About 160 miles northeast of Pescadero is the rural town of Newcastle. There are about 1,200 residents and people are so spread out that it could feel isolated. So 71-year-old G.J. Chris Graves takes great pains to reach out to the world from there — especially to people he’s never met before.
Recently, the retired bank vice president drafted an unusual email to the Review. He was looking for photographs of one Yvonne J. Smith.
“Her partner is deceased, her house has burned down. This email is about the last gasp we are making to find a photo of her,” Graves’ message explained. “This is to give to her daughter, adopted out at birth.”
Who is Ms. Smith?
The Review found no photos in its archives and learned only a little about Smith, based on a memorial announcement that ran in the paper on May 9, 2001.
It said Smith had lived in Pescadero the last 21 years of her life — that she had a “‘sparkling’ presence at the Pescadero Art & Fun Festival.” There, she sold chili with Ron Roeschlaub, her partner of 23 years.
Before Smith died, she told Roeschlaub that she didn’t want a funeral. She wanted a party.
She ended up with a parade.
On May 13, 2001, a Sunday, a parade in her honor wound along Stage Road from the I.D.E.S. Hall to the Pescadero Community Church.
A Scottish bagpiper helped lead the way. A donkey-drawn cart, decorated with black roses, carried Smith’s bones in the back. Medieval-style dancers pranced around them, accompanied by European country-dance music, and a local rock band met the procession at the end at I.D.E.S. Hall when the parade came full circle.
Graves has been able to fill in some of the blanks about Smith with basic information, despite never having known the woman. He learned when her birthday was, that she had had children, married and divorced. With scant clues, he was even able to find some of her friends in the Pescadero community.
When Graves isn’t tending his outdoor master garden, he is particularly keen at scouring the Internet in response to inquiries to find people like Smith.
Fending off the winter chill, Graves can be found nestled inside his Newcastle home this time of year. The Indiana Jones theme song or “Scotland the Brave” — favorite tunes which he describes as “just noise” — will likely be wailing in the background. Spark, Graves’ five-year-old bull terrier, will probably be keeping him company as he diligently taps on his computer.
“If you sit here long enough, you can find anything,” said Graves.
Graves is a self-proclaimed “Search Angel,” helping adopted children find their birth parents, and vice-versa.
“Do you want to know what pain is, my friend? … There’s 9,349 people looking for someone in the state of California alone. That’s a lot of pain,” said Graves. He added that on birth parent search websites such as Adoption Registry Connect, three to five new inquiries are listed every day. Search Angels like Graves all over the country work around the clock to answer the inquiries.
The interest started shortly after Graves’ retirement in the mid-1990s. First, his wife’s cousin wanted to find a birth mother, followed by a man in his 30s whom Graves had hired to paint his house. Graves took it upon himself to locate them — and succeeded.
“‘I’ve been waiting for this call for 30 years,’” Graves recalled the housepainter’s mother saying once she connected with her long-lost son.
“With that, my friend, I was hooked,” said Graves.
Typically, Graves uses information gleaned from a variety of sources. It can include medical history, physical descriptions, health status, birth certificates and more. From that Graves determines a person’s name at birth to help him find loved ones, free of charge.
It helps that Graves has accumulated every birth and death record in California from 1905 to 1995, as well as decades of marriage and divorce records. When that’s not enough, Google is his standby, which he uses to access online databases that give him necessary information.
He primarily focuses on helping people over the age of 21. People embarking on the journey need to be mature because the process, and even the outcome, can be a struggle.
“About 75 percent turn out well,” said Graves. “About 15 percent say, ‘This is interesting. Let me get back to you.’”
And the last 10 percent? “They say, ‘I made a mistake back then. I don’t want to revisit that. Get out of my life,’” said Graves.
When a person is ready and gets results, however, it’s tremendously satisfying, Graves said. He said that the number of people he’s found since 1995 is “in the low thousands.”
“It’s like starting at the end of the book. You know exactly how it ends up,” said Graves. He just doesn’t necessarily know how it begins.
That’s where friends, neighbors and family step in.
Putting the pieces together
From her friends and family, the Review learned that Yvonne Janette Smith was a “quintessential hippie chick” and had spent a couple months living in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. They remember her as being petite, standing at about 5’2,” and having long, wild brownish or dirty blonde hair.
In 1979, she settled on a property on Dearborn Park Road in Pescadero with Roeschlaub, a handyman. Cats and three geese stood guard at the cottage they had built themselves.
When Smith wasn’t rolling through town with Roeschlaub in his white Mercedes, the free spirit blew through life wearing bright, flowing skirts and dresses that she had made herself. Sometimes, she made clothes for other people in her community.
“She just loved the free and easy life of friends and family,” remembered neighbor Doug Jones. “(Yvonne and Ron) were the salt of the earth. Anything you needed, they would give you anything and everything they had.”
Smith had established her life in Pescadero, and, for the most part, it ran parallel to the lives of her two children, whom she had had years earlier as a teenager.
In 1965, she had a baby girl she named Pamela. She loved the child, but as a high school student, she knew she wasn’t prepared to be a mother. She gave up her daughter for adoption so “Pammy” could have the chance to have a life in a settled family that lived in Livermore and eventually moved to Stockton.
