March 3, 2020

Ep. 8 | Jill Alexander + Brian Fraser | Blended Families: The Past is Never Past

"And so I really got a handle on what co-dependency was all about and how it had affected me. It went back to my family when I was growing up and the phoney front we had to put on. I think it was a process, but the time came in my life that it didn't matter anymore what people thought."
~ Brian Fraser

In this episode, Jill Alexander shares the story of giving her child up for adoption. Her journey through loss, co-dependency and discovery shines light on the complex weight of shame and the hope of reconciliation and connection with her past. Together, Jill and her husband, Brian Fraser, speak to the potential and the joy of blended family.

Episode Guest

Jill Alexander and Brian Fraser

Jill Alexander and Brian Frasier are partners in the increasingly common reality of blended family. Blended families can be surprisingly robust and flavourful despite the complexities of the mixing process. Brian is a Presbyterian Minister and jazz aficionado and Jill was an business entrepreneur before they married. Now in their later years, they have an unique story of rediscovery and reconciliation in this rich portrait of their family.


Transcript | Episode #8 | Jill Alexander + Brian Fraser | Blended Families: The Past is Never Past

Rachel Cram – Well thank you both so much for coming into the studio today. I’m with Brian and Jill, who have an amazing story to share. Brian, how long have you been together as a couple.

Brian Fraser – So,we’ve been together now for 19 years. Friends kept saying, “You’ve got to meet Jill. You’ve got to meet Brian. Got to meet Jill. Got to meet Brian.”

And we kept saying, “no, no, no.” People have been trying to set us up for years and, “I’m not interested. Thanks very much.” So finally they convinced us to come to dinner together one night and the rest is history.

Jill Alexander – There’s nine years between us.

Rachel Cram – You’re nine years older.

Jill Alexander – Yes.

Rachel Cram – Which is very cool. I mean, the listeners can’t see you, but you’re a very beautiful couple.

Brian Fraser – Thank you.

Rachel Cram – In all ways. So I am excited to get into this story because Jill, it leaves me with profound appreciation for the love and the tenacity of your life. Can you just walk us through, maybe starting back with you as a 15 year old when your story kind of began?

Jill Alexander – Okay. Well I was going to a junior high school and enjoying it so much. And I was getting, according to my parents, very caught up in clothes, boys, and that kind of thing. So without giving me any warning, they enrolled me in to boarding school. And I was absolutely mortified. And that’s where I went for the next couple of years. And it was while I was there that I met this group of boys and one of them was Joe. He came around to the house and my parents weren’t sure whether I gonna get myself into trouble. And back in those days they didn’t really go into a lot of details as to what might happen.

Rachel Cram – What “in trouble” might mean?

Jill Alexander – Yes.

Rachel Cram – Yeah. So what did you do with that?

Jill Alexander – Well, I was at this boarding school and the boys decided they were going to climb up the fire escape one night and come looking for me. See if they could find my room. And they missed the floor that I was on and got onto the nuns floor. And they saw some nuns coming around the corner and they zoomed down the fire escape and into the car and off they went. But the car had been recognized as friends of mine. So my mother was phoned and asked to come and see Mother Superior.

And I was sitting outside with my friends and somebody said, “Isn’t that your mother?” And she was walking down the long driveway and looking very very sort of sad and not wanting any body to see her. And she disappeared inside. And then a nun came out and said I was to go into Sister Superior’s office where my mother was and was told that I was being expelled. That they couldn’t have that kind of thing happening.

Rachel Cram – Could not have boys climbing into your, into your,

Jill Alexander – Yeah.

Rachel Cram – OK.

Jill Alexander – So I was expelled. And I’ll never forget that drive home in the car. It was in silence. The two of us never said anything to each other. My mother was devastated.

Rachel Cram – She was devastated because, why?

Jill Alexander – Because of the shame I think.

Rachel Cram – Can you tell me a little bit about what your mom was like and maybe a bit of her history?

Jill Alexander – OK. My mother was an only child. She had a very strict father and adored her mother. She never had a good sense of self. Never had a good self-esteem. She married my dad after he had been married to the love of his life, and she died tragically bearing his child. So my mother never felt that she measured up to, Maisie was her name. But what gave my mother a good feeling about herself was to belong to the Deisbecker family.

