Reunion fills 'empty spot' After 33 years, woman gets back together with daughter born of rape

July 07, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- The gray-haired white woman and the brown-skinned woman with the short black hair sat side by side, mother and daughter, on top of a picnic cooler.

So much has happened, they kept saying. "We'll never catch up," said the mother, Geraldine Nephew Cummins.

Her daughter, Barbara Williams, was born 33 years ago in Boston, the result of a rape. Back then, Cummins said, she felt so ashamed of having been raped and so afraid of raising a half-black child in the all-white housing project where she lived that she gave her baby up for adoption.

"It was unheard of that you would walk around with a little black child," said Cummins, who was married at the time. "I've regretted it many times. But it was too late. I'd already signed the papers." Her husband, Robert, died 11 years ago.

For 33 years, mother and daughter lived in separate worlds, unknown to each other but each wondering about the other. In March, after years of sporadic searching and with help from adoption records, Williams, who lives in Minneapolis, found her mother.

Their first conversation was over the telephone. "She said, 'I think you're my mother.' I said, 'I know I am,' " Cummins, who folds linens for a rental company, recalled.

Each woman was brimming with questions. "We were asking each other, 'How has it been for you? What's your life been like?' " Williams said. "She kept apologizing for having to give me up. I explained to her that I understood."

Cummins, 59, has three other grown children. Her eyes filled with tears as she said of her daughter, "She was so vibrant over the phone. I was trying not to let her know I was crying.

"After we got off the phone, I sat there for a good long time and just cried. It was a happy cry."

Williams, an administrator for a financial services company, flew to Boston in April to meet her mother. She returned last week with her husband, Don, who is black, their five children, ages 6 through 16, and Don's parents.

The Williamses were welcomed by Cummins' relatives at the large extended family's annual Fourth of July picnic in a park in the city's South Boston neighborhood. Cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, black and white, hugged, kissed, ate, talked, danced and played volleyball for seven hours. Don Williams, a forklift operator, called Cummins "Mom."

Asked how she felt about her daughter's being half-black, Cummins put her arm around Barbara and said, "She's my daughter."

Asked how she felt about her mother's being white, Williams shrugged and said, "She's my mother."

She had learned about her mother's race, and the rape, from social service records long before their first conversation. It was not the color of her mother's skin that preoccupied her. "I wondered why she didn't keep me," Williams said. "I wondered if we'd have anything in common."

It turned out that they have much in common. Both love all kinds of music, family gatherings and dabbling in arts and crafts.

After that first telephone call in March, Cummins told her other three children about the rape and revealed that they had a sister. Cummins' son, Ted, a 32-year-old laborer, said, "I called Barbara and said, 'I'm your kid brother. What's happening?' "

Cummins' other daughters, Carol Delehanty and Theresa Shamshak, also called to extend warm greetings. Delehanty said, "My mother was protecting her from society. Now, in the '90s, look at Boston -- everything is biracial."

For 33 years, Cummins had told no one other than her husband about the rape. Her assailant had pulled her into an alley as she was walking home alone.

"We talked about calling the police," she said. "My husband just didn't want me to go through all that."

A month later, she learned she was pregnant. As a Roman Catholic, she did not consider abortion. For nine months, she said, she prayed that the baby would be her husband's.

"She had a little round face and dark hair," Cummins said, recalling the newborn she had held in her arms. "She had very light skin." She thought her baby might be white, she said, but doctors told her otherwise. She loved her baby instantly, she said.

The baby was placed with a foster mother, Corrine White, in Boston's predominantly black Roxbury neighborhood. Three weeks later, Cummins and her husband, who was a driver for a Catholic hospital, went to the foster home, picked up the baby and had her christened at a Catholic church. They took her back to the foster home and did not see her again.

Barbara spent nearly eight years with White, whom she thought of as her mother. But a social worker arranged for her to be adopted by a white couple in Minneapolis, and she was moved.

Cummins and her daughter made plans to meet again in Minneapolis. "Before, there was an empty spot in my life," she said. "It's all here now."

Williams said she felt at peace. "No more questions," she said. "This is something I've wanted all my life."

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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