BURLEY, Idaho – Charles McBride propped himself on an elbow at his kitchen counter and sipped coffee with his brother.
There’s nothing unusual about brothers sharing a cup of coffee. But this was the first time 66-year-old McBride met his brother Russell Mork. And here they were, brothers sitting at McBride’s kitchen table in mid-June.
A knot of emotion twisted in McBride’s throat, preventing words from forming. Tears threatened his vision.
“It’s taking my breath away,” McBride said. “I’m generally not at a loss for words, but this has done it. I can finally put the questions to bed.”
McBride grew up in Washington as Michael Hammell, a well-loved adopted son of a couple who told him nothing about his birth family.
As an adult, filling in those blanks became a quest to understand both his past and present, even if the answers weren’t easy to swallow.
When the pieces unfolded, he legally reclaimed his birth name and his American Indian heritage. He slowly tracked down six siblings scattered across the Pacific Northwest and Canada.
Mork, three years McBride’s elder, represented the final piece of an obsession that engulfed two decades of his life.
“It finally closes the circle,” McBride said.
MY BROTHER, MYSELF
As the June meeting with his brother drew closer, McBride couldn’t shake the fear that the opportunity would be plucked from his grasp.
After all, both he and his brother were approaching 70 years old. Three of his siblings had died since he was reunited with him.
“It’s the end of a journey, and it has taken so many years,” McBride said weeks before the reunion.
His fears nearly materialized when Mork suffered a heart attack in April. But Mork wasn’t going to let that alter their plans. Determined, alone and towing a portable oxygen tank, he drove 495 miles to McBride’s Burley home.
“I told the man upstairs that I wasn’t ready to go yet and that I had plans,” Mork said.
McBride and Mork’s half brother, William Ring Jr., 73, of Olympia, was also at McBride’s house for the reunion. The three men stared at one another, noting the obvious similarities in their faces.
Each of the men still sports a full head of hair. Their eyes shared similar characteristics.
In addition to meeting Mork for the first time, McBride and Ring hadn’t seen each other in 15 years.
“We must be brothers,” McBride said, looking at the men forming a circle around the table, a wide grin claiming the lower portion of his face.
The three tipped their chairs back and laughed at the joke and then laughed again, noting their similar senses of humor.
“In some ways it’s like we’ve never left each other,” McBride said.
Over three days, the trio went sightseeing at City of Rocks National Reserve, shared pictures and engaged in hours of conversation. Still, Mork’s health colored the reunion with a bittersweet undertone.
“It was really interesting comparing notes about how we were raised as children,” McBride said after the meeting. “There was a lot of commonality there.”
The time with his brothers was satisfying and marked the end of a 22-year pursuit to reunite a family that was shredded by circumstance.
A STORY UNFOLDING
McBride was 6 when found out he was adopted. Still, questions about his birth family remained taboo.
“There was no mention of anything from my past by my adoptive mom,” McBride said. “It was a big secret.”
One day in the kitchen, McBride’s grandmother casually asked him if he knew he had brothers and sisters.
He was 23.
“I just let it all sit with me,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say. I was stunned. I never told anyone else. It was like I’d been hit by a freight train.”
An aunt later confirmed the news.
As the knowledge settled, he decided he wanted to reconnect with his lost family. But the process proved more difficult than he expected.
Two days before his 45th birthday, he went to the Daily World newspaper in Aberdeen, Washington, and placed a personal ad listing his birth date and place and that he was looking for family members.
A couple of weeks later, the paper’s editor ran a column about the ad and its response urging readers to help him find his family.
One day, a phone message from his mother’s half-sister Betty Wolsey was waiting for him when he came home. After seeing the newspaper ad, she thought she had a match.
“Half of me wanted to hear the story, and half of me wanted to just leave it alone,” McBride said. “I didn’t know if I really wanted to know.”
Betty sent McBride a photo of his brother, which he compared to himself at the same age.
The photo confirmed it. He had found his siblings.
“That’s when I knew it was true,” he said.
A HARSH REALITY
As bits of McBride’s birth family were uncovered he learned that his mother, Mary Davis, had seven children by the time she was 21. His birth father, Elmer McBride, a member the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington, fathered five of the children.
Times were harsh for Mary, who lived in a little house with her six young children and one – McBride – on the way.
“The children were breaking up furniture and siding and burning it to keep warm,” McBride said.
One day, Mary left the children home alone and a relative stopped by to find McBride’s youngest sister ill and propped up on the couch. And an uncovered well outside posed a hazard to the children. So the relative took the sick sister to the doctor and the state intervened.
McBride became a ward of the state before he was born. He was placed in foster care at 6 weeks and was adopted at 9 months old.
After Mary’s parental rights were terminated in court, officials took her from the courthouse to the hospital. Under state orders, she was sterilized so she couldn’t have any more children. Elmer, a Native American, was not consulted in the matter.
But Elmer became enraged when he learned the children had been taken away and vowed to track each one of them down and return them to their mother – a comment that was passed on to a state case worker and likely prompted warnings to the adoptive parents to keep the children’s birth family veiled in an extra layer of secrecy, McBride said.
Until 2006, McBride worked as a police officer in Sumas, Washington, a town on the U.S.-Canada border. While working the night shift, he made use of police data banks to continue his search.
“It was gum-shoe work – old school,” he said.
He first reached out to his oldest brother, Fred, and they met in a small cafe in Tacoma, Washington.
