Six Decades of Hope for a Daughter Who Disappeared
Shivering in the snow, the mother stood above the unmarked grave and watched the two men dig. For hours they scooped the soil with trowels, creating a two-foot trench.
In the gray half-light of a December dusk, they handed the old lady the bones.
The fragments were paper-thin, stained dark brown by the earth. The biggest piece, about 1 inch round, only remotely resembled a baby’s skull.
Gently, the archeologist placed the remains in plastic bags, along with shreds of wood from the coffin, and a button.
The mother didn’t cry. She didn’t say a word.
But as friends clustered around her for support, Violet Eisenhauer wondered, as she had wondered for more than half a century: Just who was buried in the butter box on the hill beneath the birch tree?
Are the remains those of a baby? Her baby girl?
The grave was opened more than a year ago, and still no one knows for sure. Scientists couldn’t extract enough DNA to test against Violet’s blood.
The uncertainty has given the 78-year-old mother new hope. Nearly 60 years after giving birth, she is determined to find the dark-haired daughter she nursed for 14 days. Now, more than ever, she is convinced that all those nagging suspicions, all those awful rumors, must have been true.
“My baby is alive. She didn’t die,” Violet says. “She was stolen.”
Faith Lu Tanya was born July 7, 1940. She was 8 pounds, 6 ounces, with deep brown eyes and a whiff of curly black hair. But what her mother remembers most are her daughter’s hands: They had strange unbroken lifelines that curved down her tiny palms.
“She was all rosy, not wrinkled like other babies,” says Violet, who named the child on a whim, after two of the girls she befriended at the maternity home. “Everyone said she was the prettiest baby there.”
When Violet became pregnant, the Ideal Maternity Home was the obvious place to go. Although mainly a refuge for unmarried mothers, it was considered one of the biggest, most modern maternity facilities in Canada. For Violet, who was married, the home was also convenient, located in the nearby town of East Chester, one of a string of picturesque fishing towns that dot Nova Scotia’s south shore.
But even by the time Faith was born, the home and its owners, Lila and William Young, were being investigated by child-welfare officials. There were rumors of a baby-selling business that drew prospective parents from all over Canada and the United States, of fees amounting to thousands of dollars. Babies who couldn’t be placed for adoption were said to have died of neglect. They were buried in 22-inch pine boxes, the kind that held the butter in the home’s weekly grocery order.
Eventually the charges would close the home. But that was years later, long after the summer morning when Violet was told--a few hours before she was due to go home--that her 2-week-old daughter had died.
The baby had become ill during the night, Lila Young said, had turned black and stopped breathing. The body wasn’t fit to be seen.
“I didn’t think to question it,” Violet says. “Why should I think anyone would take my baby?”
But others were suspicious. One mother told Violet that a couple had come to the home in search of a baby girl. Faith Lu Tanya was the only girl in the nursery at the time.
And there were lingering doubts about the body that no one saw. Violet’s mother had knit a pink dress for the baby, but she was told it was too late: The infant had already been prepared for burial. Violet’s husband was handed a butter box with the lid screwed down tight.
Violet doesn’t remember the funeral. She was too sick to go. But in her mind, she can still hear her father and husband arguing that night, threatening to dig up the grave themselves. “I don’t care if the baby is as black as coal tar,” her father cried. “I want to see for myself.”
Her mother pleaded with them to leave things be. The baby is gone, she said. Digging up the grave would only land them both in jail.
Violet was too numb to care.
She never had another child. She never stopped mourning for the one she lost. Over the years she would go to the cemetery and stand over the grave. But even as she wept and even as she prayed, Violet says she always wondered: Was it really her daughter who lay in the ground?
She would see Faith in the tea leaves, a little girl with long black hair skipping rope. She would imagine her in the blueberry barrens, picking berries, laughing. She still talks to her every July 7, when she sits under the apple tree in her yard and whispers, “Happy birthday, Faith.”
When her husband, Sterling, was alive, they rarely talked about their daughter. Times were lean, money was tight and getting on with living was all a young couple could do. So they worked at various jobs, making buckets for fishermen, sometimes selling fish. Everyone seemed to agree it was better to leave the past be.
Sterling died of brain cancer at age 38, and Violet has lived alone ever since, in the century-old farmhouse where she was born. She has no brothers or sisters.
She has no photographs of Faith. No mementos, no baby clothes. The only physical reminder of her child is a yellow birth certificate stamped with her name: Faith Lou Tanya. The middle name is misspelled.
