Michael Flanagan Photos courtesy Michael Flanagan

For adoptee, PEI ‘a great spot to land’

  • April 25, 2022

In an adoption story come full circle, New York native Michael Flanagan is back living in Prince Edward Island, the place of his birth mother’s roots.

Adopted at 10 days old through The Prince Edward Catholic Welfare Agency by a Catholic familiy in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1960s, he is currently in the process of reclaiming the Canadian citizenship he lost as a newborn.

Though the Big Apple, he says, will always be home, the poet and fiction book author who moved to the island last April has almost completely settled into life on Canada’s east coast. The slower pace of the countryside, he says, has taken some getting used to.

“The people who were born here and raised here have a way of living that I don’t fully incorporate into but I feel really comfortable here,” said Flanagan. “I’m not from here but I’m glad to be here. It’s a great spot to land.”

The adoption agency at that time had a pipeline from PEI to New Jersey. Up until about the 1970s, women who found themselves young, single and pregnant were often sent away by their family, church or social workers to maternity homes for unwed mothers. A teenager at the time, Flanagan’s birth mother, Elaine, was sent to one such home in New Jersey where she gave birth to a son (Flanagan) whom she named Brian. They wouldn’t be reunited for over 20 years.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Flanagan and his two siblings always knew they were adopted. Living his life as a young American in the big city, he had some curiosity about his biological origins but never had any desire to search it out. He knew nothing about the island or the country of his maternal roots other than that they fished lobster, he recalls with amusement.

Through what some would call providence he was reconnected with this birth family in his 20s in the early 1990s. 

His adoptive mother and aunt were unable to have children, and his aunt had also adopted two PEI children from the same agency. In the late 1980s, when Flanagan was in his mid-20s, his cousin had some health issues and wanted to find out more about her biological history. Flanagan’s cousin managed to get in touch with her birth mother and started a relationship with her biological family. While one of her biological cousins was in New York for a visit, Flanagan made an impromptu stop at the house and the island visitor was struck by the familiarity of his mannerisms.

“I went down to their house to borrow a ladder and I shook (the visitor’s) hand and said, ‘Nice to meet you,’ ” recalled Flanagan. “When I left he said, ‘That guy reminds me of someone I grew up with.’ He said, ‘He walks like him and his mannerisms are like his.’ ”

He gave the visitor his birth name and the go ahead to inquire further upon his return to PEI. Flanagan figured a coincidence so random would have led to a dead end but he was wrong. The PEI visitor touched based with the friend he grew up with turned golf buddy who said he didn’t know anything about a baby given up for adoption but had five older sisters he would ask about it. When he mentioned the name to his eldest sister, Elaine, she burst into tears. The man whose mannerisms were so much like Flanagan’s was in fact his biological uncle, who led him directly to his birth mother. They reunited  shortly after.

“It was odd because I grew up with a brother and sister and parents in New Jersey,” said Flanagan. “My brother and sister were all adopted from different families. We’re all very different people, we didn’t have traits in common or personalities in common. I was interested to see where my personality comes from and traits. I didn’t know anything except that I had a birth mother. I ended up having two half-sisters that she had when she got married eventually. I talked to (my birth mother) on the phone first and flew up probably a couple months later and met them in person, which was nerve wracking.”

Flanagan maintained a relationship with his biological mother right up until she passed away a few months ago.

Though connecting with his birth mother and siblings was frightening, he says they were kind and loving and opened up a whole new world of relatives and life on the Canadian east coast. Fortunate to be part of a positive adoption story, Flanagan is void of animosity towards the adoption agency. Given the social stigma against unwed mothers at the time, he figures the nuns who ran the agency wanted to be of service to the families on both ends. 

While on a visit to PEI in the early 1990s he was introduced to a young woman named Cyndy, also a PEI native who was a friend of one of his half-sisters. A relationship was sparked and they talked on the phone regularly after he returned to New York. The couple married in 1993 and share a daughter together.

Life in PEI was too difficult for Flanagan to adjust to at the time, so he and his new wife, after a short attempt at living on the island, spent time in Moncton, N.B., New York city, North Carolina and in Virginia where they raised their daughter. Now in her 20s, their daughter who was born in Canada recently decided to move to PEI for good. She gave birth to Flanagan and his wife’s first grandchild, a daughter, last year.

Flanagan admits being close to his family’s new addition was a driving force behind their decision to return to the island.

Author of a deeply personal 2019 poetry collection called Days Like These, you won’t find any mention of his adoption story within the pages. Inspired mostly to write about the bleaker moments in life, his improbable reunion with his birth family and return to the island, he says, have been far too positive to show up in his work.

“I don’t think I’ve every written about it at all,” said Flanagan. “With most writing — literature or poetry — you are usually dealing with the darker side of things, at least I do, and there was never a dark side (to reconnecting with my biological family). I didn’t have any bad experiences with it. I suppose I had deep (emotional) experiences with it but they had good outcomes, so it didn’t end up in my work.”

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