When I was four years old, I stood in a courtroom gazing up at a man in a black robe, in wonder. He asked me if I wanted to be adopted, and if I wanted these people to be my parents. I don't remember what I said, but I remember feeling like there was nothing I wanted more in the world.
I could have broken out in song--I felt like Annie, although I figured out later that the movie didn't come out until the following year. Funny how the memory works. And all of this is the way I remember it. A few external details may be off but my experience of these events is very real and stays with me today.
I had a good life, good parents, a good town, and good friends. Knowing about my adoption was a good thing. I read stories about other kids who found out about their adoption later in life and it was devastating. So I was thankful I had a very good reason I was so different from everyone around me.
People asked me now and then if I had any interest in finding my birth mother. I always said, no, not right now, but maybe. Someday. I'll know when it's time. Always the same, I'm not really interested right now, but I'll just know when it's time.
At some point in my teens I got a look at my parent's files. It wasn't exactly hidden from me, but I didn't feel comfortable asking my mom about these things. It felt sort of like I was cheating on her. But one day after school I peeked in the file cabinet and found out my birth mother's name was Gloria.
When my parents' attorney retired and sent my dad his files from the adoption, I discovered she had been married a few times, had used the names Tetreau, Cameron, and Forrest, and that she still lived in the town listed on my birth certificate: Willows, CA. It's in northern California, about an hour north of Sacramento just off Interstate 5. It's one of those places you'd stop for gas and a quick bite before traveling on, never making note of the name of the place you'd just passed through. In fact, from the interstate, the only things visible for miles were a gas station and a diner, and then just open farm land.
While in college my freshman year at Sonoma State, barely 18, my roommate drove with me to Willows to look around. I didn't find my mother, but I did talk to a nurse at the hospital who was so kind. She photocopied a page from the phonebook for me that had what might have been Gloria's phone number. I sat on it for a few months before I finally worked up the nerve to call the number.
A woman answered, "Hello?"
I said, "Hi, is this Gloria?"
She said yes.
I said, "Oh, sorry, wrong number." CLICK.
I still wasn't ready.
At 21 I was living back at home with my parents outside San Diego. One night in the summer I had a really unusual dream. It was one of those where you wake only to find you're still dreaming. I was at my grandma's house in Huntington Beach, CA, staying in the back bedroom at the end of the hall. I woke up to a woman sitting on the edge of the bed. I was startled, though not totally afraid. She was holding my hand, and her hand was similar to mine. She was about my age, and something about her felt familiar but I didn't know why.
As she gazed at me I suddenly grew nervous and started to sit up. As I moved to sit, she floated upward and I can still remember the feeling of her toes brushing across my abdomen. It was eerie. I woke up instantly and I knew it was time. This was the moment, and that woman, somehow, was my mother--or a vision of her. My family happened to have our annual trip to Lake Tahoe planned in a few days but as soon as I got back I was determined to try to find my mother.
At the Lake
Not long after we arrived at the lake, the next morning after we arrived in fact, my mom and I got in an argument. We argued a lot back then, and as I usually did, I got in my car and drove as far away as I could. My poor mom. I was truly insufferable.
I took off west from the lake, on highway 50. After about an hour of driving, I was feeling better but not quite ready to go home and apologize yet. Pride.
Not sure when I wanted to turn back, I suddenly realized I was on the way to Sacramento. The sign said it was only another hour or so and then maybe 40 minutes up the interstate was Willows. Woah.
So I prayed. I said, "God, I was planning to go looking for her once I got home next week, but here I am, so close to this small town where I was born and where my mother is most likely living. If this is part of your plan for me somehow, and I can't believe it would be, you'll have to let me know. LOUD AND CLEAR. GIVE. ME. A. SIGN!"
Seconds later, I looked up and saw a billboard that read, "Cameron Park Estates" and it was half covered with a picture of a willow tree... with a forest in the background. CAMERON. WILLOWS. FORREST.
I still didn't believe, not really. It was a real lesson in faith for me, that moment. Would I go on, based on a billboard (I didn't understand God at all), or go home and always wonder what might have happened? I kept going.
When I got to Willows I didn't expect anything really, maybe just a lead, something to help my search when I got back to San Diego. I drove around, knocked on a few doors to see if anyone happened to know a Gloria with any of the last names I had seen in my parents' papers. It was all very random, and pitiful.
No one knew anything but everyone cheered me on. A man washing his car outside a house with Cameron on the mailbox said he might have had a relative who married a Gloria but he couldn't be sure. So I drove around some more, perfectly aimlessly.
I was getting tired now. I hadn't eaten any lunch yet, so I pulled over next to a park in the shade to regroup. I prayed again and the word I kept hearing from God was... STAY. That's it. Nothing else, just STAY. So I stayed, right there in my little Ford Contour, until I finally decided it was getting late and I needed to get back to the lake. I'd already been gone several hours and my family had to be getting worried.
I took a breath, started the engine, and then immediately shut it off again. Then I laughed out loud. Across the street, on a sign above the porch of a tiny house, was a hanging wooden sign with the word FORREST.
"Are you kidding me?" I couldn't believe it would be that easy. But what if it was? What if all of this, the whole day, the trip here, even the quarrel with my mom, was supernaturally put into motion for this moment right now? I was terrified, but I walked up onto that porch and knocked. An old woman with curly white answered the door.
I asked her cautiously, "Hi, do you happen to know anyone named Gloria?"
Her eyes grew wide, then her eyebrows furrowed, as she leaned in and said, "Who are you?"
"Natalie", I croaked.
A look of recognition came over her face, and then something else. "She's my daughter. She died two weeks ago."
