Born in the Panama Canal Zone, Stephanie was adopted by a US military family stationed there in 1961. She was never told she was adopted, but she always knew there was a family secret. When she was 43 years old Stephanie discovered the secret was her own adoption.
Because she was born in the Panama Canal Zone, her adoption records were available through a Freedom of information Act request (FOIA). Unfortunately, that didn’t lead to a reunion with her biological mother. After 13 years, she has never heard from her biological mother.
Fortunately, she reunited with her birth father and his entire family has warmly welcomed her. Stephanie says “For the first time I know how it feels to look into the eyes of those whom I share a connection with. That cannot be described with words.”
Cause you know, I never really looked at it that way before to say, wait, nobody uses the same pen to write something over a six year period. And it’s like, and then all of a sudden, you know, it’s like I’ve now I’ve just got to go. I’m thinking to myself my whole life fundamentally has been a lie.
Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?
This is Who Am I Really, a podcast about adoptees that have located and connected with their biological family members. I’m Damon Davis and on today’s show is Stephanie. She was never told she was adopted, but she says she always knew there was a family secret. In her early forties she discovered the secret was herself and the woman who raised her was not her mother. While she felt vindicated that she had been correct, the news turned her world upside down as she looked in the rear view mirror to see a trail of deception right down to the notes in her baby book. Her reunion with her birth mother didn’t go as she had hoped. Fortunately, things were very different in the reunion with her birth father, Stephanie shares, how she located her birth father’s roommate in the military and how he was one of the many supportive interveners throughout her life. Here’s Stephanie’s journey.
I always had this feeling that I, something wasn’t right.
That’s Stephanie. Before I even had a chance to ask her a question about her journey, she was already going deep on one of the interesting parts. So I just listened.
You know, like there was some sort of secret in my family, something wasn’t right and I kept coming back to I don’t fit here, you know, and I have friends that I’ve had for 40 years and they always say, have you taught, you been talking about this adoption thing for ever. So the way that this happened is, um, we had family here for Christmas in 2003, um, a toothbrush was left in the house and it was a room that my adoptive mother or at that point, my mother stayed in. So we clarified that it actually belonged to her. And I said, well, this is my chance to actually find out if I, what I have believed for a very, very long time is true. And I found a lab in Canada that could extract DNA from it and sent it off and waited and waited.
And about six weeks later, and um, April of 2004, this letter arrives and my spouse opened it and I got home from work. I didn’t know it had arrived. We sat down and there was kind of this nervous tension. We had a friend staying with us and finally she said to me, so a letter arrived. And I’m like, well, okay, are you going to tell me? And I will always remember the way that it sounded to me in that response as “the toothbrush wasn’t your mother.” Because that’s kind of the words you hear when something like this happens. You always hear it a certain way and remembered a certain way. And I was like, and I jumped up and it was like I knew it. I always knew this was true. Oh my God.
And you were 43 years old when you found out.
I was 43 years old when I found out I was adopted.
Stephanie didn’t use the commercially available DNA tests that most of us think of when we’re looking for answers about our biological past. She had swiped a toothbrush that was left behind by her adoptive mother. I asked Stephanie what that confirmation of her lifelong suspicion had changed for her.
Well, I would simultaneously say everything and nothing, so it changed everything about my life and nothing about my kind of background. So it was sort of a mixed bag of things all at the same time because it kind of vindicated this sense from me that I always knew that there was some thing in my family that didn’t fit and that there was a secret and there was all these things going on and all these dynamics. I just didn’t know it was me.
Okay. Now let’s go back to the beginning of Stephanie’s story. She was born in the Panama Canal Zone, adopted by a U.S military family stationed there in 1961. She was the only child of parents who had been married for seven years prior to her adoption. Her father spent most of his time out of the family home on isolated military assignments, but that wasn’t the only isolation Stephanie felt. Her mother’s greatest interests seemed to be with keeping up appearances for outsiders. That put a lot of pressure on Stephanie to stick to the script and put on a good show for others.
My parents divorced when I was 12 my father was pretty absent and we really didn’t have any extended family, so I came from a very isolated childhood. But you don’t know as a kid what isn’t normal unless you don’t know what’s normal. Right?
Right. Your normal is what’s normal.
Exactly. So I now, you know, look back on it and say, well, there were some things that were pretty weird about my childhood.
No interaction with any sort of extended family, no interaction with anybody. And as long as everything looked right to the outside, it didn’t matter what was really going on inside the house. The inside of the house was fairly strange in comparison. And the older I got, the more aware I became of that.
What do you mean by it was strange?
So my mother was extremely secretive about everything that went on in our house. And I learned from a very young age keep secrets. Everything was a secret.
Can you give me an example of something?
Agree. I think a good example would be my parents got divorced when I was 12. I didn’t know that nobody there, that nobody outside the house was supposed to know that. That she had gone on portraying to everyone that he was on a military assignment somewhere, but that they were actually divorced.
So, you know, I’m a kid. I mean, I know what’s going on. And um, you know, I go to school one day and one of my classmates says, well, your dad’s my dad now he lives at my house.
No! Really? What did you think at that moment?
