CHESTER — Under her pillow in the little house in Chester, Frances Lee Dove for decades kept the letters that had the secret words about her son.
How he had grown up, was healthy, and had tiny little overalls and a cowboy suit when he was a toddler. All the adoption people would say.
She never knew his adopted name.
“I named him Robert Wayne,” she recalled.
Under her bed, for so long, lay a brick that fell from the old Charleston home for unwed mothers. Her sister and niece had smuggled the brick out, a talisman from the old property where the young Frances went so long ago to have a baby and then immediately give up that baby.
The worn paper, smudged ink and rough brick were all that Frances had that showed she once, in 1949, was somebody’s momma.
And that she still, at age 86 in 2013, was a mother to a son.
Except for the knowledge of one of her sisters, and a couple others who never spoke of what happened in Chester, Frances Lee Dove was a spinster. A woman who worked 46 years in the Springsteen Mill, who helped raise all her younger siblings and their kids. A woman who never married and had no children.
Only Lucille Dove Sinclair, a sister just four years younger, knew all these years that Frances had been a mother, too. In 1949.
“I stuck with her, kept her secret,” said Lucille. “After our daddy died, she practically raised me. She bought my clothes for school. She took care of all the rest of us.”
The other siblings - there were nine Dove children - did not know what happened in late 1948 and 1949. What happened was what happens in the world. A woman became pregnant.
No babies at home
Frances was not a kid in 1948. She was a grown woman in her 20s, but living at the family farm about five miles west of Chester and helping with her younger siblings. The Doves were poor and proud. There was a man in France’s life.
Frances found out she was pregnant, and asked that man to marry her because in 1949 women did not have babies without husbands. Not publicly, anyway.
The family was told. Scandal, and poverty, were feared equally. The parents, Della and Randolph, in the ways of those years, and with already too many to feed, said Frances had to leave and could not come back with the baby.
Broken-hearted, Frances was given some food, and bus fare, by the social services people in Chester. She was sent to the Florence Crittenton Home in Charleston. The Crittenton Home, like more than 70 like it around the country, served unwed mothers.
At the home, while pregnant, Frances helped take care of other children just born. She took care of one baby boy named Wayne. Then it was her turn.
In July 1949, Frances Lee Dove gave birth to an 8-pound boy with blue eyes. She named him Robert, after her father, middle name Wayne, after the baby she had cared for at the home. He cried and she gave the baby a bottle. The baby stopped crying.
Robert Wayne slept on her chest that July day in 1949, and the momma cried as he went to sleep.
She has cried for 64 years.
The sister with the secret knowledge, Lucille, arrived with a tiny white dress-like thing that even baby boys wore in those days. The adoption people took the baby from her outstretched hands. The heavy wooden doors closed with a bang.
“She cried, oh, how she cried,” the sister, Lucille, remembers.
Even so many years later, with some memory loss from the early onset of dementia, Frances Lee Dove remembers that day her son went through those doors.
“That was the last time I saw my son,” she said. “He was beautiful.”
Life goes on
Frances Lee Dove soon afterward returned to Chester and that job as a battery filler in the mill near downtown. Her job was to take the yarn and fill the machines to make the cloth. She worked and worked, regular time and overtime, and helped with her younger siblings. She spent countless hours, days, weeks, months, years, volunteering at the Nazarene church.
“As hard a working and devoted a person as anybody ever met,” said Paul Love, a brother-in-law for 55 years. “Frances showed love to everyone, helped raise all those other kids.”
Except her own.
At night Frances would fall asleep to dreams of what her baby, growing up, was doing. What he looked like. If he was happy. She called the home for unwed mothers, but nobody would tell her anything. Rules were rules.
Frances had no idea that near Charleston a woman named Annie Johnson Thomas and her husband had adopted her son. The boy was named Jones Tillman “J.T.” Thomas.
Annie died in 1954, and the father remarried but died in a drowning in 1957. The boy’s stepmother, who he thought for the first years of his life was his birth mother until he was told he was adopted at around age 8, raised him.
There were brothers and sisters and happiness.
“I was always as much a part of the family as anybody,” J.T. Thomas recalled. “A big, happy family.”
J.T. finished high school and enlisted in the Marines. He was sent to Vietnam, where he saw awful and terrible combat. He came home and started a life. He became a police officer in North Charleston. He married, had kids. He worked for years, also as a probation officer, and finally retired.
“And I always wondered, almost every day of my life, who my birth parents were,” J.T. Thomas said. “I thought about it all the time.”
Frances drops a bombshell
In the mid 1990s, France’s youngest sister, Mary Ellen, was driving Frances to Wal-Mart in Chester when Frances blurted out: “How well do you know me?”
