The following is an excerpt from my book, Searching For Me, a book about my search for my biological family, faith, and a sense of belonging.
At first, I didn’t think much about this new relative. On one hand, this was the first time I had ever been presented with a link to someone who was directly related to me, albeit distantly. But would that distance become a highway to my immediate family, or a chasm?
Additionally, I started thinking of the protocol for contacting long lost biological families who might or might not want to be found. Was there such a protocol?
My mind started racing through potential conversations. I could see it play out pretty clearly.
“Hi, so, yeah. You don’t know me. But over four decades ago, one of your aunts, or a distant cousin (I don’t know which one), had a baby out of wedlock, then gave him up for adoption while keeping it on the down low. By the way, I don’t even know her name. And MY name isn’t going to be a help because I only know my adopted name. So you get no hints.”
And that was assuming that my biological mother wanted to be found. There was always the very real possibility that she didn’t want anyone knowing about that inconvenient part of her past. Having some stranger asking around wouldn’t just be awkward; shedding light on deep dark secrets could potentially rip apart a family. I wanted to tread very carefully.
But nonetheless, the challenge remained that he was such a distant relative. With a first cousin, I could more easily find family who was the right age to be my mom. But nope. Even if Bob could help, he was a second or third cousin and the next few people on the list were fourth and fifth cousins.
At that point I’d have better luck driving to Boston and asking random strangers. At least I knew that should I drive to Boston, though the chances of finding my birth mother were pretty much zero, I could at least find a fresh lobster dinner.
Thankfully, while I was trying to figure out how to do this, Bob himself reached out in an email that spring. The email chats with Bob began somewhat slowly. But as we talked, I realized how interested he was in helping me and we emailed much more frequently. We had some incredible conversations in the process. I learned more about his background, and he listened to the hints I had about my birth mom.
As the conversations went on, I realized how much this distant cousin knew, including stories about a family whiskey distillery a few generations ago. He started telling me details about distant relatives of his that could be my mother or grandparents. And he got a kick out of telling me that he had built a reputation such that people called him Bad Bob.
Okay, I thought. Who is this guy?
Then, in what might be the most buried lede ever, in one email he asked causally, “So, would you like me to share access to my genealogy tree?”
I said sure, thinking it would be fun to dig around and see what he had found. When I had tried out a free trial for the same genealogy site years earlier, I entered maybe 20 names of people I knew. It was fun for a few days. But that was it. So I wasn’t expecting much this time around.
In hindsight, his comment was closer to having a guy tell you he works at a library, only to discover he’s the director of the Library of Congress.
The curtain had been pulled back. And the more I browsed, the more trails I discovered. His tree literally had over 16,000 names, all of them people he was related to.
How did this guy have so much information on so many people?
How bad was Bad Bob?
I found not just birthdays and death dates, as applicable, but what towns they had lived in, photos for many, and so much more. The trees went up for generations. Within a few clicks, I was able to go back more than five centuries, in Bob’s direct maternal or paternal lineage. He had traced lines back to the 1500s, including brothers and sisters; first, second and third cousins; and multiple marriages and the spouses’ children and parents.
How could one guy get this much data? He had told me how he was analytical and loved finding links in ancestry and genealogy, and he just wanted to know more about his family.
Hobby or not, it was beginning to feel like I had tapped into some secret military database on every citizen and my house was about to be raided as the government traced the signal to my laptop.
Even with this incredible resource now available to me, I still wasn’t sure where to look. There were so many names and so few clues. Yet Bad Bob helped out anyway, in whatever way he could. He and I kept looking at potential family members that would be the right age and at the right location. For weeks, we kept exploring possible branches in his family tree.
Despite his nickname, Bad Bob had turned out to be one of the kindest and most helpful people I had ever met. I told him that I’d have to make the two-hour drive to meet him in person once this was all said and done. For now, though, we continued to email clues back and forth as we dug deeper to find my birth mom.
Even though he and I ran into dead ends, he continued to look for links for me, while telling me incredible stories from his own family. This was an amazing family, for sure. It was an interesting search, but I was missing details.
