Joan’s Story

Hello Carolyn,

My name is Jane and I am an adoptee-helper. I know this probably sounds a bit weird, but I’m calling because I’m assisting a man who may be a close relative of yours and I was hoping for a few moments of your time to help me help him.

I would greatly appreciate if you could give me a call back.  I hope to hear from you. Thanks again.

I always write down what I’m going to say before I pick up the phone.

I didn’t expect her to answer. Usually, people let calls from unfamiliar numbers go to voicemail. If my message sounded too polished, she might think I’m trying to sell her something. If I rambled or sounded too excited, I could scare her off. I didn’t want to be mistaken for a telemarketer or a lunatic, though some might suggest I’m a bit of both.

I was calling to tell Carolyn she has a half-brother named Robert.

In a sense, I hoped to “sell” Carolyn on the idea of having a half-brother. I was also hoping to explain how I arrived at this discovery (by using DNA evidence and public records), without sounding completely out of my tree.

After leaving the message, I took another look at Carolyn’s Facebook page. I’d stumbled upon it a few days earlier, and Robert agreed I should be the one to call, rather than him. She shared very little information publicly, but I could see a few profile photos. The stunning blonde who appeared several years younger than her chronological age, had an equally beautiful family. With their synchronized poses and idyllic backgrounds, their family portraits could have been used to sell picture frames.

How would she respond to the news? Would she reply at all?

I emailed Robert to let him know I had left the message. We waited.

I had been assisting Robert for several weeks. It all began on on May 7th, 2018, when I received the following email:

23andMe Notifications <donotreply@23andme.com>

—-

From: A Relative

Hi Jackie,

I’m 62 and looking for my biological mother and family. I was privately adopted at birth. Recently I learned her name is/was Elizabeth and would have been 15 or 16 at the time. Possibly, she was living in the Long Island, NY area. I have no paternal information. Do you have any information that could help?

Thank you,

Robert

The message was intended for my good friend and honorary grandma, Jackie. We met a few years ago when my children and I began volunteering at the retirement home where she lives.

I didn’t expect Jackie to take such an interest in my work helping adoptees, but she has become my sounding board for almost every case. Jackie’s recollection of mid-century mores and culture has helped me to better understand these cases from the perspective of the biological parents.

When my honorary grandma asked if she could submit her own DNA sample, I provided her a test kit from the company 23andme. She hoped it might be useful to someone searching for unknown family, but also hoped to learn more about her own heritage. A few weeks later, Jackie’s results came back. I verified her known ancestors, located a few of her distant cousins, and followed Jackie’s family tree back far enough to discover her 8th great-grandfather, Edward Doty,1 had signed the Mayflower Compact.2.

Within a few weeks, the email from Robert arrived. Not only had DNA testing helped Jackie learn more about her own family, but it also connected her to Robert. Though they aren’t close relatives, it was Jackie’s data that led Robert to me, the administrator of her account.

Robert was born in New Jersey on August 4th,1955. A few days later, his adoptive parents brought him into their home. They adored their blue-eyed baby boy, and although they didn’t hide the fact that he was adopted, they didn’t encourage him to seek out his biological family.

By the 1940s, most states had passed laws prohibiting adoptees from accessing their original birth certificates. In 2017, that law was changed.  Armed with what he believed to be the name of his mother and the names of some people 23andme had predicted to be his genetic relatives, Robert began his search anew.

He wanted to meet the woman who gave birth to him at Paterson General Hospital all those years ago and wished to thank her for her bringing him into the world. Robert, who grew up as an only child, also hoped to find a sibling.

The gray boxes were added by me.

Robert searched public records for a woman named Elizabeth, who would have been born around 1940, but was unable to find her. The doctor who delivered Robert, and arranged for his private adoption, was named Victor Desmet.

Victor was a close friend of Robert’s adoptive parents and had been their family doctor well into the 1970s. The doctor told Robert he was of German descent and that his mother was from a well-respected Long Island family. Desmet had promised them anonymity and he intended to keep that promise. Dr. Desmet died in 1990, without ever revealing the identity of Robert’s mother.

While looking for clues, I found evidence of Dr. Desmet’s involvement in at least one other private adoption. On an adoptee registry website, I found the public profile of a woman who had also been delivered by Dr. Desmet. She was born in 1949, at Paterson General Hospital. I sent her a message, but as of this writing, I haven’t yet received a reply.

