Roland T. Brown found out when he was a teen that he had been adopted as a baby, but he never thought much about it. He was too busy living the life laid before him. Never asked a lot of questions. Never really thought about finding his birth mother.
“I never worried about it,” said Brown, 80, as we sat at his kitchen table in his North Chesterfield home.
In the summer of 2017, his son and daughter-in-law were finding out more about their family trees, so they submitted DNA tests through Ancestry.com. Brown was intrigued by what they were doing, so they gave him a DNA kit, too. All he was interested in, though, was learning more about his ethnicity.
He learned a whole lot more.
Or, as his daughter-in-law, Joyce Brown, put it, “He found a family.”
Long story short, Roland Brown found two half sisters and a half brother, as well as a whole world of cousins, nieces and nephews. How it all came together over the past 25 years is quite a story — Brown’s DNA test, Ancestry.com and a long-ago baby picture were the key ingredients — but there also is this:
Brown, who was raised an only child and whose wife, Ruth, died in 2005, is completely delighted by discovering a new branch on his family tree and learning about his mother, who died more than 20 years ago. Until a little over two years ago, Brown said he “never thought I had a single living relative” on his side of the family.
“It’s all great,” he said. “I’m having a good time.”
The advent of DNA analysis and the easy accessibility through services such as Ancestry.com has certainly changed the equation in figuring out who’s related to whom, and they certainly paved the way for Brown to be found by his siblings. But there was much more at play.
Brown grew up on Floyd Avenue in Richmond’s Fan District. He learned at age 16 that his parents, Gussie and Kirk Brown, a plumber who died when Brown was a teen, had raised him since he was an infant after his young birth mother had left him there.
The birth mother had lived less than two blocks away at a boardinghouse run by her mother, and the woman who would become his adoptive mother had babysat him until the birth mother asked her to take care of her child on a permanent basis.
His adoptive mother offered precious little information about his birth mother, so there was no trail to follow. Brown wasn’t much interested anyway. At the time, he was much more focused on “cars and girls and sports, and it didn’t occur to me to try to find my birth mother.”
“I thought I had a kind of normal life,” said Brown, a 1958 graduate of Thomas Jefferson High.
Brown went on to marry, and he and Ruth raised a daughter and two sons. Ruth’s extended family became his own. He worked at DuPont for 35 years, retiring as a data center manager in 2001. In retirement, he went into business for himself as an inspector of footings and foundations for new construction. He also volunteered as a motorist assistant in Chesterfield County for 15 years.
As far as his biological family connections, he didn’t know what he didn’t know and that’s the way it was, but he was always curious about his ethnicity, figuring he might have Spanish or Mexican blood in him. The opportunity to do a DNA test might answer that question.
He had no idea that a North Carolina woman had been looking for him for more than 20 years.
In 1995, Judy Floren’s adoptive mother watched an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that featured an organization that searched for birth mothers of adopted children. Her mother told Floren, who was 53 at the time and living near Asheville, N.C., that she would pay for the service if she wanted to look for her birth mother.
Floren was interested, and the search didn’t take long, leading to a woman in Florida.
Floren was unable to contact the woman because, as it turned out, she was recuperating from a stroke at the home of her daughter. (She also had a son from her marriage, later in her life, to a career Navy man.) Floren reached the daughter, Joyce Knowles, and eventually went for a visit.
“It was shocking in the beginning,” Knowles said in a phone interview from her home near Green Cove Springs, Fla., but once it became clear through the documents and information Floren had that it was true, Knowles embraced the situation. She had always wanted a sister, she said, particularly in the role of her mother’s caretaker — and now she had one.
“The more the merrier,” she said.
However, her mother, Alice Elise, was ailing and experiencing memory issues, so Knowles still doesn’t know if she understood exactly who Floren was, “but she loved Judy immediately.”
Knowles also said her heart hurt trying to imagine what it must have been like for her mother — who grew up in an orphanage in North Carolina after her father died — to have been young, pregnant and unmarried in the 1940s and facing such a wrenching decision about the future of her child.
During the course of all this, Knowles contacted one of her mom’s sisters, who said, yes, she remembered there had been a baby who had been adopted, but she thought it was a boy. Knowles thought her aunt was confused, and her mother never said.
Then, when her mother died two years later, Floren and Knowles were going through some of their mother’s things. There, in a box of photographs, they came across a picture of a baby. It appeared to be a studio shot. On the back of the photo was written a name: “Roland.”
Roland Brown got up from the kitchen table, walked into the other room and returned holding a framed photograph he had taken off the wall.
It was a baby picture of himself that his adoptive mother had given him. It is the same photo, it turns out, that Floren and Knowles found in the box of photos that had belonged to their mother.
“I don’t know if there’s ‘Roland’ written on the back of this one because I’ve never taken the back off,” he said. “It’s an old frame.”
Brown always thought it was a picture that his adoptive mother had arranged to be made. Now, he believes his birth mother had it made, gave one copy to Gussie Brown and kept one for herself — the one that for more than two decades had been sitting on Judy Floren’s dresser.
After finding the photograph among her birth mother’s things and upon hearing what her birth mother’s sister had said about a baby boy, she was convinced she had a brother somewhere. She and her husband, Roger, searched for a long time for “Roland” but had no last name and ran into nothing but dead-ends.
A breakthrough finally came in December 2017 — a few months after Roland’s DNA results showed his ancestors likely came from, not Spain or Mexico, but the United Kingdom, northwestern Europe and Norway.
That month, one of Judy and Roger’s daughters had her DNA analyzed on Ancestry.com. When her results were posted, showing a list of blood relatives, there was a name she didn’t recognize: Roland Brown. She called and asked her parents, “Aren’t you looking for a ‘Roland’?”
They were. Now they had a last name, and they finally knew where to look.
Judy Floren began calling every “Roland Brown” and “R. Brown” she could find in the Richmond directory. When our Roland Brown received a voicemail from Floren, he thought it was some sort of prank or scam. He didn’t return the call. Floren called back later and, as Brown recalls, she said, “Roland: I really need to talk to you. We’ve got the same mother.”
“That got my attention,” he said with a laugh, so he called her back. “She started telling me things, and it all added up.”
Said Floren, “I never dreamed in a million years that we’d find Roland.”
Brown has visited the Florens in Asheville, and he and the Florens have traveled to Florida to meet their siblings, Joyce and Michael. Everyone gets along great.
“Oh, yes,” said Roger Floren. “The reunions we’ve had have been great times.”
Said Knowles, “I immediately bonded with Judy and Roland. I tell my friends, it’s weird that it’s not weird. It’s like I’ve always known them.”
It’s been a difficult year for Brown. He lost the youngest of his two sons in the fall, and soon after a niece he was particularly close to died. Amid the sadness, though, has been the joy of this new branch of his family.
For his 80th birthday in February, the Florens drove up for a surprise party. Knowles sent him a birthday card and an anniversary card — marking one year since they learned about each other.
Brown considers this all “just bonus stuff” at this stage of his life.
“We’re all real happy about it. Everybody’s so nice, and we just love each other,” he said, before adding with a laugh, “just a shame I had to be so old before I found out everything.”