I sort of, um, I think looked at this individual and said, really is that true? You know, I mean you just don’t know what to say that situation. Cause you know, I was so used to playing off anything that happened. Like it was just normal. And that by that time I had had learned to spend a lot of time looking at people around me and learning how to behave because I wasn’t learning any of that in my house.
You were taking social cues from other people?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean I learned all of those sorts of interactions from people around me, not from anyone who parented me.
So do you get the impression then that basically your mother was really trying to maintain appearances at, at whatever the cost?
Yes. And I’ll describe it a little a little differently by saying my mother had a story and she had a story about how I came into this world and she had a story about how life was. And that story was drilled into me from the earliest age. It was, I’ll describe it as well documented, well memorized, well-rehearsed and it was not to be deviated from and well, there were pieces of the truth in it that were weaved in. So, um, I don’t know if you had a baby book. I had what was called a baby book. So it started from theoretically the moment of my birth through about age seven. Okay.
And it had, you know who your, who your godparents were and who the first people who visited you were. And when you took your first step, all these things, right. So it was as, as the document, if the documentation was correct and that was the story and we don’t deviate from the story and that story was drilled into me from the moment I can remember and we just don’t ask questions outside of that story.
Did you..what would happen if you asked question? I mean, children are just naturally inquisitive. Like they, they reach a point where they recognize that babies come from moms and they say, mom, tell me what you felt like when, when I was in your belly. Like, did you ever, do you recall any situation like that where you just asked the question?
Yeah. So it was quite interesting in terms of the ways that she, um, uh, both gave and withheld any sort of affection or any sort of interaction. And her method for withholding was to not speak to me. So understanding that there were two people in the house, if someone doesn’t speak to you for a number of days, that can be extremely kind of damaging psychologically to a kid.
You know, and you learn very quickly what not to ask and what subjects not to touch.
And I would imagine that the canvas of those, those questions expands dramatically with each one of those silence, silent treatments.
We just stopped talking about it. So, you know, I mean, there was, you know, there was never, maybe it was not as though I ever even asked the question, is there a possibility I’m adopted?
Oh yeah. She would have stopped talking to you forever.
Oh no. I mean it was, it was not even a choice. So, you know, I mean, I, as long as, um, I did, you know, we’ll call it everything, right. Which I didn’t, but it looked like I did from the outside. I mean, I was the classic overachiever kid, you know, from the outside, did everything right. And just never got caught with anything I did wrong.
*laughter* Which means you were a successful teenager.
and all of that worked out well then, you know, it was perfect. But I figured out real quick that, you know, the best answer to all things was to, um, you know, I’m going to say, get out of there as quick as I could. Money was power and freedom was getting out of there.
Stephanie maximized her overachieving to make sure she could leave home as quickly as possible. She skipped a few grades in school, raced off to college and was on the fast track to establishing her independence from her mother. She says she was fortunate along her journey for an assortment of adults who always seem to appear when Stephanie needed them most.
And I was really fortunate because I will tell you that there were what I call intervenors in my life throughout the whole process. So there were adults, whether they be teachers, counselors, coaches, neighbors, there was always somebody who stepped into my life at the moment where I needed them and gave me the guidance that I needed because my mother had none to offer. So I was very fortunate in that regard.
Somebody was always there and for that I was, I think I was truly blessed because somebody was taking care of me and yeah, that’s a good thing.
What, what do you tell me one of the more, the more memorable moments when somebody really gave you some guidance that you just kind of thought and probably should have come from a parent, but they just kind of rescued you from a situation?
Probably the the, you know, the most embarrassing, but the best one is when, um, a neighbor who lived next door I was, I was probably 12. And it was about time when a young woman would need to start dressing differently and need proper undergarments. And my mother just seemed to take no interest in addressing that issue. And a woman who lived next door had all boys, but she took me to a clothing store and said, let’s buy you some new clothes. And what was included in that was the appropriate set of undergarments for a budding young woman.
I consider that an intervention.
Absolutely, absolutely. There was a young lady in one of my schools when we were a kid and the cost of her embarrassment for what happened when she wasn’t prepared for that budding situation is traumatic. So kudos to the neighbor for rescuing you. But the fact that your mother wasn’t there for you in that capacity is baffling. That’s a basic female function that she knows is coming, has to support you in as a, as a parent and doesn’t, that’s astonishing.
Now when I laugh about it now in retrospect to say I was just raised by wolves and fortunately there were people around who helped me get through all of those things.
It’s real. It’s indicative though of how it takes a village. Right? You know, someone recognized that you needed something and they just stepped right in. And that’s really amazing that people do that for each other. I love that.
Yeah I was, I was very, very fortunate to have had people around who, um, you know, just observed, you know, it was, you know, it was the, you know, sixties, early seventies, you know, it’s like people didn’t call DHS. They just helped.
I was curious about her mother’s behavior and what influences from her personal history might have made her want to keep up public appearances so much. Stephanie told me that occasional conversations, but mostly astute observations revealed a few things to her. Her mother had navigated a winding road of attempt at pregnancy then adoption processes in the United States. Once she got Stephanie as a baby, she wanted things to work out or at least appear to be going great.