It’s fair to say Dr. Desmet helped arrange speedy adoptions for at least a few of his clients. In the 1940s and 1950s, adoption grew in popularity, but childless couples far outnumbered available newborns. Social agencies’ procedures and bureaucratic red-tape often left infants in foster care for six months or longer while prospective parents waited.

Robert and his adoptive parents, 1955.

Private adoptions like Robert’s, offered couples the ability to side-step many of the hurdles put in place by traditional adoptions. Dr. Desmet and others like him, could avoid the foster care system entirely by placing newborns directly into their adoptive homes. In some cases,  an unwed mother was given information about the family who would be raising her baby.

Robert encountered one significant obstacle while searching for his mother. The name printed on his birth certificate was not quite correct. According to the document, her name was Elizabeth. She was 15 years old and living in Paterson, NJ, at the time of Robert’s birth. We later learned her real name was Joan Elizabeth, and Paterson was only her temporary residence. Maybe this was just an oversight, or perhaps Dr. Desmet purposely used Joan’s middle name as an alias. Either way, searching for a woman named Elizabeth was not going to lead Robert to his birth mother.

DNA provided the clues to fill in the blanks on Robert’s birth certificate. By comparing his genetic data to millions of other people who had tested with 23andme, Ancestry, and Family Tree DNA, we were able to identify his father. In 1955, he was 18 years old and living in a small town north of New York City. We didn’t yet know if Robert’s father was alive or dead, but knowing his identity meant we were getting close to finding his mother.

Robert recalled,

I hoped we would find out before Mother’s Day. I had said to my wife Lou Ann days earlier, “Jane’s going to find my paternal side first,” but I wanted to find my birth Mother — the woman who carried me.

Knowing where his father went to high school, I figured we had a good chance of finding his mother by looking through old yearbooks. Before long, I found a woman named Joyce who had the same last name as Joan.  Joyce would have been 18 when Robert was born, so I figured she wasn’t his mother. Perhaps she had a younger sister.

Paging through photos of neatly-dressed, perfectly-polished high-schoolers from this affluent suburb, I imagined it wasn’t the sort of place a 15-year-old girl could easily hide an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But who was Robert’s mother and why was Robert born in Paterson, New Jersey?

It was late in the evening on June 7th, 2018, exactly one month after receiving Robert’s initial email. I had nearly run out of yearbook pages, when I finally found her.

Joan, born in 1940, would have been 15 when Robert was born. She was attending the same high school as the man I had already identified as Robert’s father. DNA matches to several of Joan’s distant cousins helped substantiate my assertion that this was indeed Robert’s mother.

Though we now knew who Robert’s mother was, this discovery was bittersweet. Soon after finding Joan’s yearbook photo, I found her obituary. I contacted Robert to let him know his mother died in 1992.

I was very saddened to learn my birth Mother passed away so young.

I didn’t get the chance to talk to her or send her a message telling her I was okay.

Robert would not be able to contact his mother, but her obituary contained some hopeful information. It mentioned that Joan had one other child, a baby girl born in 1970. Her name was Carolyn.

Finding out I had a sister, I was absolutely thrilled. I’m glad it was a sister. Would she be like my birth Mother? I always wanted a sibling. I knew they had to be out there, but wondered if I would ever meet them.

I remember worrying if the voicemail I left for Robert’s half-sister sounded too polished or too erratic. I wondered if Carolyn had any idea she might have a half-brother out there somewhere. I hoped she would return my call.

Fortunately, she did.

In Carolyn’s own words:

When I received the voicemail from Jane … she thought she had found a distant male relative. I had been told many years ago that my mother, a teenager at the time, had had a baby boy that was given up for adoption.

Once hearing the message, my mind immediately went to that. I called her back and Jane was able to tell me details that only my aunt Joyce knew, I knew the connection was valid.

I sent Carolyn a copy of Robert’s birth certificate and much of the data I had collected that led me to Joan. She asked if she could call me back the next day. She needed a night to process this information. She called her aunt (Joyce from the yearbook) to tell her about Robert.

Carolyn and Robert spoke on the phone a few days later.

I asked how Carolyn felt about hearing the news and what it was like speaking to her brother for the first time.

