GASTONIA It began with an adopted woman’s plea on social network: help me find my birth mother.
Genealogist and computer repair technician Jen Rawson of Gastonia saw the post and set out to solve a nearly 30-year-old mystery.
She researched online and studied documents at the Gaston library and courthouse. The deeper she probed the more complex the case seemed to get, but Rawson couldn’t stop. As she would later say, “my heart broke for this complete stranger.”
Rawson had begun the quest Aug. 19. Ten days later, after 160 hours of research, she drove to a Gastonia residence only 4.9 miles from where she lived and knocked on the door. When a woman stepped out Rawson broke the news: I’ve found your daughter.
“It was an amazing moment,” said Rawson, 47, who is unemployed because of a work-related injury. “I felt like God had pointed me here to help these people.”
Within days Sandra Barnette, 53, would go to the town of Massena in upstate New York for a reunion with her daughter, Christie Eastwood, 34. For the first time, Barnette would meet her 5-year-old granddaughter, Emily.
“It was like a dream,” Barnette said. “Very exciting, very joyous. I couldn’t believe it was happening after all these years.”
A Charlotte native, Barnette got pregnant at age 18 and lived at home with her father.
“I took care of my baby as best I could,” she said.
But Barnette said Social Services took the child from her at 18 months on the grounds of neglect and abuse, allegations she denies.
Her daughter remained in foster care while Barnette said she fought in court to reverse the decision. At age 8, the daughter was placed for adoption and her name changed.
“I never saw her again,” Barnette said. “But I never stopped loving her.”
Living in Charlotte, Barnette worked as a waitress, married and divorced. A second marriage ended the same way. In 2003, she married a minister and moved to Gastonia.
Somewhere along the way, Barnette had spotted a name in a newspaper obituary that matched the birth name of her daughter. While she had no actual proof, she began to assume her daughter was dead.
But Barnette said her husband told her many people had the same name and encouraged her never to give up hope her daughter might still be alive.
Meanwhile, Christie Eastwood had grown up in Charlotte, asking questions about her birth mother, but never getting any from the single mother who’d adopted her.
“My adopted mother had a locked file cabinet in the bedroom,” Eastwood said. “I always wanted to look at the papers, but couldn’t get in.”
Finding her natural mother became a driving force in Eastwood’s life.
“I’d look in the mirror and say, ‘I’ve got to know why I look the way I do. Why I’m me,’ ” she recalled.
After graduating from Charlotte Catholic High School in 1997, Eastwood said she entered Central Piedmont Community College as a nursing student. But the following year, she suffered a broken pelvis and serious head and back injuries in a car wreck.
Eastwood dropped out of college and never returned. She worked in day care, cake decoration and as a cashier.
“Nothing real important,” she said. “I overcame substance abuse, but I felt like a huge hole was in my body and my life was broken. I needed to find the missing pieces and fill the hole.”
Her adopted mother died in 2005. Eastwood, who is a single mother, said she moved around – Davidson, Cornelius, and four years ago to the Canadian border town of Massena where her daughter’s father lives.
On Aug. 19, she entered the post about her birth mother on the Facebook page “I Am a Native Charlottetean.” It included her mother’s maiden name, an important key for helping Rawson unlock the puzzle through family ancestors.
“I decided to put my story out there,” Eastwood said. “I thought maybe something would remember something.”
Ten days later Rawson brought the good news.
“I didn’t think it was real,” Eastwood said. “It didn’t seem possible in that short amount of time.”
Back for Christmas
A mother-daughter reunion was quickly organized.
Friends helped Barnette with plane fare to Syracuse, N.Y., where she caught a bus to Massena. The trip took four hours.
“The closer I got the more nervous I felt,” Barnette said. “And more excited.”
Eastwood felt the same way as she and her daughter waited at the bus station.
When the bus arrived the 5-year-old ran to the grandmother she’d never met, crying “I love you Maw Maw.”
Nobody was nervous any longer.
“We all hugged and cried,” Barnette said. “My heart melted.”
They spent the week talking, washing dishes together and getting the little girl ready for kindergarten. They went out for pizza and Eastwood introduced her boyfriend.
On Sept. 15, Barnette left for Gastonia, promising to stay in touch and come back for Christmas.
“I’d always had an empty spot in my heart,” she said. “Now it’s filled.”
As Eastwood looked back on the reunion she called it a time of “love and peace and joy.”
“I’ve waited for this my whole life,” she said. “The pieces of me came together.”
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