Authors: Debbie White
As planned, we made a trip to the telephone company and the cable company. Afterward, we went and had lunch. Charles said it was a good way to get to know our surroundings. I felt I already knew my way around, but Charles didn’t.
We ordered sandwiches and fries and sipped on freshly brewed iced tea. As we ate, we went over our strategy regarding the search for information about my parents.
We agreed the first thing we’d do is go to the old neighborhood where the pool hall was. We’d lived in a few places in that town so we’d check them all out. Charles wanted to drive by the farm where my aunt and uncle lived too. We’d looked up my maiden name in the telephone book and saw several families with the name. Charles said we’d do some cold calling. I was a little afraid of that, but I followed his lead.
As Charles made his way around town and toward the location of the pool hall, I recalled another memory. Next door was another building and upstairs was a dance hall. On the weekend, my parents and their friends, with kids in tow, would go there. As the parents danced, we children would sit around and play jacks, and watch our parents laugh and be loud. I wondered if the old building was still there.
As we approached the address where the pool hall was, Charles slowly drove by checking his map and notes to make sure we were in the right place. Everything looked different than I remembered it.
“Is this the lot?” I asked looking back to the Seven-Eleven gas station as he kept driving.
“Yes, I believe so,” he said making a U-turn and heading back to the gas station. He pulled into the parking lot and parked the car.
I immediately got out and looked around as if to get my bearings of where I was. Nothing looked the same. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the placement of our apartment, and the building next door to us.
I attempted to recall what was across the street and down the block. I remembered the large hill that was behind my house that we used to go sleigh riding on. I walked briskly to the other side of the gas station to see it. It was there but didn’t appear as big as I’d remembered it. Children always remember things bigger I suppose.
Across the street, where my wealthy friend, Lisa lived was now an apartment building.
“They tore everything down,” I said sadly.
“That’s progress for you,” Charles muttered as he reached out to take my hand.
A tear formed in my eye and I brushed it away. It was too soon for tears. We’d only just started the search.
We drove out to the last address I had for Uncle George and Aunt Toot’s farmhouse. There among rows of corn stood an old farmhouse. Paint peeling from the boards, and a front porch that had seen better days, the old farmhouse was much smaller than I remembered. Surrounding the farmhouse were stalks of corn, and other vegetables growing, and in the distance, a fenced in area for the pigs and other livestock. This was a real working farm.
We drove up to the front of the house and got out of the car. Before either of us could step foot onto the porch, the screen door flew open and a woman about my age wearing an apron greeted us.
“Hello,” I stammered.
She stood stone cold looking at us.
“Hi, wondered if you could help us. We’re looking for some folks,” Charles said.
“Who might that be?” She asked suspiciously.
Charles looked at me, and then he directed his attention back to the woman on the porch. “The Bowman’s. We’re looking for the Bowman family.”
She looked at me, and then she looked at Charles.
“There’s no one here by that name,” she said as she made her way back inside, letting the screen door slam behind her.
Charles took my hand. I was shaking and he knew very well that this incident had upset me.
“I don’t think she’s telling the truth, but we’ll let it go - for now,” he said as he walked us toward the car.
We drove in silence for a while. Finally, I had to say something. “What makes you think she’s not telling the truth?”
“Well for one, she wasn’t very friendly. Most Iowans are very friendly. She wanted to get rid of us. You’d usually pick up on that, Pat. You have excellent investigative and instinctive skills,” he added smiling.
“You’re right. I felt her uneasiness with our presence. I suppose it’s too close to home.”
“That’s Ok, that’s why you brought me along,” he said, gently squeezing my hand.
“We may be searching for a needle in a haystack, Charles. Aunt Toots and Uncle George left Iowa before we did. That old farmhouse has probably changed owners a zillion times,” I said looking out the car window at row after row of corn. Charles just kept driving.
“See all these rows of corn? We used to run and hide among the stalks. We were dirt poor, but we had so much fun in those days. We didn’t really know we were poor or at least we didn’t care,” I said, smiling about the days I played on the farm.
Sometimes I felt Charles couldn’t relate to my stories. His family was pretty well off. His dad was a big shot in the car industry in Michigan. Charles was educated and had military experience. I was a dumb farm girl from Iowa.
He must have been deep in thought as he finally spoke up. “I realize that maybe the lady doesn’t know anything about your family, but I still think in a small town such as this, stories still float around or are passed down from family to family. I think she might know a little something.”
