The Son Rises

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

When we spoke that night, I felt as though I'd known her for a long time. A week later, I was in Detroit.

My half brother Jim admits that he was lurking in the airport the day I flew in. He wanted to witness that first meeting because he suspected it was a setup, maybe a Jerry Springer episode. I left the security area and walked into an atrium thronged with people, searching for a couple who might look equally curious. After a minute, I called her cell phone from mine.

The author’s natural father, Ralph “Mickey” Lennon, with his sister Irene, circa 1949
The author’s natural father, Ralph “Mickey” Lennon, with his sister Irene, circa 1949
Mickey Lennon did two hitches in the Army; afterward he found work as a school bus driver and meat cutter in the Detroit area. Right: The author as a high school senior, about the same age as Mickey, at left.
Mickey Lennon did two hitches in the Army; afterward he found work as a school bus driver and meat cutter in the Detroit area. Right: The author as a high school senior, about the same age as Mickey, at left.

"Hi, I'm here."

"Where are you?"

"Standing by the Delta counter. Where are you?"

"Standing by the Northwest counter."

We looked around and there we were. We approached. We hugged and kissed. On the cheek. I shook hands with Peter, her husband.

It was a 40-minute drive to Grosse Ile, an island in the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. Nine miles long, the island is at the mouth of the river, where it feeds in to Lake Erie. At that point it's more like a bay, ocean freighters plying the waters of the canal, loading or unloading steel. Along the island road, the tree limbs were laden with new snow, and an icy wind blew off the water. We reached their home, an 1883 farmhouse, warmly furnished, and had drinks as Mary Ann and Peter made dinner. Before long, Maureen, Jim and Mike -- my half siblings -- appeared, and the evening grew into an extended-family happy hour. We talked and joked and compared physical attributes and behaviors. For example, it was clear to me that I looked like Mary Ann, but not so much like her children. Yet there were other similarities.

"Hold up your hand," I told Jim. He put out his palm and I pressed mine against it. They were about the same size. We're both tall, yet our hands are small. I looked to Jim and Mike for clues to my eyebrows -- long, straight and coarse, like broomstick bristles. My barber said they "flew off like bullets" when he cut them. I once plucked one and measured it at an inch and a half. But my half brothers, with their fine, upswept eyebrows, did not share the gene.

"When you found this family, you hit the jackpot," Maureen said over and over. I had no doubts about that. As a family they are close-knit, cohesive, protective of one another. And they like to tease, which was refreshing. In my parents' house, we didn't banter; more often, there was tension because I was in trouble. I could relate to my "new family," as I called them in conversation. And though I felt comfortable with them, it was provident that we were meeting at a stage of our lives where we were mature and presumably could better deal with emotional situations. Had we met in our 20s or 30s, we agreed, we'd probably have been feuding already.

The weekend was a gabfest, and little by little the picture of past events became clearer. Mary Ann said that after the nuns delivered me, she refused to hold me because to look upon the baby she'd never know would have broken her heart. She went back home, resumed her life, got a good job at Ford, married and had more children. But every year on June 30, she said happy birthday to Joel Michael, the name she'd given me. My surname at birth -- her maiden name -- was Freeman.

Mary Ann didn't tell me my father's name and, feeling she might be sensitive about it, I didn't press. After I returned to St. Louis, I spoke with Maureen on the phone. "Mary Ann never did say the name of my father," I said ruefully.

"She didn't? I thought she told you. She told us. His name is...oh, I can't remember. Call her. She'll tell you."

Mickey Lennon. A guy from the neighborhood, Corktown, an Irish-American enclave in Old Detroit, near Tiger Stadium. They weren't really dating; it was more of a fling. Three years older than she, he'd been in the Army, overseas in Japan. She couldn't have been more than five weeks along when she told him she was pregnant, and then war broke out in Korea and he was recalled by the draft. She never saw him again, and he never looked her up. She'd heard through old classmates that he'd settled in the Downriver area south of Detroit and had died many years back. Mary Ann and Mickey didn't stay together, but they made me, which is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.

In late May that same year, I took my seven-year-old daughter, Margaret, to visit my mom in Grand Rapids, then on to Detroit to see Mary Ann and to meet Mickey's sister, a recently discovered Aunt Irene. In the past, when I'd say I was going to Michigan, people would ask, "To visit your mom?" Now I would correct them: "Well, yeah, my moms." Too bad I can't visit my dads, but they're both gone.

Things didn't go well in my mother's house. She's lived alone since her husband died in 1980 and has become increasingly high-strung, given to outbursts over small things, like sitting in the wrong chair or steaming up the bathroom. In short, we felt unwelcome and left early. I thought about her fits of pique en route to Detroit: Was it age, or was she envious over my relationship with Mary Ann? She'd insisted she was happy for me, but over the next month she canceled a visit we'd planned and didn't send a birthday card. I could only hope it would pass.

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