Posted by: Brenda Kula | May 25, 2009

Photo In The Trunk

Even worse than the absence of a mother during my formative years, was knowing that she was not to be mentioned in our house. My great-grandmother never told me anything about my mother. For a long time, until I began grade school, I called her “mama” and thought she was my mother. But once I started school, of course, I realized that mothers were much younger.

I would find the photo of the dark-eyed girl in an outside shed in the trunk. I would run my hands through all the photos stacked in there in the darkness, and somehow I always stopped at this one. I would take it inside and ask who this little girl was. Silence met me.

“But who is this little girl?” I prodded, when I didn’t get answers. I just knew, somehow, that this photo, amidst all the others in that big steel trunk, was the face of someone important to me.


I know she did some bad things. I think she was mentally ill and back then they simply didn’t understand. She was a child born of rape. That further isolated her. But that wasn’t her fault. How could anyone blame a child for how they were created, I would later wonder?

But those were different times. My grandmother was very childlike, and someone had taken advantage. So my mother was considered illegitimate and both were hidden from view. They brought shame to the family, and I’m sure that guilt molded them into who they became. Or perhaps, more importantly, who they didn’t get the chance to become.

My mother spent her childhood in my great-grandmother’s house likely knowing she wasn’t wanted. That every time they looked at her, they saw this man taking advantage of her child-like mother. She was the result of that crime. And her mother would never take her and leave home and create a real family.

So I hated her too. It was expected. She was bad, evil. So I accepted that to be truth. When she came to visit that one time when I was about three, I was afraid of her. I was taught to be afraid of my own mother, because she epitomized all that was bad in our little ramshackle house.

I wonder what kind of person she might have become had she been nurtured and loved? I wonder if she might have grown up to be my mother? Instead of the young girl who took to the highway when she was a teenager. And consequently was picked up by a trucker who happened along (who I was told was my father) going down the highway. How she must have wanted to escape her life!

I wonder if she might have made different choices had she been helped and educated. But, once again, back in the forties and fifties, things were much different than they are today. It makes me sad to think of all the wasted lives, the abandoned children. Because you were either labeled good or bad and what was in between didn’t exist.

She married my father and had my sister. Then a couple of years later I was born. Why I was left behind is still a mystery, probably one I will never have an answer to. Then my brother was born, and they took him along with them on their perilous journey. I use to admire my siblings, thinking them to be the chosen ones. But after one occasion, when I met them in my early twenties, I realized quickly that I was the lucky one, as unfortunate as that sounds. They saw far more than I did at a very young age. My father committed theft or some other crime and went to prison for awhile. My mother was left alone with children she had no idea how to care for. And she apparently was a magnet to men who sensed her childlike ways in the shape of a woman and took advantage. Just as they had with her own mother.

As I tell this, I am giving you jagged pieces of a puzzle. The only pieces in my possession. In the only way I have to put my heritage together.

My brother and sister were taken from her because they were eating from trash cans, and she was considered negligent. They became part of the system and were adopted to separate families. I heard two more daughters were born to her. I think they must have been taken early. And adopted. Perhaps they were the lucky ones. Then my father was let out of prison, and soon thereafter, had a car accident and a stroke and died. So she took up with another man and had my youngest half-brother, who would later become part of the system himself. Six children in all.

When this boy, Billy, was in his teens, I received a phone call from social services. He needed a bone marrow transplant or would die, they said. I was the only family member they could locate. Would I come let them test me, even though we were only related through my mother? And so I did. And I was not a match. I visited him in the hospital. I don’t know if he survived. But I remember asking him: “Do you know where your mother is?” It took a lot for me to utter those words, and I would not say “our” mother. He told me he thought she was living in the back of a camper somewhere. That’s the last I heard, back in 1990.

I wasn’t going to write again about this. But a woman, someone I’ve never heard from, emailed me and asked me to keep telling about it. “Keep it up,” she wrote. “You are literally meeting other people’s emotional needs as you heal yourself.” And so on this morning I sat down and let the story begin again.

It is a short story. For I have few facts, and those are sketchy. But I do know this. Years ago, when someone asked what I would do if she were to find me and come to my door, I replied indignantly, “Why, I would turn her away. I’m not the Red Cross.”

But we are more than the sum of our parts. And I know, today anyway, that my answer would be far different. I would say to her: “If you need help, I’d like to help you.”



