Is It Stalking or Sleuthing?
February is Eric’s birthday month – he’ll be 24 on the 24th. I shrieked a little to myself in the car the other day when I realized that he’ll be just three years younger than I was when I had him. Wow – no real sense of what I was doing when I was 24. Probably my last year living in Tucson – planning, as it were, for a move to the Big Apple (actually, Jersey City, NYC’s wormy little brother across the Hudson River). I had a job of sorts, but no real plans for the future. Definitely not planning to have a baby and place him for adoption. Calls to mind that great John Lennon quote:
So birthday gifts are always a bit of a challenge. I didn’t get anything for the first few years. Later, at my sister’s recommendation, I’d buy gifts as I saw them and just hold on to them. Even after we’d opened the adoption (I learned the Stanfields’ address before Eric’s 3rd birthday), I never wanted Kathy and Bruce to feel pressured or threatened. When Eric and I finally met in person for my wedding – he was 16 – I gave him all the gifts I’d been keeping for him. Most of them were Christmas ornaments – one per year – and small stuffed animals I’d collected from the various places I’d traveled through the years.
He’s a sensitive kid, so he seems to appreciate thoughtful gifts as much as fun ones. Usually I try to do a little of both. I remember Kathy telling me that when Eric was in maybe second or third grade, he came home with that typical childhood project: the family tree. Sensitive, brilliant kid that he was – even as an 8- or 9-year-old – he asked for two pages, so that he could do two family trees: one for the Stanfield family and one for his birthfamily.
As it turns out, I have rather detailed family trees for both sides of my family. A cousin on my dad’s side did some fairly sophisticated research, so that tree is bigger, with many more branches. My mom’s tree is kind of like her family – a bit scattershot, misspellings here, wrong dates there. But it’s a good start and contains a lot of info I wouldn’t have access to were it not for the fact that somebody thought to record even these convoluted details.
So this year for his birthday, I was thinking I might finally try to put a family tree together for Eric, since I do have most of the pieces from my side of the family. Felt a little silly to realize that both of my sides still equal only one side of Eric’s family tree. Which means I’d need to research Tony’s family tree in order to do both sides justice.
I lost touch with Tony a number of years ago. The last time we saw each other in person was February 2002. We had a failed attempt at a reconciliation, after he broke up with a woman he’d been living with and was feeling lonely, I think. Back when Eric graduated from high school, I took some time and finally tracked Tony down via Facebook and other online tools. It was a circuitous process, but I’m a good researcher. I couldn’t find Tony outright, so I started with his Aunt Judy, which led to his sister Wendy, which led to him – and his wife. That enabled me to find his address in Bedminster, NJ – which it turns out was just 10 minutes from the house where Eric grew up and where he once again lives with his family. No surprise, when I stopped to consider the vast number of coincidences that have occurred and helped shape this entire adoption relationship.
I wouldn’t call it stalking, necessarily, but every now and again I would try to check in on Tony and Wendy. She posts much more frequently – and it was on her page that I learned that their dad had passed away a few years ago. My most recent foray revealed that Tony and his wife have split up – so that address I found for Eric a few years ago won’t do him any good now.
Ever since Eric’s college graduation last May, I’ve been thinking on and off about reaching out to Tony, just to let him know his kid is all grown up – a smart, good-looking, thoughtful man. Glad now that I didn’t send a copy of the graduation photo to that address I had for him. But my walk down Memory Lane via Wendy’s FB page was a reminder that Tony really did cut ties with both Eric and me rather completely. There were photos from the time we were dating – but none of Tony and me. It almost felt like I never existed in his life. Perhaps not so surprising, in that this was his sister’s feed – but as much time as I spent with his family, you’d think I might have shown up in one picture. There’s actually a photo of him and his dad in front of a Trump casino in Atlantic City, wearing identical leather jackets. I remember that trip – I’m standing frozen in time, out of frame, but just a few feet away from them. A very similar picture of Tony and me was taken – I actually gave that to Eric a few years ago.
I was also reminded about the Christmas when Tony and I went gift shopping together – for his family. Turns out, he didn’t get me anything, and then took all the gifts I’d helped him wrap and toddled off to Baltimore to spend the holidays with his family, leaving me on my own in Jersey City. Yeah – there were some real douchey moments, and I was an idiot for sticking around as long as I did. Live and learn, isn’t that what they say?
Why do I still think about getting in touch? I guess because I really do want Eric to have all the information he can – before people die and there’s no way to retrieve it. This is his birthfather’s family – people who are his blood relations. Tony told me he’d told Molly (the live-in girlfriend from 2002) about Eric and still planned to tell his family, but I have no idea whether that ever happened. How could he NOT? ricochets through my head – but pretty easily, I’m guessing, if he still compartmentalizes the way he used to.
I remember a while back seeing that Wendy was pretty invested in the whole genealogy fascination, so the thought occurred to me that I might reach out to her, instead of Tony, and just take my chances that she’d get back to me, regardless of whether or not she’d ever learned she has a nephew (or that her daughters have a cousin). If anyone would have their family tree info, it would be Wendy. Reading through her FB posts, I believe we’d get along a lot better today than we did 29 years ago – but considering further, I recognized that her loyalty will always be to her brother first, so I think I’ve pretty much talked myself out of that idea.
Instead, I decided to take a 2-week trial at Ancestry.com and see what I could dig up there. Learned the date their dad passed away – July 6, 2015 – and that he was a college graduate. I would not have guessed that. Tracked down the family’s old address in Cedar Rapids, and confirmed the birth years for both Tony’s mom, Diane, and dad, Dale. But not much more than that. If Wendy’s been working on a family tree of any sort, it’s not public.
One night back in the late ’90s, when we were out playing pool at a bar near work, Tony was a little drunker than usual for a worknight and he (accidentally?) let it slip that there was adoption on both sides of his family. Apparently his Aunt Judy, on his mom’s side, was a birthmother who’d relinquished a baby in her teens. He had no idea whether his cousin had been a boy or a girl – or whether Judy had ever had any sort of reunion. Then, there was his dad’s side – where things get really complicated. The way I remember Tony telling the story was that his dad was one of seven kids, all of whom were adopted out of the family due to what he assumed were financial complications. It was the late 1940s/early 1950s – not sure what other reason there could have been. A few decades later, his dad finally located the last of his brothers – and it was such a big deal it was written up in the local paper. That was the only time Tony ever brought any of this up – so my vague memories of that conversation were all I had to go on.
When I was looking through Wendy’s FB page to try to figure out how long ago their dad had died, I came across an image of that story from the Cedar Rapids newspaper. I didn’t read it at the time, but now that I’m looking for every clue I can find about their family, I went back and pored over it with a microscope. Either I remembered the story incorrectly, or misinterpreted the information, because according to the newspaper article, Dale was one of 15 kids – seven of whom were adopted out. The story doesn’t fill in too many more blanks. But between it, my memory of meeting an aunt and uncle who lived in Tucson, and a few photos I perused on Wendy’s page, I’ve been able to put names to 10 of the 15 siblings. Still no names, dates, or locations for great-grandparents, although I did find separate photos of Diane’s mom and dad.
And that’s where this story ends, for now. I’ll probably take as stab at the family tree, though I’m not sure I’ll get it all compiled in time to send as a birthday gift. If by some miracle Eric were to decide he’d like more information, I might one day try to contact either Wendy or Tony. Should that happen, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’m gonna hang up my sleuthing ways and let bygones by bygones.
Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, consultant, and publisher who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who recently graduated from college and began his engineering career. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about the first book, The Least Likely Criminal, from her brand new publishing company, Panoply Publishing.