Around a Christmas tree on Hannaford Drive today, one family is opening a gift too big for boxes, bows, or ribbons.
After 39 years of silence, a long-secret half-brother named Larry Gee is celebrating the holiday with his sister, brothers, and mother. Judy Never, who gave up her out-of-wedlock, biracial baby in 1961, finally has peace in her heart and her firstborn child at home.
Larry, adopted and raised by a Detroit family, found out in February that he has the two brothers he always wished for, as well as a sister and six nieces and nephews.
Their story started in 1960 in Toledo, when Judy Lowe was a shy, quiet Mary Manse College sophomore from Lambertville. Dale was her summer romance, a coworker at an area country club. The handsome, smart young man had the added spark of the forbidden: Judy was white. Dale was black.
They were young. It was summer. They were in love, they thought.
He went off to a teaching job in Kansas at the summer's end, but Judy didn't return to Mary Manse her junior year. “I was pregnant,” she says simply. “I told my mother, and she made me promise not to tell my dad the father was black. She said that might kill him - he had a bad heart. But white or black, I would've had to leave town, anyway. Back then, there was a whole system of foster homes and hospitals for `girls in trouble.' So I went out of town. No one could know.”
Her baby boy was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., in April, 1961.
“I saw him at birth. I didn't hold him,” she recalls. “I went to the nursery window and looked at him. I watched the nurse dress him, and hand him over to the social worker. I can still see her walking down the stairs with him. I was 21. That was one of the hardest days of my life.”
She'd named the boy Joseph, after St. Joseph. After two weeks, she contacted the caseworker and set up one final meeting with her baby.
“We met in an office. I held him for a little while. I knew I had to hold him, or I'd be really sorry,” she remembered. “I've always been glad I did that. I really wanted to keep him, but I did the right thing for Larry. I did the only thing I could do for myself.”
At the final court hearing, a judge told her: “Judith, you've given up all legal rights to this child. Now go on and get on with your life. Someday, you'll practically forget this.”
“I believed him. I thought I would never see him again,” she recalled. “But I never forgot. Not a day passed that I didn't think of him and pray that he was OK.”
The baby spent his first two years in Monroe County foster care, but no adoptive family could be found there for the biracial child. Caseworkers shifted his files to Wayne County, Michigan, home to Detroit's African-American community. Finally, a Detroit couple opened their home, and little Joseph became Larry Gee.
“It was a middle-class black family - mom and dad, and a little sister,” he recalls. “It was all pretty stable, even after my dad died when I was 8 years old. I went to Catholic schools, did well ... looked a lot like my father, a light-skinned black man. But my mom? I always wondered about that. I didn't have any resemblance to her side at all. But all those years, no one said anything. Not a word. No one ever told me I was adopted.”
Back in Toledo, Judy followed the judge's orders and got on with her life. She earned a math degree from the University of Toledo, worked as an accountant, and married a high school sweetheart. They had a daughter and two sons.
“But I never, ever forgot him,” she said. “I always knew how old he'd be. I'd see a little boy that age, and wonder if that could be him, if I'd just walked past him.”
Her husband knew her secret, but they never told their children. The time just never seemed right, she said.
Time passed. Her children grew, married, had families of their own; her own marriage dissolved. Adoption and privacy laws changed, too. Television dramas showed long-separated families reunited, birth parents and their adopted children overcoming outdated stigmas.
In Detroit, the youngster grew into manhood, finished school, and took a job with the Michigan Driver's License Bureau as a hearing officer. It was a paperwork snag that finally brought him to the truth about his origins.
“I noticed one day about 10, 15 years ago my birth certificate had a stamp on it dated two years after my birth. Now I know the government is slow about paperwork, but this was ridiculous. I asked my mom about it. She finally let me know.”
So like the woman in Toledo, the man in Detroit began to wonder.
“Is she alive? It had been so long. What kind of life had she had, if she'd acquired her goal for a better life - she'd given me one, I hoped she'd found one herself,” he mused. “I wondered why she'd never tried to find me, if I was put behind her, just part of the past, forgotten.”
About seven years ago, getting ready to marry, he decided to take the initiative.
“I was concerned about what kind of hereditary illnesses I might carry,” he said. “I wanted to find her, so I contacted Wayne County Catholic Charities office, who handled the adoption. But they said it was a `closed adoption,' and the birth parent had to sign a form for me to learn her identity. It was a dead end. I put a request for information on file and left it there. I waited.”
And the truth was bothering Judy Never. A friend's sister sought out a child she'd given up years before. A colleague at the school where Judy teaches math told of how her birth mother found her.
“I realized it was time to tell my kids about their brother,” Judy said. “I wanted to explain it to them. They had the right to know. I wasn't ready to look for him. But I wanted to tell the truth to my kids.”
In March, 1999, she gathered Rich, Chuck, and Bridget and their spouses together at her home, sat them down and told them her secret.
“When my jaw quit hitting the floor, my first response was, `Let's find him!' said Bridget Bovee, Judy's daughter. “If I have a brother, I want to meet him! The idea was easy to accept. We weren't raised with prejudices.”
Her mother waited another few months to contact Catholic Charities. At Christmastime last year, she signed the release papers. On a snowy February morning in Detroit, she met the son she hadn't seen for almost four decades.
“I can't tell you the gamut of emotions I felt then,” she said. “I expected anger, but no, he was only a nice man. We talked for hours, catching up. We'd brought photos of our families. And he told me `Let's not worry about the past. Let's enjoy what we can have now.'”
“It was nerve-wracking, but it answered a lot of my questions,” Larry said. “We reached out, but we had no recent connection. We tried not to have expectations. We became acquaintances, with a door open for more. And she told me my siblings wanted to meet me. And that has worked out so well.”
After that, a huge, huge burden just rolled off me,” Judy said. “I didn't know until then, but I was sad underneath, all the time. I'd been sad for more than 30 years, and then, wow! A major piece of unfinished business was tied up for me, in the best way.”
Larry met his half-brothers and sister a few weeks later at Bridget's Sylvania home. He eventually brought his own family on several weekend visits to Toledo.
“It was a revelation to me,” Larry said. “These men, they have the same build as me, the bone structure in their faces ... and we like the same things - fishing and outdoors and camping. And all four of us siblings have two children each.”
“Larry looks a lot like my brother Chuck,” Bridget said. “There's a lot of traits in common. You can tell he belongs to us.”
Christmas is extra special this year with a new brother under the tree, she said. Larry's wife and two sons will travel with him today to West Toledo, where Judy has planned a full Christmas feast and an array of carefully crafted gifts for each.
But the finest gift today is simply truth, said Larry. “Closure. We don't have to wonder any more. And we have time now, together, to become a family. To become a complete whole.”