disposition were all seen as shortcomings.
Though Martha says she “never wanted for anything,” thanks to this well-to-do adoptive family, having grown up in a multi-million dollar home, she did not feel she could be a fully-realized version of herself under their roof.
Perhaps that was the reason she yearned to find her birth mother. Not knowing whether that would ever be possible (her birth records had been sealed) and also not knowing whether finding her would bring a happy ending (would her birth mother reciprocate the desire to connect?), it lived on as an unconscious fantasy.
Until this year.
Having put her name on several on-line birth parent searches and support groups, she was alerted when the state of Maine announced that as of January 1 it was releasing birth records for babies born in the year 1964. Martha, now a 45-year-old woman with a college-age daughter, sent her $10 check and crossed her fingers.
Seventeen days later, she was holding her original birth certificate. She suddenly had names, dates, cities, birthplaces that she had spent a lifetime wondering about. Martha hemmed and hawed about how to contact a “Sara Jean Fergusson,” her birth mother, who according to the dates had only been 16 years old in 1964.
Finally, on the day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, with the feeling of big things happening in the air, Martha picked up the phone and called.
After the years of fantasizing, waiting, and then the panic and anxiety of what sort of reaction she would be met with, it all fell into place. As if a portal to a parallel universe were opening up, Martha suddenly found out who and where she came from.
Her mother, quite speechless at first, then told her “you are always welcome here” and that she had always, always wondered about what happened to her baby girl, her only child as it turned out, that she gave up so long ago.
It wasn’t long after that Martha drove to Maine to meet her mother in the flesh, at an off-the-beaten-path diner and subsequently, at Sara Jean’s house in the small town of Whitefield.
The similarities between Martha and her mother are remarkable. Sara Jean, known as “Jean” since she and her mother were both named Sara, makes jewelry. So does Martha. Jean’s mother, Sara, made stained glass, and Martha, a painter, recently had a desire she could not explain to start painting on glass windows.
The two women dress similarly. Jean has a pet dog named Muffin, which was the name of Martha’s first pet dog as a child.
They have similar postures. Martha’s daughter, April, who turns out was born on the birthday of Jean’s mother Sara, chose the University of Maine of all the colleges in the country. April studies elementary school education, and Sara, her great-grandmother, who died just two years ago, had been an elementary school teacher for many, many years.
Martha, in telling about how she innately feels similar and connected to this woman who up until weeks ago was a stranger, smiles, bubbles, and wells up in tears.
But all the similarities, coincidences and odd parallels are punctuated by the stark differences in Martha’s upbringing and this world of the Fergussons to which she now finds herself belonging.
Jean lives next door to her brother George, a professional beekeeper. Jean, a fiercely independent, liberal political activist whose past includes involvement in the Civil Rights movement and various anti-war efforts, smokes a corncob pipe and embodies what anybody might think of as “rural Maine.” The contrast between well-to-do Jewish Newton, Mass., of Martha’s childhood and out-in-the-sticks small-town Maine where her birth mother lives couldn’t be larger.
And the contrasts are even larger for Martha, who, being the laid-back bird-loving cigarette smoking painter-flower child at heart, sees that suddenly, what she always saw in herself as bizarre character and/or personality traits are really similarities and nuances of what makes the Fergussons who they are as a clan.
This past week, sitting in her birth mother’s greenhouse, alone, Martha says she felt overwhelmed.
“My adoptive family’s home feels familiar, but Jean’s house feels like home — on a deeper level,” she explains.
She describes having a feeling that was different from anything she had ever felt — that she was “safe,” and that she, as a unique, quirky, off-beat and artistic person, “made sense.”
It’s impossible to go back in time and recapture an entire lifetime with someone. But Martha firmly believes that this was the perfect time for all this to come together, that everything seems aligned for this to happen in both their lives now. The next anticipated introduction will be of April to Jean.
“She’s so excited to meet April,” Martha says. “And Jean and I are constantly talking about wanting to make a timeline together” which would chronicle in a detailed way what was happening in each others’ lives at various points in time.
“I never felt and still don’t feel angry at my mother for giving me up for adoption,” Martha says. “I very much believe that through everything I went through in my own life, she was there with me, in some way. I didn’t know who my mother was but I always felt her in me.”