Why Do This?

“Some people ask why I search for next of kin for complete strangers. There are layers to that answer that go something like this: My brother Jim. Foster children who have complicated family  ties. Homeless and indigent people. Immigrants. My experience with genealogy and finding family for children in foster care. The desire for a puzzle to solve. The satisfaction when I one is resolved.”


33 Years Later, Family is Found

On October 16, 1982, President Ronald Reagan made a radio address about the nation’s economy. Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby” made #7 on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. In the heartland of America, a 29 year old man was struck by a train and died. The medical examiners were able to identify him and locate his former wife who stated that his mother was deceased. She provided the first name of his possible sister but the sister was never located. Today, almost exactly 33 years after his death, I located his sister’s contact information and dialed the phone. Her husband answered and said that she had died last year, always wondering what had happened to her little brother.

Too Little, Too Late

I’ve been working on a case for several months that has been a real puzzle. I couldn’t find any record of the person prior to the late 70s although they were born in the late 40s. I spoke with a couple friends who said there was no family–and that the decedent always said they had been kidnapped as a child, had run away to escape, and ended up in the community where they died. I was skeptical. Yesterday I finally figured out the person’s original birth name and was able to piece together a family tree. When I spoke with the sibling today they said yes, that was their sibling, but they had not grown up together because the decedent had been kidnapped before the sibling was born. Life–stranger than fiction.

And my follow-up conversation with the PD in that jurisdiction:

Police Department: We wouldn’t have a record from 1955.
Me: So, that means you resolved the kidnapping case?
Police Department: No. It means that policies change and we don’t keep reports that long.
Me: So, you may not have resolved the kidnapping. You may have just discarded the case even though the victims were never located?
Police: I have no way to know whether it was resolved or not. We purge reports after seven years, except some homicides.
Me: But for unsolved kidnappings?
Police: We wouldn’t have anything on it.

from 9/29/2015

I broke two people’s hearts yesterday. One was an ex-wife who never remarried and had a child with the decedent. The other was a daughter who hadn’t seen a parent in 25 years. They had both been looking unsuccessfully for the person who had been missing in their life; one for two years, the other for over twenty. Don’t assume that the people you’re estranged from don’t care about you.

Maybe they don’t. But maybe they do.

Essay in The New York Times Motherlode

My new piece in the NYT Motherlode is about shifting your own expectations in the middle of a child’s anger. What is the goal when we go toe-to-toe with a child?

Children can’t understand how anger works unless we encourage them to wrestle it with safe people. Their attempts may be uncomfortable or excessive.

Read Teaching Your Child to Wrangle, Not Reject, Rage and share it on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

Jennifer Pastiloff Features “The Way Things Overlap” on Manifest-Station

Those places in us we hide in shame? We can stop hiding. We can forgive ourselves. We can move on. Maybe we won’t be great, but we’ll be better. Maybe not even good, but better. Believing in others is ultimately about believing in yourself.

To read more, click The Way Things Overlap.

Then follow me on Twitter @iwritedeb and Jennifer @JenPastiloff.

First Pee, Now Poo!

Portland, Oregon is apparently having a difficult time protecting its water reservoirs. A few short weeks ago Portland Water Bureau personnel got their shorts in a wad (Should I say that? It’s not polite.) about the kid who purportedly peed in or near one of the reservoirs.

In May 2013, Portlanders rejected a plan to fluoridate city water for the fourth time since 1956. A scant year later, the city is divided over whether or not Portland teenager Dallas Swonger should be held accountable for the Water Bureau’s decision to divert 38 million gallons of water when the 18-year-old allegedly urinated into the reservoir. Water Bureau Administrator David Shaff called Swonger a “yahoo” to the Associated Press, and issued a challenge when he referenced the size of the youth’s genitals, stating, “He has to get his little wee wee right up to the iron bars…” (Teen Accused of Peeing in Reservoir ‘Didn’t Piss In The Fu—ing Water’ Huffington Post, April 18, 2014).

