My writing serendipity started when I was sick in bed at age seven. My Dad handed me a book with a spine that said Random House. “A publisher created this wonderful book for you,” Dad said. An electric sensation filled me. The idea of writing a book seemed magical.
Writing a book became my lifelong hope, while being adopted was my deep dark secret. Maybe I was from another planet, here on a covert mission. If I stayed undercover, no one would know my true identity. I wondered if my teachers knew. At the store, if another customer stared at me, I would speculate whether we could be related.
I wrote stories in my head. My heroines battled poverty, ghosts and black-robed villains. They could fly or become invisible. None of them were adopted.
When a story I wrote was unexpectedly cut from the sixth grade literary magazine. My Dad “published” it for me on his office mimeograph machine. Seeing my words in print brought a rising thrill inside that was exactly opposite to the mysterious uneasiness I felt when a school medical form asked whether my family had specific medical conditions. I had no answer. Maybe the planet I was from had no medical conditions.
I wrote for the junior high, high school and college newspapers. Pure ecstasy was seeing my byline in print. In high school, I had a rocky relationship with a boyfriend. We both knew we’d never get married, but couldn’t let go. He told me about a movie, Raintree County, where Elizabeth Taylor’s character discovers she is half black. ‘That could be you!” he taunted. Could I be biracial rather than interplanetary? Our relationship ended shortly afterwards. My parents reassured me that “the right person” wouldn’t consider my adoption a serious issue.
For the first time, I was curious. By what mysterious path did I get here? When I was twenty-one, my Dad gave me my adoption decree. Illegally and irrationally, my birth mother’s name was left on the document. I searched for her and we spoke on the phone. While my adoption was my deep dark secret, my existence was the skeleton in her closet. After speaking with her I still felt rootless and alien, despite our bond of shared secrecy.
My unconventional background led me to write about controversy. Polygamy, nudists, Montana Freemen. I could relate to all of them, but never told them why. More than two hundred articles passed through my word processor. Financial columns, profile articles, how-to and investigative pieces. My affinity for the unconventional always lingered in the background along with my own secret mystery of wondering who I was.
Then the serendipity shifted. It felt like I was jumping into a cold pond when I wrote my first adoption reunion story. When the initial interview hit a silent spot, I volunteered that I was adopted. The interviewee and I shared a common bond. I wrote other reunion stories. Soon people I interviewed all across the country knew I was adopted, though I didn’t tell most friends I’d known for years.
I wrote about Kellie and Shauna, two women who realized they were mothers to the same child in a counseling session. I wrote about Rulon Pudlewski, an adopted man who went into seclusion one week each year to soul search and contemplate his lifelong secret.
Serendipity kicked in again when I met Terry Wesley. Terry spent twenty-three years longing for the son he’d never seen. Terry was a high school senior when his girlfriend became pregnant. They talked about plans for a wedding and future family. Terry’s own parents accepted the idea of a future marriage. But when he called his girlfriend, he received an emotional jolt. “They gave her two options-adoption or abortion. They said she could have no further contact with me,” he remembers.
Terry learned when his son was born. His excitement was tempered when he realized he would never see him. “Losing contact really tore me up at first. I’m kind of a sensitive guy and it ate at me, he said, vividly remembering sleepless nights while he cried himself to sleep as he struggled to cope with his painful loss.
Terry first made me think of my own birth father-a man my birth mother didn’t want me to be too curious about. She thought a few crumbs would satisfy me. One fact in particular was given. “I told you his last name, didn’t I?” she asked once. “Oh-yeah, you did,” I said, not wanting to spoil the moment.
“Yeah-just like Elvis Presley. They might be related…”
“Presley-” I say, fighting the surprise this revelation gives me.
“Yeah-Presley,” she says, laughing. “And his first name was Harold. He was from Tennessee.”
Most adoptees look for birth fathers as an afterthought. Birth fathers are stereotypically responsible for the pain and urgency of the adoption. They’re thought of as men who ruin women’s lives and abandon their children.
I pictured such a man abandoning me again, if I ever tried to talk to him. I visualized myself traveling to his office so his wife wouldn’t know. I imagined him taking one look and saying, “Get outta here kid. Ya bother me.”
As years passed, I’d furtively look up the name Presley every once in a while. I’m a writer and researcher. I know how to find things. I called military records. The man who answered found two Harold Presleys. “This one died in 1962-can’t be him. But there is another one out there.”
The information came in slivers and chunks, all of which I sifted. Two years ago, I put off researching the Presleys until after Christmas. There were gifts to buy, Christmas cards to address. But then I felt an odd and unmistakable shove.
