MARYSVILLE — For 62 years, Glenna Atkins always thought she was the oldest of two kids in the family.
Now, she’s the middle child.
What’s up with that?
Her mom, Shirley Howard, 86, recently told a secret she’d intended to take to her grave.
That secret was a baby boy she’d put up for adoption at birth in 1957, a few years before she met and married the man who became the father of her two non-secret children.
A $100 Ancestry DNA test recently reunited the family with Shirley’s firstborn son, Laird Will.
“My new brother,” Glenna calls him. He lives in Olympia, 100 miles from her Marysville home.
Laird and his newfound mom talk daily and see each other every weekend.
“We do a lot of talking,” Laird said.
“It’s taken a lot of time to find out about his life,” Shirley said. “He’s a long ways from finding out about mine.”
Glenna first met Laird on Thanksgiving. She contacted The Daily Herald to share the happy news without telling her mom, who initially vetoed the idea of press coverage.
“At first I thought, ‘No, I don’t want this out there,’” Shirley said.
She worried what her church friends would think to find out in the newspaper she’d had a child out of wedlock.
In the 1950s, that carried stigma.
Shirley was 21 and had come from the Wenatchee area to go to beauty school in Seattle. One night on the town with friends, she met a serviceman. Their one-night encounter left her with morning sickness a month later. She told her parents, but stayed in Seattle so others in her hometown wouldn’t know. She never considered getting an abortion, which was available though illegal. Raising the child as a single mom was not a feasible option at that time. At the hospital, she signed over the baby without seeing him. She was told he was going to a good family.
She moved to Wenatchee and married a bus driver, Glen Howard, who courted her after she gave him a piece of her birthday cake. She told him about the secret baby. They moved to Everett in 1961 and that’s where Glenna and her younger brother, Rob, grew up. Shirley, now a widow, moved from Lynnwood to Kirkland a few years ago to live with Rob. Glenna is an Everett Community Transit bus driver.
Shirley had long given up thinking that someday this baby boy would show up at her door.
Laird had a happy childhood, he said.
He knew he was adopted and often wondered about his biological parents.
“In the back of your mind,” he said, “it’s something you think about.”
He was consoled by this explanation: “My adoptive mother told me, ‘You do what you think is right at the time that you do it, and you move forward with the consequences.’”
His adoptive father was in the Navy and the family moved a lot, but never lived near Snohomish County. It’s unlikely their paths crossed over the years. Both parents have long since died.
Shirley said she wishes she could have met them.
Years before Ancestry and 23andMe DNA tests were sold to the masses, Laird looked into trying to locate his biological roots, but it was costly. Then he was skeptical about the home DNA tests.
“I was reluctant to send my DNA because you are putting yourself out there,” he said. “What could they possibly do with my DNA?”
The Pentagon in 2019 advised military service members not to use consumer DNA testing kits, saying that exposing sensitive genetic information to outside parties poses “personal and operational risks” to service members.
After a friend had a good outcome from a DNA test, Laird decided to try. He sent in the kit’s saliva collection tube in September.
About a month later, two cousins showed up as matches and he sent them emails. He heard back from a cousin living in Chicago, who it turned out was his mom’s niece’s son.
That’s when Shirley got a phone call from her niece telling her about the match.
”It took me a couple days to process it myself before I could share it with my kids,” she said. “I thought, ‘How am I going to tell my kids about it?’”
After meeting Laird, she dropped the bombshell on Glenna, 62, and Rob, 60, about her firstborn child.
Both accepted the news.
“Rob said, ‘I always wanted an older brother,’” Shirley said.
“It’s a Godwink,” Glenna said. “My younger brother’s wife keeps calling him Larry and my husband keeps calling him Lard. I’m like, ‘You guys, it’s Laird.’”
Laird has two children and grandchildren. Shirley can now add great-grandmother to her title.
He has not yet connected with anyone on his biological father’s side.
Shirley is proud of her older son.
“I’ve told a couple of church friends,” she said.
She and Laird share a bond beyond mother and son.
“I’m happy that he’s a Republican,” Shirley said. “And a Christian.”
Both love to eat out.
When they aren’t holding a fork, they’re holding hands.
“Mom and I, we just hold hands when we’re together,” Laird said.
“We haven’t been together for 64 years,” Shirley said. “I’m making up for it.”