Maybe I’m missing something—I admit that I don’t have a penis—but it seems like this has turned into a classic pissing match. For all I know, peeing in public could be some kind of male developmental milestone. I’m reminded of a situation at Oregon City High School where a senior was written up for intentionally urinating on the bathroom wall. He was a student who couldn’t afford a suspension, so I asked the vice principal to let me talk to him and come up with a suitable alternative consequence. Turns out, there was no ill intent: the student had been dared by another to try to pee his name in cursive. He agreed to scrub the bathroom walls, and the situation was resolved.

A couple years before that, my son was attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He and his roommates—all students in the engineering and pilot degree programs—flew to Sedona, Arizona where they landed the aircraft and went for lunch. By the time they got back to the plane, the sun was beginning to set and there was frost on the wings. The students scraped the wings with their debit cards, a tedious task. One of them got the kind of bright idea that only third year engineering students who understand fluid mechanics would get: They unzipped their pants and peed on the wing thinking it would melt the frost. Instead they had to scrape off one another’s frozen urine.

Fifty years earlier, my not yet husband Dennis and his friend Don were driving back from the Oregon coast in a red 1950 Ford convertible. They were nearly out of gas, coasting down the hills hoping they would make it to the flatland where there would be a gas station. Suddenly, Dennis had to pee. “I was being efficient,” he says now of the situation that occurred when he was nineteen. “I didn’t want to waste the gas it would take to pull over and then start the car again.” He climbed over the back seat while Don coasted down the hill, unzipped his blue jeans, and peed out the back of the convertible. A Greyhound bus full of passengers pulled up behind the car. Shortly thereafter, a police car pulled them over. Dennis was arrested and hauled to jail. He paid a $55 fine.

I can’t be the only woman in the world that knows men who’ve engaged in such antics. Swonger has a point: with all the dead bugs, vermin, and bird waste that must fall into an open-air reservoir, a couple ounces of human urine can’t possibly be a significant health risk. Maybe we need to sit Swonger and Shaff at a table with somebody’s mother. Mom can remind Swonger it’s not nice to pee in public. Then, she can remind Shaff that commenting on the size of another person’s genitals is always in bad taste. And now that e-coli has been found in three separate tests, all of Portland is boiling its water. Nothing like that to make Swonger’s point hit home.

Love and Loss Entwined

For nineteen years, I’ve been a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a CASA. My role has been to be the eyes and ears of the court, the voice of the child. It’s an awesome responsibility to speak for a child: their hopes and dreams, their need for loving days and safe nights. In one of my early cases, I recommended a little girl in foster care return to live with her mom. State workers disagreed. The judge ordered Children’s Services to return the child home.

Three months later, just before her second birthday, she was dead. Drowned or strangled, medical examiners could not agree. Buried in a fancy dress, white lace panties, and a gold cross her mother was too poor to afford.

CASA contacted an attorney to protect me from making statements in my grief that could insinuate civil liability. My attorney was the kindest hero, but he did the cruelest thing: he forbade me to talk. For a CASA empowered to be “the voice of the child”, silence is a terrible thing. Nights were intolerable. When I tried to sleep, I dreamt of her fair skin slipping off tiny bones. One night, unable to sleep, I wrote a letter to the judge asking where he found the courage to go on.

“We are not God…” he replied.

Many nights, I read his letter over and over, waiting for sleep to come: “It is appropriate to feel sad. It is wrong to feel guilty. It is truly inappropriate to speak of blame.”

Caseworkers and attorneys went on to other cases. The mother was sentenced. The judge retired. I took a leave of absence. Walking through Nordstrom that Christmas, a pair of small red patent leather shoes caught my eye. “She will never get to wear red shoes…”

That spring, a friend invited me to a writing retreat at Sylvia Beach. Cynthia Whitcomb was discussing how to sustain your spirit as a writer. My spirit was broken. I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t write.

“Find a consistent time to write,” Cynthia said. “Whenever you can, even if it’s 3am.”

“No way,” I thought. “I barely get through the days.” Ironically, the Thursday before I’d gone to the retreat, a caseworker from the state called. Would I take in a foster baby?

“I don’t do babies,” I said.

“We need you to work with the mom,” she said. “She’s seventeen…and he’s a drug-affected baby.”