I needed to go to my adoptive mom for more information on my birth mom. She knew I had done the DNA test, and she knew I had received my nationality results, telling me I’m mostly Irish and Italian. And I had told her the closest link was a distant cousin. Now I was going to tell her about Bad Bob, and I’d have to be more direct with my questions to her about my birth family.
It took me several days to build up the courage to ask Mom for help. To be honest, I was afraid of what she would think, and I certainly didn’t want to hurt her feelings. But at the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking about what my biological parents were like.
I had to know.
Finally, one Thursday evening in late June, while sitting at home in my office upstairs, I picked up my phone and called Mom. I shouldn’t have been nervous as I heard it ringing, but there I was, getting butterflies in my stomach, afraid of offending or hurting her just by asking what I was about to ask.
“Good evening,” Mom answered. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” I said, then paused, building up the strength to put the question out there. Once I did let it out, I could barely breathe.
“I had a question for you. I’ve been in touch with someone I met on the DNA site. He’s a third or fourth cousin according to our DNA. He has been very nice in trying to help me search through his family tree to find any closer relatives. But there’s just too many names in his family tree to narrow it down. Do you happen to have my birth certificate? Something with my birth mom’s name on it?”
I paused. I assumed this would be hard for her to talk about and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What she said next surprised me.
“Well, I can tell you that your birth certificate doesn’t have her name on it. It has my name on it and Dad’s name. I have a copy of it around here somewhere.”
I discovered later that she was right. It had been so long since I had seen my birth certificate to get my passport that it slipped my mind. I was also surprised to learn that I had two birth certificates. The one Mom had was my Amended Birth Certificate. It was created after my adoption had been completed and had my adoptive mom and dad’s name. However, I also had an Original Birth Certificate. This one was locked away in Boston’s Registry of Vital Records and was unavailable for me to view without a court order. This certificate would be the one that had my birth mother’s name on it. But at this point in my search, I had no idea I had two different certificates.
So I abandoned this option for the time being and asked if she had any information that might help.
“Hmm. Don’t worry about digging that out then. Do you happen to remember her name?”
“I don’t know her name,” my mom answered. “I never met her. All I remember is her father’s last name.”
“Anything would help. What was it?”
“He was an engineer just outside of Boston,” she said. And then my mom started naming a bunch of letters. After the third letter I realized she was spelling his last name. I quickly jotted the name down on a piece of paper.
“That might help,” I said before thanking her and saying good night.
On the one hand, I worried that she had spelled it out instead of saying it because she was hesitant to even speak the name out loud. On the other hand, I knew she understood how important this was for me and gave it to me to help. Still …
Did she feel the same disappointment and sadness as the father of the prodigal son when asked for his inheritance? Did she now think I wanted to say my goodbye to her family in search of a new family?
I had to let her know that wasn’t my intention. I redialed her number.
“Did you find them that fast?” she asked, half-joking.
“Ha. Right.” I half-joked back, trying to lighten the mood. “I just wanted to say I love you and thank you for helping. This means a lot.”
We talked for a few more minutes and I made a mental note to make a very strong effort to continue making that fact clear over the next few weeks. Even on the unlikely possibility that I found my birth mom, or had the chance to meet her, the mom I grew up with was always going to be my Mom. Never anything less. I wanted to make sure she knew that, too.
It wasn’t until I hung up with her that second time that I really stared at that name on the paper. At that moment, I felt a thud in my chest. That enormous sound of nothing coming from my office was me.
I had seen that name before.
My mind raced backward and forward as though scrubbing through a recording on a reel-to-reel player, searching for that one lost bit of something that was familiar enough to recall, but lost enough that I didn’t know where to look for it. It took me a good minute or two before I could think clearly enough to just let my computer search for me.
I searched back through Bob’s emails and sure enough, there it was. He had brought up that last name as one in a short list to investigate. Had I skipped this name by accident?
