Woman seeks, finds biological family

April 08, 1999

Charlene GarnsBy ANDREA BROWN-HURLEY / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

Her father used to say that he found her on the doorstep. It was almost the truth.

Charlene Garns was adopted.

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Today, the Hagerstown resident, 56, will meet the brother in St. Louis she has seen only in fragmented flashbacks from her infancy.

She has waited most of her life to gaze into eyes she suspects mirror her own.

"Am I Italian, am I Indian, what am I?" Garns asked. "I just want to know who I am."

After years spent chasing dead-end leads, Garns clicked on an Internet Web site in February, and found her brother in a matter of hours.


"It was amazing," she said.

Garns said she always knew she was different from the rest of her family.

It wasn't just her olive-toned skin, dark hair and eyes. Or the missing entries in her "baby book." Or her mother's mysterious lack of labor pains.

"It was just a feeling I had inside," Garns said.

She didn't dwell on the 15-year age difference between her and her closest sibling, but she often wondered why she was the only member of her family who could stomach black olives.

Garns said she was haunted by an image of a woman in a rocking chair, and a little blond-haired boy who pinched her while she stood in a wooden playpen.

She could never see the woman's face.

Garns probed her parents, Eva and Nelson Crocken, of Baltimore, for answers. She said she often told them, "I know I'm adopted. Just tell me."

It was still a shock when they did.

"I knew I was adopted, but I didn't want to hear it," Garns said. "They were the only family I knew."

When Garns was 12, she said, Eva Crocken told her a hypothetical story about a young, single mother whose troubles led her to give up her baby daughter.

Garns was 14 when Eva Crocken gave her a letter dated 1944. It was signed, "Mae," the first name of Garns' biological mother.

Thus began a search that would last 42 years.

Eventually, and in measures, the story of Garns' adoption unfolded.

At 15, Garns' biological mother fell in love with the boy next door, and got pregnant with Thomas, Garns' older brother. The boy's mother forbade the union, and moved her family away.

Heartsick, Mae sought love and attention from another man, who left town after discovering she was pregnant with her second child.

Facing the prospect of raising two children on her own, Mae decided to give her baby daughter up for adoption. Her sisters asked the women who lived next door, Garns' adoptive aunts, whether they could adopt the baby.

The neighbors sent Mae to meet their sister, Eva Crocken.

For several years, Mae and her young son visited Garns in her new home. The visits ended when Mae married, choosing to keep her past a secret from her husband.

"She lived this lie for so long," Garns said. "I tried to understand how she felt."

Though she told Garns that her sister had sworn the family to secrecy, Thelma, Garns' biological aunt, gave her niece scattered bits of information.

Most importantly, Garns learned her mother's last name and that she was living in Missouri.

Her aunt also told Garns that Mae wasn't interested in a reunion. Garns still wanted to find her brother, but said she didn't want to upset his family.

Then she was diagnosed with cancer.

Supported by her husband, the Rev. David Garns, Charlene Garns pursued her adoption records in an effort to learn about her family's medical history.

But the records were sealed.

Acting on a tip from her daughter's friend, Garns tried Lycos' WhoWhere people-searching technology. Armed with only a name, she got a hit.

On a Friday in March, Garns sent a registered letter to St. Louis, to the man she believed to be her brother. It held a photograph of her, and questions about his mother's maiden name and the name of his aunt.

She included her home telephone number.

"I thought he might get it on Tuesday, think about it for a while, talk to his mother, and maybe think I was crazy," Garns said.

When she picked up the phone Monday evening, the voice on the other end said, "Hi, Sis. This is your brother, Tom."

"I went deaf," Garns said. "He was so happy and elated, I think he would've walked here."

Several days later, Mae called Garns and apologized for giving her up for adoption. Garns said she has mixed feelings about meeting her biological mother while in Missouri.

"She's a stranger to me," Garns said. "The hardest thing about all of this is the feeling that I'm slapping my real mother, Eva Crocken, in the face."

Though Crocken is deceased, her other children have been supportive of Garns' search for her biological family, she said.

After entering her story in a Lycos contest, Garns won an all-expense-paid trip with her husband and daughter to meet her brother in St. Louis.

She said she expects a lot of hugs and talking.

What are the first questions she will ask?

"Are you left-handed," she said. "And do you like black olives."

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