CONTACT by Peter Newbould
On my 50th birthday I met my genetic mother for lunch. Or, to put it more accurately, I met her at lunch.
I always knew I was adopted. As a young child, my parents told me this very matter-of-factly and my upbringing was so wonderful that it never mattered to me exactly where I came from. In marriage one thinks of genetics a bit more so when my wife Mary and I had apparently healthy girls it was a relief that there was no awful gene coming from my side.
In 2000 my Dad called me to say he had received a most remarkable letter that I should come over to get. It was from the (1954) adoption agency in Norfolk reporting that my birth mother had approached them through her physician. She wanted me to know that her brother and parents had been diagnosed with macular degeneration, a serious eye condition that has a genetic link. A thorough eye exam showed I had no apparent sign of this disorder. I wrote to the agency to thank my birth mother for her thoughtfulness and wished her well. I added assurance that I was happy. (This was transmitted to her anonymously).
After my daughter Kathleen was diagnosed with a chronic disorder, I read more about the genetic link to so many diseases and decided I needed more information. I had no idea how old my birth mother was or how long she might live. If I ever wanted to know about my origins, I thought I’d best do it soon. So in 2002 Mary and I drafted a letter for Kathleen’s doctor to sign asking more questions about genetic health history.
In response the agency sent the doctor notes from a conversation the caseworker had with my birth mother, relating health information about her family that Kathleen’s doctor found helpful. My birth mother mentioned in closing that she would check with her mother, to see if she had forgotten anything.
I was stunned that I had a genetic grandmother still alive. My girls immediately said, "When do we meet them?" Mary pointed out that the 2000 contact about macular degeneration, inasmuch as it is an incurable disorder, may well have been an attempt at direct contact. “Really?” I said. I wanted to think about this a bit more. I wanted to think through how I could make contact without upsetting my father. And what if knowing the identity of my birth mother caused me more problems than it solved? What kind of person would I find on the other side of this mystery? After all these years why was she seeking contact?
In early 2004 Mary wrote a letter to my genetic mother thanking her for having me, but she had nowhere to send it. The time seemed ripe so I filed the paperwork with the State of Virginia to have the adoption file opened enabling me to learn the identity of my birth mother. I really was steeled to be ready for anything, but I just had a feeling from the caseworker that this would not be a mistake.
On June 3 I received a call from the caseworker saying that she had talked with my birth mother, who had earlier signed the papers agreeing to be identified. The caseworker could now tell me that my mother was Ann Medlock, a resident of Whidbey Island, near Seattle. Asked what I would like to do as a next step, I said I’d write a letter to introduce myself. Her advice was to wait until I received the contents of a file Ann had left for me, in case I ever asked.
I asked the caseworker for any guidelines she might have in situations like this and she said just not to talk about money. It brings problems, she said, more when people are of different socioeconomic classes. “But you’re going to get along fine,” she added. “Your birth mother is educated; she’s been published…” Wow! In a flash I went to Amazon and entered Ann’s name. Rather than a book authored by Ann I found her cited in four books about philanthropy and as the subject of a PBS documentary about the nonprofit she started. I immediately bought the tape so I could see what she looked like.
A few days letter that file arrived from Norfolk. A mini time capsule, it included a book of poetry that Ann published in 2003 and a page of photos of her family. On the photo of Ann’s mother, Ann wrote that she had said, “We should have said the hell with the neighbors and kept the little guy!” I gulped, and sensed that there was a real story here.
I wrote Ann the letter introducing myself, enclosed some photos and sent it to her in South Carolina where she was helping her terminally ill mother. My letter began, “Dear Ann Medlock.” After a delay of more than a week I heard back from her by email, the first of many that month and in the months to come, with a message that began, “Dear Peter Newbould.” From seeing photographs of each other that first night we agreed that there's a physical resemblance between us.
In an amazing coincidence, Ann learned my name on the very day her mother died at age 89. Ann is a professional writer and editor who started a nonprofit organization that commends people who work for the betterment of their society. (See www.giraffe.org). Through our email correspondence, I learned that she had begun searching for me in the mid-80's.
Surprising parallels emerged. The son of a career naval officer, I had lived overseas, worked in the Congress and been active in Democratic politics. Ann had worked in Washington, for the Democratic National Committee and a Democratic Senator, and had attended Democratic conventions. Her Dad, still alive at 92, was career Navy too, (a mustang who retired as a Lt. Commander). The family had lived in Norfolk, Coronado and many other Navy towns. Ann later lived in Japan, Vietnam, Congo and Manhattan. She has two sons and one adopted daughter and has been married to John Graham, a writer and former foreign service officer, since 1982. Ann told me that my genetic father was a man she met when they both acted in a play in Norfolk while she was a student at the University of Maryland.
