Long hunt for birth parents – ‘Southern belle,’ ‘Hollywood wolf’ – full of twists

Debbie Albino of Modesto spent 37 years searching for her birth parents and found them using DNA. She is pictured Wednesday with pictures of her aunt Lucy Sides, left, and her mother Isabell Sides.
Debbie Albino of Modesto spent 37 years searching for her birth parents and found them using DNA. She is pictured Wednesday with pictures of her aunt Lucy Sides, left, and her mother Isabell Sides.

A name that turned out to be misremembered. A photograph revealed to be misidentified. A birth certificate that was falsified.

When Debbie Albino began her search 37 years ago to identify her biological parents, she had little more than that to go on. It was a journey full of dead ends, twists, turns and surprises, she said.

From the “get-go,” when Debbie was old enough to understand, her parents, Maye and Durwood Morris, told her she was adopted but assured her she was tremendously loved, the Modesto resident said. She always felt that love, had a wonderful childhood and never questioned her parents about the circumstances of her birth.

“I was never curious until I was 33,” the lifelong Modesto resident said, sitting in her kitchen with her husband of 50-plus years, Jerry. But within a few years, magazine articles and TV talk shows were reporting stories of adoptees wanting their birth records opened to determine their biological parents, Albino said. Her curiosity was sparked.

Jerry says my mother gave me the greatest gift she could: parents who loved me and gave me a great life. I do have a wonderful life – we thank our blessings every day.

Debbie Albino

She didn’t want to question her mother – “I felt like she would feel it was a rejection” – so she wrote a letter to her paternal grandmother, asking her to share what she knew. “You’re asking me to tell you something that happened a long time ago,” replied her grandma, who was 89 at the time but still sharp.

As concisely as it can be summed up, this is what Albino learned: Maye Morris was 40 and unable to have a baby. Around 1945, she and Durwood pursued adoption, “but they were having a lot of issues, there were a lot of stipulations,” Albino said. Durwood Morris’ mother, who owned a boardinghouse on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, knew the couple’s frustration and asked the receptionist at her doctor’s office if they ever had any young women come in “looking for help.”

There were a lot of black-market adoptions at the time, but Albino’s grandmother was told the doctor didn’t want to be involved in any of that. Not long after, though, she did get a call from a young woman – a Southern belle from Tennessee, as the grandmother called her. She remembered her name being Isabell Stikes.

The women met and struck a deal. Isabell lived in the boardinghouse, worked there for maybe six months of her pregnancy, and Albino’s grandmother agreed to pay the hospital bills for the birth and buy her a wardrobe and a plane ticket back to Tennessee.

“She wanted to go home and have a family all of one name,” Albino said. She said her grandmother referred to her birth father as a “Hollywood wolf” who visited the boardinghouse a few times but never took any responsibility for the pregnancy.

I looked up when my dad married my mom, which was 1949, and Debbie was born in ’46. I knew Debbie couldn’t be a first cousin, so I knew she had to be a half sister.

Jill Thach of Santa Barbara, who also was on and saw Debbie Albino pop up as a ‘close relative’

At the time of Debbie’s birth, in winter 1946, “my mother rode a train down to L.A. and they were together. I can’t imagine this scenario. They spent a few days together, and she handed me to my mom and said, ‘I knew there was a reason for my madness. I know you’ll be a wonderful mother to my child,’ ” Albino said.

She’s long had her birth certificate, but it’s of no help because Isabell identified herself as Maye Morris (though she used her own birthdate) and listed the birth father as Durwood. “They got by with it,” Albino marveled of the illegitimate adoption. “Back then, I guess they didn’t ask for proof of identification.”

Armed with what little information she had – and with the internet and DNA testing decades off – she launched a very old-school quest, sending letters to dozens of Tennessee counties to request birth and death information; spending hours upon hours reading microfiche in San Francisco; and knowing she had only a maiden name to go on – maybe even a false name.

Friends who were into genealogy helped, but all efforts led to dead ends.