97180006Two hours later, I held a five pound, twice-resuscitated baby in my arms. His name was Jonathan. His first and last names were the same as the judge who had shared my heart-wrenching case. The name coincidence felt like an omen. I called Children’s Services back. “Come get him,” I said. I was terrified he would die.

As I waited for them to come, I held him close. Rocking. Whispering. Finding my mother-legs again. Hours passed. I called Children’s Services back. “Never mind,” I said.

Jonathan woke me at 2:00 a.m.. Tiny lips too weak to seal on the nipple, he gasped for air between choking swallows. By the time I fed him and changed his diaper–raw where the drugs coming through his system made his skin peel and bleed– it was 3:00am. I stood over his crib, wide awake.

I sat at my computer and stared at the blank screen. Sometime during that first night, I typed FADE IN.

In those first three months–with my deceased CASA child’s skin slipping in my dreams and Jonathan’s peeling in the day– I typed. Every night, Jonathan woke me about 2 a.m. We struck a silent bargain. I’d be his mother. He’d be my muse. By the time I hit page 103, Jonathan was sleeping through the night. A few nights later, I typed FADE OUT.

It’s years later now. After finishing the screenplay, I’ve struggled to process the loss in poetry and prose. A dozen years later, in Karen Karbo’s classes, I found the courage to write the story as memoir. I’ve finished writing and editing the story that reveals these dark days, and the gift of Jonathan’s arrival.

This Sunday, Jonathan turns sixteen. I’m so grateful I get to be his mom.

After Morton, Rosalie

Today’s excerpt from Mother Up: A Memoir is a post in response to a weekly meme called “Where I Lived Wednesdays,” hosted by Ann Imig at Ann’s Rants. Want to join the fun? Just click here and leave your link!


1812 Bay Avenue



After Morton, our family moved to the Grays Harbor area. The small white house on Cherry Street midway through my first grade year. In the middle of second grade, we moved to the one across from A.J. West Elementary. In that house, I woke from a dream one night and found myself enclosed in a tiny room. Mom and Dad found me trapped in the hot water closet, just off the main floor bathroom.

For Christmas that year I received a new baby doll I named Rosalie. She had plump cheeks, tiny indented toes, and blue eyes that always seemed to gaze at some far off place unless I laid her in the crook of my arm. Then I’d set her in a cradle, cover her with the soft blanket, and nudge the curved tread of the bed with my foot, rocking it while she slept. She wasn’t a fussy baby even when I changed her too many times in a row as young mothers sometimes do. She never seemed to need more than I had to offer. She never questioned my love. I never worried if I was mother enough.

In the years that followed, as the tiny ric rac trimmed dresses my mother made for Rosalie grew old and worn, my love faded. She ended up in a hallway or cabinet, and when we moved (because I moved almost every year as a child) the baby doll was stowed in a cardboard box. By then I was eight. Disappearing love objects didn’t seem out of the ordinary.

Top Ten Reasons I’m Grateful to My Kids’ Birth Parents

10. They treat me with respect. They understand their children love me even if they don’t.

9. They have tenacity. They’ve been beaten down, judged, dismissed, deemed inadequate, and they still stand tall. They never forget they have value, even when others act as if they don’t.

8. They grow beyond their failures. Despite having lost what matters most to them, they continue striving, even when other people try to hold them to their past.

7. They don’t judge me even though I judged them. Even though everyone around them did. Even though their children did.

6. They forgive me for being too harsh, bitchy, condescending, scolding, apathetic toward their children…or to them. They understand everyone fails some of the time. They have first-hand experience with what others deem as failure. They don’t give it too much weight.

4. They believe in their children. They see the good and decent traits. They expect them to succeed.

3. They give their children a history. They remind them where they got their ocean-blue eyes, their wily grin. They know who their child was named for and who was there when they first crawled.

2. They answer hard questions. From the court. From their families. From the mouths of babes. Why weren’t you there for me? Why can’t I come home? Why did you choose him instead of me? They answer questions most of us would not want to face.

1. They love their kids enough to welcome them home as young adults. No matter who they are or what they’ve done.