She invited me in and I quickly sat in a recliner to catch my breath. She excitedly handed me photo albums and talked to me about my mother, though I don't remember anything she said because I was staring a photo of a young woman. She was the woman from the dream. My grandmother told me this was my mother at her high school graduation.
An aunt, who lived nearby ran the two or three blocks over to the house and burst into the door, desperate to know, did I know Jesus? Still a baby Christian at this time, only coming to the Lord a few weeks before, I hesitated. Did I "know" Jesus? What did that mean? For just a couple of seconds I didn't want to say yes, but the Holy Spirit took hold of me and blurted, "YES!" And after what had been happening to me all morning, the path I was on, I couldn't disagree.
I found out I had 3 brothers and a sister. My oldest brother lived in the Bay Area and though he talked to me on the phone briefly, he's the only one I didn't get to meet in person. I met two other brothers who lived nearby, and my sister arranged to meet with me later.
My aunt took me to meet her husband, my mother's brother, and his extensive Hot Wheels collection. I remember carrying a little case around with me to foster homes. It was shaped like a tire and held all my cars. I smiled at the walls of the garage covered in blue packaging filled with thousands of tiny little automobiles of every kind.
Next we visited one of the foster homes I had lived in. I even got to meet the woman who took care of me there.
I learned that my mother was very sick when I was born. They called it schizoaffective and bipolar disorder, describing an incident in which the police were called to the house during an episode that involved my mother screaming at the neighbors in the middle of the night.
Someone asked about "the baby" and no one knew. After an extensive search, I was found underneath the couch cushions. I was told she put me there because I was crying so much and the sound was too much for her. Oddly, I get that. I'm bothered by noise too. But she didn't have the right coping strategy, so it was decided that I would be better cared for somewhere else.
It was several years still before an official adoption. There was very limited visitation. Though I have no memory of being with my birth family during this time, I now have photos to prove I was.
I heard speculation about who my birth father might have been. No one knew for sure except that he was probably a Mexican farm worker in the area for the season and they think he had a wife and kids. So I may have family in Mexico too. There's my love of a good taco.
On the way back to Lake Tahoe the next day, I met my sister on the north side, near where she lived with her family. She brought her twin daughters and younger son with her. I remember thinking how cool it would be to have twins. ;)
Over lunch I learned that my mother had a brain tumor and had been ill for a long time. She said our mother asked for me before she died, that she had pestered a nurse about someone named Natalie until she called family to find how who this woman was and how they could get her down here to the hospital. She even had a hope chest Gloria had bought for me and filled with crocheted blankets she had made for me, all on the off chance that I might happen to come back to town one day.
My sister also gave me a bible that had been Mom's before she died, complete with her highlights and notes. There were even several pages stained with what can only be tears, on pages where scripture seemed to match her circumstances.
I made it back to the house at the lake late that day. It was dinner time and I had been gone for 36 hours. I was suddenly ashamed, and terrified to face my mom. At the same time, I was just then beginning to process the fact that I had finally--and miraculously--found my birth mother, and I had missed her by just TWO WEEKS!
In my mind I had lost one mother and was about to lose the other over this stupid, selfish thing I had done.
But she was so gentle and humble. She asked me to tell her all about my mother. She let me show her the photos, and she never scolded me for running off for a day and a half, 500 miles from home. In that moment, she was my mom, my only mom, and the very mom I needed.
Before Tahoe, I had filled out some forms requesting some personal things my birth mother had on file with the state. It was said to contain more detailed information about who she was and everything that led to the adoption. I put it out of my mind after visiting Willows though, because it was unnecessary. I knew the story now.
But a few years later, just a few days after my oldest daughter was born, a thick white envelope arrived on my Indiana porch, from the California Department of Social Services.
My mom happened to be visiting me that week, helping take care of me while I had her first grandchild. I gasped when I realized what this packet was and I told her about it. She encouraged me me to look at it while the baby was napping and she continued cleaning my house while I rested with my gift from the state of California.
She vacuumed under my feet while I reclined on a chair and read letters and cards from my birth mother. As it turned out, my mother had consistently sent correspondence to me on behalf of the state for years.
There were personal drawings, magazine clippings of people she thought might look like me, several long letters, and even a list of names and addresses of other family, though all personal details were redacted, "per California law" they said.
As I sifted through all this paper closure, I watched my mom selflessly put away dishes and fold laundry, and I smiled, knowing the gift God gave me was not this woman I'll never know, but the one I'll never lose, no matter how terrible I've been to her. While my newborn baby slept in the other room, I put the packet away and hugged my mom.
A Note About the Signs
Although this story appears to be about me, and my birth family, it is actually God's story. This series of events in my life happened in such a way that no amount of coincidence will ever be able to explain it away, not to me.
However, the mention of signs and visions makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I don't necessarily believe God routinely provides us literal signs like He did for me that day. I believe the events that played out for me, from the dream, to the billboard, to the porch sign, were simply what I needed at that time in my life.
My faith in Christ had come to me only a very short time before all of this. I was still very new to the Bible and any solid understanding of who God is and how He works. As I was coming to a relationship with the Creator of the Universe, I believe He met me where I was. He knew how to reach me, and the fact that He did, made Him all the more real to me.
Today I am a little wiser in my faith, though I still have so far to go. I believe these signs and wonders are more direct now. God speaks to my heart now because I've learned to allow Him in. I don't need anything to grab my attention the way I did in the early days.
So this is all a bit of a disclaimer, so that any new or non-believer reading this won't be led astray, and so that fellow believers won't discount this story as merely mystical. The God of the Bible is real and powerful, and yet cares deeply for each one of us right where we are, whatever our circumstances.
I encourage you to seek Him out on your own, and then find a good church with good people who will help you find Him more personally. Just don't expect billboards to talk to you, that's really not a thing.