  1. I am very sorry for your heartache. I cannot imagine being in your shoes and all of the feelings/thoughts you carry and have carried throughout your life. Thinking of you this very moment and sending you tonnes of virtual care, love, and support. I am here, if you need me. You are always there for me. **Hugs**

  2. I can only describe your words today as profound. I’m sure it’s difficult to express these thoughts out loud but what your reader said to you is true. You are helping yourself as well as others.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. I may have a father out there somewhere that I never met. He was not talked about either. The only things I know were that he liked to sing and had a nice voice. Other than that I know nothing about him.
    I never really had a “daddy” just a man who married my mother and adopted me. He was cruel and abusive. I have a sister by that marriage but she has disowned me.
    So you see, your story and mine are similar in some ways… I appreciate you! May God bless you abundantly as you revisit your pain.
    Love, Kathi

  4. My heart goes out to you. I was lucky with parents – both were wonderful people and stayed together for 52 years, when my father died. I hope you’ll find peace at the end of this path. I send you thoughts of love and support! ::Jill

  5. Brenda, I am glad that you are writing about this. I do think it will help you get through this and finally find some peace. I am keeping good thoughts for you.

    Always Growing

  6. Just wanted to let you know I am thinking of you(-:

  7. I’m glad you posted this very personal story. I was lucky to have a happy home and supportive family. I wish you had had the same.

  8. Poignant and a reminder to me to revere my wonderful mother.

  9. Brenda,
    Thank your for sharing your story. It makes me realize how blessed I was to have wonderful parents, and now a wonderful stepmom after my mom died 11 years ago.

  10. I cannot imagine being in your shoes.My childhood was the total opposite of yours.
    I think Brenda that fact that you can put it into words speaks volumes for you.
    I hope and I pray that from this day forward it gives you strenght and inner peace that you so deserve.
    I wish I could hug you my dear far away friend.
    I am so proud of you for speaking from your heart.
    Always thinking of you

  11. I like that you tell this story with compassion and honesty. Clearly, those traits are not born in a vacuum; I think you were one of the lucky ones, for sure.

  12. Please keep writing. Your words are healing to me and probably to others as well. I admire your courage to deal with your pain. You will come out of this with a brighter spirit. You deserve it. Wishing you sunny days ahead as you take this painful journey. I am with you, dear friend.

  13. I think that you have started a journey of Healing, from experience I can tell you it is going to be rough and tough and you will touch spots so painful… But Healing and Reaching out is the sunshine that will heal that boggy earth in a remote part of the beautiful garden that is your heart. And all those of us supporting you, as sisters around you, will keep you safe as you tend to yourself.
    Be brave Brenda, peace and love be your companions.

  14. Yours words are poignant my dear friend. I found myself grateful I never ate from a trash can. When this is all over, read The Glass Castle. I was haunted by it, but it healed so many of my wounds. I find I’m attracted to these stories, like Blackbird, which is another abandonment story. I don’t need them as much now, but at one time, they helped heal my soul. Hugs and kisses.~~Dee

  15. It must be very difficult always wondering what you missed. What if. There will always be so many questions left unanswered. When kids grow up with both parents, they accept their lives as complete. Even if the parents are cruel, at least there are no unanswered questions.

  16. You are so brave to face your feelings and to voice them. As sad as it is that you did not know your mother, the saddest thing is that your mother did not know you! I know you well, dear friend, and I can truly say that your mother missed knowing a wonderful, intelligent, funny, caring person!

  17. I am amazed by your openness and courage –
    Thank you for sharing your story…..

  18. I just can’t imagine or fathom what you have been through. I am amazed at your ability to write about it so openly. I admire you so. I know that your story is helping others. I know it.

    Much love,

  19. Dear Brenda, thank you for filling in the details as you know them. Your mother had a hard existence in every way it seems. And you were the lucky one. It shows in the life you have made for yourself and how you are coping with such pain even now. You are so strong. There must have been some exceptional genetic material in there and yes, you were the lucky one to get it.

  20. Thank you for your story…

    While my parents were divorced later, they did give us a wonderful upbringing and I’ll forever be grateful.

    My grandmother was born a “bastard” (her words) in 1916 and was given up for adoption at birth. Even though she grew up in a loving family she still considered herself one and thought the whole town looked down at her.

    I’d hope you’d give your mom a chance should she come looking for you.

  21. I am so proud of you. You have such a willingness to try and understand the things in your life that hurt so deeply. That takes a lot of courage. I wish you all the best.

  22. Dear Brenda,
    Thank you for putting my life in perspective.
    I have so much to be grateful for.

    I read many blogs, but never comment.
    Your story has compelled me to do so.

    I send you my heartfelt love.

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