I was overwhelmed with the prospect of having a brother. Once I agreed to talk to Robert, it was a surreal experience. Even in the first phone conversation, we discovered likenesses — our the love of the ocean, and how Robert inherited his maternal grandmother’s blue eyes.

Joan didn’t talk about her firstborn child. It wasn’t a topic she ever discussed with her sister, nor did she ever mention the experience to her daughter.  Robert had many questions about his mother, and Joyce and Carolyn shared what they knew to help answer them as best they could.

First and foremost, Robert wondered what his mother was like. Her daughter had plenty of fond memories.

Joan had an infectious personality. Everyone she spoke to and came into contact with her felt like they were the most important person in the room.  She had a gift of story telling, also. She was captivating when she would tell any type of story.  She was very funny and fun-loving.

Joan and Carolyn, Ocean City, NJ, circa 1970

My mother was like her own mother, very musical.  She played the piano on a daily basis, loved to dance and to sing to music on the radio.  Our home always had music playing.

We had a stereo and hundreds of records to play constantly.  A fond memory I have of my parents was after they took dance lessons together; they would put on disco music and dance in our family room.

Joan and Carolyn, Circa 1988

She also had a quiet, sensitive side. Carolyn continued,

Joan loved animals … Many afternoons, she would go to the Humane Society just to pet the animals.

She wanted them to feel loved.

After years of wondering who his biological mother was, Robert had finally found out, and was learning more and more about her through the memories of her daughter and sister.

Joyce generously shared a bit more of their family history.

Joan, Joyce, and their older sister Lois, were the daughters of Reuben, a New York City textile executive, and Grace, a University of Pennsylvania graduate and classically-trained violinist and pianist.

Ocean City, circa 1948. Front row (left-right): Joan, Lois, Joyce. Grace is on the far-right standing behind Joyce.

[Grace] was the sweetest, kindest, God-loving, person, who fiercely loved her children and grandchildren above all else. She was the closest to a Saint I’ve ever met and I still miss her every day.  Our father too, loved us to much and was singing, dancing, joking fun-loving man who would play games with us and kid with us.

Grace’s grandfather built several homes on Ocean Avenue in Ocean City, NJ, in the early 1900s. Her family returned to those homes every summer for generations. Joan’s summers were spent sailing in the ocean and falling asleep to the sounds of the seashore outside her bedroom window.

Somehow, perhaps, Joan passed her love of the seashore along to her children. Both Carolyn and Robert had chosen to raise their families near the ocean.

Joan grew up with music and laughter and family. She was loved.

The question remained — How did Joan end up in Paterson, New Jersey, in August 1955.

Joyce shared her perspective on that summer.

Joan’s situation at the time was totally taboo in those days, they feared it would ruin her life and they didn’t want her to suffer disgrace or be ostracized … They arranged with our trusted doctor for her to live in a real family home for 4 or 5 months. It was only about and hour away.

[Our parents] visited her a couple of times a week or more then and spent weekends with her in NJ, too.  They missed her dreadfully during those months.

Unlike many other young women “in trouble” in the 1950s, Joan was fortunate to have a supportive family and connections to Dr. Desmet. Joan was able to finish out her pregnancy in the home of her doctor’s friends in Paterson, rather than in a maternity hospital.

Joan’s parents, both quite clever and creative, concocted an elaborate ruse to keep her home as long as they could. When she began to show, they convinced the school Joan had mononucleosis. All of her homework and tests were sent home to be completed. After the school year ended, Joan “recovered” from mono. Her parents told everyone she went off to summer camp in New England.  

Though most of Robert’s questions have been answered, we’ll never know exactly what the summer of 1955 was like for Joan. Instead of dwelling on the past, though, Robert and Carolyn will look toward the future. In each of them, a piece of their mother lives on.

Robert and Carolyn, Ocean City, NJ, June 24th, 2018

I wasn’t able to figure out how Robert is related to my “grandma” Jackie, but she was thrilled to receive a thank you card from her new distant-cousin Robert in the mail.

I want to thank Robert and Carolyn for inviting me to tag along the the day they finally met in-person and Joyce for contributing her memories to this story. I wish them all the best of luck and hope they have many more phone calls and family reunions.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Doty
  2. https://www.history.com/topics/mayflower-compact

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