“When I first heard his voice, it sounded like my own,” McBride said, an experience he found both comforting and startling.
A special heartache came when he found his mother in Aberdeen, only to learn she’d died in a nursing home six months prior.
But he was able to meet his grandmother at her small, Aberdeen home.
When he walked in, she pointed and said “I haven’t seen you since you were this big,” measuring with her hands the size of a baby just a few months old.
Ring, who also took back his birth surname, was searching for their siblings, too.
“But I didn’t have the same resources that he did,” Ring said.
Ring was 4 years old when he was adopted, old enough to remember his siblings and his mother, memories that would haunt him with every new stranger he encountered.
“I thought about them every time a person walked by me on the street,” Ring said. “I would wonder if they were family.”
McBride also became acquainted with a cousin on his mother’s side, Debbie Dunn, of Rupert.
They shared a passion for Civil War history, and became fast friends.
She would later help him find his last brother and provide precious details about his mother.
“Everyone treated Mary differently after the children were taken away,” Dunn said. “She was more delicate because of what she’d gone through. She was shy, but she loved to joke around and be around us kids. And she didn’t like to have her picture taken.”
Mary always lived with Betty.
“(Mary) never talked about what happened to her kids,” Dunn said.
Those tiny, intimate details helped McBride forge a connection with his mother in his mind.
“It gave me an indication of what she was like,” he said. “Otherwise I was just trying to grab snippets and piece them together. Those very personal memories of my mother hit close to home.”
WHO AM I
McBride continued to excavate pieces of his past. In 1996, he requested a copy of his birth certificate. At first he was denied because of old laws that required 75 years to pass before adoption records could be opened.
“It was like a slap in the face not being able to get the record,” he said.
The laws have since changed.
In Idaho, an adopted child’s original birth certificate is placed in a sealed file that can be accessed by court order or if the child’s birth parents give access to the information through a registry.
In 2014, Washington’s new adoption law went into effect, allowing a person 18 or older access to their original birth certificate unless their birth parents specified that they did not want to share their personal identifying information with the child.
McBride received legal assistance and, after an ensuing court battle, he finally held the document in his hands and he eventually decided to change his name back to his birth name.
“I had been Michael Hammell for most of my life when that was not the name given to me when I was born,” McBride said. “I just wanted to live out the rest of my years with the name I was originally given.” After changing his name, he applied for and received his Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood from the Bureau of Indian Affairs documenting his lineage.
His first visit to his father’s reservation in 2015 left him struck by the juxtaposition of extreme poverty and relative comfort.
“My first impression was of the poverty,” he said. “It’s a different world. I was raised by wonderful people, but in the 1950s and 1960s being a Native American was looked down upon. The rose-colored lenses I had on shifted in a good way. As a policeman I dealt with people from other cultures and I started seeing them in a different way. I wasn’t just a white cop anymore.”
Upon retiring, McBride went to work for the Nooksack Indian Tribe as a police officer and game warden, which granted him an even wider perspective of the culture.
“I have a vast cultural history that I never knew about,” he said. I’m the son of Elmer McBride. I know who I am now.”
THE LAST BROTHER
As McBride found his siblings one-by-one, his questions were put to rest – all but one.
His final brother, Mork, was still a mystery.
In 1998 McBride spoke to Mork briefly by phone when Mork stopped for a visit with their sister in Chicago, Illinois.
Mork was a long-haul truck driver and was living in Blackhawk, South Dakota, at the time.
“He thought it was really cool that I was looking for our siblings,” McBride said.
They didn’t exchange phone numbers and McBride was unable to make contact with him again.
As a truck driver, Mork had been to Burley many times.
“I use to haul potatoes out of here,” he said. “But I didn’t know I had a brother here.”
Last spring, McBride and Dunn sat at the kitchen table typing Mork’s name into Google.
His name showed up in three results, and one of the men lived in Superior, Montana.
Superior is home to fewer than 1,000 residents, so Mork was easy to find.
The next day Dunn sent a text to a cousin by marriage, Verna Helm, who lives in Superior and asked if she knew a man with the last name of Mork.
Other questions followed: Was he a truck driver? Was he adopted?
The answers came back rapid fire: yes, yes.
“When the text came, (Mork) was in the hospital lobby waiting for me to come out and have coffee,” said Helm, who works at the hospital. “He comes in to have coffee all the time, and when Debbie sent that text, I went out and told him, ‘wait until you hear this.’ How often does something like that happen?”
But during the reunion, Mork said, it just felt like he’d met two good friends, rather than feeling the closeness brothers might share.
He hadn’t been looking for his birth family and felt less ready to open up to his brothers than McBride and Ring.
Anything more, he said, would have to come much later, after the relationships developed.
“I’ve had so many people come and go in my life,” he said. “It’s hard sometimes. This really shakes up the normalcy of my world.”
But on the last day of his visit, McBride said, Mork’s attitude changed.
“I think at first it was just a curiosity for him. He wanted to know who we were, and he was reluctant to have an emotional attachment,” McBride said. “But something happened that last day and his heart softened.”
Helm said the fear of the unknown was “nerve-wracking” for Mork but since his Idaho visit he’s talking about possibly moving to Twin Falls, to be closer to family, Helm said.
“It was worth every minute of the effort and every heartache in dealing with the state,” McBride said. “Every person who is adopted is in this same situation. It’s a unique thing because you have two sets of parents. One that brings you into the world and one that raises you, and you can’t help but wonder about that first set.”
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