Judging by appearances, the crowd of 20 or so people who gathered in the backyard of Dennis and Bunny Murphy’s house last Sunday did not look much like a family. Complexions ranged from dark brown to white; hair texture from kinky to straight; and hair color from red to brown to white to black.

The diversity was due to the fact that these particular swimmers who had returned to the family home on South Ridgeland for a party and to pose for a family photograph, were not from the same gene pool.

But as the photographer tried to herd the group together for a family picture, the teasing and the inside jokes and the laughter revealed that the nine individuals posing for the portrait [John, a firefighter in Markham, couldn’t get away from work] were indeed a family.

Dennis and Bunny started adopting their eight children in 1971. Michael and his sister Mary, who are black, were the first. Living in a part of the Chicago Metro area which was not very accepting of their two African American children and mixed-race families, the Murphys moved to Oak Park in 1975. They then adopted Marshall, who is white, in 1980.

Mary Anne Brown, executive director of Hephzibah Children’s Association said that in 1982 she was telling Bunny and Dennis about a single mother who had died, leaving her four adopted children orphaned, and she was thinking of splitting them up to facilitate their adoption. Dennis responded, “We’ll take all of them,” and that’s how Marita, John, Peter and Anne Marie became Murphys. The last child adopted was Christopher in 1984.

Mary, who lives in Elmwood Park and works at Poor Phil’s which Dennis and Bunny own, recalled, “Growing up as a Murphy, there was always a new kid coming in. It was something you just got used to.”

Being accepted as a mixed-race family was not always easy. Mary remembers some Oak Park residents made racial comments to her parents and even to the children. 

“In the early 80s,” she said, “people weren’t so accepting, even in Oak Park. I stopped being friends with kids because some black people didn’t like me having white parents and siblings, and some white people didn’t want their kids hanging out with blacks, so it was tricky because my brothers and sisters were black and white and I wanted to stick up for them.”

Peter credits his mother and father for being “strong” in the face of adversity and sticking up for their children. At the same time he praised Oak Park for evolving into a relatively safe and supportive community for interracial families.

He said his adoptive mother and father welcomed him with open, loving arms and insisted there was no sibling rivalry in the family — at which time Marita broke in with, “What?! Where were you?! Keep it real!”

Marshall supported Marita’s protest that they were not a picture-perfect family. 

“I used to push my younger brother Chris down the stairs all the time because he pissed me off. He used to call me fat because I was a little porker when I was a kid and I’d bash his head against the wall.” Then he added, “I love him now. He’s one of my closest friends.”

All of the adopted children credit Dennis and Bunny with being the stabilizing force that made the family work. 

“Kids need stability,” Dennis said. “They need to know their life is going to be organized. It’s also important that they know no matter what they do, they are a part of this family. If you don’t do it the right way, we’re not going to like it, but you’re not going to get kicked out either.”

Anne Marie noted that each person in the family is their own person and some are closer than others, but the bonds in her family are strong, perhaps in part, because the children were all adopted. 

“Like all families, there are always going to be problems,” she said, “but in this family everyone comes back together, no matter what. It might be a subconscious thing. We all were brought together through adoption … and I think that connects us. In biological families, everyone knows they are family. Our family developed into a family. 

“We grew a family. For me, family is deeper than blood.”

Marshall added, “I’m not a religious person but I’m spiritual, and I believe God brought all of us together. Our parents are amazing. I mean everyone I tell about my mom and dad think they’re saints.”

Resisting any notions of canonization, Bunny said, “We wanted a big family,” to which Dennis added, “We weren’t doing anybody a favor in adopting. We did this for us. We got more than we gave.”

The gathering in the backyard on South Ridgeland last Sunday was a celebration of growing a family. “I think we got really lucky,” said Mary, “to wind up with the parents we got, to wind up with the brothers and sisters we got.”

“I always feel so blessed to have this family,” Marshall concluded, “because it’s one of a kind.”

“Adopt a kid if you can,” urged Mary. “There are so many kids who need good homes here in America. Right here in Oak Park.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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