Sue Smith first learned that she was adopted at the age of 12, recalling that her mom loved her very much and had put off the day for as long as possible. She was afraid she would lose Sue, or that the relationship between them would change significantly. Smith says it was shocking to find out at that point and that she experienced some numbness and confusion. Ultimately, she came to the conclusion that despite her situation, she was loved by her adoptive parents and she felt fortunate for that. However, the lingering uncertainty of her background led Smith on a lifelong journey to discover her biological family, starting first with her mother Beatrice, followed by her search for siblings and cousins. Smith recently shared her story with her neighbors and friends at The Terraces of Boise, the senior living community in which she resides. Hers is the story of finding her family at the age of 70 and what this journey continues to mean to her each and every day.
“When I learned that I was adopted it changed everything, and yet it changed nothing,” said Smith. “I coped with this internally for many years before starting my search for my biological mother in my early 40s. The search began with a rare clue, the agency from which I was adopted had registered letters from the social worker to my adoptive parents, letters which contained their names and addresses at the time of the adoption. This never happens and those letters should have been sealed. Those letters were the starting clue for me and my husband when we began our search in Whitman, Mass., which was an hour south of Boston. I grew up only an hour north of Boston. We had been relatively close for all those years.”
Smith and her husband traveled to the town hall and began searching through the registered voting records and followed her biological mother, Beatrice, all the way up until the 1970s, when they lost her trail. When they asked the clerk if he had any more information, he went to a drawer, came back and announced she had remarried and her last name was now “Smith,” same as Sue’s married last name, which she felt was ironic. They followed her new name through the voting records but lost her in the mid-80s. Sue’s husband suggested they check the post office for a forwarding address, and sure enough she had moved into a skilled nursing community one town over in Abington. They drove there and met with the executive director.
“I saw my mother at a distance in the background for the first time that day and went home feeling traumatized,” said Smith. “I had shown letters and certificates of proof to the executive director, who contacted Beatrice’s lawyer on my behalf. The lawyer contacted me to arrange a meeting. As my husband and I pulled into the parking lot of the lawyer’s office for the meeting, we all arrived at the same time. When attorney Janet Cole got out of the car and saw me, she gasped, for she could see the resemblance of Beatrice, and my father, Franklyn Dobbins, in me.”
No one in her mother’s family knew about Sue because Beatrice felt guilty about not feeling equipped to raise a child at the age of 41. Beatrice’s husband was 63 when Sue was born, and he did not want to start over and raise more children. They gave Sue to the Boston Children’s Friend Society as they were not able to handle this additional responsibility.
“I believe it is coincidental that I found my mother at the age of 41, the very age at which my mother gave birth to me,” said Smith. “I visited with Beatrice for two and a half years before the guilt set in and she closed me out again. I learned much during this time though, and I received the closure I needed. I learned that my mother hadn’t been happy with my father for quite some time, as he was a charm bucket and a “Romeo” who hurt her very deeply. He passed away several years before in a similar skilled nursing community. Despite her ill feelings, she stayed married to him and by his side all that time leading up to his death. He had his own children from his first marriage, and I later connected with these siblings.”
In 1987, Beatrice’s lawyer gave Smith a piece of paper with the names and addresses of her half-siblings from her father’s first marriage. She got in touch with those that were still living and introduced herself, explaining the story and supplementing it with the appropriate facts and documents. She eventually met all three siblings, and Smith said she was openly and lovingly accepted, though it felt empty to call each other brother and sister when they had gone so long without knowing the other existed. Fast forward to November of last year, when Smith got another itch to see if she could find more of her family. It bothered her that she knew Beatrice had older siblings, and since she couldn’t get an answer from Beatrice, she resorted to Ancestry.com and began developing her family tree.
“Last year, a fellow Ancestry.com user, Martha Heckman, and I reached out to each other, asking me if I was adopted,” said Smith. “I said, ‘My goodness, yes.’ Then we discovered that I was the second cousin of her husband, Bob Heckman. We talked several times after that, exchanging photographs and documents. Bob admits that he remembers his grandmother going to the hospital to visit a relative who was giving birth, but that he didn’t know who the relative was or what had come of them. It had been Beatrice giving birth to me. Bob finally had his mystery solved 70 years later. Bob and Martha connected me with other second cousins – Dale Heckle and her brother, Rex Johnson, in Rochester, NY - and my family tree has been blossoming. I set up meetings with my family across the country and I am so thankful for the kind people who helped me put it together.”
After her husband passed in 1999 from brain cancer, Smith kept in touch with close friends, but having been united with long-lost family members excites her. She feels connected to them in a way she never expected, and she feels loved. Now she is sharing her journey in hopes of inspiring other people who have unanswered questions and are seeking their family, and in a broader sense to encourage people to never give up.
“Sue’s story is an astounding one, and we are grateful for her openness and willingness to share it with fellow residents in the community,” said Jud Severns, executive director of The Terraces of Boise. “She truly is an inspiration to never lose hope. We have discussed scheduling a similar presentation at the local library where we have developed a working partnership. Our goal is to have residents Iike Sue host activities, discussion groups or presentations so that interested people may attend. We are excited to watch this partnership grow and flourish.”