A Search for Son and Self

How to Find Someone When You Don’t Know Who You’re Looking For

1970 Pre-Choice America

After their eighth move in thirteen years, the lonely only child of a high-ranking naval officer and a socially ambitious mother, Tracy Mayo longed for a normal adolescence – to have lasting friends, to feel rooted. What she got was a pregnancy at fourteen and exile to The Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers. She was required to surrender her baby boy at birth and pretend it never happened.


Twenty-two years later, her longing undiminished, she set out to find him – pre-internet, no DNA testing and without even knowing his adoptive name. Perhaps, in the process, she could reclaim her erased self.

I had little to go on. He was born on May 15, 1970 at Norfolk General Hospital at approximately 6:20 a.m. I named him Thomas Neal Mayo. Three weeks later my mother and I signed the relinquishment papers. His adoption was facilitated by Child and Family Services who had a contract with Florence Crittenton. I was told his adoptive parents were military, Protestant and local. Upon formal adoption, a new birth certificate was issued listing his adoptive parents’ names and his new name. Legally Thomas Neal Mayo ceased to exist.

Clearly the one entity with knowledge of both families was the adoption agency, and they were the key to solving the mystery. I was in luck. They were still in business, yet thankfully, no longer in the business of placing wanted babies into other families’ homes. I reached a social worker who was kind, although she reminded me that she couldn’t, by law, give me any new information about my son. She suggested that I write a letter for my son’s sealed file – with no identifying information in it, of course – to be shared if he ever searched for me. What? I was never told this. I could have sent a birthday card to his file each year? I would have done it in a heartbeat. Nauseous, I grabbed for a Kleenex and dry heaved. Oh, my God, what if he had been searching for me? He would have found twenty-one birthday cards. He would know I hadn’t forgotten. I sobbed over my desk.

In the tidewater area of southeastern Virginia, how could I compile a list of adoptive parents’ names, specifically those who finalized their child’s adoption in 1971? I had an idea – might adoptive parents announce their child’s addition to the family in the same way biological parents often do, via the local newspapers? What would an adoptive family say? Instead of “ABC is proud to announce the arrival of Sean Nathaniel at 6:19 a.m. on May 15.” they might say something like “We are proud to say that XYZ is a new member of our family.” Slightly different phrasing. I could visit the major libraries and search The Virginian Pilot and a few smaller papers starting in June 1970, maybe search for eighteen months (to cover the year before the adoption became formalized). Wow.  Clever. Daunting…

November 1992

I requested my records from Norfolk General Hospital and was told “We have no records under a Tracy Lee Mayo.” No surprise, I was registered under my Florence Crittenton number. I requested my son’s original birth certificate from the State of Virginia, hoping they might send me his “amended” one by mistake. The response was “We are sorry we will be unable to help in this matter since this Division does not have on file a birth record in the active files under the name requested. It is a pleasure to be of service to you.” So, Thomas Neal Mayo is “inactive.” Who is active in his place?

Another ambitious search idea would be to visit the various base chapels and ask to see baptismal records starting in June 1970. Would they even have such records twenty-two years later? The records would have to include birth dates to be of any use. Would they? Ultimately, it’s would be about hitting on May 15, 1970 and matching that date to a surname. Not all families lived on base – meaning I’d have to search all churches in the Tidewater area. I concluded that this approach, although creative, sounded like a real long shot. I would hold it in abeyance for now.

December 1992

I visited the Naval Historical Center located at the Navy Yard in southeast Washington, D.C. Amazingly, they have lists of all commissioned naval officers who are active duty, or retired, based on their birth dates. I didn’t know for certain that the “military” adoptive father was navy, but since the Tidewater area was full of naval bases, it was a good bet. I projected that I was looking for a man born between 1935 and 1945. There were thousands of names. I left with a ream of paper. It was a start, a pool of possibles, with the hope that another, separate search path, would lead to a surname cross-match.

January 1993

I registered with the International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR), a mutual consent reunion registry maintained by volunteers. If both parties are searching and find their way to this registry, a match is made. I was amazed and gratified at the number of people involved in this search and discovery effort, doing their best to foil the closed adoption system. I quickly submitted my information in case Thomas was in there already.

Spring 1993

I searched every family law case at the Norfolk courthouse, in the very unlikely event that a sealed adoption case had been inadvertently left in the public records. I visited Child and Family Services in Virginia Beach, in the hopes that a sympathetic social worker might open my file and walk away from her desk. I learned that the archived records from Florence Crittenton, which closed in 1973, had been stored at Old Dominion University’s library. I spent hours viewing microfiche for birth announcements.

By summer, it had been thirteen months of searching. My quest had been empowering, inspiring, challenging, even fun at times. When I realized the enormity of the task, I reluctantly abandoned the belief that I could solve this mystery myself. I simply needed to find my son.