Rachel Cram – Your father’s side of the family?

Jill Alexander – Yes.

Rachel Cram – So while you were expelled and at home, is that when you discovered you were pregnant?

Jill Alexander – Yes. I might have known before that

Rachel Cram – But had you told your mother?

Jill Alexander – No, no, no. I never told my mother. I think she asked me if I thought I was pregnant. And I said no at first. And then I said, well maybe I might be. So she was bound and determined that with me being pregnant, that nobody was going to find out. And she went out of her way to cover it up.

Rachel Cram – What was the reputation that needed to be upheld?

Jill Alexander – The reputation. I guess just that the Deisbecker’s were an important family and those kinds of things just didn’t happen. So.

Rachel Cram – So a big cover up was underway.

Jill Alexander – Yeah.

Rachel Cram – So what did that look like?

Jill Alexander – Well I just knew that that had to be. I didn’t fight it at all. They got a social worker. And apparently it fell through the cracks and I was starting to get to the point where my mother was afraid that I was going to be showing that I was pregnant. And that people would see. And finally phoned the social worker. And she said, oh I’m really sorry, I haven’t done anything about that. And so she got a family that were really only interested in having some extra money coming in. I slept with the two kids.

Rachel Cram – So you kind of went into, like a foster family?

Jill Alexander – It was a foster family. Yeah. So at this point, my mother, she had to come up with a story. And the story was that there is a family that had been very kind to my dad during the Second War when he was back east. And they’ve now moved to the west coast and now magically they have a daughter that’s my age. And that was part of the story. And this was a good place to go. And she was able to tell people this. I mean she was really quite amazing at how she fabricated this whole story of where I was. And then of course, I couldn’t come home for Christmas because the baby was born in January.

And so she faked a phone call for the sake of my brother, who never heard. He was hurt when I eventually told him what had happened. He said, “Nobody ever told me anything.” I mean this was the kind of thing that went on all the time in this cover up. It was so important to them to cover it up.

I think it was mostly for my dad and his siblings and their families.

Rachel Cram – That’s who they did not want to know.

Jill Alexander – Yeah that’s right. Because that would not look good for his branch of the family. My dad’s.

(musical interlude)

Rachel Cram – So meanwhile, you are about to give birth to a baby. And you’re 15 years old. And you’re days away from home.

Jill Alexander – Yes.

Rachel Cram – So what happened? How did you know how to; what, what, Who supported you?

Jill Alexander – Well I’d been sent away to another city with a family that I didn’t really really get along very well, certainly not with the wife anyway. So I went into labor in the night and was having these really bad pains and I told her about it in the morning. She said, “Oh, I know what that’s all about.” And kind of didn’t pursue it.

But I had a social worker, so I phoned her and she said, “Well, I’ll come and get you and take you to the hospital.” So that’s what happened. And I went to the hospital and I was in labor for probably a day and a half. And then they put me out. Now this doctor had a reputation for not doing that.

Rachel Cram – Not putting people out?

Jill Alexander – No, so that people could experience the whole birth process and be there when the baby was born. But he couldn’t do that with me because the instructions had been that the baby was to go immediately into the nursery. That I was not to see the baby, hold the baby, anything like that because it might set something up inside, some emotional need in me. That I want to keep the baby. That was just what they decided to do.

Rachel Cram – What were the emotional needs? Did you have any connection to that?

Jill Alexander – I was almost like I didn’t feel I deserved to have any. This was just something to be done you know. And yet, and yet I’d have these little sort of flutterings inside. And I can remember so clearly when the doctors said, this was right at the end when I started going into the second stage of labor, I can remember so clearly his voice saying, “Put her out.”

They gave me a general anesthetic and when I woke up everything was tidied up. There wasn’t a baby around or anything. I sort of felt my stomach to see whether the baby was still there and it wasn’t.

So finally I got up the nerve to ask one of the nurses what had happened. And she said, “Oh, you had a baby.” And I wondered whether I dared to ask whether it was a boy or a girl, and I asked her that and she said it was a boy. And he’s in the nursery. And the instructions are that you’re not to see him.

