About Celeste Billhartz . . .

Celeste BillhartzI was born in Belleville, Illinois to a nice Catholic girl. She named/baptized me Ruth. Because "unwed" mothers and their infants were an abomination in middle-class families, my grandmothers — her mother and my father's mother — colluded with the hospital staff to tell my parents that I died. It was 1939.

I was taken to St. John's Orphanage and renamed/baptized, Mary. Eventually, I was adopted and renamed/baptized, Celeste — after my adoptive mother, Celestine.

I grew up in a little town in Southern Illinois among good people and lovely adoptive aunts, uncles and cousins. My poem, I am of Women, is about that little town and the good people who provided my upbringing and values.

When I found my mother, and met her family, I realized that I had been taken from good people and sold to good people. All I could think was: My God, why? Now, when I read that poem, I tell people that it is really about both families, both people — the good people I knew and the good people I am of — but wasn't allowed to know.

My mother never had other children. When I met my mother she said, "You are a love child." She also said I have my father's pug nose ...:) Marriage was not possible for them — he was Protestant — from a line of ministers, and she was Catholic. Thus, the grandmothers' solution: tell them their baby died.

Although I found my mother in 1976, I didn't meet her until many years later. The shock of my being alive all these years, the horror of her having been deceived — her anger/my fear and immaturity — overwhelmed us. We both pulled back ... and wrote letters for 16 years. I finally met her, in a hospice in Missouri, just two months before she died.

Meeting my mother had a profound effect on me. It was amazing to, finally, see someone I looked like — same coloring, same green eyes — we even had the same hair style and pushed our bangs back the same way. I have only one regret from that meeting, in her hospice room: I never touched her. I wrote about that in my poem, Ten Feet Away.

Until I heard the truth, I believed what most adopted people believe about their mothers: they "gave us up" because they wanted to finish school, or go to college, or they wanted to give us a better life. Gifts. We were gifts from one smiling mother to another. I remember the excitement and delight in my adoptive aunt's voice when she would describe being a patient at that hospital in September 1939, and hearing that a baby was available!! This was always a joyful story about how they got me.

It was years before I understood about the widespread shaming, persistent coercion, schmoozing and lies that are required to get naive, trusting, terrified young mothers to surrender their infants so that well-heeled couples (and, today, singles) may buy babies they re-name and present to the world as their own.

My God, why?