|Birth: ||Mar. 15, 1913|
|Death: ||Dec. 7, 1994|
Once long ago I had met Mrs. Thelma Rothenberger but I did not meet her again until I was 30-some years old. When I did, I was very glad because it was like "coming home" for both of us.
Thelma was a woman of rare heart. She was married to Stanley, and they had a family of several children. They also had a foster son whom they ended up raising, and over the years, over 100 foster infants - children who had been given up for adoption and whom they cared for until the babies were ready to "go home" with their new adoptive families.
Her job was to love every baby, feed them, get them on a schedule for sleep, take them to pediatrician appointments (often with Dr. Thomas T. "Cokey" Kochenderfer) and use her accumulated wisdom to give each baby a good start. Every month, she was visited by a social worker from the adoption agency (often a lady named Emma Troutt) who would come and check on her home, and interview her about how she perceived the baby's progress. Emma would make careful notes about the child's sleeping and eating habits, ability to focus, ability to move and reach for things, temperament, health, every kind of baby minutiae you can imagine in copious detail. All this was done to complete a "pre-adoptive study" to ensure the child was healthy and normal for the adoptive family. Once the study was complete, usually in six to eight weeks, it was time for the baby to move on.
The day of parting was always hard for Thelma. She would dress the babies in their nicest outfits. On a little slip of paper, she would often write down all the instructions on sleeping habits, feeding times and quantities, and put the note in the baby's shoe, so the new parents would find it. She would lastly take a picture of the baby so she would always have it. She kept the pictures in a shoebox in her closet and it was stuffed with such pictures, most of babies dressed nicely to begin new lives. The social worker from the adoption agency would come pick the baby up to take to the office, to meet the new parents, and Thelma's house would be quieter for a while, her arms a little emptier.
In the early 1990's, having been in a severe automobile accident, I had had time to clean up all kinds of unresolved stuff in my life, time to go back and put pieces together. I had found my birthfamily many years before, but had always wondered about the person who cared for me for the first two and a half months of my life. With a little detective work, I was able to locate Thelma.
Mrs. Rothenberger was thrilled I had found her. She had fostered many infants over the years, but I was the only one of "her babies" to have come back to her. For her, it was a dream come true. My birth mother had gone through much pain in having me, loving me, having me with her five days in the hospital, and then giving me up, and was terribly relieved I had turned up alive and well. Now, multiply that by 100. Imagine how hard it is to love an infant, and then have to let them go, and always wonder how the child was and what became of him or her. Imagine doing that repeatedly. In returning, I was not one child to her, but many, and I believe our meeting brought her no small satisfaction and relief.
She invited me to her home for the following weekend, telling me it would be perfect because there was a family picnic that day, and she wanted to take me there to meet her kids who had been present in her home when I was fostered there. That next week, we met at her apartment and talked, and then she drove us to the picnic.
What a picnic! It was true, her kids and their spouses were all there, but what was cooler was that her legacy of loving children lived on through them. Some of them had adopted kids, or were raising foster kids too, kids of all backgrounds and races, kids with mundane histories, and some former crack babies. It was beautiful to see. If I had any doubt if I had been loved in between my birth mother and my adoptive family, this day put that doubt to rest.
There was no question Thelma made me the star of the event. She took me around, introducing me, and kept saying "One of my babies came back!" Throughout the day I had to tell and retell my adoption story, of the family that raised me, and of the birth family I came from and found as a young adult.
Having had so many kids in their home over the years, neither she nor her kids had any recollection of me specifically, though I admit I tried to jog their memories, wanting some greater confirmation that indeed, I had found the right family. "Remember one baby you called "Karen"? The one who had days and nights reversed? The one you wanted to "sell back to the Indians" because she cried so insistently?" Nope, no one remembered, they'd had so many babies that it was a blur, and they didn't care, they were just glad I had returned, and given their mom the satisfaction of knowing that the good she'd done over the years had indeed paid off in a healthy, happy adult.
