California man locates birth family after 60 years
California resident Richard Axton sat on the couch in a home belonging to a person who had been a virtual stranger to him until recently, but he was noticeably relaxed, like he was spending an afternoon in his own home.
But his relaxed demeanor wasn’t due to the Southern hospitality he said he’d been experiencing since he arrived in Franklin County on the first week in June.
He was relaxed because after more than 60 years, Axton was finally sitting amongst members of his birth family in the area he was born in and, according to Axton, the little empty spot in his heart had finally been filled.
Axton said he had always known that he was adopted but he never knew why his family had given him up.
The details surrounding his entry into foster care and subsequent adoption were vague at best. He only knew that around the time that he was three years old, he was adopted by a family that soon moved him and his brother from Franklin County to Los Angeles, Ca., and eventually settled the family in Etna, Ca. – some 2,400 miles away from the place he was born.
“Even though we knew we were adopted, we didn’t really talk about it much,” Axton said, “but I always wondered about my birth family, who they were and what they looked like.
“I drove trucks for many years and every time I would pull up somewhere in a new city, I’d look at all the strangers around me and just think, ‘Could you be related to me?’”
For years Axton said the curiosity to know who he really was and where he came from was there, but he never acted on it.
His wife of 43 years, Peggy Axton, said her husband had questions about his birth family for as long as she could remember, and she finally decided in March that it was time to do something about it.
“I knew that it meant a lot to him to find his birth family and find out more about his dad,” Peggy said, “so we decided to get on ancestry.com. We knew it was probably a long shot, but we thought we’d just see what we could find.”
Axton said on his social security card, it listed the place of his birth as Russellville, Ala. That fact and the name of his birth father, Benjamin Lewey, were the only bits of information Axton had to go on, but that didn’t stop him or his wife from searching.
“I told him if we couldn’t find something on that site, I’d just start calling every Lewey in the phonebook in Russellville, Ala., until I found one that knew who his father was,” Peggy said. “We weren’t giving up.”
Axton said the first thing they found was information from the 1940 census and other information added by someone named Mary Lewey.
“There was some contact information for Mary on the site, so I decided to give her a call,” Peggy said.
“It took a while to get up with someone, but I finally got in touch with her husband who was very nice and very helpful. He said that Mary had a whole wall full of family tree stuff in her bedroom and that she could probably help.”
Axton said through Mary Lewey, they were given information for Belva Lewey Jones, a relative Mary had met at a family reunion.
“I was scared it would be a dead end,” Peggy said. “It actually took me several days to get up the nerve to call the number because we had gotten our hopes up and what if they didn’t know Richard’s father? Or worse, what if they knew him but didn’t want anything to do with us?”
After a few days, Peggy said she finally gathered the courage and dialed the number for Belva Lewey Jones.
“The phone rang several times so I decided to hang up, but as I was, I thought I heard somebody pick up,” Peggy said.
“I dialed right back and a woman answered the phone. I explained to her who I was and told her that my husband, Richard, was looking for his birth family.”
Peggy said there was a pause on the other end of the line and she held her breath, wondering what kind of information this stranger could offer her.
Then she said the next words she heard were more than she could have ever expected.
“The woman who answered the phone just exclaimed, ‘Oh my gosh! We have looked for him and Bobby our whole life.’
“Richard was sitting close to me and when he heard that he just started crying. We had found his birth family and they wanted to be found. It was such a great thing for him.”
After that, Axton said he started receiving phone calls from many different relatives who all wanted to talk to him and tell him how much he had been missed over the years.
After that, he said he knew he had to make the trip to Franklin County but they simply didn’t have the money at the time, or so they thought.
“Thanks to a wonderful friend who paid for our airline tickets, we were able to book a trip to Alabama and finally have this long-awaited family reunion,” Peggy said.
But even though he had spoken to many of his relatives over the phone and the Internet and knew they were anxious to see him, the thought of seeing these people in person was overwhelming.
“When we got to Alabama and got in our rental car and started heading toward Russellville, I got nervous and scared, to be honest,” Axton said. “You just don’t know what to expect.”
As the Axtons’ car approached the home of Belva Lewey Jones, Axton said he was about ready to just turn the car around and head back to the airport.
However, at about that time, he looked to the left and saw his family – his flesh and blood kin – for the first time.
“There were cars everywhere and about 35 people standing in the yard waving and holding a sign that said ‘Welcome Home Richard.’ I just couldn’t believe it. All my fears and anxieties just melted away and I knew I was home.”
After meeting a host of cousins and relatives, Axton said he and Peggy spent the next week learning more about his family, hearing stories about his father, visiting the old mill where his father had worked, and visiting the cemetery where his father was laid to rest after he passed away in 1975.
“That was the closest I’ve been to my dad in 60 years,” Axton said, with emotion thick in his voice.
“I wrote him a letter just with all the things I’ve wanted to say to him and tell him – just how much I love him and how I wish I had tried to find him sooner.
“I put it in a bottle and then buried it next to his grave so any other family that comes can read it and know who I am.”
Axton said he has always understood the importance of family – he and Peggy have two children, Wendy and Ricky, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren – but he has such a deep appreciation now of his roots and his heritage.
“And I finally found out some of the details of why my dad left and what had happened that led to us being placed in foster care and adopted,” he said. “It’s good to finally understand.
“Nobody in the family seemed to know what was going on until we were already gone and by that time it was too late.
“They said our dad had actually tried to find us and my grandparents had tried to find us, but there was no way anyone on this side of the family could do that because they were looking for Richard Lewey and my name had been changed to Axton.”
Axton said he was very appreciative to the family who had raised him, but it was great to finally know where he came from and meet relatives that shared the same DNA.
“I have a picture of my dad now that my cousin, Ernestine, sent me before we made it down here and my grandson looks just like my dad,” Axton said.
“Having this connection now, it’s something I can barely even put into words.
“I’ve always had this piece missing and now I am more at peace than I’ve ever been.”
And the family members said that peace flows both ways.
“We are so happy to have him here,” Belva Jones said. “I just can’t tell you how great it was to find him after all those years.”
Her daughter, Tyanne McDonald, was the one who answered the phone on the day Peggy finally got up the nerve to call Jones.
“I just couldn’t believe what was happening,” McDonald said. “We’ve talked about those boys so much over the years wondering where they were, and now Richard is here. It’s just such a blessing.”
Linda Sue Lewey Johnson, who is a first cousin to Axton, said she had thought about him many times over the years and couldn’t believe they had been able to finally meet one another.
“I was around seven or eight years old when Richard was born and I remember I wanted to hold him so bad by myself but the adults wouldn’t let me,” Johnson said.
“After all this time, I’ve finally gotten to hold him and I just don’t want to let go.”
The Axtons had to return home to California last week but they said they would be back as soon as they could.
“We’re taking back pictures, mementos, and so many wonderful memories,” Axton said.
“My advice to anyone else out there who is searching for their family is to search hard and never give up on finding them because it is more than worth it in the end. It’s priceless.”