The Son Rises

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

I spent the first months of my life in a Kalamazoo orphanage with the Dickensian name of St. Agnes Foundling Home. It is a place I will never know, since I was adopted from there at three months of age. It was Columbus Day to be exact, and when I returned decades later the orphanage was gone, erased like the record of my lineage.

A foundling, left at the door with a blanket and note, I wasn't. My admission to St. Agnes was prearranged at the Catholic hospital next door, where my mother, nineteen and unwed, was sent by her parents. She never saw me but put me in care of the good sisters there to await adoption.

Following protocol, the nuns interviewed her. Years later I read the paragraph summary and marveled at her predicament. She was from Detroit, of Irish-German descent. Light brown hair, hazel eyes, five-foot-six. A college student. Her father, who sold cars in Detroit, had multiple sclerosis and walked with a brace. And if those were the bare bones of her description, my father's image is drawn from smoke and vapors. She described him as "muscular, a leader in high school." He too was from Detroit. No ethnicity given. He was in some branch of the military at the time of my birth. I hoped he was an enlisted man.

This was during the Truman years, the Korean War. I like to step back to the fall of 1950, create a romantic scenario: Home on leave, overseas orders in his pocket, he visits his high school flame, a college freshman perhaps halfway across the state. Too young to marry, too impatient to wait, they wind up in the back of a Chevy...oops, zygote. If he was among the 54,246 casualties of that forsaken conflict, he may never have known he had a son.

On a Saturday morning, I ran across the street to tell my best friend, Dick, what my parents had just told me. We went to our secret clubhouse, the laundry room in Dick's basement, where I told him my news. We didn't even know such things happened and tried to digest the implications. We imagined the orphanage as a sort of supermarket, where adults strolled down the aisles with shopping carts, inspecting babies and saying, "Oh, this one's too pudgy," or "This one's too mewly." We wondered how my parents had gone about choosing me.

The information didn't make me feel rejected or bitter; instead, I felt different from other kids, sort of mysterious, like the Lone Ranger on TV at the time. From an early age, I had an empathy for my birth mom, who I was certain loved me and would have kept me if only she could. Instead, I was placed in a lottery and came out a winner, matched up with nice people who couldn't have kids of their own but had love to give. I never thought of Bill and Virginia as my "adoptive" parents. They were always Mom and Dad.

The decision to start a search is often emotionally charged; if you're the seeker, you're setting yourself up for some major hurt. How will these people take being found? Will they be guilt-ridden or angry? Will they reject you a second time? Or perhaps, having grown so far apart over the yawning space of time, you'll reject them. The entire prospect is a big, anxious question mark. I was fortunate. When I eventually found my blood family, they embraced me, even as the fabric of my own small family was unraveling: I was moving through the bitter aftermath of a divorce, my son and I were at odds, and increasingly my adoptive mother seemed to shun me.

Finding my birth parents was never an obsession but more a series of half-baked attempts. In the 1970s I tried, both by legal means and feeble ruses intended to dupe record keepers, but could only obtain "non-identifying information" -- physical features, age, education level, occupation -- achingly tantalizing, yes, but so general as to not be usable. After hitting brick walls, I simply gave up. It wasn't that important, after all.

My mother Virginia, meanwhile, had begun attending meetings of an adoption support group. Only recently did she tell me why: She was hoping to find my real mother, she said, in the hope of understanding her problem child. "Blood is thicker than water," she told me. "I wanted to talk to her to know why you're so contrary, so belligerent. Nothing your dad or I tried to teach you rubbed off."

I admit it: I had a budding career as a juvenile delinquent. In grade school, I was a lifer in the time-out corner. In high school, detention hall was my eighth period, and I was arrested half a dozen times for drinking, brawling and mouthing off. I was allowed to graduate only on the condition that I see a psychiatrist once a week. Didn't help. Had I been born ten years later, I'd have been coked to the gills on Ritalin. As it was, my dad berated me and my mom wept every time the cops or a teacher would call. They were beside themselves with frustration, but what could my real mother have told them?

