The tough mechanic remembered kicking and screaming, clawing the walls as a scrawny boy. He tried to hang on as family members on his daddy’s side pulled him out the door of the small country house.
Little David Barnes was about 5 then, in 1970. His younger brother, even smaller.
The parents were splitting up and he had stayed with his mother. Until that day.
“They took us and I was gone, and I never saw my momma again,” David said. “I remember an older lady there crying and screaming when they took us. I guess it was my grandmother and they took us from her when my mother was out. They told us my momma ran away with another man. All I had was a picture.”
The faded photo showed David’s father and mother, early in her pregnancy. It was taken in 1964 on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J.
“That’s all I had of my mother,” said David, now 51. “Didn’t know if she was alive or she was dead. I didn’t know where she went or where she ended up.”
For more than 45 years – in those quiet moments when a person looks in the mirror and sees the past, future and present all at once – this father and grandfather wondered what happened that day in 1970 outside Salisbury, N.C., when he was whisked away.
“I couldn’t remember if she ever told me she loved me,” he said.
David’s father, Clarence, lived only a short while after that. A family named Giles took young David Barnes in and raised him. The Giles family moved to Rock Hill more than 40 years ago.
Only as a teen did David learn from his adoptive parents that his name at birth was Barnes.
“The Gileses were my momma and daddy, and I loved them and they were great,” he said. “They were my family.”
Despite knowing of his birth family, David had no idea who they were or where to look or how to start. He spent a stretch in the military, came back to Rock Hill, worked, got married and had children of his own.
“I wondered what she looked like, my mother,” he said. “And I wondered if she loved me.”
A mother wonders
Little did David Barnes know that over those same 45-plus years, Alberta Marie Winfield had spent a lifetime on her knees at night, praying. In New Jersey and California and Florida, Alberta wondered all those years if her children were alive, if they smiled, if they laughed.
The only thing she knew was that she loved them.
“That story that I run off with a man, that was a lie,” Alberta said. “They took my sons. They took my babies. I come home from going to the drugstore to get medicine for my mother, and I found my own mother with her head on her arms crying, saying that they took the boys.”
A note was left on the table, saying that the boys’ father’s family had taken the children “far, far away.”
“I never saw them again,” Alberta said.
She called the police, of course, but this was a time before amber alerts and extensive social services. Besides, every picture, everything about her sons, had been taken, too. Alberta was told it wasn’t a kidnapping, since it was the boys’ father and family who had taken them.
She had no way to get her kids back.
Alberta ended up marrying twice, living in California and Florida – a life without her children.
Finally, she was widowed and in an assisted living home in the small town of Eustis, Fla., less than an hour’s drive from Orlando.
“There wasn’t a day in all those years,” she said, “that I wasn’t on my knees praying to God that I would find those kids.”
The Internet saves the day
Regina Barnes knew that her husband wanted answers. Like so many kids who are raised by people other than their birth families, he needed to know.
“He wanted to know if his mother loved him,” Regina said.
So Regina did countless Internet searches, explored genealogy websites and employed other online tools. They spoke to David’s paternal cousins and family who had raised his younger brother. She found old census records and voting records, looked through online news obituaries.
Last week, she said to her husband: “I think I found her.”
Regina and David did not call or write. After David finished his work on the late shift Thursday, the couple drove to Florida.
Hours later, they pulled into the parking lot at the Eustis assisted living center.
“I was nervous; I didn’t want to be disappointed,” David said. “What if it wasn’t her? What if it was just some lady?”
He hesitated, but Regina took his hand and marched him inside.
They walked into a day room and found three women sitting in chairs. Regina looked at the gray-haired lady with glasses and gasped: “She looks just like our daughter!”
A worker called out: “You have company!”
Alberta – now Alberta Moat – raised her head and looked straight at David.
Maybe for the first time in his life, this tough guy found himself flustered.
David and Regina approached and asked for a minute of the lady’s time.
“I thought at first this was a salesman selling magazines or books, something,” Alberta said, but Regina assured her they weren’t selling anything.
When Regina asked Alberta if someone had taken her boys away more than 45 years ago, Alberta gasped.
“This is your son,” Regina said.
David showed Alberta the birth certificate that matched mother and son, and for the first time in more than 45 years, they rushed into each others’ arms.
“I found my mother,” David whispered.
Long trip home
Alberta agreed to come back to South Carolina to stay in Rock Hill for Thanksgiving. It was not a perfect trip.
At a rushed stop, the box with his birth certificate and more – including that old picture of his mother and father – was lost. In all the commotion and excitement, they had either left it on top of the vehicle or somewhere else.
Once the reunited family made it back to South Carolina, they had engine trouble near Orangeburg and Regina’s family had to drive down to pick them up and bring them the rest of the way home. By late Sunday, back in Rock Hill, all three were dog-tired.
But it was all worth it.
The plan now is to find a quality assisted living home here for Alberta, then head back to Florida, get her possessions in order, and get her situated in Rock Hill for good.
David has been in touch with his younger brother, who was raised by their father’s family and lives in another state, to see about making their family reunion complete.
It will happen when that brother is ready, David said. Forty-five years is a long time; old memories die hard.
Today, David knows that what matters for him now is not that memory of kicking and screaming as he was pulled out the door all those years ago.
It is being together with his mother again, just in time for Thanksgiving.
“We found each other, and that’s what matters,” he said. “I am thankful. This is Thanksgiving. This is my momma.”
Alberta’s life is now complete, she said, gushing again about having sons and grandchildren and even great-grands. She can’t wait for all to be together for Thanksgiving.
“My life is back together,” Alberta said. “This is Thanksgiving. My son.”
The son hugged his mother close. She kissed his cheek.
And then his mother said the words David Barnes had waited 45 years to hear.
“I love you, son.”
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065