June 16, 2013
They are the only possession of his that I own. When he died in 2003 the prison hospital shipped me his remaining possessions which amounted to a box of papers, a few books, some cards and photos, and those plastic prison-issue glasses in a brown vinyl case.
In 2002 my father looked through these lenses when he saw my face for the first time. It was my first, and only, meeting with him which took place in the visitor’s room at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana. I was a pensive, but determined, 20-year-old university student with the same eyes as he. Yes, I was definitely related to this man but I would never call him “dad” and I think that hurt him.
He made poor choices in life and many of these choices meant that he could never be a parent to his children. He did, however, wish to have contact with all of his children including his first son who was born in the summer of 1971 and later put for adoption.
It was me who eventually made that contact – very recently, in fact.
This son is my brother. Robert Russell Burton of Henderson County, Kentucky.
“Hello, Robert. Are you there? You can go ahead now,” says the executive director of the Georgia Adoption Reunion Registry. “Thanks, Peggy,” says the man on the other end. His voice is several octaves deeper than my own and he speaks in a drawl indicative of someone who has lived their whole life in the American South. “Thank you,” I say to Peggy who tells us that she’s going to put the phone in the drawer while we talk. “I guess I should tell you that I’m Nathaniel and I’m your brother,” I say. I’m nervous and I am aware that this is a really life changing moment.
This moment was over 40 years in the making.
Before he came to Canada in n1973 my father was married to a woman from Marietta. They married in the days immediately following his release from the US federal prison in Atlanta. Car theft was the charge on that one, I think. Their marriage was brief. His wife, Evelyn, gave birth to a son she named after my father on 15 Aug. 1971.
“Your name at birth was Thomas Robert Henderson,” I tell the man, only identified as Robert, on the other end of the line. In Georgia adult adoptees do not have the right to access their original birth certificate and I figure that if our line gets cut off, or I get hit by a meteorite he should at the very least know his original name. I believe everyone has that right.
I’m only hearing my own thoughts. I’m nervous but decide to tune myself out for a moment and treat this conversation like one of the many telephone interviews I do as a journalist. Cool, in control, and a bit disengaged. I ask him about his interests, his family, and life experiences.
He is originally from Georgia but currently lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children who are 13 and 14 years old. He loves hunting, fishing, as well Civil War history. His name is Robert Burton. He was always aware that his original name was Thomas Robert but nobody told him his last name.
He was absolutely delighted to hear from me and is very enthusiastic about the reunion process.
He bears a striking resemblance to our father
I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with him and I’m getting to know a very interesting, fun, and oddly familiar person. The cultural differences between us are quite pronounced. His accent, lifestyle, and worldview are all a bit different than mine but I have noticed many similar personality traits.
I first found out about him when I sent away for my father’s criminal record in 2002. I was in university and the family I was live with, who wanted me to succeed in life, were worried about me digging into the past. They are good people who did not want to see me sink my roots into a story that would only bring me hurt. “Look ahead,” they said.
Still, the knowledge that I had a brother out there somewhere always nagged at me. I felt that I couldn’t know my own story without knowing at least what happened to my father’s first son.
So, I went through the Georgia Adoption Reunion Registry and applied for contact and requested that they do a search for him. Under Georgia law this was about the only way I could ever get in touch with him as his original birth certificate was “sealed” and I had no way of connecting his original name with an adoption file.
I am incredibly happy to have found him and look forward to getting to know him better over the months and years ahead but I wish I had been able to pull this off while our father and his mother were still alive.
I never knew our father so I couldn’t say much except what I’d heard and read. But I did mail him copies of every document I have on our father as well all of our family photos. I also enclosed some handwritten letters from our father as well as his parents’ original marriage certificate and our father’s glasses.
Robbed of any opportunity to know his father I felt that he should at least have something that once belonged to him – I know my father would have wanted him to have something.
“Robert, here are your father’s glasses,” I write my letter. “When you hold them in your hand try to imagine the kind of father you wished he could have been and be that father to your children and yourself.”
Unfortunately I can’t send him a very happy family history but I think our future looks pretty bright.
I am glad to have found my brother. He’s a good guy.