Sunday, June 18, 2017

A crumpled photo, and a daughter's search for the father she never met

     This is an odd, out-of-left-field story, my second big Sunday feature in two weeks. It happened this way—in March, Monica Scanlon called me. She had read "Drunkard" and for some reason thought I could help her find her father. Without the photograph above I don't think I would have written anything. But the fading Kodochrome was just the tantalizing detail that caught my interest. I spoke to her, spoke to her adoptive parents and her birth mother, at length, and something unexpected came into play. They were all so candid, unusually candid, that I felt I had a story, not so much because what they had to say was extraordinary, but the opposite.  It was ordinary, human, the sort of thing you don't see in the paper much. I set it aside for almost two months, went to Europe, finished the long falling piece that ran last week, and then luckily took it up again. I half expected the paper to shrug it off, but thankfully Paul Saltzman, our Sunday editor, liked it. 

     Monica Scanlon has never seen her father's face. Not in person. Not yet.
     All she has seen is one crumpled color photograph, nearly half a century old.
     The Greenville, South Carolina, woman, who’s the controller for a big construction company, was born in Memphis at a home for unwed mothers. Her mom was a Tennessee teenager who got in trouble with a boy from Chicago.
     It was 1970. Being pregnant without benefit of marriage back then, especially if you were Catholic, was shameful, something to be hidden. Her brother and sister wouldn't even learn about the baby until years later.
     The teenager named her newborn "Joan" — the baby's grandmother's name — in hopes her mother would soften and let her keep the girl. She didn't. Signing away her rights, weeping, she left her dark-haired daughter at an orphanage, saying goodbye to her forever, she thought.
     Five weeks later, on Oct. 12, 1970, the phone rang at the Nashville home of Dave and Pat Spilker. After several miscarriages over their five-year marriage, the couple had registered with Catholic Social Services. The caller said a baby was available. Pat Spilker, surprised, said the first thing that came to mind: They were supposed to go on vacation to Florida the next day.
     "Do you want this baby, or do you want to go on vacation?" the lady on the phone asked.
     They wanted a baby. They had only a few hours to prepare for the transition from childlessness to parenthood. Florida would wait.
     "I called my friend Carol and told her, 'We have to pick up our baby tomorrow I don't have one thing,' " Pat Spilker says. "She gave me some shirts and this box to bring the baby home in — a white, rectangular-shaped box with a little soft pad in it. Babies born in Madison, Tennessee, at that time came home in these boxes."

     To continue reading, click here.


  1. Very touching. Perhaps the biological father doesn't want to be found though.

    Happy Father's Day.

  2. A touching story for Father's Day.

  3. When we are young we have a vision of how our lives will play out, and, of course, the cosmos almost always has other plans for us, teaching us that life is an exercise in poignancy.

    Still, we are the story telling animal and the best story tellers add to our collective wisdom by recording important narratives in an engaging and entertaining fashion. Family, the bedrock of the human experience, has never had a more wrenching phase in our evolution, as this article vividly illustrates. This is an important and revealing story about the necessity of blood connections. Is it any wonder that Facebook is such a phenomena in an age when family connections are wavering? Facebook's charms are often illusory, but an illusion, it would appear, is better than a life without connections.

    How lucky we are that Neil Steinberg is curious, is a wonderful writer, and has a forum provided by the SunTimes. As we sit around the virtual campfire provided by modern technology, he is a story teller we can rely on to entertain and inform and keep us engaged as the metaphorical embers die down. Great article.

  4. There's something slightly incongruous about a baby coming home in a box.

    The most interesting part of this story is that "good Catholic girls" were sent to a home for unwed mothers to give birth and hide their shame. The Church frowns on abortion, but literally ripped these children away from their mothers after they left the womb? How many fathers never learned about their likely firstborn? I admire Monica's search for her family, though it took years and still continues.

  5. It wasn't just the Catholic ones that were sent away to have babies, back in the day.


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