I turned to him and although his eyes remained on the road, I spoke to his face. “Whenever you say enough is enough I’ll be ready to leave too.”
He cut his face sharply to look at me. “We just got here, Pat. Give it time. Besides, we’re retired now. This is for fun. Relax. Take a chill pill,” he said laughing.
Although he didn’t see it, I nodded.
“Let’s go look for the convent,” I said with the enthusiasm I knew he wanted.
It always amazed me how my mother could be so mean and evil yet at one time was a nun. At least that’s the story that had been handed down to me.
We had wooden crosses that hung on the walls of our house, we blessed all our meals, and we said prayers before going to bed at night. Sundays we’d all go to church and by Sunday evening the gang would be drinking, cursing and playing cards. Talk about hypocrisy.
We located the convent. I felt nervous as we entered the building. I’m not sure why, except that we were about to find out some things.
We were greeted by a young lady dressed in a habit smiling ear to ear.
“Hello. How can I help you?” She asked.
I let Charles speak. I wasn’t sure I had the courage to ask the difficult questions yet.
“Hello, we’re hoping you can help us,” he smoothly replied. “My wife,” he said nodding in my direction, “has some information that shows her adoptive mother perhaps once lived here as a teen,” Charles said, presenting a copy of the consensus.
The sister took the paper and looked it over. She seemed to look at it for a long time. Perhaps she was trying to decide how to handle the awkward situation we’d placed her in. Thinking back on that day, I’m sure we couldn’t have been the only couple ever seeking answers from that convent before. I couldn’t be the only lost child trying to find answers.
She looked up at us, first looking at me, and then directing her eyes to Charles.
“We keep records of everyone who’s lived here. At one time, we were an orphanage and housed many children. It could be that your mother,” she said glancing over at me, “was in our orphanage and the consensus doesn’t clearly show that.”
I spoke up. “My mother told me she was a nun here at this convent.” Then I added, “In fact, many family members corroborated that as well.”
The sister looked at me for a long time. “Well, if that’s true, we’d have records stating that as well. Do you have a telephone number? This information will take some time to gather. I’ll contact you as soon as I have something.”
We gave the sister our newly assigned telephone number and thanked her for her time.
On the drive back to our rented bungalow, Charles asked me again about my mother and her being a nun.
“Families have a way of glorifying things or embellishing to make them easier to believe or accept,” he said after I finished telling him everything I remembered.
I thought about what he said. “Yes, and children sometimes don’t remember everything exactly correct,” I said looking over at him.
I got what he was saying. He was trying to tell me, in a nice way, that either I remembered the nun story wrong, or my family lied to me.
“Well, I’m ready for whatever the sister finds out,” I finally said.
“Let’s plan on driving to the newspaper office tomorrow. There might be more than one article regarding your mysterious entrance to your parents’ house that day.”
The next morning, after coffee and toast, Charles and I hit the road to the newspaper office. He had a good idea. Maybe more than one story ran on the mysterious appearance of Baby Jane Doe. After all, that was big news for a small town back then.
We entered the office and a pleasant woman in her fifties offered her assistance.
As Charles spoke to her, I noticed her features. She had twinkly blue eyes and when she smiled, she had tiny laugh lines around her eyes and her mouth. She had brown hair with just a touch of auburn – like my own. Something about her seemed familiar.
“My wife and I are trying to locate articles about a baby found in a residence around the summer of 1929.”
The woman looked at me. I smiled. She looked back at Charles. He cleared his throat.
“This is the one article we do have, but we believe there may be others,” he said handing it to the woman to read.
After she had finished reading it, she looked back at me.
“We keep all the articles written on microfiche, and we also have a database on the computer. Have you checked the local library as well?” She asked looking at Charles then at me.
“Not yet. We’ve done quite a bit of online searching. This is just one of many stops for us.”
“This will take some time. Do you live in town?”
Charles scribbled our telephone number on a pad that was on the counter and pushed it toward the woman.
“Great. I’ll contact you in a few days.”
“Thanks for your time,” Charles said.
“Yes. Thanks for your time,” I echoed.
Hand in hand we walked out to our parked car.
“Geez, another callback. I was hoping she would look for something while we waited,” Charles said disgustedly.
“Something about that woman was familiar,” I said.
“Maybe you went to school with her. She’s about your age,” Charles queried.
“What’s our next plan of action?” I asked still trying to remain optimistic.
