Adoption: One of my Daughters’ Story

Lea Wait, here. In honor of National Adoption Month, I thought I’d share the story of one of my daughters, and how 1985 changed both our lives.

Elizabeth Purnima: First Day Home

In 1985 I was single, living in New Jersey and working at AT&T. I had three daughters. They’d been born in Korea, Thailand, and Hong Kong, and had “come home” to live with me several years before. Now they were ages 15, 13, and 12, and we decided our family wasn’t complete. We were very active in adoptive parent groups and advocacy for older child adoption, and we knew what to do. As a family, we decided to apply to adopt another girl. My daughters decided that their sister-to-be should be from India — an Asian country, since they had all come from Asia — but not the same country as any of them. I had my homestudy updated, and on January 29, 1985, we sent an application to WACAP, a west coast adoption agency just beginning to place on the east coast.(

We asked for a placement of one or two girls, ages 5-10.

Lea and Rajan, 1986

On February 8 my girls and I appeared on Good Morning, America, talking about single parent adoption, and shared that we had decided to add to our family. February 13 my local agency sent a copy of my homestudy to WACAP. I knew they had “waiting” older girls, but I was surprised when, only a month later, we had a referral: an 11-year-old girl who was intellectually disabled and had some other, minor, physical and psychological problems. After serious thought, I regretfully decided she was not right for our family. She needed individual attention that I, with three children already and working full-time, could not give her. I hoped WACAP would understand.

They did. They told me their Director of Adoption was about to leave for India, and that she’d have another referral for me when she returned. On April 11 we were told about Purnima, a “shy eight year old girl.” (Her name means “day of the full moon.”) Before I’d finished reading the referral information my girls decided that her American name (my girls had both American and Asian names) would be “Elizabeth,” and that she would be their new sister. I agreed. We said “yes!” to WACAP.

Elizabeth with her school principal on her first birthday in America, March 1986

International adoptions can take a while, but we’d been through this before. I had the right paperwork. On April 27 I sent in the forms and backup papers to apply for a I-600A: an immediate relative visa for an adopted child. And I told WACAP I’d be willing to go to Calcutta to bring Elizabeth Purnima … and up to three other children being adopted by other families … home. The girls and I started collecting donations for the orphanages and missions WACAP worked with, and waited.

July 29 I called Immigration. They told me the visa had been approved, but hadn’t been sent to Calcutta yet. By September 9, since I’d heard nothing, I went to the Immigration and Naturalization offices in Newark, and stood in line for several hours, only to be told that, no, the visa still had not been issued. Approved, yes. Issued, no. I showed the clerk a picture of my daughter, and told her how important it was that she leave Calcutta and come to America soon. I must have been convincing. Her visa was sent to Calcutta September 11th. September 19 I went to New York City and applied for a visa for myself, so I could go to India. On October 11 I started the series of inoculations recommended or required for the areas I was going to visit.

Our dining room was full of donated medications, incubator parts, combs and barrettes, balloons, children’s underwear, toothbrushes, tape recorders, clothing … all waiting to go to India. On the 19th I spoke at an adoptive parent conference, accepted more donations from those attending, and drove home to do last-minute packing and brief the prospective parent friends who’d agreed to stay with my daughters when I was away. On October 20 I flew to Bombay, and then Calcutta.

My experiences in India I’ll save for another blog. But, in short, on October 27 I arrived back at Kennedy Airport with my daughter and with Rajan, a 12-year-old boy who had lost a leg in a train accident and who was being adopted by a single parent in Ohio.

Elizabeth today, with her fiance, Herman

What was Elizabeth Purnima’s story? She remembered living in the streets with her parents and a younger brother. But one day her father left, and never returned, Her mother took her two children (Elizabeth was probably about 5) to a train station, hoping to return to the village where her family lived. In the train station Elizabeth became separated from her family, and got on the next train. She got off at Howrah Station, the largest train station in Calcutta, where many boys live by begging and running errands. There she met “a little girl,” younger than she was, who was also alone, and the two lived for a few days or weeks in the station, depending on the kindness of others. But then she got sick.