I logged back into his genealogy tree to double-check. That’s when I saw it. Staring me right in the face, like one of those posters that first appear to be nothing but a mass of dots, teasing you to let your eyes go out of focus enough to spot the image of a spaceship. Except that now, I didn’t have to cross my eyes to see it. It was right there.
My grandfather’s name.
But Bob’s family tree didn’t have a daughter listed for my grandfather – only a son. That’s why I had passed over them earlier in my search. Bob told me he had conversed with the son. This meant that this person, my grandfather’s son, was my uncle.
My mind quickly jumped back two steps. Bob had told me he had actually spoken with my uncle. Six degrees of separation suddenly imploded to a single name on a computer screen. So Bob’s tree had both my grandfather and my uncle; he just hadn’t uncovered yet that my grandfather had a daughter, too.
At that moment, time stopped. As I stared at the family tree, my imagination envisioned another square slowly appearing under my grandfather’s name and next to my uncle. But there was no name to fill that empty square, the one that belonged to my mother.
I had to know.
I opened up a new browser window and sat staring at the search engine page as I thought about my next step. Do I open up a social media site and see if my uncle has a presence there? Do I email Bob and see about getting in touch with my uncle? Then it hit me. Could it be that simple?
In the search field, I slowly typed my grandfather’s name and the city where I was born. I hit search.
I can’t remember the last time I used an actual yellow pages or white pages telephone book. Everything’s online now, and fast. Would a digital white page pull it off?
Sure enough. The first search result was a direct hit. I clicked to the white page. There it was: my grandfather’s name, plus an address, and even an age and a few possible related names, one of which was my uncle’s name from Bob’s tree.
The age on this white pages listing matched what Bob had. The address was the right town. Could it be him?
And below that were two women’s names. One had an address from the town where I was born, just outside of Boston.
Was that her? Was Laura my mom? My aunt? Who was she?
It was already about 3 or 4 a.m. Friday morning, and I was still wide awake.
The genealogy website Bob and I were using also allowed us to search old yearbooks and newspaper articles. I typed the first woman’s name into the site’s search engine and got a hit on a high school senior yearbook.
Clicking on it, I pulled up the picture: a black-and-white shot of a young girl with straight, dark hair, looking off to the side, smiling.
For the first time in my life, I looked at a picture and saw someone who looked related to me. We had similar cheeks, a similar smile, and similar eyes.
She was family. But what part? Was she my mother? Was she an aunt?
I realized that, since I was pulling an all-nighter, there was a good chance this was just my imagination playing tricks on me. Or worse, I had fallen asleep at my desk and would wake up with a sore neck and realize this was all just a dream.
But morning came and it was still there. A picture of this high school senior that sort of looked like me. I woke up my wife and asked her to look at it. She rubbed her eyes, sat up, looked at it. As an artist, Angie spends so much time looking at faces that she can usually pinpoint someone’s nationality just from their face. She’s like a forensic scientist in that way, picking out tiny details us normal people miss.
“Scott,” she said, “that’s got to be your mom.”
Still, I wanted a second opinion or two. I saved the photo to my phone and went to work.
My search for my biological family had become a part of regular conversation with my friends at work, and when I began showing them this photo, they agreed she was definitely a close relative.
I had to reach out to her and see if she would be able to make the final connection. Sitting at my desk, I pondered how to do this, and all my trepidation came forward again.
What if she isn’t my mom?
What if she is, but she doesn’t want anyone knowing about me?
These questions still kept racing through my head. Independence Day was that upcoming Wednesday. Was I about to set some unwelcome fireworks off in this family? I prayed a long prayer that I wouldn’t destroy a family. I also prayed to God that if it was his will, that this might even be my family.
Without asking there was no way to know exactly who Laura was. There was a chance she was my biological mom, but I couldn’t assume that. She could be an aunt, I thought.
I grabbed a piece of typing paper and a pencil and wrote a letter.
To find out more about my book, Searching For Me, read about it here, and sign up for my email newsletter to read another excerpt.
Hi. I'm Scott Sullivan, a slave of Christ and husband to my awesome wife Angie. I'm an artist and writer,
living in the beautiful countryside of Lancaster, Pa.