The first was I think she was terrified of anybody finding anything out about the fact that I might be adopted for two reasons. One, I came to find out that she and my father may have been turned down for adoption in the U S and that this quote secret may have made her less of a person if she had to adopt a child. And that if I ever found out that I would leave her because I didn’t have to love her because I wasn’t her natural born child. So yeah, it was a, it was a mixed bag of things that for her, um, with some, yeah. Psychological damage.
You said she said those words.
Wow. That’s really deep. It’s interesting because, um, it just makes me think that one, the fact that your family even got to a point where adoption was something they were considering suggests that they were not in a position to have a regular pregnancy. So one, if she had sort of a volatile psychological situation in the first place and not being able to have a baby would be even more challenging. And then if you’re correct about them being rejected for adoption in the United States, that’s, you know, strike big strike two in terms of ever having a child. That’s really, wow.
Yeah. They had been married, they’d been married seven years before they adopted me and had lived in the U S and then my father got into this assignment to Panama and kind of the background of my adoption is that the church in Panama played a part,the Episcopal church, in coordinating this process and it was, it was kind of a, we’ll call it arranged in such a manner that it was a brokered so that it would come to pass. So there wasn’t a lot of screening and all of the things that might go with it if a adoption agency were involved.
Stephanie never really questioned her heritage because there weren’t stark differences between her bodily features and her parents. They were the same height and kind of resembled one another. Still, the fact remains, she could feel there was a family secret that she wasn’t in on. She dug for clues in genealogical research on both sides of her family, refusing to believe that she was adopted. Her thoughts that she was an adoptee had been eating at her for years. So she finally decided to figure out her truth once and for all.
It was one of those things that just kept ticking in the back of my head. But I sort of bought the story so I would look and then I would put it away and I would look and I would put it away to the point where I had, you know, done genealogy reference on, you know, both sides of my family, generations back, like thinking no, there’s a different family secret. What is it? And I mean like dug and dug and dug to the point of going, no, this really isn’t it. That really can’t be the case. That’s not what it is. It’s something else.
You figured it had to be something else, just not you.
Yeah, cause I kept trying to put it out of my head. Like I must be nuts. Like you’re supposed to literally, I would tell myself, you’re supposed to get over this. This is really an absurd thought that you could be adopted. This really is something you are supposed to get over. This is not something that adults continue to think after they are grown up. Just because you are different than these people just because you are, um, you know, not quite a great fit with your mother just because you don’t have, you know, this wonderful relationship. Just because you know, your parents got divorced and your father and you don’t get along. You know, there’s people like that. It’s, it’s, you know, it’s just, you know, kind of sometimes how things go in families. But you know, at the same time, you know, I would ask my mother, you know, particularly in my teenage years, why don’t my grandparents ever want to talk to me? Why doesn’t anybody ever want anything to do with me? What is it about me that isn’t okay that nobody ever wants to be involved with me? You know? And she would, you know, feed me a line and I would accept it. But I mean it was very saddening to me. Wonder why nobody wanted to be involved with me.
Yeah, I’ll bet. Cause that’s a very stark realization.
Yeah. So yeah. But I kept thinking, well, there’s something here and that’s why I would go back and try and figure out what the family feuds were once I got to be older. It’s like, where did these things break down and was I just, you know, collateral damage in other family feuds.
So Stephanie and her spouse, Diana, are at home casually eating dinner when Diana drops the news that her results are back from the lab. While she had her truth, the facts of her life had changed. With closer examination, all of the notes her mother had written, documented events of her childhood appeared to Stephanie to be false. Of course, learning the truth had two sides for Stephanie. The vindication of confirming her lifelong hunch was correct and the deeper anger for the lie, she was told her whole life. So let’s, uh, let’s fast forward now. You’re at your house. Your spouse has opened up this letter for you and she, did she give you the words or did she or did you read the notes yourself?
No, cause she made the phone call and, uh, when I got home she already knew.
Could you see it on her face when you got it?
No, but you know, I can always, you know, it’s like you’re, you know, when you’ve known somebody, as long as we have known each other, you know, somethings like there’s like this little tension in the air and it’s kind of like, what is it?
You can feel it.
And finally we’re sitting down and I’ll never forget it. We’re eating egg salad for dinner and she looks at me and said, the DNA results are in. And I’m like, Oh, what could you bury the lead a little further?
I mean, over egg salad, honestly? You couldn’t have waited to pour me a cocktail or something?
And she does. She says, you know, so the results are in and um, she says she’s not your mother. And I, you know, pardon the way I’m going to say this, but I said, you know it basically FFS I always do it. So it was, it was literally this serious vindication.
Yeah, I’ll bet. And probably a relief. I mean you’ve had this valve built up of pressure where you’ve been thinking about this
Yes! And I swear to God, the first thing I did is I ran and got this damn baby book because this was like the lie of my life all documented and what I had built the foundation of my life on was these facts and figures that were all perfectly written. And when I looked at them this time, it was like, wait, all of these have been written with the same pen. All of these look like they have been written at the same time. You know, they’re not written in a way you would write them if you wrote them year after year as they happened. They’re like written in one hand at one time.
And all and all of a sudden it all starts to look like a lie to me. And it’s like my eyes are open in a whole different way.
