Seeking Out My Origin Story
Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
By Rick Hughes
When I was a young person, I was generally comfortable with my status as an adopted child. My parents loved me and provided well for me. They were open and forthright–but not generous–regarding the details of my adoption. Based upon the information given to me, I had enough knowledge to create a blurred image without much depth and color. Nevertheless, I believe most adopted children crave an origin story–I know I did.
My parents’ attitude about disclosures changed with the birth of my two children. My wife Stacey had always encouraged me to search and question more regarding my identity and any health issues. I resisted because I felt that my parents would provide additional information when they felt comfortable. My Mom seemed to carry a deeply imbedded insecurity about my adoption that, I believe, prevented her from disclosing the full story. However, when my children were born, my Mom and Dad were struck by how much their grandchildren looked like me and my biological mother.
While visiting my parents, my Mom and Dad started talking about the details of my adoption. At the time, I was around thirty-two years old, and finally I began to hear and visualize some of the details my adoption.
My Dad, a retired U.S. Army soldier, and Mom, a German-American wife, were stationed in Wuerzburg, Germany in the late 1960s. A military acquaintance of my Dad knew that my parents were having a difficult time having kids and revealed that he knew of a twin sister that was pregnant and needing to give the child up for adoption. My parents were anxious to meet my biological mother– an unmarried teenager in a staunchly Catholic region of Germany.
My parents continued to keep close contact with my biological mother and the Catholic adoption agency. My dad, as with many men, related this stage of his life to the motor vehicle he was driving at the time. He and my mom described picking up the mother of their child in Dad’s Buick Roadmaster and driving to the Catholic hospital.
After my birth and extended hospital stay (an infection for the new mother), my dad and mom picked me up along with my birth mother to take her home–an apartment on Weissenburgstrasse– that I would drive by thirty-three years later.
My mom specifically remembered that my birth mother was in the front passenger seat holding me, and that when they stopped at my birth mother’s apartment, she handed me back to my mom, who was in the backseat.
My mom then watched my birth mother leave the car, walk to her family’s apartment, and not look back. What struck me most about this story was absence of any parents supporting this teenage mother. Then on a lighter side, the fact that an infant was being held in the front seat of car.
Months later, my dad received orders from the Army that he was to return to the U.S. The adoption process was expedited and my parents were preparing to leave Germany. One evening while my parents were visiting and saying their goodbyes to my Mom’s family in Darmstadt– a city an hour and half west of Wuerzburg — a young blond teenage woman appeared at my Oma’s door.
My mom answered the door and saw the familiar face and said, “You can’t have him.” The young woman was not my biological mother but instead her identical twin sister. She explained who she was and Mom allowed her to hold me.
Oddly enough, these additional details didn’t satisfy my need to complete my origin story; they only made my desire to fill in the puzzle with more depth and color that much stronger. Now armed with names and dates, I did a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request letter to Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) to obtain my entire file because I was German citizen and had gone through an abbreviated U.S. naturalization process later.
I was pleasantly surprised to receive a prompt response indicating that the file would be available at the federal courthouse in Louisville, KY–the same location where I became a U.S. citizen. I live in Bowling Green, KY and work as an attorney. I’d been to the federal courthouse in Louisville for clients, but this time my trip was deeply personal and potentially life changing.
When I arrived, I was surprised by the amount of documents — supporting papers, marriage certificate, adoption documents, original birth certificates (English and German), and the familiar legally changed birth certificate. At that moment, I felt a tidal wave of emotion upon seeing a birth certificate with a different name and different mother (no father listed).
I occasionally spoke German with my Mom and studied German in college, so I was able to quickly learn new facts that filled in the puzzle. I was disappointed that no father was listed; however, I was determined to find my biological mother.
My next destination was Germany. My Oma passed away in the spring of 2001 and the earliest my mom and I could go to Germany was in the fall. We purchased our tickets and then the horrific events of September 11th occurred. I was still determined to go.
I learned through a local judge in Bowling Green that there was a lady living in our hometown that was originally from Wuerzburg, and she still had family there. We became acquaintances and she introduced me to her sister-in-law, who happened to have a connection with the local city clerk’s office in Wuerzburg. She notified her contact that I would be coming to Wuerzburg and hoped to view family records.
On our flight to Frankfurt, I told my Mom about my FOIA request and arrangements in Wuerzburg. She was completely supportive and hoped for the best. When she and I arrived, we stayed with my uncle Helmut in Darmstadt and then toured the Rhine and Mosel — a pleasant journey through vineyards and castles.
I then dropped my Mom off with my uncle and continued my trip alone to another wine region of Franken in northern Bavaria — my birthplace.
I will never forget arriving after exiting the hectic Autobahn. It was a warm October day and the sun shone in an orange-yellow glow. I climbed a hill overlooking the Main River. To the left, I saw a fortress atop a hill covered in vineyards. To the right, a city rested below and across the river, alight with its red-tiled roofs and dozens of Catholic churches.
I stayed at a small, locally run hotel and walked to have lunch with my Bowling Green contact’s sister-in-law. She and I sat outside on the Marktplatz, and she spoke some English and coupled with my limited German, we were able to communicate well.
She and I drove to the hospital where I was born and I was feeling fine, but that all changed when she took me to Weissenburgstrasse. It took me back to what my parents described: the Buick Roadmaster, my Dad behind the wheel, a teenage girl handing a baby over to the back seat into the arms of a grateful, anxious mother to be. The seventeen-year-old then exited the vehicle — never looking back — and walked away to her other world. But she was never completely able to leave the child behind in her mind. I was, at that moment on Weissenburgstrasse, overcome with emotion.