So, I stayed in the hospital, probably for the better part of a week. And then I went home, back to this family.

Rachel Cram – The foster family?

Jill Alexander – Yeah. In the meantime, my parents came over. They felt it was a duty that they did that. They didn’t come over for me but they came over and my mother had bought a layette of clothing for this baby. She told me afterwards how petrified she was that somebody might see her looking at baby clothes in the department store. And they were asked if they wanted to see the baby. And they said they thought they better not.

Rachel Cram – What do you think they were afraid of?

Jill Alexander – I don’t know. It was almost as if, well, there’s no point. There’s no point in us seeing this baby if it’s going to be given up for adoption.

So that all became something in the past. It was always there in my mind and I had nobody that I could talk to about it. I didn’t think that I could share that with anybody. It was a big secret. Nobody used to know anything about it.

Oh yes. This is another part of the story that I think is quite interesting. My parents started to realize that I wasn’t getting along with his foster family very well. So my mother made up this story that I had bronchial pneumonia and the doctor said, she needs to come back where the climate is better. And so I came.

Rachel Cram – Your mom was giving a way for you to come home?

Jill Alexander – Yeah. So I came home and she had it all set up that I would lie on the sofa in the den. I remember her putting a little bag for me to put my tissues in and I coughed, particularly if the nosy busybody from next door came over. I was really to go into an act with that.

Rachel Cram – So it just went on and on.

Jill Alexander – It did. It did. Yeah.

(musical interlude)

Rachel Cram – How many years were there Jill, from when you gave birth to your son, to the feeling that you could start to disclose this to other people?

Jill Alexander – I would say close to 20 years. My husband didn’t even know, the man that I married, for 18 years. And finally I did tell him and he said, “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

I said, “I don’t know why didn’t. I just didn’t feel that I could do that.”

Rachel Cram – So 20 years, you kept that secret inside of you?

Jill Alexander – Yeah.

Rachel Cram – And would you say you continued to live the act that your parents had given you? Or what did you settle into?

Jill Alexander – I think the shame. I was still caught up with, the sort of the image of the family. I realized there was something wrong with me, that I had got taken in this way. And so I heard that there was a 12 step program for codependents. And I thought, I think this has something to do with me. And so I started going to the 12 step program and it was amazing. And I really got a handle on what codependency was all about, and how it had affected me, and it went back to my family when I was growing up and the phony front that we had to put on.

Rachel Cram – So then you, as you worked through this, it brought you to a place where you wanted to look for your son. Do you think those things were related? Working through this shame and codependency?

Jill Alexander – I think it was a process. But the time came in my life that it didn’t matter anymore what people thought. I think that was the main thing.

Rachel Cram – Can you just talk a little bit about that?

Jill Alexander – I can. Now I wrote something down about that, shall I,

Rachel Cram – Yes, please.

Jill Alexander – OK. “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

Rachel Cram – Wow. T.S. Eliot! Jill, that is a fabulously placed quote. And it does describe so well what you’ve experienced. Going back into your childhood and seeing it again. Seeing it with new eyes. Without the shame.

Jill Alexander – Yeah. So it was when I started to, I think feel better about myself. I could share it with people.

Rachel Cram – You mean, share about giving your son up for adoption?

Jill Alexander – Yes. Yes. I made up my mind I was going to do a search. And they had changed the private information act so you could get a researcher to do the work for you and this was amazing. So I did. And she said, “I’ll let you know if I come across anything.” I didn’t know anything about his new name. But I knew he’d been adopted.

So anyway, I got a phone call from the researcher saying, “I found your son.”

And that was pretty big. So she said, “I’m going to set up a phone call and you can talk.” So you can just imagine how I felt.

Rachel Cram – How did you feel?

Jill Alexander – I felt, scared. I felt nervous. But in a way there was a real happiness for me too. So the researcher told me the time he was going to phone and I sat there by the phone waiting and waiting. And then the phone rang. And it was him. And we talked.

We needed to find out whether he was in agreement to want to meet me. And he decided that he would like to see me. Maybe have a coffee together. So we met and I didn’t know what to expect when he walked in. He looked a little bit like my brother.