Then serendipity entwined my mystery and my dream. Searching for a new reunion story, I phoned International Locator-an organization that searches for birth parents. Vice president Arliene Dunn just happened to answer the phone. IL is a huge company with a bank of switchboard operators. The company president says Arliene never answers their phone. But she picked it up the day I called.
We hit it off immediately, finding touchstones in our lives. She lives in Florida, my birth mother’s home. I live in Utah, where her children were. We were raised in the same religious faith and are both adopted. It was like someone who knew us grasped our two telephone wires and wrapped them around each other. Trust grew. Serendipity stepped in again. Arliene was looking for someone to write a book about reunions their company had orchestrated. It wasn’t long before I was under contract to write a book for a national market. I was stunned that the topic was adoption, the secret I planned to carry to my grave. Now I hoped to shout it from the housetops in articles, interviews and book signings.
That same month, I happened on an unusual book. The title was just “Presley Pressley” and it was a genealogist’s book about the Presley family. The author was Marlene Webb of Adrian ,Texas. I wrote to her-and she sent back a genealogical chart listing a Harold Presley who died in 1962. I thought to myself, “No. My birth father is alive. He can’t die before I meet him.”
During the 10:00 news following a Sunday night movie two months later, my phone rang. Marlene’s voice quavered with emotion. “We think that the Harold Presley on the chart is the right source. I talked to his sister. She said as soon as I told her, she just knew it was her brother you were looking for. She called her other sister. They both said you can call any of them any time.”
I phoned Rhoda that same day. “I didn’t know anything about you, but I’m sure glad to hear from you,” were her first words. We danced around our conversation, wondering if we could really be connected. I recited a sentence from my birth mother’s first letter.
“She said he went home and married his old girlfriend, which was why they didn’t marry.”
Rhoda paused. “No. He never married.”
So we still weren’t sure. After a moment, Rhoda said, “Marlene Webb asked if he was ever in Florida. I didn’t remember that he was. But Mama saved every letter he wrote. I looked in her old trunk and there were letters from there. He was in Florida in 1952.”
“I was born in 1953.”
We both waited.
Somehow, after the moment passed, we agreed to exchange photos. I gathered lots of pictures. Of me and my children at different ages.
After what seemed like an eternity, a letter with a Memphis postmark arrived. Two black and white photos of a man in an Army uniform. I showed the pictures to my oldest son, Aaron. “Who do you think this is?” I asked.
He paused. I heard him inhale before he said, “Mom, you have his face.”
“He’s dead-” I said, as a cloak of grief abruptly draped me. I suddenly felt the same sensitivity Rhoda felt when she told me. My birth father’s death was termed “mysterious.” After a life of military stations in foreign countries, he died in New Orleans at the age of 31. Harold Presley lived fast, died young and left a good-looking corpse.
From what I can tell, Harold lived an life in foreign locales and came home only to visit, unlike his brothers and sisters who married, had families, and mostly stayed in Arkansas. His life, like his death, was mysterious. And from the way things looked, he had a secret daughter who lived hundreds of miles away who loved mystery, too.
Somehow I couldn’t wait for Rhoda’s thoughts about the pictures I sent. I probably called the day she got them. “Do you see any resemblance?” I asked. She paused. “Oh, yes. You have his eyes. And your little girl looks like Mama.”
The day I left to meet the Presleys, I mailed my publisher a draft of my book, “Together Again: True Stories of Birth Parents and Adopted Children Reunited.” The book was released this past June, a year after I met my birth mother in a tearful reunion before traveling to meet my birth father’s family. They knew things about me that I didn’t know-that my face sweats the same as my aunt’s and grandmother’s and that my hand is shaped like their cousin’s in California. It seemed miraculous that while I was writing stories about other family’s adoption reunions, my own reunion was also taking place. The serendipity that began was I was seven years old had now gone full circle.
What usually happens after long lost birth parents and adoptees meet? The process completes everyone says Salt Lake City adoption detective Sharlene Lightfoot. She adds that as the relationship continues, there are adjustments and ups and downs. Occasionally, one party will want a closer relationship than the other. “Most often, the outcome is a good friend,” she says. Adoptive parents increasingly take part helping their children search. Meeting birth parents isn’t the taboo it used to be, and numerous adoptions today are open from the beginning. Lightfoot explains the motivation and hope of those separated by adoption in three short sentences. “They really just want to say, ‘Hello again. I’m here and I’d love to know you. I want to tell you that things turned out okay.'”
Carolyn Campbell is the author of Together Again: True Stories Of Birth Parents and Adopted Children Reunited.