The year was 2012. I was a senior in college.
My personal life, love life, job and academic career – it was all a hot mess. Mental and personal well being? Haha! What’s that?! And like so many other students, I was doing everything in my power to keep it together at the 11th hour of the semester. The cherry on top of this chaotic dish that was my life: it was the weekend before my college capstone paper was due. I was 30 pages in and somehow further from completion I thought possible. I. Was. Freaking. Out.
So how, you might ask, did I manage all of these obstacles? As time would tell, there was no better way for me than to avoid all of my problems by solving a 50 year old mystery: who was my mom’s birth father?
(That’s why you clicked on this article, after all!)
If you are or know one of the 5 million adoptees living in the US today, this story might hit close to home. This is the story of how I found my mom’s birth father.
Like so many others born to young, unwed mothers in the 1950s and 60s, my infant mother was put up for adoption. Fortunately, not only was she adopted, but as she puts it, “I won the adoption lottery!”
My mother (for privacy purposes let’s call her “June”) has always fawned over my grandparents (her adoptive parents), sharing stories of their undying love and the care they provided for her and her adopted brother.
“They were always nurturing us, they took us all over the world and encouraged us to be the best versions of ourselves,” June would say. “My parents gave me the best life. I had the best mom, the best dad I could ever ask for or want.”
But there was still something missing. June began to wonder about her origins. Like many other adopted children, there were many unanswered questions about her health history, her family identity, and perhaps most puzzling of all, why she was ‘given up’ at all. Her adoptive parents supported my mother in finding the answers, and gave her the adoption papers. She soon discovered that much of the pertinent identifying information was blacked out by the agency at the time of adoption. Yet, June was undeterred.
In her late 20s, June decided to write a letter to the adoption agency to try to learn what she could about her birth mother. As luck or fate would have it, June’s birth mother also wrote a letter to the agency requesting information about the daughter she placed for adoption the very same week that my mother wrote her inquiry.
Surprised by these two closely coinciding requests for information, the agency fast-tracked the introduction and June was reunited with her birth mother after almost 30 years apart. As the two were relatively close in age (just 15 years apart), they had much in common and were able to develop a close friendship in the years after.
June’s birth mother shed light on many of my mother’s questions, but one that went unanswered was information on the whereabouts of her birth father. June was handed a picture of a man that she greatly resembled; on the back of the photograph was the man’s name. With June’s birth mother providing relatively little information about her alleged birth father after this provision, my mother decided to hire a private investigator to locate the man known as “James Louis” (name also changed for privacy 😊).
After several months, June got word from the private investigator. With only a few dead-end leads, the investigator left my mother with the words, “At his age, he’s likely in Florida.”
Still, June persisted, trying to find her own leads to Mr. Louis. After years of searching, the trail went cold.
A decade later, June received a call from her birth mother who recanted her statement: she doubted James’ paternity. Now, she was telling a new story: June’s birth mother said that, in fact, there could be another whose identity was unknown. She admitted to giving June the photo to “put her at ease” and that the man in the picture was likely not her biological father.
Disappointed, and now with a family of her own, June started seeing traces of herself in her children; dimples on the sides of a smile, button noses, the little quirks and habits you could only inherit from the ones who gave you life. June began to wonder more and more about this elusive “other-half” of her history. I witnessed my mother crying on occasion, talking to her higher power, asking for answers. It had been 50 years since her birth, her children were off to college to make their own ways in the world, and June was nowhere closer to answers than where she started.
Until I decided, as my mother often told me, “use the hands and eyes that God gave me” to track down the man named, “James Louis.”
On the aforementioned afternoon where I averted all of my problems, I was sitting at the computer scouring the white pages for anyone in Florida with the name, “James Louis.” Unlike my mother, I was not dissuaded from the idea that Mr. Louis was ‘the daddy.’ I had seen the picture many times over the years and, after studying it for some time, recognized physical traits that were identical to my mother’s. The hair, the height, their unusually bony wrists were identical.