Three years later, Smith gave birth to Pammy’s half-brother. Maynard Smith’s grandmother raised him, but when Smith was with him, Maynard said she made it up to him. They enjoyed doing simple things together when they had the chance, things like shopping or going out to eat in Pescadero.
“We were more friends than mom and son,” said Maynard Smith. “When we were together, it was like it was just me and her and no one could touch us. We were each other’s worlds.”
Now 44 and living in Antioch where he works in the service department of a Toyota dealership, Maynard Smith was heartbroken after his mother died more than a decade ago. He couldn’t bear to return to Pescadero until several months ago. Roeschlaub had recently died, and he finally returned to see what memories he could salvage there.
There was Duarte’s Tavern, where he and Smith used to dine. His favorite item used to be the artichoke soup. He ordered it again, one more time. Then there was the land where Smith had lived on Dearborn Road. He found the cottage was gone.
Someone explained to Maynard Smith that a person had been staying in the guest cottage on the property and accidentally started a fire with the wood-burning stove. It destroyed the home, as well as the relics of his childhood.
“Literally everything of my childhood was burned in the fire — gone,” he said.
All he had left were memories and stories, some of which included Pammy.
Finding her became a lifelong goal for Maynard Smith, but he just never had the resources to make it happen, he said.
A few weeks ago, his phone rang. It was Graves. His big sister was looking for him.
When Gina Aragona speaks on the phone, it’s with a buoyant tone. The caller would never know that just a few weeks ago she was completely dependent on a walker after extensive knee replacement surgery. The recovery hadn’t stopped her from continuing a search far and wide for information about her birth mother.
The 47-year-old social worker said that she hadn’t felt the impetus to seek out information earlier in life because being adopted had never bothered her. She was happy. In fact, she liked being adopted “because it was different from everybody else.”
All three children in her family — including her big brother who had also been adopted, and a baby brother to whom her adopted mother had given birth — were very much loved and wanted. She had everything she needed, and much of what she wanted.
“That’s how it should be,” said Aragona.
She also didn’t want to disrupt her birth mother’s life. “I didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag and let out her little secret. I was always very aware of privacy.”
Still, she thought about her birth mother all the time.
“I hoped that she was happy. I hoped that she had a family, because she gave me such a wonderful gift. She gave my parents such a wonderful gift. And she gave herself such a wonderful gift,” said Aragona. “I always thought that was very brave of her, to give me up for adoption.”
As Aragona got older, her doctors encouraged her to get records of her family medical history. That meant finding her birth mother. She also wanted to thank the woman for giving her a wonderful life. She decided that wherever her mother was, she — and her children, if she had any — would most likely understand Aragona’s desire to contact them. She just hoped that she wasn’t too late.
The search begins
Aragona knew that her name at birth had been Pamela, and she assumed her adoption agency had given her that name after her mother, so she started to search for women by that name. However, that assumption was wrong. Not surprisingly, none of the Pamelas that Aragona found during the last two years were related to her.
It wasn’t until December that Aragona posted an inquiry on an adoption search database called Adoption Registry Connect to find her birth mother.
A “Search Angel” answered her within a day. Free of charge, G.J. Chris Graves, a retired vice-president of a national bank, corrected her mistake. He told her that Yvonne Smith of Pescadero was her mother, and Pamela had been the name she had chosen for Aragona.
“It made me laugh because I’ve basically been looking for myself the last two years,” said Aragona. “I had no idea that it would be so easy. In a matter of a day, I had her name.”
At the same time, Aragona learned of Smith’s death. She was deeply saddened.
Overwhelming joy accompanied the feeling of grief when she found out that she had a little brother, Maynard Smith.
Aragona lived in Stockton. Maynard Smith lived in Antioch, where he moved after some time in Pescadero.
Maynard Smith lived within 30 miles of his big sister, and never knew it until his phone rang in December. Graves called to explain as much. The Search Angel wanted to help the siblings connect for the first time after a lifetime of separation.
Aragona believes in closed adoptions and thinks there are reasons for privacy.
“Not every reunion is a positive reunion,” she said.
Hers was. Maynard had grown up knowing about her, and wanted to meet her the weekend before New Year’s Day.
“That put me at total ease,” said Aragona. She had never been a secret, after all. She and her brother plan to stay in touch, and visit Pescadero together within the next month or two.
“Due to the graces of this guy, Chris … here we are – the story begins,” said Maynard Smith. “I think (our mom would) be absolutely ecstatic. She’d be floored to see her two kids together side-by-side,” he said.
Now, both of Smith’s kids want to be connected with their mother. Any photos of them as children, or of Smith, would be greatly appreciated. Send photos to Gina Argagona at firstname.lastname@example.org or to Maynard Smith at 3301 Buchanan Road, Spc. No.122, Antioch, CA 94509.
“I don’t feel like I know her, but I feel like I know her a lot more,” said Aragona. “I would really love to see a couple good pictures.”
The search continues
Meanwhile, in Newcastle, Graves has destroyed the file he kept for Smith. Case closed. He does this for all people he’s successfully found.
“Now, the wonderment gets to stop,” said Graves, who is happy that he helped Aragona discover her birth mother and her little brother.
Graves knows that the story of Aragona and her family is special, but not unique. What about the other 9,348 people looking for someone in California? So he is still searching as the calendar turns over to a new year.
“On a cold winter’s day like this, I’m in front of my window, (with) a heater in front of me and a dog at my feet, and we’re looking for people.”