“She would be somewhere between 5-foot-3 and 5-foot-5, not too small, not too tall,” Violet says, “And she would be musical, I’m sure.”
Maybe she’s a painter. Violet’s house is filled with oil paintings: brilliant blue seas and deep green countrysides. Or a writer. The tables are laden with neatly typed manuscripts--poems about love and life and loss.
If the daughter is anything like her mother, she would also have a coquettish smile and a generous heart, and a joy for the whimsy in life that can turn every day into an adventure.
Violet loves to recount her adventures: her trips to meet beaus in Alabama and Vancouver, the two diamond rings she has as proof of their intentions, the assortment of cars in her yard, inherited from yet another suitor.
But Violet never left Chester Basin for long. She has to be home in case a dark-haired woman comes knocking on her door.
Even today, Violet searches the faces of every middle-aged women she meets. She asks their age and checks their height and tests out the name in her head. Faith. Could it be you?
She always tries to look at the palms of their hands.
But it wasn’t until the Ideal Maternity Home closed in 1948, after a string of court cases and passage of stricter child-welfare and adoption laws specifically targeting the home, that Violet was convinced. That it wasn’t just a mother’s heartache. That Faith Lu Tanya is alive somewhere. And that someday she might find her.
And it wasn’t until the scandal exploded in the Canadian press that Violet thought seriously about digging up the grave.
The 1992 book “Butterbox Babies: Baby sales. Baby deaths. The scandalous story of the Ideal Maternity Home,” created a sensation. It was written by television reporter Bette Cahill, who interviewed hundreds of people connected with the home.
She found a woman who had lined butter-box coffins with satin, and a man who said he buried dozens of babies in a field about 12 miles from the home. She found “survivors” in New York and New Jersey.
She talked to a mother who was told her baby had died, only to be reunited with her daughter years later. She talked to Violet and wrote about Faith in a chapter titled “Stolen Baby.”
Today, Cahill says she believes Faith was sold into adoption.
The book’s publicity led to the creation of a “survivors” network of grown children who had been adopted from the home, including many from the United States. In August 1997 they held a reunion in East Chester, hundreds of them converging on the town for a weekend of memorial services and hugs and tears. Radiant in her dark blue suit and hat, a white survivor’s ribbon pinned to her lapel, Violet beamed as she was hugged and kissed and hugged some more.
Some of the survivors called her “Mom.”
“That was such a time,” Violet says. “It was like having my own family.”
But even before that weekend, before all those other mother-daughter reunions, Violet knew it was time. So many questions had been raised, so much evidence dredged up.
In 1996, 56 years after the butter box was buried, Violet asked the government to exhume the remains.
At first the Department of Justice refused. Officials argued that any bones would long since have disintegrated. Violet’s supporters found experts to contradict them. And they found an archeologist, so workmen and the small band of onlookers, mostly media and friends. She kissed the archeologist who found the bones. And when the day was finally done, she went home alone and rocked in her chair and wondered, for the first time in years, if she had been wrong. Was she just a foolish old woman who couldn’t accept the truth?
“I didn’t want them to find anything,” she explains. “I didn’t want it to be her.”
Five months later the DNA results were delivered to her home. Trembling, Violet read the letter from the medical examiner. He offered condolences because the tests were inconclusive.
Violet was ecstatic. “The search resumes,” she said.
So does the wait.
Years ago Violet confided in her mother, in one of their rare conversations about what had happened at the Ideal Maternity Home.
“You’ll never know for sure,” her mother said. “Not until the [adoptive] parents die.”
That is another reason why Violet thinks it’s time--time for a phone call or a visit from a child who has been searching, time to know for sure.
She knows the pitfalls. There are so many people who are hungry for reunions, for connections to a family and a past. There are so many people who are searching.
One woman--adopted from the home--has already contacted Violet, claiming to be her daughter. But the birth date doesn’t match, and Violet doesn’t see any resemblance in photographs. Still, she has agreed to meet.
“She’s looking and I’m looking,” Violet says. “We’ve both got nobody. We might as well pretend.”
But no amount of pretending can shake her hope that one day Faith Lu Tanya will march into the kitchen and wrap her arms around her mother in a great big hug.
“She was 58 on her last birthday,” Violet says, “and I still imagine her as a baby.”
About 10 years ago Violet had a black marble tombstone erected in the cemetery, a few steps from where the butter box was buried. Etched on the front are the names of Violet and Sterling and Faith Lu Tanya.
At the bottom, sinking into the earth, are the words:
Together in love.