Discovering, and treasuring, an image of the mother I never met

A couple of months ago P.P. (Pre-Pandemic), I was sifting through a couple of bags of photos that my brother Crys Workman — the oldest of the three full siblings I life-transformingly found 15 years ago next month — handed off to me several years ago. There were dozens, probably more like a couple hundred, and I really hadn’t had a chance to look at many of them. They included wonderful small B&W pics of Crys as a little kid in the 1940s, many of his three children as adorable youngsters in the ’70s and ’80s, and lots of Crys as a young father with those great kids. I loved seeing every last one of these photos, because they give me a cool and much-welcomed window into the life of one of my beloved birth siblings and his family long before I was blessed to find and bond with him.

And then, I discovered, there was the incredibly sweet memory you see here from 1984 of my dear late birth mother Betty, the mom who raised Crys, our late brother Robin and our sister Terry — and who, at age 39, placed me for adoption at birth in 1961 after conceiving me with the father of all of us, her ex-husband Bob, about a year after their divorce. The biggest smile in the history of smiles filled my face the moment I saw this image, and it will every time I see it from now on.

The two boys with Betty are Crys’s sons Brad (left), born in 1975, and Tim, who was born in 1978 and joined the family through adoption in 1982. Brad is the proud father of a brilliant teen who’s graduating from high school in Colorado and plans to study biochemistry at Regis University. Tim, a police detective in Lakewood, Colo., is the father of two smart, gifted boys, one an Oregon college student and the other in high school.

As it turns out, my adoption by Olga and Clark Christlieb started a trend in our family, as sister Terry followed our mother Betty’s lead in placing a baby boy for adoption — at the tender age of 19 in 1974 — and then Crys and his wife Charlene lovingly adopted Tim to make their family complete, years after Brad and his sister Lew (1973) were born.

My birth mother Betty with her grandsons Brad (left) and Tim, my nephews and the sons of my oldest brother Crys Workman, in September 1984. The photo was taken at Stevens Drugstore in Huntington, West Virginia, where Betty lived most of her life. She worked at Stevens from the late 1960s until the late 1980s. The boys were visiting from Colorado with their mother Charlene, a native Huntingtonian who had brought them and their sister Lew to visit her mother, who died later that year.

As for this touching memory of grandmother and her grandsons, the setting was Stevens Drugstore in Huntington, West Virginia, my birthplace. Betty, an only child, began working in drugstores — starting with Walgreens — when she had to drop out of Huntington High halfway through her sophomore year in 1937 to help her father and his new, much younger wife pay the bills (Betty’s young mother had died tragically after a hysterectomy a few years earlier). She worked at Stevens and, briefly, another drugstore through most of her marriage to a second alcoholic until she died of lung cancer in December 1992. This photo was taken upstairs at Stevens, where Betty toiled as a clerk from the late ’60s until the late ’80s.

Betty and fellow clerks Shirley Booten and Dolores Gardner were best of friends, working together at Stevens all those years. I was fortunate to have the chance to visit by phone with Dolores several times in 2011 and 2012 before she, too, died of cancer, and with Shirley, who told me that she saw Betty as a second mother to her and that she carried Betty’s photo in her purse for many years.

It still holds true that whenever I see a photo of Betty for the first time, it brings me absolute joy like this one did. Since I never had the chance to meet her, seeing photos of her and hearing my siblings and others who knew Betty talk about her is the closest I can get. Until we meet in the hereafter, the gratification and love I feel from those memories and seeing photos like this are fulfillment enough.

Happy Mother’s Day, Betty. 

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