By email Ann suggested that we have lunch on my 50th birthday, July 17, 2004. We met at the Willard Hotel and had a very long conversation. I quipped that I didn't have much to say the last time I saw her. We more than made up for it that day. Mary and the girls had said that they wanted to meet her too, so Ann came to our home for dinner on July 19. All here immediately warmed to her and enjoyed looking at her photos and scrapbooks from her childhood.
Right after I had filed the state paperwork I sat down with my Dad to explain what I was doing and why. I told him that there was nothing I was doing, and there was no possible outcome, that would in any way lessen my love for him and Mom -- my parents. (My mother had died in 1997). My normally impassive father replied, “Thank you for telling me that.”
Ann wrote Dad a lovely letter after we met, saying thank you for the wonderful job you did in raising Peter. He was alarmed, and felt pressured, by her gracious closing that said something like “let this letter suffice until such time as I may thank you in person.” “She wants to meet me,” he said to me, “but I don’t want to meet her.” I replied that he did not have to. He wrote back to Ann saying simply that all credit for raising me was due to his late wife, Mollie. Ann praises both of them in her biographical profile on her website.
Dad told me that he didn’t want me to get hurt, or get snared in disputes with Ann’s family over estates. I said nor did I and that I would be careful. Ever the cautious lawyer, he was uneasy because I had opened records that had been sealed forever by a Virginia court, and he was not a party to their being opened. “Oh, but you were,” I said. “You gave me the letter from the agency. You didn’t have to do that, and I thank you.”
In early December 2004 Ann emailed me that her father Frank would be changing planes at Dulles Airport on Dec. 22, and asked if I would like to meet him. Figuring that this opportunity may never again arise I agreed. In fact, I purchased a ticket on a later flight so I could get through security to the midfield terminal. Frank, who I chose to call “Commander,” was accompanied by Bob, Ann’s younger brother from Indiana. We spent two and a half hours at an airport coffee shop talking about our lives.
The Commander told a great story about the Battle of Surigao Strait, in which his battleship participated. When I got home I looked it up. A prelude to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, it was the last sea battle between surface ships fought with long guns. The Japanese task force tried to sneak through the Philippines to engage the American fleet but was intercepted at night by American battleships. “We got every one of them,” the Commander declared proudly. A couple of months after our airport meeting I mailed him a copy of a naval history book that included a chapter on the battle. I inscribed it, “To my grandfather, Commander Frank Medlock, who was there. With admiration, Peter.” He excitedly called me upon receiving it. “I just want to thank you for this fine gift,” he said.
Mary, Caroline and Kathleen traveled with me after Christmas 2004 on a visit to Whidbey Island to see Ann, John, Ann's three children and their children. It was a wonderful trip and I felt very welcomed there. I immediately liked my half brothers and stepsister. I noticed how we laughed at the same things watching movies together. John began to tell me the remarkable story of his time as a foreign service officer. Ann threw a party in my honor on New Year’s Day, and I enjoyed meeting many of her friends, a remarkable number of whom are mental health professionals. Because I lobby Congress on behalf of doctors of psychology, there was a lot of common ground.
Ann’s friend Hank Murrow, a sculptor, traveled many hours from Eugene, Oregon, to meet me and, so thrilled was he for Ann’s discovery, presented each of us with a beautiful translucent bowl in a seashell design. Ann told me after the party that at one point she was speaking to a cluster of people with one hand resting a particular way while the other was gesturing. She was amused to see me talking to another group on the other side of the room in the exact same pose.
Ann stayed with us for a week in June 2005, just long enough for her to see normalcy in our home. We threw a big dinner party in her honor, to introduce her to many family and friends who had been following the story of our meeting. We included five of her longtime friends who live in the Washington area. I was pleased that my brother John attended as well, and stayed late into the evening.
John Graham visited for two nights in October while here to give a speech on leadership and moral decision-making at the U.S. Naval Academy. We were very pleased to host a reception in our home to benefit the Giraffe Heroes Project, of which he is president. Almost 20 people came, including Giraffe Bunny Greenhouse, a whistle-blower at the Army Corps of Engineers.
From a mystery has evolved a love for this lady and her family. Meeting Ann has enriched my life, helped my family and turned out better than I could have imagined.
Well, that's the story. If it's tugging at your heartstrings, read Ann's compelling version: http://www.annmedlock.com/works/michael.htm