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Bill Smith walks through the front door of his mother’s house at 3 in the afternoon, tall, olive-skinned and handsome, his hair combed back—a mirror image of his late father. Upstairs, his mother hears him enter and races down to greet him.
“My son!” she shouts, bounding down the stairs. “My son!”
Bill hands her a bouquet of flowers. “These are for you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.” He kisses her cheek, and she lets out a grin that makes her face glow.
It’s a 75-degree spring day in Stratford, and all four of Jane Eberle’s children are coming over for a barbecue. They don’t often get together like this. Bill, the oldest at 46, lives in Pennsylvania, two hours from the rest of the clan, and all four siblings—two boys, two girls—have families of their own. But when they do get together, the scene can be one to behold, stretching deep into the evening.
As the rest of Jane’s kids arrive, everyone greets everyone else with a hug and a kiss: siblings, grandkids, cousins, even Jane’s 6-foot-5 husband, Gerhard—no one gets away without a smooch. Kenny, Bill’s younger brother and an ex-bodybuilder, shows up markedly thinner than the last time Bill saw him. “What happened to your Jabba the Hutt?” Bill chides. The two have a bet riding on who can lose the most weight before a family trip to Cancun, a dollar a pound to the winner. Both have dropped nearly 40 pounds, sparking side bets among the rest of the family.
Before long, the four grown siblings are sitting on the back deck hamming it up over margaritas, mojitos and cold beers, their proud mother observing from the sidelines as a maelstrom of grandchildren swirls in the yard behind her. If you didn’t know better, you’d assume Jane’s kids had all grown up together, bound like a litter since childhood.
But you’d be wrong. Until two years ago, Bill had no clue he was part of this family. He couldn’t have picked his mother out of a lineup. In fact, as far as he knew, his mom died when he was 16. Not until August 2008 did he learn the truth: that his birth mother had given him away when he was three days old to a couple she’d never met, then spent the next 44 years searching for him, secretly and alone, cornering any stranger who resembled his father or brother and asking the only question she knew to ask: “Pardon me, is your name Smith?”
The story began in Stratford in the spring of 1963—a frisky time for Jane and her boyfriend, Ray. He was a tall, good-looking high school junior, she an irreverent eighth-grader. Their teenage hormones worked like a clock: Every day after school, they went home and had sex. When she missed her period in June, however, she knew she was in serious trouble.
Her mother, a nurse, had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—a death sentence that cruelly coincided with the birth of Jane’s youngest sister. Given Jane’s strict Catholic upbringing, her misdeed shocked her family. “You little whore,” her aunt sneered.
Her parents immediately made plans to conceal the pregnancy. There was no question: She would have the baby. “Abortion was against our beliefs,” she says. “It wasn’t even something we considered.” But her belly would not grow under their roof. Instead, her parents sent her to live with a divorcée in Milford—a 15-year-old outcast.
She dropped out of ninth grade the day she began to show, and went into labor on a bitter February night. Ray, who later would become her husband of 20 years and the father of her three future children, rushed to the hospital after school.
In advance of the birth, Jane and her parents had agreed to give the baby away through Catholic Charities, a trusted adoption agency. There was no way Jane could keep the child with her mom so ill, no matter how much she longed to. Her only request was that Ray be allowed to see his son. But after Jane gave birth, she was allowed to hold her child for only a moment; then the nurse took him away before Ray could touch him.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said. “You have no right to see this baby.”
“It’s my baby,” Jane replied, at once terrified and appalled.
“No. This baby has already been promised to another family. It’s already been paid for.”
When she heard those words, Jane erupted. She screamed at the nurses, cursing and flailing as if on fire, then vehemently rejected her prior deal with Catholic Charities.
Not long afterward, a woman approached cautiously from across the room. She couldn’t help but overhear what had happened, she told Jane, and given the circumstances, she wondered if Jane would ever consider a private (read illegal) adoption. Her neighbors, an older couple who’d been unable to conceive, were having poor luck trying to adopt. Their name was Smith and they lived in Milford, she said.
Jane told her mother, who vetted the Smiths that afternoon in their living room. Three days later, Jane left the hospital with her baby, handed him to her mother and gently kissed him goodbye.
“The pain, when you see the baby and you know this is your child, was devastating,” she recalls today. Her eyes well up, and she turns away.