Oh my gosh. What is piece of sleuthing you just did there? That’s incredible. Cause you’re right. Yeah. Oh man.
Cause you know, I never really looked at it that way before to say, wait, nobody uses the same pen to write something over a six year period. And it’s like, and then all of a sudden, you know, it’s like, no, I’m just kinda going thinking to myself, my whole life fundamentally has been a lie. Everything that I held to be true, you know, my medical history my, you know, fill in the blank from there, everything has been built on a lie and the wonder, you know, and then you start going down the path of, you know, what else you know, that kind of takes you into this space of, okay, now what?
Yeah. I mean you got your vindication and I’m sure that felt somehow victorious. But at the same token, that had to bottom you out a little bit too.
Well it did, you know, first it was kind of this, you know, euphoria of, well now I know. And then it was, well, what does that mean?
Did you get depressed about it at all?
No. The first, the first, the next emotion after that was anger.
Why were you angry?
Well, I was, you know, raging, angry over the fact that I felt like over all of the years and all these different situations where my mother could have, um, shared things with me that would have taken away pain when I asked her questions instead, she chose to lie to me.
Yeah. She buried it further with more lies.
Yeah. It was like everything had a story, which you didn’t deviate from when I would, you know, ask questions, that’s like, why does my father not ever want to see us, you know, it’s like all these different questions. You know, what about this, what about this? Everything had some sort of surface level story that, you know, I think, how do you know the adults in this situation behaved really badly for their own benefit.
That’s right. And you, you’re powerless as a child, as a teen, as a person who doesn’t have any of the facts, the facts are stacked completely against you. There’s no way to defend yourself.
Even though she was seething, Stephanie didn’t want to overreact. She used every American’s right to request information from the government called the Freedom of Information Act, sometimes shortened to FOYA to get more information about herself. I asked her about her next steps after receiving this news.
Well, I tend when I’m raging angry to do nothing until I figure out what I call the next right thing because action out of anger usually is not well-placed action.
I totally agree. Smart.
Because you know you’d tend to, you know, can’t, you can’t ever take something back. So it’s like, okay, so now I want to know, so who am I really, no pun intended.
Well played, Stephanie, well played.
And I started investigating. Now understand that my spouse in this cause situation is really a, a super sleuth. She is very good at, again, in genealogy and in a variety of different things. I might’ve, I think I mentioned that because I was born in the Panama Canal Zone, my original birth certificate and my entire adoption file were available through a Freedom of Information Act request from the national archives.
Because you know, we gave Panama back when that happened, all of that was returned to the national archives.
Wow. So your adoption was part of the federal record.
Yes. Yeah. As is anyone’s who was adopted in the Panama Canal Zone. Anyone who was adopted there can get this information through this request. There is this interesting man who is, who sits in Washington D C and through a series of communications, the first thing that I got was a name by sending him my birthdate and my name and I got uh, my birth mother’s name in a very short period of time, like 30 minutes via email.
And then through, you know, the next communication, the entire adoption file. It’s one of those like little known, odd little known facts in adoption lore of what you can get in this situation.
That’s really interesting knowledge. That’s, that’s amazing. So let’s just recap that quick piece for a second. For people, one who were adopted on the Panama Canal prior to its return to Panama, they should consider reaching out via the Freedom of Information Act and try to gain access to their own personal information out of the federal, the national archives and I would imagine that might be true for other military bases as well.
It can be.
With the information she received through FOYA, Stephanie starts investigating. Immediately, she figures out the information in the documents isn’t entirely correct. Her mother attempted to obfuscate her identity using her own birth name on the adoption records, not the name that was her identity she was using as an adult in the military. Fortunately she had a very unique first name and her own brother was still using the family’s real last name, so it didn’t take very long to figure out who she was and where she was living. Stephanie’s spouse who’s really quite good at the investigative work, did the bulk of the sleuthing leveraging online adoption boards that were very popular in the early two thousands. This search was in the early internet era, but Stephanie was really good at searching through public records to get information too.
Well, the first thing I do is I like try and figure out everything I can about who she is. Like, so who is this person? I like to know, do a little homework, do a little research, know what I can.
So what kinds of things did you find out about her?
Well, I figured out that she had two other children younger than me. That her husband had recently died, found out that she had been a school teacher, you know, found out. Yeah. Just, you know, some pretty good basic information about where she lived, that sort of stuff. So I had a pretty good narrative about her life when she had gotten married, that sort of stuff. Um, how old she was, where she was living.
That’s a pretty good amount of information.
So I had a pretty good idea. Oh no. I mean, I, you know, I would call it, I had a pretty good dossier on who she was, um, in terms of that sort of stuff. So I felt pretty comfortable about who she was and where she was and all those sorts of things. So, um, you know, one of the things you know that people talk about a lot is, so what’s the first right contact, you know, what do you do in this first contact? Do you write a letter, do you have a third party contact? What do you do? You know, and I made the choice to have a third party, make contact. Less intrusive, doesn’t put pressure on, all those sorts of things.
And that didn’t go well.
Why, what happened?
Well, the third party went to her and the question was, you know, did you give birth in the Panama Canal Zone on my birthday in 1961? And the response was, I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.
