Barbara Arnold’s search for her biological parents began as an interruption to her favorite TV show in 1989.
At a garage sale the young mother was hosting at her home, a customer overheard her talking to a friend about her troubles finding her birth mother, just as she was caring for her adopted mother in her final days at a nursing home.
“I was watching ‘All My Children’ on the TV, and everyone in my life knew you don’t talk to me when Barbara’s watching ‘All My Children,’ ” Arnold said. “This lady’s standing there, turned around and says, ‘Do I have it right, are you looking for your birth mother?’ ”
The woman worked for the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association, a group founded in 1971 that pushed for the rights of adopted children and paired them with their biological parents. Arnold, like many of her generation, had her mother’s name from the paperwork she’d received at age 18, records she’d cast aside thinking she didn’t want to know. What followed was a low-tech search for the woman who’d put her up for adoption as a teenager in the 1950s, and a story about her biological father who’d died in a fishing accident decades prior.
Now, armed with the results of an at-home DNA testing kit, Arnold knows that the other half of her lineage has, for years, been a lie. The kit revealed a father who is now 90 and lives in California.
Time is running out for a first meeting between the father and a daughter whom he didn’t believe existed.
“We better get on the plane,” said Tyler Arnold, Barbara’s son and owner of the Jedi Alliance arcade and church in the Chief Garry Park neighborhood, who’s now looking to raise the money to cover a trip for a meeting the first week of June. “We need to tell him to eat his broccoli.”
Barbara Arnold’s discovered family is now experiencing what many of an estimated 26 million Americans who have submitted DNA samples to laboratories nationwide are discovering: An end of the era of the family secret. And that technology is bringing together generations of people who had no idea they were bound by blood.
‘Oh my God! My daughter!’
Barbara Arnold’s first phone call to her mother was on a rotary phone.
“There were no computers, so it’s not like going on and searching people’s names back then,” Arnold said.
Assistance came in the form of a postcard dropped at Arnold’s home, where she was raising Tyler and his brother, Tim. Barbara Arnold, who believed the card came secretly from the ALMA worker whom she couldn’t afford to hire to help her out, called the number, but kept getting rebuffed from the woman on the other end, who insisted she wasn’t the person whose name was on the card.
But the person she was looking for lived up the hill from that woman, in Auburn, Washington.
“She couldn’t just hand it to me on a platter,” Arnold said of her quiet benefactor from ALMA. “So she had transposed the last two numbers of the phone number, figuring I’m smart enough, I’m going to figure it out.”
With some help from a library clerk on a Friday afternoon, Arnold found her mother’s phone number and dialed her up, asking the woman on the other end if her birthdate held any significance.
“And she said, ‘Oh my God. My daughter!’ And then nothing, a total blank,” Arnold recalled. “I said, ‘Mom, mom?’ And she’s sitting on the bed crying, but I didn’t know that. I thought she’d passed out.”
Tyler Arnold remembers piles of paper records strewn on the floor, a trail that his mother was following in an effort to discover her lineage as time ran out with her adopted mother.
“There were files all over the living room, and she just sat there, digging through them,” said Arnold, who was 11 at the time. “I just remember a strange phone call.”
After three months of searching, Barbara Arnold met her mother, Ruth Mary Fields, in Auburn, later bringing along her children to meet the woman who’d given her up for adoption in 1952. About her birth father, Fields insisted until her death in 2015 that the man was her husband, John Allen Brainard, whom she’d married six months after Barbara was born.
Brainard had died in a fishing accident in 1958, Arnold was told and read in obituary accounts of whom she believed to be her birth father. That’s where the story ended for several decades, with Arnold mourning a father she’d never met.
Until last Christmas.
‘There’s no John Brainard anywhere’
Kathy Bloom had intended the Ancestry DNA kits as holiday presents for her children.
“My brother and I bought four of them, thinking my kids would want to do it,” said Bloom, who was capitalizing on a Christmas discount on the gift idea that has caught fire in the past few years, according to industry data.
But the younger generation showed little interest, and instead Bloom gave one of the kits to her good friend, Barbara Arnold, whom she’d met when she and her children moved in across the street decades ago.
“I left it sitting on the table, because I thought, why in the heck do I need to test?” Arnold said. “I met my birth mother in ’89.”
But take the test she did, and then forgot about it. Weeks later, results came back with a surname she found odd.
“There’s no John Brainard anywhere,” Arnold said. “She (my mother) told me how much my son looked like him, and about his life.”
Instead, there were multiple references to the surname “Butcher.” Confused, but without any garage sales planned in the near future, Arnold turned to a tool that hadn’t been available in 1989: social media.
A Facebook group called “DNA Detectives” took her results and guided her through the genealogy process. The social media hub was founded in 2015 by CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist whose professional work with Parabon NanoLabs has led to her consulting on criminal cold cases. But many will recognize her from her on-screen work with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his PBS series probing the ancestry of celebrities, “Finding Your Roots.”
“I thought it was incredibly unfair, that there are millions of adopted people in our country who didn’t have the right to their information and family trees,” Moore said. So, she began teaching people her genetic genealogy methods and launched the Facebook group just as DNA databases swelled to include enough data to track down ancestors for most Americans.
The work has led to tearful reunions, as well as some tough conversations between new family members, said Moore. She said cases of mistaken fathers make up a large portion of the work her group DNA Detectives completes each year.
“There’s skeletons falling out of closets all over America,” Moore said.
But the process also provides a sense of closure for many who are struggling with “the core mystery of their life,” Moore said.
The work includes not only genetic understanding, but also traditional genealogic research like that practiced by members of the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society. The volunteer group meets weekly at the downtown Spokane public library branch to help interested people fill out the branches of their family tree.
“DNA can help you break down the brick walls that you can’t get past on paper,” said Carol Anderson, a society member, during a break in research this week.
Past President Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, who’s taken six of the tests herself, gave one to her adopted daughter, only to learn that she, too, was a descendant of slaves sold by Georgetown University in the early 19th century.
For Arnold, the revelation that her true birth father was 90-year-old Earl Butcher brought up some more difficult questions, and an initial rebuke until a second paternity test confirmed her identity.
Not only did Arnold discover a father, but also three sisters, all of whom now chat frequently on Facebook every night.
“I don’t remember exactly how it all happened, because it was a big shock,” said Cindy Pinheiro, one of Butcher’s five daughters (Barbara Arnold included). There’s also a son.
Pinheiro said the story, for Earl Butcher, is one of sadness.
“My dad was a little bit emotional, he had no idea, he had no clue,” Pinheiro said. “Barbara’s mother, he was madly in love with her.”
The revelation also raised questions for Arnold, whose mother apparently lied for years about her true parentage.
“I wish she was alive so I could say, ‘Hey, what’s your side of the story, now that I know the truth?’ ” Arnold said.
Like the chance encounter with the ALMA representative in the 1980s, Arnold said she believed the stars had aligned to reveal her family now, especially with her father’s brother’s recent death.
“The way I look at life, is things happen for a reason,” Arnold said. “God will put things in your path not to trip you up, but to help you, and this was done because I was meant to meet my family.”
Arnold has spoken on the phone with her father, who started to give his account of the family history. But the daughter he didn’t know existed stopped him, saying this was a conversation she hoped to have in-person at a meal at Earl Butcher’s favorite restaurant, Denny’s.
“This is another chapter to my life,” she said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.