Finding humor in a tough topic Adoption: Conferees roar at a mother who learned and laughed with her large adoptive family.

April 27, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Before launching her vast family, Barbara Tremitiere imagined herself a perfect mother, like some character in a movie.

"I thought I was going to be Julie Andrews," she said.

By the time she finished having three children and adopting 12 more of all races, her family was a raucous concoction that bore no resemblance to "The Sound of Music" clan. And it didn't sing on key.

But from the dissonance, Dr. Tremitiere learned valuable and poignantly hilarious lessons -- lessons she shared yesterday with members of the American Adoption Congress, which is holding its annual conference at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Baltimore.

"What I speak to is the fact that what you expect and what you get are two different things," she said before a speech titled "What's So Funny About Adoption?"

For Dr. Tremitiere, an adoption social worker who lives in York, Pa., it was a loaded topic. True, as the mother of 15 now-grown children, she has earned the right to crack a joke or two about the foibles of large adoptive families.

But she's not the Stuart Smalley of the adoption circuit. Ordinarily, she talks about adoptive parenting in workshops across the country. She doesn't claim to speak for birth parents, adoptees and adoptive parents in the way Stuart Smalley, comedian Al Franken's lovable co-dependent alter-ego, speaks for the 12 Step movement.

And this was a tough crowd. The 400 adoptee rights activists crusade for access to their original birth certificates and adoption records, which are sealed in all but two states. They were there for workshops like "Working Through Primal Grief" and "Birth Mothers and Multiple Loss: Crisis Pregnancy the Second Time."

Dr. Tremitiere, 57, began by skewering what "society" thinks is funny about adoption: Cabbage Patch Dolls, the "Problem Child" movies, and "Adopt a Highway" campaigns. "Actually," Dr. Tremitiere said, "[A highway] would probably eat less."

When people learn how many children she has adopted, they invariably ask the same question: "Are your children grateful?" In response, she and adoption colleagues have proposed a tongue-in-cheek group, EGO, which stands for "Eternally Grateful Orphans." Only problem is, no one wants to join. Children whose lives "get turned upside down" aren't particularly grateful, Dr. Tremitiere observed.

She didn't understand that when she dreamed of a noisy house full of bubbly children. She and her then-husband, both social workers, had it all planned: They would have three children and then adopt three. But they didn't stop there. They adopted nine more. Julie Andrews wouldn't have survived five minutes.

But Dr. Tremitiere thrived on the chaos and draws her richest material from those crazy times. Yesterday she remembered being in the thick of a divorce, with six kids in college and little income when one of her sons screamed, "Mom, Mom!" She discovered him holding the crumbling dining room ceiling up with a broomstick. Took three years to fix it.

Then there was the time Dr. Tremitiere locked her keys in the car seven times in two weeks. And the time during a Bible school lesson with the theme "God Loves You," when the Sunday

school teacher asked his class who loved them the best, no matter what. A Tremitiere boy piped up, "My mother."

Nine sons, six daughters, zillions of school lunches and the untold pain of rearing a transracial family in a racist world. Disagreements. Silences. Adult children returning home with their children.

But Dr. Tremitiere said she would never trade her real family for the perfect family she once dreamed of. Imperfection, she discovered, has its own rewards.

At the end of her speech, she got a standing ovation.

Pub Date: 4/27/96

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