“I thought I knew her pretty good, we were sisters for all these years and so close, and then she tells me she had a son at the children’s home back in 1949,” Mary Ellen Dove Love said. “She told me his name was Robert Wayne. I was floored.”
Lucille, the other sister who had kept the secret for almost 50 years, confirmed everything to Mary Ellen about Frances and the baby, the birth father who would not do the right thing, and the flight out of Chester to avoid the scandal and the extra child to feed.
Frances did not know, in the 1990s, that the son was a policeman and father. Frances had no idea he was doing the same thing she was: Wondering if the other was alive. And if so, would they ever meet.
“I had been putting off looking for years, just putting it off because I didn’t know what I might find, then by 2005 I was ready,” J.T. Thomas remembered. “Then I stopped again. It was just - it is tough. Sometimes you ask yourself if you really want to know.”
Thomas had no idea that by mid-2011, Mary Ellen Dove Love, Frances’s sister, and her family had started to hunt for him. They found brick walls and no sons. Mary Ellen left her number with the South Carolina adoption reunion registry in case of a miracle.
“We thought maybe we would never find him for Frances,” Mary Ellen said.
By late 2012, J.T. Thomas, a grandfather and retired, 63 years old, figured it was time to find his mother before it was too late. He contacted South Carolina’s Adoption Reunion Registry. He received a form that showed his birth with the mother’s name blacked out.
“No identifiers, nothing,” he said. “But I saw that my birth name was Robert Wayne.”
By March this year Thomas was called in Charleston by the adoption people. Mary Ellen, the sister in Chester, was called by the adoption people.
The words ‘I think we got a match,’ were blurted out.
Phone numbers were exchanged. Thomas called the stranger and said, “Aunt Mary Ellen?”
And she said, “We found you!”
Mary Ellen called Lucille, the sister who knew the secret for so long, and arranged for Frances to be brought to her home that night. Mary Ellen joked with Frances, at age 86 with a little memory trouble, asking her if she was out so late because she had a date.
“Never had a date,” Frances said that night.
It was the awful truth.
“You have one now,” Mary Ellen said. “We found your son.”
Frances Lee Dove, 86 years old, started crying, and clapping.
J.T. Thomas had reservations about meeting his mother.
“I didn’t want to upset her, I didn’t want to make her feel bad in any way,” he said.
But the family talked, and it was agreed he would drive up from Charleston to Chester on March 18. J.T. Thomas arrived with a dozen red roses for his mother.
Then he walked in, and Frances Lee Dove threw her arms around him and said, “My son!”
The mother and son sat together, and this lady at age 86 kept putting her head on his shoulder and saying, “My baby. My baby.”
The mother and son hugged and held hands and all looked at them. Lucille, that sister who kept a secret so long, said, “We are a family again.”
Not the last meeting
J.T. Thomas since meeting his mother has called her every day - even if it is just to say hello. Frances looks forward to the calls, and always says how much she loves him. He found out that his birth father is long dead, and that he did not want to be his father. He found out why his mother gave him up for adoption.
“I understand,” Thomas said. “That is just how it was. Now I have two families. Both are great. They are similar, too. Christian people, loving.”
Last month Thomas brought his wife and kids, and his two grandchildren, to Chester to meet his mother. Frances beamed with love.
“My granddaughter, my great-grandchildren,” she cooed.
No great-granny was ever prouder.
Then plans were made for another meeting. Monday, May 6, was Frances Lee Dove’s 87th birthday. It fell the same week as Mother’s Day, celebrated today.
Thomas arrived with candy, and a balloon, and a cake. It said, “Happy Birthday Mom.”
“My son is so handsome, such a good boy,” Frances said. “His name is Robert. Robert Wayne.”
The son, legal named Jones Tillman Thomas, said his name sure was Robert Wayne.
The mother and son sat on the little couch in the little house where Frances had lived for so long, the house where she helped raise her siblings but not her own son.
J.T. Thomas remarked that he has never held a hard feeling for what happened, and still doesn’t.
“This is my mother and I love her,” he said. “She calls me Robert Wayne. That is my name, too. I am proud to have it.”
Then his momma took her long, slender, mill-worn fingers that had threaded a million miles of yarn and cupped her son’s chin in her hand. She was no longer an old lady dealing with memory loss. She was no longer crying in the dark of night.
She knew the eyes. The eyes were just like hers.
Frances Lee Dove said the words she had said so many times to her pillow with the letters under it, with no answer for so long through the tears: “I love you, son.”
The son, 63, said, “I love you too, Mom.”
Then she lay her head on her son’s big shoulder. She on her 87th birthday, which came during the first week in 64 years that Frances Lee Dove ever celebrated Mother’s Day.
Andrew Dys * 803-329-4065 * firstname.lastname@example.org.