What would you do for a Klondike bar?
I grew up in a family on the sensible and pragmatic end of the spectrum in the sensible and pragmatic state of Nebraska. High-end, premium ice cream bars were not a part of my childhood. But the jingle was. I found out later in life that I would go to great lengths for my first Klondike bar.
I’m adopted, and that’s always been a part of my identity. Early on, I remember my parents praising my birth mother’s bravery, selflessness and sacrifice. She was a folk hero in my family. But I didn’t know much about her.
It was a closed adoption. All I had was this blue sheet of paper that said my birth mother was 5-foot-4, thin and white with Irish/German heritage. My birth father was 6-foot-2, handsome, and allegedly from Mexico. I was born in the early hours of March 11, 1979 at Roanoke Community Hospital and adopted three months later.
Every year, my parents and I would pull out this blue sheet of paper and pour over its scant details. One year, they even took me on a vacation to Virginia to try and connect me with my past—going so far as to stop and take my picture in front of the hospital where I was born. During that trip I studied every face for a hint of resemblance.
Based on what little I knew, I always imagined that my birth mother had a solidly middle-class life in a ranch-style home. She would be pretty and have all the good things that she deserved. I daydreamed about when I would meet her and her husband and my siblings. I desperately wanted siblings. I was an only-child growing up in a virtually childless apartment complex.
Despite having the two greatest parents a child could ever hope for, I was filled with an irresistible desire to know my birth family. It’s not mere curiosity. It’s not a need for belonging. It is indescribable.
I waited until I was in graduate school to look for her. I asked my parents for $300 to cover the fee, and they gave it to me. Two months later, I received a letter from the adoption agency saying that the search had failed. I cried. For the first time, I confronted the possibility that I may never fill in this mysterious hole in my life.
I would never get to thank my birth mother for her generosity. I would never have siblings.
The only thing I got out of the search was a heavily redacted copy of the agency’s entire file on my adoption. It felt like a treasure trove of information at first, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Upon closer inspection, though, there was one critical piece of information that had been poorly blacked-out. I held the paper up to the light and my birth mother’s first name appeared. It was beautiful.
But I still didn’t know how to find her. Maybe I could write to the newspapers around Roanoke and send letters to Dear Abby and Ann Landers. I could hire a private investigator. Or maybe “Unsolved Mysteries” would take my case.
I went back to my adoption file and pulled out the redacted documents. I had gone over these papers like a thousand times. I don’t know why I thought looking once more would make a difference, but this time, I noticed something new. The name of her high school was two words long. And the black marker didn’t quite cover the two loops on the first letter of the first word.
During the adoption process, the social worker in charge of my case had hinted to my dad that my birth mother was from Danville, Virginia, a town more than 1,000 miles from where I grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska. Following that clue, I went to the city website. There I found Danville had a school named George Washington.
If only I could get my hands on an old yearbook, maybe I could find her. Thanks to a Danville librarian, weeks later, I received a letter in the mail. Inside was a folded-up photocopy of a yearbook page. Despite having never seen her, I found my birth mother’s face right away. Now I had a last name.
From there, I tracked her down using inexpensive Internet searches.
A few months later, I flew to Jacksonville, Florida to meet my birth mother and three of my four maternal-half-siblings. I was so nervous stepping off of the plane that I worried I might faint. As I walked through the airport, I heard someone say, “You were going to walk right past me, weren’t you?” I turned and saw her, my birth mother, the family folk hero. I didn’t know what to do, so I gave her a hug. I spent the next several days getting to know her, shooting hoops with my half-siblings, going to the beach and eating home-cooked corned beef and cabbage.
But it was hard to overlook the fact that they lived in a rundown neighborhood, of mobile and modular homes. Her marriage was in trouble. Her kids were struggling. And they washed their dishes in a bathtub. It was the kind of place where you learn, at a young age, that the best way to get away from aggressive, unleashed dogs was to climb on top of a car.
After leaving Jacksonville, I kept in sporadic contact with them. Eventually, my birth mother asked me to help her and my two youngest half-siblings start a new life. They moved to Grand Island, Nebraska.
A family friend gave them a great rate on a three-bedroom apartment. I paid the deposit and six months rent, and my parents gave them several hundred dollars to help them get established, too. I gave them my car and warm clothes including some requisite Cornhuskers gear. My dad found jobs for my birth mom and my half-sister. We enrolled the 16-year-old in high school.
We celebrated Christmas together like one big happy family at my parents’ house. I got to be a part of the homecoming celebration when my oldest half-brother returned from his deployment in Afghanistan. We went roller-skating and bar-hopping. It was nice.
But more often than not, their days consisted of wishing they still lived in Florida, hating work, not attending school, abusing painkillers, smoking pot from a popcan and watching movies using my Netflix account.
As soon as my rent money ran out, my birth mother began dropping hints that she was going to quit her job. I told her that I would not be able to help her more than I already did. She checked herself into a crisis center that generously gave her several hundred dollars in vouchers so they could buy groceries.
Other members of my biological family warned me that she was “troubled.” I warned them that she was going to be on the move again soon. And I had a hunch that she would latch on to her father next. He had a nice retirement income, and he was quickly becoming senile.
One Friday night, my birth mother called me, claiming that my oldest half-brother had an accident and desperately needed money. I didn’t help. Three days later, I got a call from her landlord. Her apartment had been trashed and abandoned. I had to go clean it up.
I got there and saw the sad remnants of their brief time in my life. There was trash everywhere, dirty clothes on the floor and a few illicit substances found under the living room chairs. Another parting gift was my half-brother’s fan letter to an incarcerated rap artist. The gifts I had given them when they arrived in Nebraska were laid out in the center of one of the bedrooms.
They also left behind two and a half packages of Oreos, a small mountain of Ramen noodles and three full boxes of Twinkies, including the limited edition Shrek-themed ones with green filling. I knew my three kids were going to be psyched about this.
But when I opened the freezer, I found it had all been worthwhile. There, before my eyes, were two unopened boxes of Klondike bars.
In the past seven years since then, my only way of keeping track of my birth mother and half-siblings has been through looking up criminal records in Duval County, Florida. She spent eight months in jail for stealing about $40,000 from her father before he died. My youngest brother spent two years in jail for kidnapping and assault. My sister was recently arrested for stealing power tools. She is awaiting trial.
Despite all of this, not finding my birth family was never an option. However, I have been left with a far greater appreciation for the home my parents have always provided me.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.
Our next show is Friday, December 1 at ISU Design West in downtown Sioux City. We’ll have live music by Jessica Zepeda, starting at 7 p.m., followed by stories about “Holiday Joy & Mayhem.” Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.