Oh boy. Well that’s a veiled yes.
Well that was sort of how I took it, but I have never heard from her.
Wow. How long ago was that?
13 years. So after thinking about it some more, I tell, I said, okay, let me write the, you know what I’ll call the perfect adoptee personal letter. Yep. All the things that you know, you hear people say, you know, you were young, I’m good. There’s pictures, all the stuff that you want to put into a letter and send it off. I waited four months. Late, 2004 and never heard anything. I waited, you know you do that, you know, for me it’s kind of, it’s kind of this process of, okay, I’ll wait and I’ll wait. I got nothing. I mean I got nothing but crickets coming out of this whole process. So it’s like, well, am I ever going to figure that out? So there’s kind of two sort of two paths on this process. One is, you know, I know exactly who this person is and you know, at any point, yeah, I’m a grown adult, I can get on an airplane, I can go knock on her door.
But I mean, if somebody’s going to respond with the idea that I’m not sure if I gave birth and not ever respond anything that you do to reach out to them, I took that as well. I’m not really interested in talking to you. Yeah, well, you know, I will tell you, you know, certainly over the course of 13 years, I have had moments where I have said to myself, I’m on a plane tomorrow morning. That’s it. That’s it. I’m knocking on the door and then I don’t, because I say to myself, you know, is that really the right thing? And I, you know, and I, and I have not yet said, I’m just going to go do this.
Yeah. Yes. You never know what her reaction will be. I mean, that’s a challenging one. You stand in somebody’s face with a confrontation from many, many years ago and you know, you don’t know how the letter was received. She may have been so surprised and just not knowing what to do, but to stand in someone’s face and as a surprises, that will be really hard.
Yeah. You know me, part of me vacillates back and forth between, you know, do no harm. And the other is, you know, I blew the first shot and I regret that. I tell you, I call it outsourcing the first contact. And you know, when I talk to other adoptees, the one thing I say to them is, man, don’t outsource that first contact. You only get one.
The search for her dad was a different story in the early two thousands more and more records were being made available online, a marriage license application with her birth mother’s name on it appears. And the application has some good information on it about her potential birth father. So Stephanie’s investigative spouse takes the reins once again. What they found was a heartwarming exchange with one of Stephanie’s interveners.
A marriage application shows up and uh, my birth mother’s name is on it and there’s a fellas name and it’s like, Oh, how exciting. Wait, this has to be my birth father, has to be my birth father. So here’s this guy’s name. So God love my spouse. She spent six years calling guys with this name. Who would, who would be about the right age. Now, you know, this was like, you know, once a week, once every two weeks here, you know, our guys, all potential guys all over the country with this name and who are, you know about the right age because it, we’ve sorted out now that, um, my birth mother was in the Navy, everybody was stationed in Virginia, so we got about the right age. So there’s kind of the set of, I’ll call them knockout questions, you know, to guys who are about the right age with about the right name and you can get through it pretty quickly, you know, were you, you know, were you in the Navy and you know, you get through it fairly fast. So fast forward to 2010 and it’s a Saturday morning and she says, I’m going to call some more, you know, call some more guys this morning. I’m like, you know, good luck. I guess now it’s been six years.
And I’m like, I wish you the best. And I go off to the living room and I’m going to play guitar here. Cause I’m like, I got to bite as much. I just, I think this is going to happen this morning about as much as it was going to happen for the last six years.
You’ve fallen into a routine.
Yeah. Cause we do this, you know, like I said, every couple of weeks and she calls first couple of guys and then she’s on the phone and you know, I can kinda hear her out of the back of my ear and she’s getting through the questions and they’re starting like she’s making it through the list and she’s getting pretty far.
And now, now I can hear like, you know, kind of calling for me and I’ll come in the room and it’s the guy.
Okay. But as the conversation goes on, it turns out that the guy who’s on the marriage application wasn’t my birth father. He was my birth father’s roommate in the Navy.
And he had offered to marry my birth mother so that she could keep me, go home as a divorced woman who had been tossed out of the Navy, but not as a illegitimate mother.
But they never consummated the marriage.
So they only filled out the application. They never executed.
Correct. They applied for a marriage license and never completed the marriage license, which is why there was no actual facts and figures about what his birth date was. So all of the qualifying information necessary to really find him, but the necessary information to at least have a name. That’s why it took six years. But we’ve got the guy, so he says it was my roommate in the Navy. This is his name. And if you give me a little while I’ll call you back cause I’m sure I have contact information for him.
Whoa. Now what did you think you’ve got? This is another one of those third party, like this is outsource in the first contact again.
Well we’re, well no, no, no. He’s not going to call him. He’s going to call us back with details.
And so he calls back, he says, okay, so here’s his name, he was from Iowa, this is the last place I know his parents live. You know, he starts going into all these details. Now, this is where the story sort of gets beautiful because these are, when I talk about my interveners, not only does he have my birth father’s name, but he was very instrumental in supporting my birth mother through the entirety of her pregnancy. So he has a box of about 50 letters that they exchanged while she was pregnant, while she was living in Panama, while she was literally giving birth to me and after she returned.