There had always been Plan B, in the form of an underground detective simply called The Searcher. In the nationwide network of adoption activists, only four people knew his name. His methods were unknown but allegedly he had never failed to find someone. I shipped him my research via an intermediary.

The Searcher found my son – now David Andrew Phillips – in ten days.


Here is the letter I wrote to my son:

My Dearest Son,

            I have started this letter hundreds of times in my mind and several times on paper, but have never quite mustered the courage to finish it, until now. I am so very hopeful that since you are fully an adult now (soon to be 23) you may feel free and able to look for me. If you do so and can find your way to the agency or the state adoption unit, I wanted you to find something personal from me in your file.

            I have only recently been made aware of the fact that I can even write a letter such as this and have the expectation that it truly would be passed along to you. So, I hope I have not missed an earlier opportunity to communicate with you, but any connection we can make now or in the future would bring me so much happiness and joy – I cannot adequately express it.

            There are so many things I’d like to tell you about but only one thing that I absolutely need to convey: I love you and have loved you since before you were born. I hope with all my heart you have not doubted my love all these years, felt rejected by me. Giving you up was the hardest thing I have ever done, and it was the greatest mistake of my life.

            If you are interested, one day I would like to try and explain how terrifying it was to be pregnant at 14 (I was 15 when you were born). When my parents found out they were beside themselves with shock and grief. I was presented with one option: adoption.  They sincerely believed that our lives would be ruined unless you were raised apart, by a “real” family and I went back to school and to a normal teenager’s life. None of us understood the impossibility of “normal” again. By the time you were born I too was convinced that if I really loved you, I would do what was best for you – permit you to be raised by a stable family with the experience and wisdom to guide you as a growing boy. But if I had fully understood the enormous price I would pay, I would never have gone through with it.

            Over the years I have consoled myself with the thought that even so, I may have made the best choice for you, if your parents have been the kind, loving, supportive and centered people I have always hoped for. If your life has been good, then maybe you can find it within your heart to forgive me.

            Earlier I filled out a fairly extensive form, primarily health-related, about me and my family that you should also find in your file. I do want to tell you something about your birth father as I knew him 23 years ago. He was a sweet, gentle young man with great musical ability (piano, saxophone, guitar). I’ve often wondered if you inherited his ear for music. He was also athletic. We were in love, as much in love as two kids 14 & 17 can be, and he supported me emotionally as best he could during my pregnancy and the trauma afterward of placing you for adoption. He cried with me over losing you. We continued to see each other after your birth but fall of 1970 he went to college and I tried to get on with my little life. Though we would visit when he came home, I think I created distance between us. The following summer my family moved again. He made one visit to see me, and that was the last. I have often thought of him and wondered if he has a family of his own.

            Oh, how I hope that someday I can learn about your life! Each year I’ve wondered about your schools and your grades; whether or not you were moving a lot (as I did while growing up); if you made friends easily in a new place; if you were playing sports, or music, or both; if you were getting along well with your parents; if you graduated from college last year; and of course, what you looked like. Did anyone ever tell you that I have your picture? It is my most treasured asset. It was taken when you were three weeks old and I signed the relinquishment papers – a devastating moment. In the photo I think you look like me, but I can see your father as well.

            Well, I fear I’m starting to ramble and I worry about coming on too strong. I’m sure it must be strange for you to read this letter. In a very real sense we are complete strangers, of course, but in another sense, I have known you all your life and we absolutely share a bond that will never be broken. In case you have ever wondered, I was allowed to hold you for a very short but precious 10 minutes.I named you Thomas Neal.

            I have missed many precious years of your life, years that can never be recovered, but there is also much time to look forward to and to share, if you are willing. Please think about this and know that I am thinking of you, and love and miss you. Sorry you’ve had to struggle through my poor penmanship!

            In looking over this letter I realize how much of our story, yours and mine, I haven’t told. Hopefully there will be an opportunity to finish it in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, have a Happy Birthday. You can count on my thoughts (and tears) for a happy year.

All my love,

Your Birthmother


Tracy tells the full story of her search in her book “Childless Mother: A Search for Son and Self” to be released on 3/28/24.
You can pre-order it now on Amazon.

tracy mayo
Tracy Mayo has two degrees from Duke University. After a homesteading experiment, she embarked on a thirty-year career in commercial construction management - a trailblazing woman in a man’s world. She is a 2020/2021 artist-in-residence at Craigardan and an alumnus of the Bookgardan writing program. Her writing has appeared at Aspen Summer Words’ juried workshops, Heimat Review and The Ocotillo Review. Tracy lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband and flat-coated retriever.

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