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.

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.

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.

"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.

Otherwise, we had a great trip. We ate lunch with Irene in a Detroit suburb, and she talked about her brother, painting a picture of him as a bon vivant and a bit of a rascal. Mickey hadn't told anyone in his family about Mary Ann, she said. Not that she, or any of the Lennons for that matter, doubted my story, despite the lack of an "official" introduction, as happened with Mary Ann. But had there been any skepticism, it was erased when Irene met me. The paternal genes shone through. "You've got his eyes," she said, "and his nose."

Irene gave a rundown on Mickey's family, whom she'd not seen much in the years since his death in 1982. His widow was alive and well. Two sons worked for the post office, and one is a lounge singer by night. The only daughter had married a Detroit cop. Another son worked at a Saturn plant in Tennessee. They all have spouses and children of their own. Mickey's parents had been religious; there were three priests and a nun in the immediate family. I was glad that both of my natural parents' families were Catholic. I'd done twelve years in Catholic school, both of my kids attended them, and I secretly loved the rituals of the church.

During that lunch, Irene promised to send pictures of my father, and the day the package arrived I was beside myself with excitement. I got a beer, found my glasses and went out onto the porch. The first picture, the biggest and the only color photo, blew me away. It was a portrait of Mickey in his Army dress uniform. He appeared to be nineteen or twenty and was the spit and image of me at that age. I knew he would be. The other pictures were also good: Mickey with his sisters and parents. Mickey as an altar boy. Mickey in high school, sport coat and tie, at what looks like a football game. Mickey with a group of white-smocked Japanese outside the Army mess hall, where they worked as cooks. He was a greaser. Cool. There were eighteen pictures, and in all of them where Mickey is with friends or family, he has his arms around someone and a wide grin. God, I wish I could've met him.

There was a time, in the dark ages before the Internet, when genealogists sifted through piles of records to find a family line, and if they didn't pay close attention to names and birth dates and such, they might easily be led off track. There's a story about a guy who dedicated 30 years to researching his family, only to discover that the forebear he'd focused on was unrelated after all. Unless one's ancestors kept good records, it was arduous work to re-create the generations and all their offshoots through the centuries.

By now I'd developed an avid interest in genealogy. It wasn't enough that I knew the identities of my natural parents; I wanted to go further back in the family tree. Frankly, the Internet told me precious little about the Freeman or Lennon sides, but Mary Ann had given me a fairly detailed family history that spanned five generations on her father's side, back to the immigration of newlyweds James Freeman and Catherine Manning from County Galway, Ireland, through Halifax and on to Perth, Ontario, where they farmed and raised twelve children.

Aunt Irene simply didn't know much about the Lennons. But by telling me the maiden name of her mother, my grandmother, she told me a great deal. When I visited and put in Barbara Ann MacDonnell, I was astounded. Her name was attached to a lineage that spanned seven generations, beginning with Angus Gillis, a resident of Arisaig, Scotland, circa 1740, and ending with the offspring of Mickey Lennon and wife. My name, naturally, was omitted; I didn't yet exist for them.

This particular link, Ancestry World Tree Project, subheading "MacDonald of Clanranald," was maintained by one Donald Jack MacDonald. I dashed an email to the address he'd posted, introducing myself as the bastard son of Ralph "Mickey" Lennon and explaining that I'd just learned of the names of my natural parents. For his illumination, I inserted my name in the lineage where it should have been.

I hoped to learn more about these people, I wrote. Where did they live? What were their livelihoods? Was there a detailed family history? I sent the letter at 5 o' clock on a Monday evening. The next morning, at 6:30, the phone rang.

"William? This is Mac," said an unfamiliar voice.

"Mac who?"

"MacDonald. Welcome to the clan!"