Anyway, we had a great chat and talked about lots of things. And I told him a little bit about the pregnancy but he didn’t want to really hear too much about that. That wasn’t really all that important to him. And I can understand that it wouldn’t be for him. So he said, what I’d like to do, I’d like you to come and meet my family.

And so I drove out there. And I was really nervous. Parked the car. Got out of the car. And his wife was there. And she came towards me and she looked at me and she said, “Now I know who Stacy looks like.” And she turned around and this little girl looked like me when I was 6.

Rachel Cram – Wow.

Jill Alexander – Just the way I had looked. And then he came in to meet Michael and Doug, his half brothers. But I think the most meaningful time for me was that his parents, his adopted parents, wanted to meet me. So Dougal dropped me off, and I went in, and she took me around. And she showed me all the photos on the wall. All pictures of him as he was growing up. And these are all the times when I used to wonder, ‘He’s two today. I wonder what he looks like?’ For years on his birthday I would just think that, and as well as other times too.

So when I was leaving his mother said to me, “I never thought of Dougal as being adopted except on his birthday. And then I always thought of you.”

Rachel Cram – And how did that land for you?

Jill Alexander – Moving.

Rachel Cram – Yeah

Jill Alexander – Yeah. Still is.

(musical interlude)

Rachel Cram – So you, as the biological mom, have now been reunited with your son. But there is a third person in that story. And you invited that third person back into your story. The father of Dougal. Can you tell us how that went?

Jill Alexander – Right. Well when Dougal and I got together, I said, “Have you any interest in finding your birth father?”

Rachel Cram – And had you seen Joe at all over those years?

Jill Alexander – No. No.

Rachel Cram – Or heard of him?

Jill Alexander – No.

Rachel Cram – So, since he’d climbed into your room back in boarding school, that had been the end of it?

Jill Alexander – That’s right.

Rachel Cram – Ok.

Jill Alexander – So he said, “If you want to try and find him, that’s okay with me.”

So that was a process. In the meantime, I’ve involved my two boys. They’re all excited about this. And I remember when Doug, he couldn’t have been more than maybe eleven or something, and he came to me he said, “Mom look!” And he had the telephone book. He said, “J Brockman”.

And so I said, “Okay.” So kind of left it at that. And then I decided I was going to phone him. So I phoned and this woman said, “Hello.”

And I said, “Is Joe Brockman there?”

And she said, “No. Who is this? You an old girlfriend or something?”

“No,” I said, “ just a friend.”

And so she said, “Well, I’ll tell him you called.”

And he phoned me almost immediately.

Rachel Cram – You’d left your name obviously.

Jill Alexander – Yes. Jill. So he said, “Jill! I don’t believe it. It’s you! I don’t believe it!”

Rachel Cram – So how many years later is this?

Jill Alexander – I would say 25 years later maybe? So, I said, “Joe, do you want to meet for coffee?”

And he said, “Sure, I do.” So we met up for coffee and talked about, you know, what had happened to both of us. And Joe, he said, “When I knew that you were pregnant and I couldn’t see you, I quit school. Started drinking. And he said, “I ended up on skid row and I lived there for 20 years.” And then he’d kind of got his life together a little bit.

But the fact was that he always felt badly and guilty that I had got pregnant and he couldn’t do anything about it. He said, “I just ruined my life. I didn’t do anything with it.” He said, “I’m just nothing. I’m nothing.”

And I said, “That’s not true Joe.” I said, “In the first place, you’ve got a really nice son.”

And he said, “Yeah, I’d like to meet him.”

I said, “Well, let me see if I can set something up.” So I did. They got together and they really hit it off. It was great. Yeah.

So when we met, we talked it all out. And the fact that he had a son, and they got along so well together. And the fact that I didn’t hate him, which he thought that I did. I think that was really a big release for him.

Rachel Cram – So what does life look like for you now Jill? At this point in your history?

Jill Alexander – Well everybody gets along with everybody else. And special occasions, like Thanksgiving dinner, we’re all there. And we’ll go around the table after we’ve had the main course and everybody’s to say what they’re thankful for. And it usually is around the fact that we wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for having found Dougal. Involved everybody. We wouldn’t be. So here we are going around the table, so everybody’s saying thank you for this.

