This past Dec. 12 marked the 20th anniversary of finding my birth mother. It’s bittersweet to look back on all that’s happened now, as she passed away in 2011. We had an incredible 16 years of discovery and truth. One of the biggest blessings of my life was knowing her.
My search and subsequent reunion was healing, life-changing. Search wasn’t just about the people and information, but ultimately about the things I discovered about myself. Search forever altered my life and having the truth continues to shape it – even now, 20 years later.
Search and reunion is not the same for all adoptees and birth families who find each other. I wish I could say that each experience ends in fulfilling answers, but it doesn’t. It’s a risk because you don’t know what you will find. You open your life to the unknown, and you should be emotionally and mentally ready for just about anything — or finding nothing at all. The people you are seeking may not want contact, or they may want more than you can provide. Quite simply, it can (and likely will) change your life regardless of how the search turns out.
I know I’m lucky to have had this experience – and to have had an overwhelmingly positive outcome. But the journey wasn’t easy.
This series of posts is a bit different from my usual snark. And because there is a lot of detail I want to share (about my search, reunion and the aftermath), I’ve divided it into several installments.
The search begins …. (1995)
I was born at The Gladney Center (formerly the Edna Gladney Home) in Fort Worth, Texas, and adopted days later. Like most adoptees, I’d always known about my adoption and fantasized about my origins. A lot. But I didn’t begin seriously searching until the age of 29.
It started on a rainy Saturday morning in mid-October of 1995. After awakening from a very intense dream I couldn’t quite remember, I just knew it was time to begin. I’d started the process several times before when I was younger, but the timing had not been right. This was different.
I turned to the Internet and joined a LISTSERV called the Adoptees Mailing List. This was years before the connected web and social media made things easy. AML connected me with a lot of people, and I still keep in touch with a few of them. Next, I put my name on every registry I could find — online and offline. Some agencies keep their own registries, but the most comprehensive registries at the time were ISRR and birthquest. Things have changed a lot since my search two decades ago, but a good place to begin is Shea’s search series, which is a very comprehensive guide.
Armed with very little information, I began obsessively learning all I could about search techniques. And my efforts began to pay off immediately. Before, I’d had no idea that the agency would provide non-identifying (non-ID) information — for a fee, of course. From the “adoption story” my parents had instilled in me since babyhood, I knew that my birth mother had been a 22-year-old nurse at the time of my birth, that she had written a letter that was read to my parents by an agency worker. I also knew that my “crib name” had been Julia.
When I received my non-ID, which cost $50 and consisted of nine pages of hard-to-read copies from microfilm with all names actually cut out of the page, I discovered that my birth mother actually had been 24 at the time of my relinquishment and that my birth father had been a 25-year-old Air Force pilot. This was the first I’d ever known about him, and it was a bit shocking. Also in my possession were the first physical descriptions of my birth parents and the knowledge that my background is Czech. The non-ID also included very limited medical information.
The adoption agency offered little help on next steps without first handing over a very hefty fee (credit cards accepted), so I decided to try another route — the legal system. In preparation of petitioning the court to open my adoption records, I ordered my file from the Tarrant County Court System to be sent to the residing judge of the court where my adoption was finalized (Internet friends helped me with all the necessary steps). But instead of a formal court appearance, the Judge met with me privately to discuss my search options. He refused to unseal my file, and instead recommended the Confidential Intermediary (CI) system. He agreed to let me choose my own CI instead of using the agency, which was already trying to extort $750 out of me at the time. The judge said he would keep my file with his clerk until I made a decision on what I wanted to do next.
So I researched the CI option, but decided against it. For me, search was very personal. It was important that I find and contact my birth mother on my own terms. The CI would be just one more person allowed intimate information about my life that was being withheld from me.
Before I could tell the judge I’d decided against the CI route, something amazing happened. On Friday, Dec. 8, 1995, at 12:05 p.m., I received a call from “a friend” at the courthouse who gave me my birth mother’s name (and a few other details, but there weren’t many). This friend, who worked in the court system, had borrowed my sealed file from the judge’s clerk and taken it into the courthouse bathroom to secretly get the name for me. Yes, amazing people like that really do exist.
Once I had a name, which was completely surreal, I picked up the trail in just a few hours. All those hours of online research were paying off again. But I didn’t have a correct address or phone number until Sunday afternoon, after many hours in the library. First, I looked up the name in the Texas birth index and found where and when she had been born. I figured that information would come in handy later, and I was right. I was lucky because she had been married in Texas about a year after my relinquishment. I found that record in the Marriage/Divorce Index at the library, which also listed the county in which she’d been married. I then called the library at the college located in that county and recruited a student worker to research the marriage announcement in the local paper — and he was excited to join in the mission when I explained the situation.
Two hours later he called me back with good news — and read the entire marriage announcement over the phone. It was more like a feature story and included a description of her wedding dress, the names of my birth mother’s husband (not my birth father, as it turned out), as well as her family and the wedding party. I also learned where she had gone to nursing school, where the groom had attended college and where they were planning to live. The announcement also listed where her parents, now divorced, both lived. Then the trail ran cold again. My next step was to contact the alumni department of the college to see if they had any updated information. Their system showed he and my birth mother were still married and living in California. But as it turned out the entry had not been updated in 15 years (and they were actually divorced by then). So I drafted a friend from the Internet search group to contact my birth grandfather, whose name I had from the marriage announcement. Amazingly, he and his wife were still living in the same city 30 years later. My friend called under the guise of planning a nursing school reunion.
They kindly provided the final link to my birth mother … Carolyn.
The story continues: Making contact