“Find a restaurant. I’m hungry,” he said starting the engine.
Over club sandwiches and cold iced tea, Charles and I talked about our own children and wondered how everyone was doing. It had been a few days since we’d spoken to them. I pledged to call them when we got home.
“There has to be some relatives still alive in this town, or nearby. Not everyone moved to California, correct?” Charles asked.
“My aunts and uncles never moved back to Iowa after moving to California. To my knowledge, my mother and half-sister were the only ones to go back. Irma’s family was originally from Texas. If the sister can’t give us any more information regarding my mother’s stay at the convent, it may be a dead end.”
“Not necessarily. Your sister got married, correct?”
“Yes. She was married and had a son.”
“Another lead,” he said munching down on his sandwich.
It really bothered me that my dad’s pool hall and Lisa’s house were no longer standing. How was I to reaffirm any memories? I was really concerned about that and dwelled on it for a few days. If Charles worried about it, he didn’t let on. He was already looking for the next clue.
The woman from the newspaper office contacted us. She’d found another article for us to read. We arranged a visit to get a copy of it.
When we arrived, the woman was serving another customer at the counter. She glanced over at us giving us a nod, letting us know we’d be next.
“This is what I found,” she said handing the clipping to me.
I quickly read it. It clearly said that Irma knew who the mother was, but didn’t want to divulge the information. It went on to say that she knew the child as likable and would take care of it. That was the joke of the century. As likable as I was, she was never nice to me. Wonder what changed her mind.
“This is new information,” I said surprised. “The other article we have says she didn’t know who my mother was.”
“That’s true. This is a new lead.”
Smiling at the lady and pointing to the clipping, I told her “Thank you so much for this.” Then I bluntly asked, “Listen, you look so familiar to me. Do we know one another?”
“Well…we do,” she replied. “I’m Lisa.”
I wasn’t really expecting to hear that. I was taken aback by the words.
“Lisa!” I shrieked. I reached across the counter and gave her a firm hug.
“I can’t believe it’s you! I thought something about your eyes and your smile seemed familiar. I even said that to Charles the other day,” I said looking over at him and smiling.
“I didn’t want to say anything to you on that day. It was strange seeing you. I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Especially after you told me what you were here for.”
“You knew I was adopted. I told you.” I said boldly.
“Yes, I recalled you telling me that. But as children, you don’t really dwell on that information. You just play and have fun,” she said. “I’d love to get together with you. We can have lunch one day. Get caught up,” Lisa suggested.
“I’d love that. Thank you for this,” I said holding out the newspaper article. “You have our telephone number. Please call, and let’s set up a lunch date. It will be so much fun.”
Charles and I left satisfied we’d accomplished something for the day. We got a new clipping, and I’d found Lisa.
“I wonder why someone of her wealth was working at the newspaper office,” I said to Charles.
“Maybe she’s bored,” he chuckled.
We headed back to the house where I promised to make egg salad sandwiches for lunch – one of Charles favorites.
Charles was searching on the computer when he called me into the room to look at something.
“We may have touched on to something. We got a message on the genealogy site. Apparently, someone else is looking at your family tree.”
It was true. Someone by the name of Francis Stewart had added a couple of names, and birthplaces to my family tree!
“I think I’ll contact this Francis person and see what else she might know,” Charles said as he clicked on her name to send her a message.
“That name doesn’t sound familiar at all, Charles.”
“That’s alright, Pat. Not every name will be. It can be a lead, though, and we must…”
“I know…follow every lead,” I said finishing his sentence. He smiled.
“That’s my girl,” he said pulling me in for a hug.
I don’t know how I got so lucky to have Charles in my life, but I’m convinced if I hadn’t met him, my life would have been different. He had a way that always made me think things were going to be better. He always saw the cup half full. Now we were working side by side, just like the old days, but this time, he was helping find out something about me.
“Charles, I hope you know how special you are to me. I know I can be a bit moody sometimes, but I want you to know that I love you and thank God every day you’re in my life.”
“We make a great team, Pat,” he said kissing me lightly.
When we were in our twenties, the passion was hard to contain. Now that we were older, the love was even stronger, and the passion, although still there, was a gentler, softer, more subdued passion. We’d been through a lot over the years, but neither one of us would have changed a thing.
Charles patted me on the butt. I didn’t mind, I was a strong, independent woman, but I also loved my man. I didn’t feel the least bit degraded by his gesture. He loved me and every chance he got, he showed me. The phone rang.