Which he gave to me. So I, so I have a firsthand account of my coming into this world.
Wow, that’s incredible. You had this baby book that was basically a lie and now you’ve gotten the full documentation of how it is that you came to be. That’s incredible. What a turn.
Yes. So while I have never spoken to my biological mother, no matter what story she would tell, no one would ever remember a story in a way that they would actually have told it as it was happening.
That’s so unbelievable. What kinds of things did you learn in those letters?
Well, I learned everything from the fact that my birth father, who I’d never spoken to, went home and married the hometown girl at Christmas, so he made a choice between two women to she thought that she was going to Panama to give her child to a wealthy American couple who would take good care, you know, all you know, kind of a narrative that she had for what was happening to her unhappiness in Panama while it was happening to the final letter, which was, I had this beautiful daughter, Stephanie, who I don’t want to give up, who I will never forget who I just kind of can’t believe that I have to let go of.
Man. Did that warm your heart a little bit towards her?
It, it’s, it’s a mixed bag for me because in in two thoughts, I can’t understand what happened to that person who had that thought and the person who today won’t acknowledge that I exist. So yes and no. I mean, yes, because I understand what it’s like to be 20 at the time when she gave birth to me and have that feeling and I don’t understand how life changes you so much that you can’t want to know that person 50 years later and know how they are.
Wow. Yeah. That’s a hard one. Yeah. Might be scared that you’re angry with her or something. I mean.
Every letter has been literally from the place of, I know myself at 19 and I’m now 50 and the choices that I made, as I said, I mean the letters are not angry letters. The letters are letters of love and letters of understanding and compassion, not letters of rage. That’s the fascinating and heartbreaking part to me is what happened to that person?
Wow, that is really too bad. You’re right. When you put it in those words and you think about how she expressed herself about wanting to keep you so long ago, it is really hard to think what life must have been like since those moments for her that would put her in a place where she’s not able to, to talk to you at all. That’s, that’s tough.
And you know, it’s, uh, I, I’ve recognized in myself that um, being ignored is harder for me personally than being rejected. You know, it’s like I can almost accept somebody saying, I don’t want to talk to you, but because my adoptive mother used that as a punishment, it’s a double whammy for me because that was the way that I was told this subject is taboo as a kid. So to have this be done in this situation is sort of like my hot button.
Yeah. Oh yeah. Of all the things. You’re right. Of all the things she could have done, she did exactly what your, what your mother did when you were a kid. Yeah.
Yeah. It’s the one when I kind of get a head of steam going about this and I say I’m on the plane tomorrow morning. I’m knocking on the door, she will not ignore me. I breathe the air, I exist. You will acknowledge that fact and then I calm down about it.
Stephanie had her birth father’s contact information. She could just reach out to him directly, avoid the outsourcing problem she experienced before and possibly be in touch, but she couldn’t do it. She’s already been given the silent treatment by her birth mother. The worst of all possible responses from the woman. So she didn’t want to call this guy. Again over dinner, Diana drops more news.
I’m like, I’m not doing this again with another person.
I am not calling this man. It is just not happening. So I go to work the next day, my spouse calls.
Did she have permission to call?
No, absolutely not. I said, I’m not doing this again. So she calls. So like again, I come home from work and I’m busy not paying attention and all of a sudden, you know, dinner goes flying all over the floor because she’s so nervous because you know, she has to tell me about this. And I’m like wha the heck is going on?
Well you guys have some tough dinners around this adoption.
Well, you know, again, you know, she is by no means able to keep an untruth or any sort of secret from me for more than about three seconds. So it’s, you know, it’s not as though anything is ever done and not revealed. That being said, if she says, all right, I got to tell you, I called Denis, his name’s Dennis, I called Dennis and I said, and you did that, why?
He goes on to tell me about the conversation. She says, well, for, I’m going out of town tomorrow. And in case he calls back, you have to know because, and I’m like, yeah, yeah, whatever. All right. So she tells me a little bit about the conversation and it was warmly received.
Wow, that’s great.
Yeah, it was warmly received.
What a relief that must have been!
Yes. So about three minutes into her telling me about this phone rings and it’s his wife. So I looked at the phone and I said, I didn’t call these people, you talk to them cause I’m not ready for this conversation. And she does. So she talks to him and you know, it, it’s a, it’s a good conversation. And um, I found out during the conversation that they had, then I have a sister who is four months younger than me.
On his side?
Yes. Wow, that’s great. So that was a product of his choice to marry the hometown girl and they had already called her and like now this family is thrilled that I exist. Oh man. That’s amazing. Right. So I mean you want to talk about night and day.
Yeah. What a turn around. That’s incredible. Yeah.
So this family, um, is thrilled that I exist. My sister and I are like peas in a pod. Like we were raised together. I mean like we could not be more similar in terms of like who we are as people, how we get along, all of these different things mean and it’s this like great situation.
Nature versus nurture is absolutely unbelievable. It’s really incredible.
Beyond a doubt.
After bonding with her sister by phone, Stephanie makes travel plans to go from Florida to Southern Utah to meet her birth father. The trip was coincidentally for a special time of year for Stephanie.
