TAG, I’m It – Self Portrait, 2010
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)
May 28, 2010 began innocently enough — but by mid-morning I found a woman I hadn’t seen in over 50 years.
“The Conversation” took place early in the day. It was a Friday that seemed ordinary enough. But it would turn out to be truly remarkable.
“Hello, can I speak to Sandra?”
“This is Sandra…”
“Hi, my name is Thomas Good and I have reason to believe that I might be your son.”
I am a Leo, born in mid-August. But my mother says that I have a new birthday, that I was reborn on the day she and I were re-united after a 50 year separation: May 28th. So, like George Washington, I celebrate two birthdays. We are party animals, George and me.
Whenever I think about how it felt to find my mother — and to discover my family history — I am astounded.
The phone call, “The Conversation,” happened after a long search.
When I was very young, my adoptive mother told me that I was adopted and that my birth name was “Altfather.” She told me that my family came from the German part of Pennsylvania and that my mother was an artist. I studied art and German as a kid in an attempt to embrace my roots. Years later I went to the “Heimat” (homeland) for the first time. It was 1996 and I was in Rotterdam on business. Seizing the opportunity, I jumped on a train to Düsseldorf. As the sun rose I traveled from Appledorn to Emmerich, crossing the Dutch frontier. At the border the Dutch train crew departed and their German colleagues came on board. The rising sun illuminated the steel rails and I exhaled slowly. It was almost impossible to believe that I had finally arrived in the ancestral homeland. Everywhere I went in Düsseldorf, I met people who were very excited that a son of Germany had returned home. “Inspiring” would be an understatement. And so, in 2000, I took my wife and young son to München. I was visiting a colleague and took the opportunity to show my family a little bit of Germany. After landing at the airport we went through customs. Stamping my passport, the German border guard looked up when I said, “Schönes Tag.” For whatever reason he got very excited and came out of his booth to shake my hand. I have no explanation and no words. Another ethereal experience. Another one of Andre Breton’s “surreal Moments.” Life should be about joy, it should be celebrated. I don’t know that official’s name but I am grateful. Whatever else we are, we are both somebody’s son.
A few years later I discovered that, although they had sealed birth records in 1964, the great state of Ohio allowed people born prior to 1964 (or after 1996) to access their original birth certificates (http://www.odh.ohio.gov/vitalstatistics/legalinfo/adoption.aspx). On my 51st birthday I mailed in my application and the filing fee, expecting little – I already possessed the documents my adoptive mother had given me before she died. A month later my original birth certificate arrived. I felt like a kid getting a decoder ring. On it was my birth mother’s name. And her home town in Pennsylvania: Berlin. Two valuable clues. I searched via google for Altfathers from Pennsylvania — as I had already done many times. But this time I zeroed in on Berlin. I would repeat this search innumerable times in the coming weeks. Not much came up. But everything changed on May 28.
On a quiet Friday, sitting at my desk sipping some coffee and preparing to get to work, I googled one more time, expecting nothing from the familiar exercise. And then I got a lead. A break.
I never met Bill Altfather – he died in 1998. But a woman in South Carolina had posted his obituary on a genealogy website. The obit listed the surviving relatives. My mouth fell open when I discovered that one of the survivors was a woman whose maiden name was very familiar. It also gave her married name. That was the missing piece that tied things together neatly. And from there I found a viable phone number.
I “met” my mother in July of 2010 — we had met once before — when my family and I journeyed to her home. I can’t help but cry as I type. The first look, the first hug. Beyond words. Imagine what it means to be a complete human being and you’ll have an idea of what it feels like.
Unfortunately there is a political reality that many adoptees encounter when researching their past. Far too many states block adoptee access to what are known as “Original Birth Certificates” — or “OBCs” in the adoptee rights movement. There is no national standard and “States Rights” means that, in many states, adoptees have no rights to access their own birth certificates. Imagine your doctor saying, “Is there a history of diabetes in your family?” and you have to reply that you have no way of knowing. Imagine you spend your entire life not knowing the circumstances around your adoption. Imagine you can’t recall what your mother looks like? Imagine an impersonal response from a state official.
What is to be gained from blocking access to OBCs? Statistics show that birth mothers overwhelmingly embrace their long lost offspring when reunion occurs. And adoptees like yours truly don’t feel any need to turn their backs on those who raised them. Family is not an either/or scenario. The bottom line: adoptees are not the property of the State. We have rights and it is time that they be respected. Adult adoptees are as capable of making their own decisions as any other citizen is. There isn’t any rational reason adult adoptees should be second class citizens.
Sadly, New York State lags behind Ohio in respecting the civil rights of the adoptee. Sealed adoption records leave individuals searching for birth parents with only one recourse: a state-run adoption “registry” that can help facilitate a reunion. But there are no guarantees as one woman’s story reveals. According to the Utica Observer Dispatch, Kelly Wittman Clausen, a 37-year-old adult adoptee, has been on the registry since she was 21 — and has yet to find her mother.
Except for an accident of birth, I would not have found my mother. By sheer luck, being born in Ohio rather than New York — or Pennsylvania — I had access to my original birth certificate. My mother cried when I called her. And when I apologized she said, “These are not tears of sadness.”
When I visited my mother in July I spoke to her about an idea I had. I had decided that, on the occasion of my 52nd birthday, I would rectify what I had come to regard as an error. Mom smiled and said, “So you’ll be ‘TAG’.”
When I was barely two months old I had been given a middle name by my adoptive family — the surname of a distant relative whom I had never met. As my adoptive parents were both dead by the time I found my birth mother I made a unilateral decision. With the assistance of my friend and occasional attorney, an amazing National Lawyers Guild member named Gideon, I petitioned the State of New York for a name change. I filled out several forms, got my wife’s permission in writing, got everything notarized and filed my papers at the civil court. When it came down, I took the judge’s decision to the local newspaper for publication. The technicalities completed, I procured new ID. Once the process was finalized — it took about two months — I was a hybrid. My first and last where the names I had been given upon adoption. And sandwiched in between was what I jokingly referred to as my “maiden name.”
The change is no small matter.
With the exception of my middle name, I kept my adopted name(s). I am grateful to my adoptive family and the name they provided was, by and large, a good fit. But with the new middle name I feel complete, whole — part of an extended family.
I had no control over decisions made at the time of my birth and so it is gratifying that I will die as what I am – an Altfather, as well as a Good. It is my decision and one I am very comfortable with. I like to tell people “TAG, I’m it.”
I believe that every adoptee has the right to know their past, to find their birth parents and reunite – if the adoptee and the parents wish to do so. It is the right of any human being to possess their history, to define themselves, to make their own decisions.
The process is hard enough without the state interfering — I was scared shitless at several points along the way. I felt some guilt. I felt some frustration, some remorse. But throughout, I felt joy. Everyone should have the opportunity to discover who they are and where they came from. Our past is our property.
I am proud to be reborn as my mother’s son. TAG, I’m it.
Happy New Year to all of the adoptees and ALL of their parents.
Thomas Altfather Good,
New York City
December 31, 2010
“All of my days, all of my life, standing by you — all of my days, all of my life, I will find you.” — Cyndi Lauper, “Echo”