I returned to my hotel and prepared myself for the next day’s appointment at the Standesamt Wuerzburg. I took the streetcar and arrived early but there still was a short line at the clerk’s office. I waited patiently but anxiously, and when I stepped up to counter, the lady, who only spoke German, said that they were expecting me and that the information that I needed was down the hall with the clerk in his office. I felt very positive at this point having visions of my experience at the federal courthouse in Louisville.
The clerk greeted me politely and offered me a seat. He explained that he had the information regarding my mother and that I needed to show identification and provide a signature. I fumbled for my ID, handed it to him, and then he appeared puzzled.
“Your name does not match any of names on our documents.” I explained in German that “I’m adopted, I’ve traveled 5,000 miles (8,000 km), and I’m searching for my birth mother — I mean her no harm.” He looked me closely in the eyes and indicated that he would leave the office for several minutes.
The clerk promptly exited the room leaving behind a tabbed ledger book with several entries regarding my birth mother– parents, their dates of death, siblings, dates of birth, addresses, marriage date, and deregistering residence. In Germany, one must register with the clerk upon arrival in a city and deregister when intending to move away.
The last entries for my birth mother indicated to whom she married and that they were moving to North Carolina. I was dumbfounded. I was wholly expecting to obtain information and continue my search in and around Wuerzburg. Instead I found out that she has been living in a state that nearly borders Kentucky.
I returned to the U.S. and continued my search. I learned in my research that my birth mother was an identical twin and her twin also moved to the U.S. I searched for the twin with no luck. My wife and I had a contact at a police department, and although this is unconventional and certainly against procedure, this person ran the information that I had on their databases and within hours, I had a driver’s license of my birth mother and a phone number.
I summoned the courage to call on October 31, 2001, but I didn’t want to remember the day that I contact my birth mother as Halloween. So I decided to wait until November 1st — All Saints Day. I called at lunch because I suspected she was a housewife– many German women of that age are — and her husband would likely be at work.
My hunch was correct and she answered the phone and I told her I’m from Wuerzburg. She thought I was a local person, but I explained I’m not and that I tried to get in touch with her sister first. No problem, she indicated that her sister was sitting next to her. I told her I lived in Kentucky, and now she audibly seemed suspicious.
I replied with the date that I was born and my belief that she is my birth mother. She repeated over and over “Oh my gosh,” and confirmed that she is in fact my birth mother. We were able to meet in the spring and developed a good relationship.
In fact, my birth mother and Mom also met, spoke regularly, and became friends. They shared a lot in common– both being from Germany and having married U.S. Army soldiers. They also shared a common bond through a child.
What impressed me most was how my birth mother related identically the story of her being taken to the hospital and then being picked up by parents, big American car and all– over thirty years later. The scene at Weissenburgstrasse played out again. I’m a lawyer who talks to witnesses and parties for a living, and rarely do witnesses and parties to a single event, even within a year, describe an incident nearly identically.
Still not satisfied, I still felt the need to find my biological father. I had little information — he was not on the birth certificate and my birth mother provided only sketchy details. I learned that he was an MP in the military, stationed in Wuerzburg in 1967.
He was from the Midwest U.S., and his name had an English pronunciation with, possibly, a German spelling. Based upon that limited but important information, one would think that my biological father’s identity would be possible to find, but after a great deal of research and multiple contact attempts with the U.S. military, I had no success.
Slowly, life changed. My dad died and then my mom. I felt more of an urgency to find my biological father. I submitted my DNA to 23andMe and Ancestry.com and then came the flood of 3rd, 4th, and 5th cousins. Then one day I received an email out of the blue from an amateur genealogist and mayor of a small township in Ohio.
He announced that we were third cousins — Ok, along with dozens of other folks — but that he’d done the genealogy for all the folks with my biological father’s last name in northern Ohio. He passed on the information and there was a match with the name provided by my birth mother.
Oddly enough, while this was going on, my wife was on the Ancestry.com website and someone had uploaded the high school yearbooks from the mid-1960’s for the high school that my biological father attended.
My wife saw my exact resemblance over and over in these yearbooks from over fifty years ago. I then looked to the computer screen and I felt that I was looking at myself from my high school days. My firm had a subscription to Lexis-Nexis and within seconds, I had pages of public information on my biological father, and more importantly, his cellular phone number.
In late summer 2017, I contacted him while he was in a large utility building cleaning a vintage car — I also love cars. The reaction from him was circumspection followed by surprise by the abundance of corroborated facts that I laid upon him. The call ended politely, but he indicated that he needed to reflect and study on what I explained to him.
He called me the next day and said that it all added up and he felt relatively confident that I was his son. I suggested a DNA test, and it’s since been confirmed that we are biological father and son — after only 2 ½ years of my DNA being listed.
We arranged a meeting in November 2017, but only my son and I went–my daughter was recovering from a medical procedure and so was my biological father’s daughter.
We met in Cincinnati and I felt like I was looking at myself twenty years into the future. Both he and his wife were warm and welcoming. His wife told me he had first found out about my birth and adoption soon after I was born, and he had shared that information with her during their engagement.
We scheduled another meeting in February 2018, and my wife, daughter, and son were finally able to meet my birth father and the remainder of his family.
I feel fortunate to have completed my origin story. I initially felt somewhat disappointed that I didn’t find someone that shares my personality. My wife Stacey pointed out that my identity and character is not traced to one person but is an amalgam of Mom, Dad, birth mother, and biological father. Nature and nurture are both strong influences on how we develop our identity and character.
Rick Hughes is married to a wonderful, supportive wife, Stacey. They are blessed with two great children Elise and Ryan who are currently in college. Some of their best experiences have been traveling together as a family. Rick’s dream is to get a point in life where he can stay for extended times in Wuerzburg.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter