Completing the family

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In February, Geri Prew (front, center) was finally able to meet her son, Eric Baumgarten (front, right), who was given up for adoption over 40 years ago. Also joining in the reunion were Geri’s other children and Eric’s siblings, Dayton Jones, Sophie Landt (back, left) and Tonya Meyer. (Submitted photo)

“It was better than I ever hoped for,” said Marlon “Scrooge” Jones (left) of reuniting with his son, Eric Baumgarten. (Submitted photo)

Family reconnects with son, brother adopted over 40 years ago

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Growing up in the McGregor-Marquette area, Sophie Jones (now Landt) and her siblings, Tonya (now Meyer) and Dayton, always recognized their brother, Eric’s, birthday. There was just one thing: they’d never met him. They didn’t even know his name was Eric or even where he lived. 

When May 11 rolled around this year, however, that had all changed. Just months before, the siblings finally reconnected with the brother who was adopted before they were born.

— — —

‘It wasn’t a simple thing’

Geri Prew and Marlon “Scrooge” Jones had been dating for awhile when Geri discovered she was pregnant. The teenage couple had a lot to think about.

“We were both immature at 17,” Geri admitted. “I just did not feel I was ready to take care of a baby.”

The couple determined the best course of action was to put the child up for adoption.

“It wasn’t a simple thing,” she reflected. “It was very hard.”

The only thing that made it easier, Geri said, was that she knew her son would go to a good home: “I knew the parents were checked out and that they went to classes before they got him.”

Eric was born May 11, 1976, at Prairie du Chien Memorial Hospital.

“I did not see him when he was born because I knew I would break down,” Geri said.

Scrooge, on the other hand, saw Eric twice.

“My mom told me, ‘Don’t see him. It’ll haunt you for the rest of your life,’” he recalled. “But I couldn’t not see him.”

“It was hard,” Scrooge continued, “watching him and not knowing whether you’ll ever see him again.”

Scrooge and Geri later married and together had Tonya, Dayton and Sophie. Once the kids were old enough to understand, Geri said she and Scrooge told them about their brother. Eric was never far from their minds.

“I thought about him,” Geri said, “but I wasn’t worried about him. When I thought about him, I didn’t know if he knew, or maybe he knew and didn’t want to find us. He could’ve been in another country.”

The family also tried to look for Eric, although the closed adoption made searching difficult.

“I even sent something to Oprah once,” Scrooge said.

Sophie said she first considered searching when she was in high school, but wasn’t sure how. It wasn’t until 2011 that she did anything, posting a message on the website adoption.com. 

The family also worked with the state of Wisconsin, filling out affidavits and providing information so Eric could someday gain family history or even contact them.

“We thought he would go through the state to find us,” Sophie commented.

— — —

‘I went to a great and loving family’

Eric Baumgarten grew up just south of Tomah, Wis., with his parents, Tom and Lynn, and brother, Mark, who was also adopted. He first found out he was adopted at age 5.

“I remember standing in the kitchen when my folks told me,” Eric shared. “They said my birth parents loved me very much, but that they couldn’t keep me and wanted to give me up for adoption, so I could go to a family that couldn’t have children of their own, but wanted children to raise and love.”

Eric said he doesn’t recall when he first thought about finding his birth parents. His family talked about it from time to time, wondering if his birth parents were together, what they looked like, what kind of people they were, where they lived, if there were any siblings. He thought, “Do the siblings look like me, act like me, have the same interests?”

When the Joneses were thinking about Eric on his birthday, he was thinking about them, too.

“I always thought about my birth parents on my birthday, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day,” he noted.

When considering whether to search or not, Eric said he always struggled with two thoughts. 

“First, I wanted to find them to let them know that I went to a great and loving family, and that I am happy and healthy,” Eric said. “My second thought was that I didn’t know if they had put the adoption behind them. Would it be difficult on them for me to all of a sudden contact them? Did they have different families now? Would my contacting them cause problems with their new families?”

At first, he decided against looking for them. Over time, though, the internet made searching easier. 

“It was a way for me to look on websites and databases to see if anyone had been looking for me,” he explained. “A few times a year, I would look.”

Eric said he didn’t have a lot of information with which to search. His family had a paper with four paragraphs on it, he detailed. Two paragraphs contained a physical description and general family information. There was nothing about names, places or any information that could lead him to his birth parents, Eric said. He knew he was adopted through Catholic Charities, and could provide his birth date as well as Prairie du Chien as the birthplace.

“For years, I found nothing, but would continue to look to see if they were looking for me,” he said.

— — —

‘Forty years of questions were answered with one hug’

Everything changed in late February, when Eric discovered Sophie’s post on adoption.com.

Eric, who’s been the yard foreman at Tomah Lumber for 22 years, had just gotten home from work and was settled down on the couch to watch Major League Fishing. His girlfriend of 18 years, Sandy LaCoursiere, was next to him, ready to take a nap. 

“I pulled out my phone and decided to do some searching,” Eric recalled, “just like I have done many times before.”

He started generally, typing in “Prairie du Chien adoption 1976.”

Sophie’s six-year-old post, “ISO brother born 5-11-1976 in Prairie du Chien adopted out of La Crosse,” was the top result.

“It hit me like a truck,” Eric said. “I clicked on the link that sent me to the website and I read the whole ISO. My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, that’s me!’ I tried to compose myself and read it again, just to make sure. The second time was the same—I knew it was me.“

After showing the post to Sandy, Eric said he called his brother, Mark, who’d found his birth family 15 years prior.

“It certainly helped me, having him to talk to about this,” Eric said.

Once Eric got off the phone, he had a decision to make: go all in, or simply take the fact that the family had searched for him six years ago as a good thing and leave it be.

“Without hesitation, I started to reply,” he shared. “I was extremely nervous. I responded with something like, ‘I think I am who you’re looking for. I know that this ISO was six years ago, but I will keep responding and hopefully you will get this.’”

Eric waited. He started checking his phone every 15 seconds. Minutes went by, then hours. That night, he didn’t sleep. 

“When morning came, and I hadn’t had a response,  I was beginning to think that after six years, maybe they wouldn’t be getting any notifications to my response,” he said. “Then, just after 24 hours from my response, I got a message back.”

Sophie, who now lives with her family in Monona, said the message came out of the blue. She shared it with Tonya, who also lives in Monona. At first, the two were wary, and asked for more information, just to be sure. They soon figured out, however, that Eric was the brother they had been looking for.

The sisters contacted their parents, who are no longer together and both no longer living in the area, as well as Dayton, to share the news.

The day that she got the call, “was one of the best days of my life,” said Geri.

“I was bawling like a baby,” admitted Scrooge.

After a few days of rapid messaging, Sophie asked Eric if he would like to meet her and Geri in La Crosse, for lunch. He jumped at the chance.

While waiting for them in the parking lot, Eric said he’d never been so nervous in his life.

“I gave them a few seconds to get out of the car. I exited the truck, then took the biggest breath of my life, exhaled and walked around the truck,” he said. “There was my mother walking toward me. I hurried over and gave her the biggest hug I could. We talked and cried. Then I hugged Sophie and talked and cried with her also.”

“I just didn’t want to let go,” Geri remarked. “It was a bittersweet time; the old pain of it came back along with the joy of finding him. It filled a piece of my heart that had been missing.”

“That day we had a 3.5-hour lunch,” she continued. “We talked and talked. We hardly had a bite to eat.”

“We had a ton of questions we wanted to ask, but when you’re sitting there, it wasn’t about the adoption but about him growing up. We wanted to get to know him,” Sophie shared. “It was very comfortable meeting with him.”

Eric felt the same, noting that, within five minutes, he felt comfortable, like he’d known them forever.

“It sounds kind of weird,” he quipped, “but it was almost normal, as if it was something that happened all the time.”

Three days later, Eric again met with Sophie and Geri, along with his other siblings, Tonya and Dayton, who lives in Cedar Rapids with his family. Lunch turned into 7.5 hours.

The next day, said Eric, he was reunited with Scrooge.

“It was better than I ever hoped for,” Scrooge recounted. “Forty years of questions were answered with one big hug.” 

— — —

‘It just feels like I’ve known them forever’

In the ensuing weeks, the family members have continued to meet and speak with one another.

“I have been able to meet dozens of family, grandparents, uncles, aunts, great aunts and uncles, cousins and their families, and some family friends,” Eric said. “It has been amazing, and I look forward to continuing to meet others and staying in contact with everyone.”

He’s especially excited to now be an uncle.

Geri, Scrooge and the siblings have also met Eric’s girlfriend and family.

“I had always wanted to let [my birth parents] know that I was placed in an amazing family. My parents, Tom and Lynn, and my brother, Mark, are the best,” Eric stated. “I wanted to thank them for making a really hard decision long ago that brought so much joy to my parents.”

“I’ve always wondered, ‘Is he happy, is he safe?’” Scrooge mentioned. “When I looked at how he turned out, I could see it was the best decision at the time. We couldn’t have hand-picked better people [to raise him].”

“They are very nice people,” Geri agreed. “I went up and hugged his mom and said, ‘Thank you for giving him a good home.’ I’m so elated and overjoyed to know he’s happy and comfortable with his life.”

Eric said he somewhat expected the experience of meeting his birth family to be awkward or stressful, but shared it’s been anything but that.

“It just feels like I’ve known them forever,” he said.

“It’s like he’s always been here,” Scrooge remarked. “A lot of the stuff he does, I see me doing.”

“It will be our first Father’s Day this year,” he proudly proclaimed. “We’re going fishing. I can’t wait.”

When she was younger, Sophie said she always used to wonder if her brother would fit in. Now, she has no doubts.

“He fits right in, so we won’t hesitate to invite him and talk with him. He’s just going to be part of the family,” she said. “He’s always been part of the family, but now we have a physical piece to fit that. It’s completed the family."

— — —

'Don't be afraid to look'

If you or a family member are in a similar situation, “don’t be afraid to look,” said Sophie. “You have to wonder about the positives and negatives, but you don’t want to miss out on an opportunity.”

“They’re you’re blood,” Geri added. “They might fit in better than you think.”

Even when it seems difficult, said Scrooge, “never give up.”

To begin searching, Eric suggested looking on adoption sites and databases. Contact the state agency in charge of adoption records to help with the search.

“It is one of the only ways to 100 percent verify who the birth parents are,” he noted.

Eric said it’s also important to make sure everyone involved—you, your current family and your birth family, if and when you find them—is 100 percent comfortable with the reconnection process.

“This can be an extremely emotional time,” he said. “I hope everyone who is or wants to look for their birth families is able to find them and have it work out as well as it did for me. This has been an unbelievably amazing experience.”

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