Besides the wonder of the day, of meeting my foster mom and her family and seeing how they continued the child care tradition, one wild coincidence was discovered. I met the one foster child she'd gotten, one who somehow had stayed and she had ended up raising. His name was Ricky, and he was three years older than I, and had been in the home when I was there.
Ricky had known his birthfamily for many years because having never been formally adopted, he was allowed to get his original birth certificate. At my birth and as of this writing (2009) in Pennsylvania if you are adopted and ask for your birth certificate, you get a bogus, falsified one which makes it look like your adoptive parents gave birth to you, history re-written. Ricky didn't have to deal with that, he knew his birthfamily, and told me about about them and why he'd been relinquished.
Anyhow, Ricky and I ended up talking a lot because he was close in age to me, and somehow we hit it off a little, just finding one another easy to talk with. He wasn't bad looking, nor incredibly handsome, but he had a very winning way about him, and, in my opinion, a very attractive deep voice. It wasn't until it was time to leave that I realized why his voice sounded so good to me.
As Thelma and I readied to go back to her apartment, Ricky asked me which route I would be taking to drive home from her place. He guessed at my route, which I confirmed. He then said "That will take you through R----town, won't it?" I agreed, yes, it would take me through the town he named, which I knew well, and had friends in. He asked if I knew the F---- family, which startled me, because until recently I had been dating one of their sons. I said as much, and he burst out laughing "He's my birth cousin!" Ah, yes, that would account for that distinctive deep voice that I found so attractive - he sounded just like my old flame. Gosh, how small a world is it when you find out you've been dating your foster brother's cousin? Is that some distant form of incest? Doubtful, but it felt odd anyhow.
Anyway, Thelma and I went back to her apartment in a high rise for senior citizens, and we had something to drink and chatted more. Stupidly, on some level, I was still hungry for verification I had indeed found the right lady, though truly there could be no doubt - what other woman of her name would have fostered children in the same town my adoptive parents picked me up in? Anyway, I asked if she had ever kept some kind of diary or log of her babies, and she said no, but brought out the shoebox that just about made me cry.
Crammed with color and black and white "going away" pictures, it was terribly clear that fostering kids had not been a mere job to her. I flipped through all the anonymous infants. Some were just everyday pictures of babies at home, but most were homemade portraits, babies all snazzed up in their Sunday best, many with a first name scrawled on the back, names which would never help Thelma find them because those lone first names would be changed by the adoptive family soon after receipt of the baby. What must it have been like for her, putting heart and soul into each new arrival and then letting them go into the abyss? Her obvious need to remember her kids awakened in me the realization that in being adopted, I was not the only one who had history that had been lost and needed reassembling... she too had all kinds of unresolved questions, which symbolically, in part, I answered by returning, alive and well.
Knowing the dates I would have been with her, we went through the box until we came up with three pictures from the right time frame. Two might be me, but the other one was certainly me, I could recognize myself, and I later showed it to my adoptive mom who remembered the huge bonnet I had on when she and Dad picked me up at the adoption agency office. It is the earliest known photo of me. I am there, in a home I do not know, in a large chair I do not recognize, all dressed up in a frilly outfit, a large bonnet on my head. My hand shook a little at this proof of my having lived another life in a place I can't remember.
She smiled wistfully and said "That was the day you were going home, I know it, because you are all dressed up. I always liked my babies to look nice for their new families." She gave the three photos to me saying I should have them, and seemed glad to be able to give me back a piece of myself... but she had to put that box back into the closet filled with pictures she'd never get to return.
Thelma passed away from colon cancer. She was cremated and interred at Philadelphia Memorial Cemetery.
Many thanks to Darlene for recognizing Mrs. Rothenberger's specialness, and for sponsoring this memorial. Your kindness was a lovely surprise to me... and probably to Thelma too.
Edgar S Rothenberger (1907 - 1962)
John R Rothenberger (____ - 2012)*
Philadelphia Memorial Park
Plot: Block G, section B, lot 158, grave 4 or 5 (she is in one, her husband in the other)
Created by: sr/ks
Record added: Sep 30, 2009
Find A Grave Memorial# 42549043