“Hello,” I said into the receiver.
“Mrs. Phillips?” The voice on the other end asked.
“This is Sister Mary Margaret from Mt. St. Francis.”
“Yes, hello. Have you some news for me?”
“Yes, I believe I do. It would be best if you could come to the convent. Is that possible?”
The drive to the convent was surreal. I wasn’t sure what I was going to be told, or shown. Many thoughts ran through my mind as I tried to prepare myself for whatever.
As we drove the ten miles or so, my mind began to wander to a particular winter, and a certain homemade sled.
All the children had store- bought sleds and I had nothing. We were dirt poor so a store bought sled was out of the question. My dad went into the garage and made me a sled out of sheet metal and rope. Once the kids saw how fast I could slide down a hill, they all wanted to try it too. Soon, I was the most popular kid on the hill. I smiled at the memory of my dad.
“Please, let’s go in here,” the sister said, directing us down a hallway that led to a large room. The room echoed due to the scarcity of furniture. A large wooden desk, two chairs, and a large Bible on a wooden stand faced a lovely stained glass window, and beyond the window, a serene courtyard. It was a beautiful setting.
We sat down as directed and the sister took a seat behind the large wooden desk. She cleared her throat before taking out a piece of paper, which she placed on her desk. Turning it so the print would be facing us, she gently slid it closer so we could read it. All I could see was a bunch of names and ages on it. I quickly scanned it for something familiar when she began to talk.
“I’m sorry it took me a few days to locate the information. I wanted to make sure it would be useful and of course, accurate. Although we keep records of all children who’ve passed through our doors, sometimes finding the documents can take time,” she said smiling at us.
I searched her face for more clues. What was she about to tell us? I could feel my heart beating in my chest, and I wondered if anyone else could hear it. My palms grew moist in anticipation of the news. Finally, she spoke.
“Based on the 1910 census information you provided, I was able to find a match. It does appear that a young woman with a child came to the convent seeking refuge approximately in the fall of 1910.”
She reached inside her folder and produced another document.
“This record shows the young woman left the child with us, but it was only to be temporary.”
“Temporary? Do you mean she was to come back for the child but never did?” I asked.
“It appears the arrangement was that once she got a job, secured an apartment, etc. she was going to come back for the child.”
“It says all of that in the file?” I asked, gesturing to the manila folder she held in her hand.
The sister looked at me with sad eyes.
“Yes. It says that the approximate age of the older one is between sixteen to eighteen years old.”
“The younger one?”
“The younger one, about four or five,” she replied.
“So what did the M and the P stand for?” I queried.
“M was for Mary and P for Priscilla,” she said reading off the file.
“Mary, I can understand. I have a consensus that shows my dad, Lyle and Mary listed as occupants. I’m pretty sure my adoptive mother, Irma used Mary on some legal documents.”
The sister nodded she comprehended what I was saying. “Yes, unfortunately often times occupants gave different names at different times, making the information hard to validate. Sometimes they used nicknames, middle names as first, and so on.”
“I’m finding that out. I have one that says my name is Patsy, and one that says my name is Patricia. It becomes really confusing when the names are not even close.”
Pushing her chair out from the desk, she offered her hand to Charles and I letting us know the meeting was over.
“Sometimes children are born out of wedlock, and that could be why you still had her last name. Perhaps there was another young woman with the same last name; a sister, cousin; another relative?”
“She was from Texas, and Brown is a very common name,” I said agreeing with her there must be more to this than it seemed.
Charles hadn’t said much during the visit. However, just before our meeting was adjourned, he did ask one compelling question.
“By any chance, are there any photos of this “M. Brown” that we could look at?”
The sister stared at Charles, not blinking an eyelash. She cleared her throat softly. “We do have some pictures archived here.” Opening a folder, she took out a glossy picture and slid it across the desk toward me.
I stared at the image. It was of a young woman of about sixteen years old, just like the sister had said. By her side, a child approximately five years old. It was hard to see their faces. The picture was timeworn and had seen better days. The quality of the image was another issue.
“I can’t really see their features. The older girl could be Irma, but who is the young girl?” I said staring at every inch of the picture, trying to find any clue.
“Is there any way we could get a copy of this?” Charles asked.
“You may have it. We actually have three pictures from that day,” the sister replied.
We thanked her for the information, and with the photo in hand, we departed the convent quietly.