By Fred Dickey Jan. 30, 2017
It was a quiet day in May of last year when Erika Basquez answered the phone. Her “hello” was in the German accent that after all these years has never left her speech.
The woman on the other end spoke German and asked if she had once been Elizabeth Erika Amrhein. After a mystified confirmation, the woman asked if Erika had given birth to a son in Germany in 1964.
Erika didn’t know where this was going. She still answered, “Yes, but he died.”
There was no way to prepare Erika for what the woman was about to tell her: “No, he didn’t. He’s looking for you.”
“I was shocked. I dropped the phone. The first thing, I cry. I was nervous, you know. Then the woman said, ‘OK, he will telephone you.’ I told her, ‘Give me a minute.’ It took me a minute to swallow that.”
Hanging up, she leaned back and caught her breath as memories came alive in her mind, memories that had been dormant for decades. If you live long enough, you know any day can hold a surprise, but not like this one. No, not like this.
Erika is a 72-year-old retired businesswoman
living alone in a small Normal Heights house. She’s a jolly person with a
spicy sense of humor about the foibles of youth, especially hers, which
is a healthy way to be in old age. She lives quietly surrounded by her
flock of eight cuckoo clocks. On hourly cues, they erupt in
surround-sound as though a wooden hawk had swooped into their midst.
am wise enough not to compete with noisy birds; instead, I sit back and
figure that if they do their job in wound-up faithfulness, that’s 24
times a day.
It would drive me cuckoo, but for Erika, why not? It’s a back-home thing.
Erika was born in 1945 in a small city near Frankfurt at the end of World War II. She grew up in tough times in the American zone of occupation. All during her youth, area streets and bars were beclouded by American soldiers who had the money, the music, the spiffy uniforms and the lines. No one ever said they weren’t fun. Whatever is a young lady to do?
In her late teens, Erika worked as a car detailer. She never had much money, but she had spirit. She was a, uh, fun-loving girl, she acknowledges with a chuckle.
We would put her early life in the lower-middle-class category and let it go at that.
In 1964, at age 19 and unmarried, she gave birth to a boy. “I had him in the clinic, and I asked, ‘Where’s my son?’ They told me he died. ‘Sorry, that’s all we know.’ When I ask questions their answer was only, ‘He died.’” She shrugs. “So, that was it.”
So you never saw your son?
“No, they took him away, and he was gone.”
The father was an American soldier named Bill. By the time the baby arrived, Bill had drifted away.
Did you contact him?
“I just dropped him. Was not my type, let’s put it that way.”
Apparently he was for a few moments.
Erika erupts in a merry laugh. “Well, you know when you’re young and dumb, right? You know how that goes. I met him, and then he had to go to the United States, you know. They say bye-bye, auf wiedersehen.”
It sounds like Bill was shown the door and happily went through it.
Without her knowledge, her mother had the baby put up for adoption with a Catholic agency. Because Erika was an unmarried minor, her mother apparently had the right to do that by German law, barbaric though it sounds a half-century later.
Why would your mother give your baby away?
“My mother went through two wars, and it was really bad. So, she thought when the baby grew up with somebody else, he has a better life. That’s why.”
Our eyes widen in amazement that such a cruel conspiracy
could be conjured, not to mention succeed. However, there’s always more
to any story. Realize it was in a country still recovering from the
upheaval of World War II. People had seen babies starve.
Erika understands that, and she has no anger toward her mother since learning of her son’s true fate.
Back then, Erika mourned for her baby. There was nothing else to do. Life doesn’t stop for tears.
Erika already had a 2-year-old daughter, Cristine, also by an American soldier.
Who was the father of the girl?
A big grin. “Well, there was another one of those, too. …
I’m glad I didn’t marry that one, either, I tell you. He wrote me
letters, and I found out where he is. He had been married 10 times. You
don’t want a guy like that.”
Erika married “an American Spaniard” from Arizona and emigrated in 1969. She divorced him three years later. She adds a peal of laughter and says, “With a good frying pan.”
She moved to San Diego, where she settled into a relationship with a German that lasted almost 40 years until the man died.
During that time, the couple operated a dry cleaning business in La Jolla. Once widowed, she closed the business and sold the building a few years ago.
Her daughter had settled in Oregon, and they have stayed in close contact.
While all of this is going on with Erika — first in Germany, then in San Diego — a fellow named Mark Faul is growing up uneventfully in the St. Louis suburbs with his adoptive parents.
As a grown man, he has glittered in ways that count. He became a family man with three grown children and a Ph.D. He’s a senior health scientist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Mark always knew he was adopted. As evidence, he still has the German passport from when his parents took him home to America. But as usually happens, his roots were not important as a youth. He was more interested in growing the plant of his life and career.
However, when middle-age creeps in, the question of “Who am I?” gradually becomes more important. As his parents aged and then died, Mark started dabbling to answer that question in 2003.
It is a given in genealogy that starting in the past and working up to the present is much easier than starting from the present and working back.
A few years of getting nowhere by Googling, writing letters and making phone calls to nonplussed families in Germany convinced Mark that he needed professional help.
hired a German woman (the same one who would phone Erika) who did that
sort of thing. She solved the riddle in a few weeks and spliced the
lives of mother and son. For a pro, it was as easy as a chimp peeling a
And then the phone rang.
What did you say to Mark when you heard his voice?
She didn’t know quite what to say, so she blurted out: “You’re dead, you know.” She laughs when recalling that understandably tongue-tied response.
“Then he said, ‘No, I’m alive.’ Then I said, ‘Gee.’ Then I told him I didn’t know he was alive, see?”
Mark recalls: “She said, ‘Did you have a
nice life?’ That just struck me because it just kind of sums it up.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Yeah. I mean, there were some pitfalls, there were some
ups and downs, but yeah, it was pretty good.’”
Were you nervous before you called this mother you had never met?
“Absolutely. Yes, very much so.”
You know, Mark, sometimes these things don’t work out well. Sometimes there’s guilt. Of course, in your case she had no reason to harbor that. I’ve talked to other people who have found their birth parents, and it’s like, “How ya been?” and so forth, and “Well, let’s stay in touch.” And they sometimes don’t, or do so tepidly. The disconnected strands are there, but not the glue. Fortunately, what was missing in your situation was guilt. She had not abandoned you.
In August, Mark and two of his grown children flew to San Diego, rented a car and drove up to Erika’s small home on Meade Avenue. They walked up to the door and rang the bell. It was answered by a stout, older woman with an accent and a nervous smile.
Both mother and son say they hit it off. The life story of each was a page-turner of a novel to the other. They have continued to talk often by phone. Catching up takes time when so much of it has passed. Mark has also visited his half-sister in Oregon.
Finding his birth father is not a consideration. If locating his mother was shooting a fish in a barrel, his father would be shooting one in the ocean.
At a time of life when most of us pine for some second and third chances, Erika and Mark are on their first chance. Unfair.
We think we’ve got life figured out. And then the phone rings. That has to make God smile.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net