Mac is a 72-year-old retiree who lives in Pittsburgh and devotes much of his day to researching and promulgating genealogy as it pertains to him and his ever-expanding clan. In the year I've known him, he has been associated with three genealogy Web sites and sends me daily updates -- profiles of distant relatives, tidbits of news, obituaries. He was born in Saskatchewan. His people, like mine, left Scotland in the early nineteenth century for Cape Breton Island; many of his relatives still live there. Our families are intertwined, but then the same is true for most of the two dozen families of the original settlers living along the western shore of St. George Bay. In 2000, two years before we met, Mac went to Cape Breton Island and attended a family reunion on River Denys Mountain, at the church of St. Margaret of Scotland. Didn't matter if the relatives were fourth cousins thrice removed; in Mac's world, they were all cousins. I'm his cousin and he's my cousin. And without him, I'd have never gone to Cape Breton Island.

"No, just leave my eyebrows," I told Bill Coplin, my barber at Dogtown Barber Shop. Bill wanted to trim them -- all barbers do -- because they're bristly and the urge to shear is great. And that was precisely why I wanted them intact. "I want these descendants of Scottish Highlanders to see my eyebrows in their full glory. For all I know, they're a sign of manliness."

Mac had provided me with several names of our Nova Scotian "cousins," most of them on Cape Breton Island. I'd called two or three, invoking his name and asking for the favor of a visit. The most receptive was a fellow named Colie MacDonnell. "You say you're the great-grandson of Sam MacDonnell and Mary Anne Gillis?" he asked.

"That's right," I said. And then, as I'd done scores of times, I explained my situation, how I'd located my real mother, who'd told me the name of my father, and that through the Internet I'd been able to trace my lineage.

"Well, come on by," he said.

I flew in with a friend on September 11, 2002. The next morning, in a rented Ford Explorer, we drove up the coast and a day later set out for Cape Breton Island. Nova Scotian mainlanders consider Cape Bretoners "outlanders." Not that the people are backward; it's just that why would anyone want to live in such a remote area, where the winters are brutal and employment opportunities limited? And, truly, from the minute one crosses the bridge at Port Hawkesbury and heads up along St. George Bay, two things become clear: The view is stunning and amenities are few and far between. You learn to plan. Fill up on gas when you can, buy a case of beer instead of a six-pack.

Colie MacDonnell, who is 72, worked at the Co-op in Port Hood for 44 years. Now in his retirement, he sells gravestones. The Co-op is a combination grocery-hardware store, the only such establishment for miles around and the one place everybody stops. Thus, Colie knows everyone and, as an avid genealogist, can readily determine who's related to whom.

"Now Mary Anne Gillis is both your great-grandmother and my mother's sister," he'd say. "That makes us third cousins twice removed. I think that old house, she and Sam's, is still standing. I can show you the place and introduce you to some of the cousins who're still kickin'."

And that's how it went for two days, Colie presenting me to a batch of elders related to us primarily through Mary Anne Gillis. With each visit, his genealogy book would come out and we'd thumb through the roster of names until we concluded just how we were related. At Jessie MacDonald's, for instance, we determined that her mother was a first cousin to Mary Anne Gillis. Jessie, now 90, is my third cousin, or great aunt, or something like that.

Genealogy is an exercise in abstract thought. In Nova Scotia the connections were shooting off into winding side trails, and trying to understand these collateral relationships was like trying to think three moves ahead in a game of chess. In short, there were no immediate relatives to be found -- instead, there were folks like Jessie MacDonald and Bill Graham, whose ancestors had been my ancestors' brothers and sisters, cousins and aunts and uncles. Still, it was heartening to meet these people whose genes I shared. And though I couldn't meet any direct descendants of my Scots forebears, I was able to see where they'd lived and were buried.

Best of all was seeing a picture of my great-grandparents, posing for the camera before a rail fence, a barn in the background. Mary Ann is short and plump, her dark hair pulled back. She wears a print dress and spectacles. Sam, a full head taller, rests his forearms on the top rail, his large hands dangling downward. He too wears spectacles, and a cap. A pipe juts from his lips as he squints into the sun, a smile on his craggy mug. This picture was taken in 1943, the exposure likely 1/60th of a second. I am so appreciative of that merest slip of time.

"You realize that if you have a date with her we have to come along?"