Every Sunday monks from the Brothers of Charity would come to the station, bring some food, and talk with the boys living there. The boys pointed out the two little girls, because they were very young, and they were sick. Elizabeth never found out what happened to other girl. But Elizabeth was taken to an outreach building run by Missionaries of Charity in one of the worst slums in Calcutta, where the dark alleyways were too narrow for cars. Three or four Sisters lived there and they took in unwanted babies, most of whom died. They also had a room of pallets for old people who were very ill.

Elizabeth worked there for several years. She and three other “big kids” took care of the babies, most of whom were tiny by US standards — 3 or 4 pounds. The girls fed them and cleaned them and “when one of the babies died we put them in a big box by the door. If one of the grownups died we had to call a Sister, because they were too heavy to lift.” The four girls worked approximate 12 hour shifts; when they were too tired they woke up one of the others and they curled up on the floor under one of the cribs to sleep.

A social worker from WACAP visited there in 1984 and identified Elizabeth Purnima as a child they could find a home for. She took pictures of Purnima. But when she returned, a month later, the Purnima was gone. The Sisters had given her to a young couple who needed help with cleaning and cooking and baby care. They didn’t know where the couple lived.

The social worker spent days walking the alleys of Calcutta, showing Purnima’s picture, and asking if anyone knew where she was. Eventually, her quest was successful. She took Purnima to a clinic run by Italian nuns close to the Bangladesh border. It was there that Purnima, at aged 8 or 9, first was first given a pencil, and had a little schooling. The mission, where there was no electricity or running water, was in a dangerous area, though: it was patrolled by local men who protected the sisters and the dozen girls they were caring for from robberies and rape.  Guns were fired nightly.

Purnima stayed there until right before I came to get her, when she was moved to Mother Theresa’s orphanage in Calcutta. That’s where I first met her. But before we flew home we visited the places she had lived, so I could see them, and divide the donations I’d brought between them, with thanks from adoptive parents in the United States.

Elizabeth Purnima was probably closer to 10 or 11 years old then to the “8” that was on her birth certificate. In New Jersey, she started in the fourth grade. She joined the Brownies. She learned English. Gradually we discovered that she had serious learning disabilities. She worked very hard, and she tried, and often cried with frustration. But even today she can not read at above a 4th grade level, although she’s comfortable with numbers. It took patience, help from tutors and special programs and a lot of hard work, but she was able to graduate from high school.

Today she lives in Philadelphia with her fiancé of ten years, and works as a bookkeeper at a supermarket. She’s taken some art classes, and she and Herman dream of some day running an art gallery and coffee shop in the city.

She is a long way from the streets of Calcutta. And each year, on October 27, we celebrate the anniversary of the day she began her new life. The day adoption brought her a new family, and brought me a wonderful, caring, daughter. And, yes, there is a connection with my mysteries: Maggie Summer, the protagonist in my Shadows Antique Print Mystery series, is a widow who wants to adopt an older child, although her beau doesn’t want to be a father. Stay tuned to the series to find out what she decides to do!

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6 Responses to Adoption: One of my Daughters’ Story

  1. Gram says:

    Lucky Elizabeth Purnima, and lucky you and the other three girls.

  2. Barb Ross says:

    What a touching story.

  3. Mario R. says:

    A touching story, indeed. I admire and respect you for taking in children as your own. One thing puzzles me, though — “Purnima” is a lovely name, with a lovely meaning; why couldn’t she just keep it?

  4. Patricia says:

    What a wonderful story. It reveals what a wonderful and generous person you must be.

  5. Lea Wait says:

    Thank you all for your comments! And — I would have kept Purnima as my daughter’s name is it hadn’t been for the history of names in our family. My first daughter had been called “Friday” , since she was found on a Friday — a name I didn’t think was right to keep. So I gave her an American name. My second daughter’s Korean name was difficult for some people to pronounce, so her American name became the one used. And my third daughter, who spoke some English when I met her, chose to use an American name — and picked the one she liked — instead of staying with (very pretty) Chinese name. So my daughters all felt their new sister should have an American name — and they chose Elizabeth, one of several names we’d thought about. She goes by “Liz” now!

  6. You have hidden depths. I will share this story with friends who’ve also adopted internationally, and with one whose birth daughter has some of the learning struggles you and yours have faced. Deciding to be a parent takes courage if you give it a second thought, and your decisions took way more thought than that!

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