Rachel Cram – I see you leaning forward there Brian. What do you want to say? Go ahead.

Brian Fraser – I mean most people in that little exercise at Thanksgiving are thankful for recent stuff. Like in the last year or so. But you get around to Joe, and it’s always, all Joe says with a catch in his voice is, “The phone call.” And he doesn’t have to say anything more.

Jill Alexander – Yeah. Yeah. And then Brian of course is now part of it which is great.

Rachel Cram – Yeah. So Brian, you’ve been listening so attentively here. You are another person welcomed into this complicated but beautifully blended family. How does that play out for you?

Brian Fraser – Well it’s been interesting. I mean, I am an only adopted child of older parents. I don’t have any children. And so I come into this marriage after she’s reconnected with Dougal. After she’s reconnected with Joe.

So there are three sons, and now there are eight grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. And then Joe at Jill’s urging, accepted one of his pilot buddies invitations to go down to Peru on holiday. Met a wonderful woman down there by the name of a Alita. And so they got married. So Alita is now part of the family as well.

So, as I’ve been listening to you and Jill talk – it is. It’s a remarkably complex blended family. But when I look around at a lot of the families in the congregation that I work with. In my circles. Especially in the jazz community. They all have their own unique blend. But those kind of complexities and layers upon layers of families that have worked, families that haven’t worked; How do you negotiate all of that emotional and instinctive and intellectual experience? And I think one of the things that comes through in Jill’s story is; and the rest of the family would say this is; the person who’s kind of pulling all of this stuff together is Jill. In the best sense of that word, she’s kind of a matriarch of the clan. And makes sure everybody keeps in touch. And it’s remarkable. It really is. And I’m just so grateful to be part of it.

Rachel Cram – What are the qualities that you see in Jill that allow her to be the “matriarch” you describe? That coordinates this kind of complexity?

Brian Fraser – So I think first of all there is a deep and open and accepting compassion there. You know she’s been through a tough life. The stuff you talked about in terms of codependency. Finally realized, wait a minute, there’s a pattern here that I’ve got to address. And so off she goes and deals with the codependency stuff and dealt with it exceptionally well.

There’s a deep spirituality that really sees the connection between all of these people, no matter what’s going on in the surface. No matter what kind of tensions may be going on with the kids and with the grandkids. And somewhere deep beneath that is this, ‘We’re connected and that’s the real reality that we’re going to live out of.’ And I’m just delighted to be part of it.

Rachel Cram – So Jill after all you’ve experienced, is there a piece of wisdom that you’d want to impart to parents when their children are struggling with something for which they could feel shame.

Jill Alexander – I think communication and love. Just talking. Talking it out. My youngest son, sometimes when he’s upset about something, he’ll get on the phone and he just talks. Sometimes for an hour. And then it will sort of come to an end and he’ll say to me, “Thanks mom, for listening.” I could have jumped in and tried to say something to make it feel better but that’s not what he wanted. He just wanted somebody to hear him. So that’s just one example. Yeah.

Brian Fraser – This may follow through with that because I think one of the key qualities that I found from the very beginning of our relationship, and that I’ve watched in her relationship with her kids and grandkids, is that core acceptance. No matter what’s happened. No matter what you’ve been up to. No matter what kind of messes you’ve gotten yourself into. You always know with Jill, that at the core is that accepting love. Now, let’s talk about how you got yourself into that mess and what you could have done differently and all of that sort of stuff. You know assessments, sorting it through. Learning from what’s happened, that’s part of it.

There’s a wonderful jazz line from Miles Davis who once said, “There’s no such thing as a mistake in jazz, there’s only opportunities to learn.” And with Jill, you can talk to her about anything and you know that that kind of solid core acceptance is there. And you know, let’s talk about what I can do to support you in learning to do things differently.

Rachel Cram – How does that feel? To hear your husband saying those things?

Jill Alexander – Sort of, wow. Is that me?

Brian Fraser – Yeah. That’s you.

Rachel Cram – Brian and Jill thank you so much for sharing your story.

Brian Fraser – Thank you.

Jill Alexander – Yes.

Brian Fraser – It’s been a delight.

Episode 2