I had given credence to the idea that perhaps James was an enigma: maybe had provided a false name to conceal his identity.
So I started the search one last time. I, too, had tried before and was unsuccessful.
“Louis, James,” “Jamie Louis,” “James Louise,” “Lous James.” You get the idea. I had a list.
Then I narrowed my results to the age range in question.
Goodbye to all the “James Louises; birthdate 1982.”
I was down to 7 people on my list; after searching for phone numbers and email contacts: 3 numbers, 3 James Louises.
The first was a business listing. Dead end.
The second was a disconnected number. “I’m sorry, but the number you dialed has been disconnected. Please check the number and try your call ag-”
Last chance: Ringing. Ringing. Ringing. Ringing. Ringing- an answering machine! “You’ve reached James Louis’ cell phone. Go ahead and leave me a message and I’ll call you back shortly.” BEEP!
I never thought I would get this far! Did I actually expect an answer?! What do I do!? What do I say? WHY AM I DOING THIS?! What if he doesn’t want to talk to me? What if this is the wrong guy??!! Oh my gosh, what if he has a family? And they hear this message first?! And they delete this message! 500 doubts flew through my brain as a big “UHhhhh” came out of my mouth. Somehow, I pulled it together and said “Yes, Hi – James Louis, this is (Alisha Ball) and I’m calling you as I am researching the Louis family history. If you wouldn’t mind giving me a call back that would be greatly appreciated. My number is ————–.” I hung up the phone and stared at the screen (throwback to my first smartphone).
I sat in silence for a moment, contemplating my level of (in)sanity when the phone rang.
It. Was. Him!
I answered the phone and was greeted with a “Hello – I just got a call from this number?”
Scrambling with what to say, I stuttered “Yes! Yes! Hi! Thanks for calling me back.”
The line disconnected!
I called him back. He answered. The call dropped again! We called each other back and forth over and over. I ran around my apartment looking for any spot of connectivity. I was screeching like a pterodactyl, all my built up stress and anxiety streaming out of my vocal chords as I held my phone up searching desperately for a signal. Somehow, I made it out onto my tiny patio, hunched in the corner, I found the only place with 2 bars of reception.
The phone was ringing one last time. And finally, we connected.
“Ok, alright. Hello.” “Yes, Hello to you, too,” James was friendly and polite. I asked him if his name was James Louis, if he was born in _____ year and served in the military in _____ location in the late 50’s. All affirmative – could this really be the James Louis?
Then he asked about my ‘project’ (researching the Louis family history), “I don’t know why you’d possibly be wanting to research this family! What is this for again?” Reading between the lines, I knew this was a soft approach to the bigger ‘Why are you researching my family?’ question. Anxiety overwhelmed me, and somehow I knew I had to be straightforward, “Well, actually, I fudged a little. I’m not really researching the Louis family, per se.”
James responded, “What do you mean?”
This was it: “You see, this is kind of a sensitive topic. I’m calling on behalf of June ______. She’s looking for her birth father and we believe there is a possibility that you may fit the bill.”
There was silence.
I didn’t know if he hung up, or if he was just thinking, or possibly upset; I prayed the line was just disconnected again.
Then he spoke, “Ok, I don’t think so. But tell me why.”
I gave him June’s birth mother’s name, asked if he knew her or had dated her. “That’s not ringing any bells.”
I waited, hoping for anything. “Now hold on – I think I remember. Oh, yes, is she related to _______?”
As the call went on, he told me that the pair had briefly dated, and that (my mom’s birth mother) had not wanted to see him anymore. He was eventually transferred to another military base, and lost touch with her and the family all together.
He told me about his life, that he was married and had four children and was a grandfather.
I asked him if he might consider giving a sample for genealogical testing. This was where I heard concern in his voice, “I don’t see how it is possible, are you looking for anything from me or something? Money? A kidney?”
His response startled me! I never thought there would be questions like this – that there would be questions from the other side of this. I never thought that people might go searching for their birth families for anything other than answers. This was a critical moment where I knew it was important to tread lightly.