It happened to be right around my birthday. So we uh, kind of sent in advance a little cup and some balloons. It said it’s a girl as an ice breaker, something cute, you know, break the ice cause you don’t know what to expect. When we got out of the car. Um, the first words out of his mouth were, God, you look so much like your mother.
Oh yeah, that’s what I was thinking. I was like, well that kinda took me back and it was a good visit. Yeah. I mean we sat, we talked, we were comfortable. It was, it was a great three days to get to spend time with him. It was funny because I swear every, you know, relative who might have been in the area found a reason to stop by because you know, I was like the, you know, the new thing on the block. It’s like, okay, is she here? Is she really here? Who is she?
Yeah, you’re big news man.
Yes. Well something like that.
That is so awesome. What a great reception.
Well, the majority of the family is from Iowa. So the first Iowa trip was really the big deal. Cause uh, this is a huge Irish Catholic family. So coming from what I describe as Stephanie party of one to being part of what would be the entire UK rugby division..
Is, uh, yeah, it took a, it was, it was something, it was a little overwhelming. It was like, wow, you know, all of these people are actually like related to me and in what most people would consider to be a close manner. And they’re all just like really nice. I mean, this is what, this is what family feels like. And this is what isn’t, you know, and when we use, I hate to use the words normal, but this is what like people do when they just get together in their family. They just hang.
Yeah. Yeah. That’s amazing that you were able to get that sensation too after not really having it in your own family growing up to be able to get it as an adult and really have it sort of be a flood upon you and your emotions must have been really, really just heartwarming.
Yeah. I mean it did. It took, but it took me a while to realize and accept that nobody was going to hurt me cause it wasn’t really, um, my experience that that was the case.
She told me Dennis had some strokes prior to their meetings, so his speech was impaired thereafter, but his memory was still intact. That meant his conversations with Stephanie were supported by family members who conveyed his messages to her. As she said, she also got a lot of information from Dennis’s Navy roommate, Alex. And there was another person that knew them all and added color and context to Stephanie’s story too. But during this whole search journey, Stephanie and her spouse weren’t able to solve the mystery of who her birth mother’s father was. After more than a decade of persistence in her search, she got that answer as well. Getting those answers has given Stephanie a new understanding of her personal history and herself.
It has taken a village to now put together my, you know, genetic and biological family in much in the same way it did to raise me as a child. So the village has raised me as an adult in my biological story as well.
That’s really incredible how fascinating. It continues to be the village. That’s so cool.
Yes, and it’s been amazing. And you know, the last piece was I finally submitted my DNA to ancestry because there was one piece I couldn’t resolve on my maternal side. And that was who was my biological mother’s father because I had searched for him for the same 13 years. And I got a surprise back in my mother’s father’s DNA. The name that I was looking for turned out to be the right name.
Yes. So who is named on her birth certificate wasn’t her father either.
Are you kidding me?
No, you can’t make this stuff up. It is the gift that keeps on giving in my life.
Wow. Are you serious?
Damon, I can’t make this up. So finally in on an honest to God, on April 1st of this year, April fool’s day, I get my, I get my DNA results back from ancestry.com and I have a half uncle match that leads me to who her father actually was, which makes it my grandfather. So, you know, the, the funny ancestry I’ve been looking for kilt and found a Liederhosen looking for one name and, and if you look for somebody for 13 years and can’t find them, experience has told me they don’t exist.
So I’m looking for a guy based on records that I have and there is no guy with this name. I mean this just doesn’t exist because it was a whole different person.
Is that right?
And the minute that I got these DNA results back and, and had this match, I knew exactly who it was after two conversations with this match.
And what did that do for you to learn who, who this gentleman was?
I will tell you that it completed like what I call my concrete foundation because for what I had felt like a life that was built on quicksand, now my life is built on concrete because now I can build out what I consider to be my biological or genetic heritage completely. Cause I think every adoptee has two heritages. If I can, if I can pluralize that word. Sure. Um, yeah, we have that which we were raised in and we have that which we were born with. That’s right. And in building out my biological and genetic heritage, I now understand so many things about some of my own traits and some of my own background and some of the things, you know, it’s like the things that I know were born into my DNA that make me who I am by looking at some of the people that I come from.
I know that, um, for example, I have someone in the line of my four grandparents arrived in this country every century since 1600.
I know that one of my grandparents started Princeton University. They’re in their line. I know that one of them, I know that the family split over the civil war and half of them went to Missouri and half of them stayed in South Carolina. I know. Yeah. I mean there are things that I know that are real, that are about me, that are in my DNA. Yeah. I mean, it’s just, it is. I know that nobody in the family ever built out the maternal lines of the family because it wasn’t important to them. And I’m building them all out and looking in the faces of women who were built on hard rock, who carried this family along when it was falling apart in different places.
And I see the faces of these people and I say, you know what? I am and I, this sounds horrible, but I am a cockroach. You’d have to drop a building on me for me not to survive. Another child would not have survived in many situations that I have persevered through. And no matter what I was meant to do this. Everything, every experience that I’ve had, I was meant to have. You know what I’m saying? So there are tough and yet gentle, loving people in my family who made me everything that I am today. And it’s the truth. It’s the real story. See, that’s the most important thing. It’s the real story of what’s in my genes.
