Editor’s Note: At just six years of age, Richard “Nick” Holman, a member of the La Porte City High School Class of 1963, was placed in the state of Iowa foster care system with his large group of siblings. For the next twelve years, he grew up on a farm in rural La Porte City. Following a successful career in the United States Navy and working as a plant manager and long range planning for an international food company, he began writing a book about his experiences. In the Foreword, he writes, “Virtually all foster kids come from dysfunctional family environments and they absorb the bulk of the broken home fallout. The common thread they all share while in foster care is the uncertainty of what lies ahead. This uncertainty can cause them to think and act in ways others may not consider or understand. When they eventually leave the foster home, their futures will range from heartening and uplifting to unsettling and tragic. All incidents that unfold [in these stories] actually occurred during the time I and my siblings – three brothers and four sisters – were growing up in a foster home on a farm [near La Porte City in the early 1950s and 1960s. However, some events have been slightly changed to avoid potential embarrassment for yet-living individuals. All the names [except my own] have been changed, only their ages remain the same. This is the story of a close-knit family of siblings as they struggle to stay together in extended foster care. It’s also a story of life on the farm, but a life and a farm few have ever known or experienced, even those born and raised on a farm. It’s told through my eyes but relates more than just the experiences of me and my siblings. As you’ll see, it all comes to a rapid and unexpected conclusion.”
By Nick Holman
The summer before my sophomore year in high school, Mom and Dad unexpectedly decided to stop being foster parents and we homeless kids, six in all, were quickly relocated. I chose to live with my birth mom, step dad and young half-brother in Waterloo, but that lasted barely a year. I felt like an interloper, rather than part of the family. I wrote to Mom and Dad Williams explaining how things just weren’t working out, and they immediately invited me back to The Farm to live with them.
It’s about eleven in the morning and Mom and I are out by the chicken house harvesting a few chickens for meals at the rest home she runs in La Porte City. It’s the summer between my junior and senior year in high school and I’ve just turned 17. The hired hand – Dad’s cousin – and his family moved away a couple months ago and I’m the only one on The Farm with Mom and Dad now. Mom’s holding the chickens by their legs while I lop their heads off on the tree-stump we use for a chopping block.
When we’re done, and the last of the chickens is doing its deadly dance, Mom turns to me and says, “Dad and I have been doing some talking and thinking.” She pauses for a moment, as if unsure how to proceed. Then she plunges right in. “You are just like a son to us, Richard, and we’d like to adopt you. How would you feel about that?”
I’m in the process of picking up chicken bodies and I stop in my tracks. I’m absolutely stunned. I never seriously considered being adopted by anyone, much less them. I always had a dread that I might be adopted away from my siblings, like my two younger sisters those many years ago. But the thought has never crossed my mind to be adopted by the parents I’ve lived with, almost continuously, since age five.
Mom and Dad had adopted infant siblings, a boy and girl, when they were younger after they learned they could have no children of their own. The baby boy died at an early age and, because of the anguish it caused, they chose not to adopt again. Rather, they began taking in children from broken homes. Their adopted daughter, Nancy, had since grown, married and started her own family and life.
Sometimes outside interest was exhibited in adopting some of us kids, but one could never tell if the offers were serious. We boys would occasionally walk down to the resort area by the Cedar River about a mile away to use the beach and swim in the river on weekends. Frequently, a couple that resided there throughout each summer would say they really wanted to adopt and were interested in one or more of us boys.
Admittedly, those offers appeared to originate after a couple of beers, so we never took them seriously. But we brought it up in disagreements with Mom and Dad when they would, on occasion, threaten to send us to the Eldora reform school because of some particularly bad behavior. They would quickly point out that lots of folks like to talk about adopting, but few actually adopt. They were right, and we’d drop that annoying snippet from the discussion until the next disagreement arose.
In the numbed silence that follows Mom’s question, two thoughts come tumbling into my mind. First, will I have to change my last name? I like my last name and have no interest in swapping it out for another. If I were ten years younger, I likely would feel less adamant about it. By age 17, I, and likely anyone around me, would use my adopted name as naturally as saying “Amen” after a prayer. But I’m already 17 and all my friends, relatives and classmates know me by my birth name. Getting me and all those folks to start using an adopted name would be difficult, awkward and, at times, downright uncomfortable.
Second, what will my siblings think? I feel as though I’m abandoning them, becoming an adopted son rather than remaining a part of a close-knit family. We have a special, shared history and experiences, both before and on The Farm. Yes, we’ve all been apart for several years, and I’ve spent more time on The Farm than any of them – more time than anyone in the history of The Farm, except adopted daughter Nancy. So, maybe I do have a legitimate claim for being adopted. But I feel as if I’m being given extraordinary, singular and special treatment. Do I deserve to be adopted? If so, does that mean my siblings didn’t deserve to be adopted?
I dreaded adoption for many years because it likely would take me away from my siblings. And, I know little about what it means to be adopted or its legal ramifications. It’s that word, “legal,” where my knowledge, as a seventeen-year-old farm boy, is woefully inadequate. I don’t understand the potential legal ramifications, nor has the thought even crossed my mind. My naïve view is that I live on The Farm with Mom and Dad, I consider them my parents and they treat me like a son. Why do things need to change? So, I hesitantly express that view to Mom, standing there by the chicken house with dead chickens lying around, and a bloody ax still in my hand. The scene is surreal.
Mom nods understandingly.
“We feel the same way about you, Richard, but adoption would bring more completeness and closure for us. You feel like a son to us. You are a son to us. Adoption just makes it official.”
After a couple seconds pause, I ask, “Would I need to change my last name?”
She’s slow to answer, as if sensing my unease with the subject. She doesn’t say with finality, “Yes.” Rather, she circles around it by saying, “Well, Dad and I haven’t discussed that, but we’d probably like you to.”
I interpret that answer as a self-imposed “Yes.” It sounds like it’s important to them, and if I choose to be adopted, I’ll change my last name out of respect for their wishes as my parents.
“Let me think about it,” I say and go back to picking up chickens. A few seconds later I turn back to Mom.
“Mom,” and I pause, searching for the right words to say.
“Thanks for wanting to adopt me.”
I do a lot of thinking about it during the coming weeks, and about how my siblings would feel. Mom and Dad’s feelings are important, but my birth family is also important.
In the end, I take the noncommittal way out. I never bring the subject up again. Nor does Mom or Dad. Are they hurt and disappointed that I didn’t come forward and say, “Yes”? They probably are, but their actions and attitudes never reflect it. They continue to treat me like their son, even when I choose to leave The Farm after high school.
Epilogue: It would be more than twenty years before I confide with my siblings about the adoption offer. I’d maintained the feeling that they would be mad or resentful that Mom and Dad wanted to adopt me and not them.
When I finally told them, they were both surprised and disappointed I hadn’t accepted the offer. They fully understood the legal ramifications of adoption and the likely advantages I’d unknowingly given up.
Next Week: Nick’s journey to the United States Naval Academy takes an unusual twist, courtesy of his foster mother, Ruth Williams.