Reassuring him that, no, we didn’t want his money or organs, I asked James to consider providing a sample so June could finally have some ‘closure.’
“As you might imagine, there are a lot of questions someone might have about who they are and where they came from, what kinds of inherited medical conditions could be anticipated. June was adopted by wonderful parents and has a great family, she just wants to know where she came from.”
I was shocked by what James said next:
“You know, I adopted a child, too. I definitely understand. Maybe before, I wouldn’t have understood what you’re looking for, but after raising my son, I know a little of what that’s like because he also went looking.”
He adopted a child! This seemed like a great sign so I decided to try a few more questions: blood type, medical conditions, eye and hair color.
Every. Single. Answer. WAS A MATCH.
There were even a few funny moments “Do you have bony wrists?”
James: “Excuse me?”
Me: “Well, I mean kind of a pointy wrist bone?”
James: “Uh…I never thought about it like that. I’m not sure.”
Who asks something like that?! Me, apparently.
Finally, I asked if he might send me pictures of himself when he was younger to compare to the picture of our ‘James Louis.’ He said I was in luck because he had a few pictures on his computer from a recent anniversary celebration. “Could I email them to ya?”
After a few minutes of waiting, the email hit my inbox.
I took a deep breath and opened the attachment.
The face that loaded on the screen was the same face in the picture that June and I had studied so closely over the years. This was the James Louis.
It is hard to describe the feeling that I experienced at that moment; it was probably one of the most healing and cathartic of my entire life. I wondered how, of all times in this seemingly fruitless search, that this missing piece could be found when my life was in such disarray. Wiping tears away from my eyes, I remarked how much he looked like my mother. I heard a hesitant laugh from the other end, and we continued to speak for what seemed like the better part of an hour.
James agreed to talk to my mother and I gave him her phone number and asked him if it was alright to provide his number to June. “Sure thing.” Best of all, James said he would consider taking a DNA test.
And that was it.
I called my mother, who was a bit stunned and perplexed all at once. Imagine after decades of searching for your birth father that your kid calls you up and says “Hey, I found the guy!” and you have some idea of what transpired on that phone call. I will never forget her voice, “There is no way that James Louis is my father! My birth mother finally told me everything and it can’t possibly be him. It just isn’t possible, Alisha.”
“Try anyway,” I said. “It can’t hurt to at least talk to him and do a test to just be sure.”
I left her his number and returned to my desk. Somehow, despite so much emotional drain, I was energized. So I sat down and got back to work on the paper.
I’m not sure who called who, but James and June connected and spoke about their experiences regarding my investigation; from what I understand it was also a bit awkward, and yet also they started a positive connection. My mother later said that she felt like James was an old friend she’d known for a long time.
James and June decided to take a DNA paternity test to “just make sure.” Although, states apart, lifetimes apart, they waited together for what the results would say. Weeks passed, a month and then the day the results arrived in the mail. My mother was so nervous and also skeptical at what was in the parcel. She still had so many doubts about what that piece of paper would say.
June opened the envelope and unfolded the crisp printouts from the lab.
With the test findings and interpretation spread out on the kitchen counter, she read the results aloud:
“99.98% cannot be excluded.”
James Louis was the missing piece, after all.
Throughout the years, June has had several visits with James and his family. They have developed a close friendship and stay in touch to this day. Although there were many doubts and obstacles in determining what their connection would be, the two are determined to make the best of the rest of their lives and “make up for lost time.” June says, “He is not my father. No one can take the place of my dad, but James and I are friends who happen to share the same DNA and it is cool to see where I got certain traits from him and see.”
June’s birth mother was shocked by the results and was also simultaneously overjoyed that my mother had some closure. She lamented that she wished she had done things differently, that maybe she would have lived another life if she had reconnected with James, but it was all in the past. “Now there’s only going forward.”
If you are an adoptee or are helping someone research their birth parentage, please check out my follow up article for ideas on how to get the optimum from your search experience.