And that’s a that’s an incredibly important thing for people to be able to connect to. Is, you know, as, as you’ve said, you know, you grow up with the history of the family that you’re taught, but it’s not the history that you’re most directly connected to and it’s incredibly motivating. Sometimes when you find positive things like what you found in your own lineage, it’s incredibly motivating to know that and then consider yourself part of it and sort of advance from that knowledge. So that’s really spectacular. Congratulations on learning so much about yourself and sort of validating your inner strength. That’s really incredible. There have been many breaks along the way for Stephanie story to unfold the way that it did. Some people will consider her lucky, but she expresses gratitude for the likelihood that her journey must have been ordained in some way. She laments the fact that her mother can’t bring herself to be in contact, but she’s eternally grateful for the history she’s uncovered and the solid footing it has put her on in centering herself.
Well, my, uh, my father passed away in June, my biological father passed away in June, but it was, I was fortunate enough to find him before that happened. And to, you know, have spent some quality time with him, um, late last year before he, when he got sick. So I consider that to be a blessing. Yeah. I mean that was a mitzvah to have had all of those, all of the things that had to happen in order for that to be true are just ordained in some manner. The interveners were there, you know, and I got a, you know, amazing and wonderful group of people who I am connected to now as a result. And you know, I have a biological mother who doesn’t want to admit I exist despite lots of people reaching out to her, including, you know, friends from her past, all kinds of people who have made phone calls and she just completely ignored them. So she’s pretty rooted into that I think.
Yeah, she’s dug in well.
I got a 50, 50 split.
Focus on the positive 50 and I mean it’s really spectacular and I hope you hug up Diana and just tell her how much you love her for all that she did to bring you to this point. Cause it sounds like she was really key in, in among the village.
Well as a, as a sidebar out of this, um, Diana is now a California search angel.
Is she really?
Yeah. Um, this became one of those things that, you know, I felt so strongly about as did she, that she got involved in the search angel community.
She found a calling and you were her first client.
Well that’s kind of the way it is now. She is, uh, involved in the search angel community. Cause if you can’t give back, what can you do? Right?
Yeah. That’s right. That’s right. And there’s so many people out there that really, really need and truly, truly, truly appreciate the work that she and all of her colleagues are doing. So that’s gotta be some of the most fulfilling work. That’s amazing.
But it’s like every time I listened to one of your podcasts and I hear somebody talk about a search angel, and sometimes when I hear somebody who is still talking about somebody, one of the things that compels me, it’s like, I want to write you and go, who is this? Because I bet we can help him.
This has been really, really incredible. I, I am so sorry that you’re getting the silent treatment on your, uh, you know, biological mother’s side of the family, but the fact that you were able to catch your dad and hear from him through others how this whole thing went down and the fact that you were able to track down his military roommate. I mean, you’re absolutely right. This was a really, really special reunion in a lot of things had to come together to make it happen. So I’m so happy for you that you were able to get some positivity out of this experience.
I did. I consider it to be, you know, kind of an amazing journey in terms of all the things that happened along the way and the biggest blessing being that this man who was involved in this, you know, at the time 50 years ago would have saved all of this stuff because he knew as he put it, that someday the baby may come back.
That’s incredible. Oh God, that’s so amazing. People do some amazing things. They, it’s, it’s really incredible. And yeah, he, um, I hope you thank him a lot too cause that’s a really special that you get those.
He is a, he is a dear for a dear, dear friend at this point and uh, you know, I consider him to be kind of like my second father because he played such a part in my coming to where I am today.
Yeah. And he was on paper for awhile. Right?
There you go. We were almost there.
That’s great. So good to talk to you Stephanie. Thank you so much for sharing your story. This was really unbelievable..
My pleasure and it was great to talk to you.
You too. Take care. All the best.
To you as well.
Hey, it’s me. Stephanie’s journey is heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. What she said about her biological mother’s current feelings about her really resonated. What could have happened to her mother to make her go from sorrow over having to let her baby go 50 years ago to complete denial of Stephanie’s existence today? On the positive side, what an amazing opportunity Stephanie got to meet her biological father before his passing. Some adoptees just miss that opportunity and the most amazing thing of all to me was Alex. Dennis’s Navy roommate kept all of the letters that Stephanie’s mother sent to him during her pregnancy with Stephanie. She could actually read her own mother’s thoughts and feelings right there on the decades old pages. People like Alex with the presence of mind and kindness of heart to help others selflessly are just amazing to me. And then there was Diana, Stephanie’s spouse. She was with Stephanie every step of the way, sometimes guiding the search with her own tenacity. I’m so glad she found a calling as a search angel and is working to help others like Stephanie. I’m Damon Davis and I hope you’ll find something in Stephanie’s journey that inspires you, validates your feelings about wanting to search or motivates you to have the strength along your journey to learn, Who am I really? If you would like to share your story of locating and connecting to your biological family visit, whoamireallypodcast.com/share. You can also visit the show on facebook.com/whoamireally or follow me on Twitter @waireally. And if you liked the show, please take a moment to rate it on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts. Your ratings can help others find the show too.