Then, three years ago, after ancestry DNA tests had become more widely available, Albino decided to try that route.

She took a test with Family Tree DNA, which turned up possible third and fourth cousins – “basically, nothing,” she said. “I was pretty disappointed and decided to put it to rest. But my hubby said to me in August, ‘Honey, you really need to take one more test. It’s the only way you’re ever going to find anything out.’ 

The second test, through Ancestry, paid off. The first person listed in the results was a Jill Thach of Santa Barbara. It identified her as a very close relative, possibly a half sister, Albino said.

So close, yet so far: Debbie Albino learned that her half brother, who was career Navy, lived in San Diego for many years before recently moving back to Tennessee. Her half sister who lives in Texas was a resident of Stockton for 16 years.

Thach was in the Ancestry database because she’d taken advantage of a special the company offered. She’d been told her lineage included American Indian, so she underwent a DNA test. Albino found a Google Mail address for Thach with a Model A Ford club.

Thach called Albino and listened to her story. “She said, ‘You know, Debbie, I think it could be possible. My dad lived in L.A. and worked in the Hollywood sets.’ ” Her biological father was Norm Smith, Albino learned, and he died four years ago. He was handsome, and quite the ladies’ man before settling down with Thach’s mother, Albino said her newly discovered half sister told her.

“She was so accepting, and it was so exciting,” said Albino, who learned she has another half sister – Thach’s sister – in Texas.

Thach said she and Albino will meet and plan to keep in touch. After referring to her a few times as her half sister, Thach stopped herself. “I can just call her my sister – I don’t have to say ‘half.’ 

The second hit on Albino’s Ancestry results was a Cheryl Sides, whom she’s not yet been able to find. But a friend helping Albino do research pointed out that the names Sides and Stikes – as her grandmother remembered it – are pretty close.

More legwork led to an Isabell Sides, whose birthdate was a match. Unfortunately, Isabell died in 1969 – on Albino’s birthday. “I told you, it’s very weird,” she said of her reference to her search containing surprises.

Still digging, she next discovered three Tennessee brothers who are her first cousins – sons of one of Isabell’s sisters. She reached out to the oldest brother and found him accepting and trusting – until she scanned and emailed him a portrait photograph of Isabell that was left behind in Los Angeles.

My takeaway on the whole story is that even though we did not ever get to meet her mom, my (biological) grandmother, I loved my grandma who adopted my mom and I wish more people would consider adoption. There are so many couples out there looking to adopt.

Leslie Albino-Akulow, daughter of Debbie and Jerry Albino

After a period of not hearing from the brothers, the oldest called, “asking me the whole story again. He started to sort of drill me. I started getting sad – I thought he trusted me and now he doesn’t. So I go through everything again. He says, ‘Well, Debbie, what really bothers us is that the picture you have is not Isabell – it’s my mother.’ 

Albino realized the photo she’d long thought was of her mother was of her aunt, Lucy Sides. But the brothers didn’t know what to think, she said. They were freaking out. Did their mother have a secret life they didn’t know about?

It took some convincing – there’s no shortage of scammers in the world, after all – but the brothers finally accepted she was their cousin. One, she said, even tells her he always wanted a sister and halfway wishes they did share a mom.

The discovery of her cousins then led to her half brother, John – Isabell’s son. Again with a lot of convincing, he took a DNA test to confirm the connection. “He’s a good guy,” she said, “but I think he’s a quiet, private guy.”

While she plans to meet Jill Thach this spring in Santa Barbara, Albino doesn’t know if she’ll meet her other half siblings or cousins. Texas and Tennessee are a long haul.

Albino – mother of two and grandmother of five – also was disappointed to learn none of her half siblings had children, so the family connection ends with their generation.

“Originally, I was hoping to meet my mother, obviously,” Albino said, reflecting on her long search, “but that wouldn’t have happened. … Just mainly for me it was finding those missing puzzle pieces in my life: Who was my father? Who was my mother? And I think being older, since I was an only child, finding those siblings, that was important to me.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327