Rohan Fernando was serious -- although both of us were quite aware of the absurdity of the comment. The day before, at the Red Shoe Tavern in Mabou, I'd met Carolyn, a graduate student at Dalhousie in Halifax, and we'd talked for hours while two old men, off in the corner, fiddled to their heart's delight. We still had two days, and I'd asked Carolyn if she was free the following evening after we finished shooting.

Rohan was intent on filming everything I did, from scribbling in my notebook or swimming in St. George Bay in my boxer shorts to conversing with pretty Cape Breton Islanders about my current odyssey. It would kill him if I said something in casual conversation about the day's events and he didn't get it on tape. Sometimes I'd have fun with him, saying: "Rohan, come quick! I'm about to utter something profound."

In fact, I was the subject of an upcoming episode of Past Lives, a Canadian television series about people searching for their roots. Rohan was the director and Jean-Francois Turcotte, the sound man. BBR Productions, in Montreal, had underwritten our five-day stay in Nova Scotia. They'd even given me $153 Canadian to spend, which I would blow entirely on savory fish chowder.

It was a year later -- to the week -- that this second visit occurred. I met Rohan and Jean-Francois in Halifax, and we drove to Cape Breton in a rental van in what was to be a reprise of the previous year's trip. I'd visit the same people and sites, only this time accompanied by Rohan with his $5,000 videocam and Jean-Francois with his sound boom. When BBR Productions had put out a call for life stories, using genealogy websites and newsletters, Mac urged me to contact the producers with my story. He'd submitted his, as well, but they ended up choosing mine.

Colie knew we were coming, as did Jessie MacDonald, but some simply had to be surprised. We parked the van at the end of Sally MacDonald's long driveway on Centennial Road. If Sally had looked out her window just then, she might have thought she'd won some sweepstakes; three strange guys strolling up her drive, two of them carrying video equipment. Just walk up and knock, said Rohan, always striving for the candid moment. It took twenty minutes to cajole Sally into allowing herself to be filmed, but soon she was telling the same funny stories about my great-grandparents.

Across the road and beyond a thicket stood their old wood-frame farmhouse. Decrepit with neglect, it had nonetheless managed to weather one more winter. I led the Canadians down the overgrown path toward it. Brambles and nettles scratched our legs, and weed-covered tractor ruts made us stumble. Nothing had changed since the year before, but much had occurred in my crazy life.

I'd met two more half-brothers, Tim and Pat Lennon -- Mickey's sons -- and I liked them. Things were improving with my own son, as well. He was living with his mother in Rhode Island, pulling a B average in high school, and visiting me on holidays. Now when he comes, we watch MTV together. Virginia had confronted her feelings of alienation and was back to her old self of being only slightly neurotic. Moreover, my two mothers had met during my daughter's First Communion in St. Louis. After that, they'd visited in Michigan without me.

Two weeks before this Nova Scotia shoot, we'd filmed at Mary Ann's home on Grosse Ile. Jim and Maureen were there, and all afternoon Rohan delved into our psyches. He'd ask a question, to Maureen perhaps: How did you feel when Mary Ann told you she'd had a child before you and your brothers came along? Or to Mary Ann: Was it hard to accept William in your life after all these years? What were your feelings when he first contacted you? We had to dig down to get to these feelings, but thanks to Rohan as psychotherapist, we learned more about one another and talked about things we'd never broached.

When Rohan asked Jim what it meant to have a new brother, I listened as he said he really couldn't think of me as a brother. We shared no history. There was no rough-housing as kids, no reading comics by flashlight under the covers together, no teasing about pubescent crushes. I'd never seen the relationship between their father and Mary Ann. Fifty years loomed between us. As a latecomer, I couldn't tap into the experiences that made Jim, Mike and Maureen siblings.

I remember thinking that maybe I was fated to be an only child after all. But then Jim spoke again. "You know," he said, "I think of William as more of a friend than a brother. It's obvious he fits in. He's one of us, right down to the small hands and the wisecracks. That's what it feels like, I've found a good friend."

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