The Son Rises

Given up for adoption as an infant, the author sets out to climb his family tree

Twenty-five years went by. I still gave the mystery of my birth only occasional thought. Then in the spring of 2001, I decided to play a hunch that my birth mother had attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. The archives department was nice enough to mail the yearbooks from 1949-1951, and when they arrived, I saw that students' hometowns were listed beneath their pictures. This provided criteria: My birth mother was from Detroit, so all I had to do, I thought, was find a student who looked like me and was from any of the 50-odd Detroit suburbs.

I enlisted the help of my son, William. We pored over the yearbooks and devised three categories: no resemblance, some resemblance, and resemblance but not from the Detroit area. Eventually only two faces stood out, and for weeks I had a rich fantasy life with these women, imagining them getting knocked up, for example, by the star quarterback on prom night. In the end, however, what could I do with these names? Hire a detective to find out if the women had married and whom? I could spend thousands, all for the sake of...what? Being able to ring their doorbells someday and ask, "Are you my mother?"

Ultimately, the discovery of my birth parents and lineage would come through happenstance, a lucky break. For 50 years I'd thought of myself as an only child. I now have seven half brothers and sisters.

Bill Stage Sr., the author’s adoptive father. A former Navy machinist, he worked for thirty years as a tool and die maker.
Bill Stage Sr., the author’s adoptive father. A former Navy machinist, he worked for thirty years as a tool and die maker.
Top: Natural mother Mary Ann Owens with her son Jim, the author’s half brother. Bottom: The author with his “two moms,” who met in St. Louis in April 2003 and would rendezvous again in Michigan, where they live.
Top: Natural mother Mary Ann Owens with her son Jim, the author’s half brother. Bottom: The author with his “two moms,” who met in St. Louis in April 2003 and would rendezvous again in Michigan, where they live.


It was at a party over Memorial Day weekend 2001 when someone mentioned a new Michigan law that allows adoptees to petition the state probate court to appoint a confidential intermediary, or CI, a sort of a private investigator who, for a fee -- $200 in my case -- can obtain access to all available identifying information about the adoptee's birth parents including the all-important surname. The very next day I started the process. The probate court appointed Julie Carter of Cloverdale, Michigan, as my CI, and she immediately suggested that I write a short letter of introduction so that when she did locate one or both of my birth parents, she'd have something to read to them. It would assure them that I wasn't out to disrupt their lives. But of course that's what happened. Except it happened in a good way.

Once the CI contacts the birth parent, he or she has three choices: to say no contact; to say yes, let's meet; or to take the circumspect route, as my birth mom did, saying she'd be willing to correspond with me through the CI until she felt comfortable speaking with me directly.

Within six weeks Julie had found her. The call relaying the news came at an incredibly bad time, just as my sixteen-year-old son was storming out the door after a charged fight over, among other things, his round-the-clock viewing of MTV. His mother and I were in the midst of a custody battle, and the court had just ruled that he stay with me for the time being. He wasn't happy with that, either.

"I just got off the phone with her," said Julie. "Do you have a pen? She's 69, married, works for her daughter and writes a column for the local newspaper. You have a half sister who is 39, divorced, with two girls, 16 and 20. You have two half brothers: one, 41, who's divorced with a son, 15. The other is 43, married, with a daughter, 16.

"She seems like she wants to meet," Julie added. "She said she'd think about it."

I stood by the window, holding the phone. I should have been elated, yet I despaired at the sight of my son outside at the curb, a backpack filled with his belongings, waiting for his grandmother to pick him up. He was moving in with her, and to show further disdain for the court's decision, he would deliberately fail in school. Things between us were actually worse than I'd imagined. We didn't have a friendly conversation for months. My heart was in my throat: Even as I was on the brink of connecting with my birth mother, I felt I was losing my son.

For the next month I waited to hear if my birth mother wanted to communicate with me directly or through Julie, or if she would change her mind altogether. But we began to correspond through the CI, exchanging letters over the next four months. She was unaware of my identity, as I was of hers, and it was the perfect way to become acquainted. She'd been working at a utility company in Detroit, I learned, and when she got pregnant her parents first sent her up north to live with an aunt and uncle. In her last trimester, she moved into the unwed mothers' home. Her current life sounded rich and happy: She loved boating on the Great Lakes; loved watching the Detroit Lions even when they lost; and with her British husband, Peter, had been to England two dozen times, once walking the breadth of the country from the North Sea to the Irish Sea.

Finally, on a Sunday morning, January 27, 2002, Julie Carter called again. "I just got off the phone with your birth mother," she said. "She wants to talk to you directly. I'm no longer in the picture." In the next instant, a whole new world began to unfold. How I savored that moment: "Her name is Mary Ann Owens, and she lives in Grosse Ile, Michigan." I wrote down a phone number.

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