Young man sets out in search of his long-ago beginnings

July 25, 2004|By Dan Rodricks

THERE CAME a day when Justin Beckwith reached into a box of old things and discovered the secret. At first he found just baby things -- tiny articles of clothing he had worn 21 years earlier, some photographs, greeting cards, a scrapbook -- the kinds of things a mother sets aside to preserve memories from a special time in her life.

Justin Beckwith knew he had been adopted as an infant, but he had never seen this small trove of souvenirs from 1980, the year Mary and Frank Beckwith of Columbia became his parents.

Twenty-one years had gone by now. Mary Beckwith had died, and her only adopted son sat in the dining room of his apartment in Indianapolis, picking through a box of family items his mother had saved and his father had given him to store away.

Scrapbook, photos, baby clothes ... and a faded clipping from a weekly newspaper in Columbia. "Tenant finds `adorable' surprise: a baby boy," it said, next to another story with the headline, "Vietnam memorial approved."

Beckwith didn't understand why this clipping, dated May 8, 1980, had been placed in his baby scrapbook and, without bothering to read much of it, set it aside.

He reached further into the box and found a court document, apparently his adoption papers. The Beckwiths had never shown this to him. Justin unfolded the papers and read them.

The law office of Talkin & Abramson had petitioned the Circuit Court for Howard County on behalf of Frank and Mary Beckwith -- Frank described as "29 years of age, of the caucasion [sic] race, affiliated with the Episcopal Church and employed by the Chevy Chase Savings & Loan Association" -- for the adoption of a baby boy.

In his dining room in Indianapolis, 21-year-old Justin Beckwith read the next paragraph:

"The Department of Social Services of Howard County, Maryland, hereinafter referred to as Social Services, is the guardian of a minor child who was born on or about April 30, 1980 and was found, abandoned ..."

Found.

Abandoned.

"... and without any clue to its identity or parents ..."

Without any clue.

"... on May 1, 1980, in the morning, at 8939 Town & Country Boulevard, Ellicott City, Howard County, Maryland. Despite the diligent and persistent efforts of Social Services to locate either of the parents of the said minor child ..."

Found.

Abandoned.

Without any clue.

The news clipping suddenly made sense. Beckwith's eyes ran over the words:

"Calls are coming in from as far away as New Jersey to adopt an infant found last Thursday in Ellicott City, but local officials are more interested in finding the mother. The brown-haired, blue-eyed white baby boy was found late Thursday evening in a stairwell at the Town and Country apartments, wrapped in a green towel.

"Police think the mother may have been a young woman seen hitchhiking the night before on Route 40, in the Ellicott City area, with a baby wrapped in a green cover."

Justin Beckwith, alone in his apartment in Indianapolis, reached for the telephone. He called his mother's sister, Sally Garrett-Smith.

"Do you know about me?" he asked, and that seemed to be all he needed to say.

"How did you find that out?" she answered. "Your mother never wanted you to know."

Never wanted him to know that he had been abandoned.

Justin knew he had been in foster care for a while. He knew he had been adopted by the Beckwiths -- "Because," he was told, "your birth parents could not care for you as well as your adopted parents could" -- and the family had moved to Indiana when he was still an infant. But that's as far as Mary Beckwith would go with the back story, and her son never questioned it further.

Until the day, about three years ago now, when he reached into a box of old things and discovered the secret.

"I discovered something I need to talk to you about," Justin Beckwith told Frank Beckwith on the phone. He drove to his father's house and confronted him. Frank Beckwith was almost as distraught as his adopted son. "I wish your mother was here," he said. "She would explain it to you better than I could."

Now the shock has worn off. And Justin Beckwith has tossed aside the anger he felt upon learning the secret. On reflection, he's come to accept Mary Beckwith's decision to keep his abandonment from him. He was a depressed teenager, Justin says. His father was unemployed for a time, his mother was chronically ill and Justin missed a lot of school to care for her. She died when he was 18. "It was probably for the better that she didn't tell me," he says.

Now he says he's ready to learn more.

He came back to Maryland a few weeks ago with his aunt, Garrett-Smith, and her husband, Bill. He visited the apartment complex where he had been abandoned.

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