I screamed, “What?”! Tears streamed down my cheek. My friends on the returning tour bus, alarmed, came rushing to my seat. This was 2017 – I was 71 years old and I had waited decades for this call.
I can do this!
I was 22 in July 1968, and living in Monterey, Calif., when I found out I was three months pregnant. My military father was training and awaiting orders for his next tour of duty in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I shuddered to think what my parents would say if I had shared my secret with them.
I still enjoyed a youthful foolhardiness of spirit and believed that I might be able to navigate this journey without ever revealing the details to my parents. I hadn’t even told my boyfriend Joel. My plan was to convince them that I should probably just stay in California and finish my college studies. It worked and my family, no wiser, left for Brazil without me. Suddenly alone in California, I realized the enormity of the responsibility.
Meanwhile, Joel was visiting his parents in Georgia before leaving for Vietnam. I loved Joel and my dream was to marry him and keep the baby. I had to act fast – he was leaving for VietNam in a matter of days and he didn’t even know I was pregnant! My mind was racing and I was confused and desperate to tell him the news and possibly convince him to marry me and raise this baby we had created together. I had to get to Georgia, first hitchhiking and then on a Greyhound bus paid for by a kind truck driver. I arrived in Athens where I was able to look up his parents’ number, called him and arrange to meet him downtown where I broke the news to him. He drove me to his parents’ home, and they graciously allowed me to stay the night.
The next morning when they heard the news, they were appalled and minced no words, insisting that he put me on a plane right back to California. I hadn’t anticipated that. I really hadn’t thought this through. Joel and I drove to The Varsity to discuss our options, which were next to none. Abortion was illegal in 1968, and besides, romantic that I was, I wanted to keep the child.
California to the rescue.
Alone back in California, I set off to discover the social services of Monterey County. Joel’s soldier roommates allowed me to continue to rent the room Joel and I had been sharing while I sorted out my resources.
I applied for welfare assistance and that provided a meager income while I decided where I could work. I also applied to the local junior college and was accepted as a work-study student scheduled to graduate in June 1969, which would coincide with my due date. When the social workers at the welfare office heard the details of my plan, they insisted that to receive the assistance that I wanted I would need to attend psychological counseling.
Meantime, in college I met a Mormon student who took pity on me and brought me home to her mother who found maternity clothes for me from her church’s clothes closet, fed me, and helped me keep my doctor’s appointments.
About three months after counseling started, and six months into my pregnancy, I finally recognized the folly of my original intentions, and wanted nothing more than to return to my family for home cooked meals and my own room. But I had determined that I wanted an open adoption so that I would know where my baby was should I find a way to reclaim him. California state adoptions are sealed, and only non-identifying information is ever shared with either the mother or the child. Legal action is lengthy and hardly ever successful in re-opening those records. The idea of never again seeing my child was a hard pill to swallow. I was cautioned by friends never to hold the baby when given the chance because it would only make the surrender more difficult. Still I couldn’t give up the idea of reclaiming my child somehow – I had heard of success stories if both natural parents showed up in court.
It was not to be. The price of the state’s support was that I relinquish my baby to the Children’s Home Society of Monterey County. The agency had located an older, childless couple who were willing to adopt the baby before he was even born! A couple that had financial means and could offer my baby a decent life.
When my due date rolled around and I had not yet delivered, I faced the reality that I would have to tell my parents why I had not yet booked my flight to Rio. I wrote the fateful letter confessing that though I had already graduated, I was awaiting the birth of my illegitimate child before I could leave the country. My mother wasted no time in flying up from Rio and arrived at the hospital the same day I delivered. She stood by me while I signed the papers relinquishing custody to the agency, said goodbye to my infant son and then, once again, became my mother’s wayward child. She led me by the hand to the freight plane we would ride from Charleston Air Force Base to Rio on July 21, 1969.
When I arrived in Brazil, I dashed a letter off to Joel (the only letter I wrote to him) telling him that I had the baby boy, given it up for adoption and asking when he would return to the States. He wrote back his arrival information and I arranged to meet him in September at the San Francisco airport. In December we married and in 1974, had another child. We divorced in September 1978.
It was my youngest son Tom who had called me on the tour bus that October to tell me that his dad had been trying to reach me. Joel had been contacted by email from a young man named Steve Schaaf who claimed to be his son and who wanted my contact information. My mind was still reeling as I explained to my fellow passengers that no, nobody had died; quite the contrary, my long-lost son had just spent a year doing genealogical research and had found me by the miracle of DNA. His adoptive parents had passed away, and he wanted a relationship with his birth parents!
While he waited for his father to respond, Steve continued his research and found me through an Ancestry account I had set up when I retired with the goal that I would search for the son I was never able to forget. He dashed off an introductory letter to me. One sentence caught my eye and heart: “I’m pretty sure you knew me at a very young age, but I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
Our first phone conversation lasted three hours. Incredibly, Steve had married a girl from Atlanta in 1999, and they had moved there to raise their family! He’s a paralegal and sings and plays with a local bluegrass band. Now our whole family is living within 100 miles of each other as Tom and Joel live in Atlanta also and I’m in Athens along with my sister who recently moved here.
It has been almost six years since this happened and I still wake up and go over the details every morning. I am forever grateful to the family that brought Steve home from the hospital and raised him to be the amazing person he has become.
The first couple of years were resplendent with reunions for meals, holidays, school and sporting events with the grandchildren, concerts and festivals. We met each other’s families and enjoyed sharing our story with family, friends and strangers! We celebrated our victories, our milestones and continued to grow closer. One of the most rewarding outcomes for me has been to witness the two brothers meeting each other and now enjoying their fraternal bond. They play pickleball when they can and make music together. Tom is the “spitting image” of his dad and Steve and I like to think that Steve favors my side of the family. I am amazed at Steve’s courage and credit his adoptive parents with instilling that quality and self-esteem in him. When I met him, I mentioned that I thought he was just perfect! He chuckled and said that his adoptive mother had thought the same thing when she saw him at the hospital for the first time.
Steve has found a new pastime as a result of his search for Joel and me. After presenting family trees to both of us (and merging them into one big inclusive tree), he now finds himself in a position to help other adoptees with their searches as he shares his story and encourages others to share theirs. He is listed on several ancestry search websites and meets others through word of mouth and referrals.
I love to see Tom and Steve together – they look like they enjoy their kinship. It amazes me how Steve finding us completes the puzzle that is allowing us to become a family!
My heart sings.
Heather Reed retired from UGA Warnell School of Forestry in 2013 and calls Athens her home. She enjoys travel, writing, acting, square dancing and, most of all, spending time with her family!