“My birth certificate was blank where the father should be. My mother wouldn’t budge, and all the family members I asked said they didn’t know- well- someone has to know.”
“I always felt as if there were an enormous gap, a dark void in my life,” recounts Samantha Baker about her childhood steeped in secrecy. It wouldn’t be until the day she spread her mother’s ashes that the truth of her father would be revealed. A forbidden love sets the scene for a daughter’s lifetime of longing for the father she never knew, and a woman’s hope to reconcile all the questions she’s harbored since childhood.
Samantha recalls being happy as a child surrounded by the loving figures of her mother and grandparents. As can be expected she had typical questions about her father, none of which were ever answered. “My mother was quiet and known to keep her secrets. Once she remarried, she continued to skirt the questions about my father and told me ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and ‘You have your step-father now.’” With her new family expanding and half-siblings on the way, Samantha couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. “When I became a teenager and later a mother, the need to know felt overwhelming,” Samantha states. “My birth certificate was blank where the father should be. My mother wouldn’t budge, and all the family members I asked said they didn’t know- well- someone has to know. The fixation of what makes me, me became an incredible weight on my shoulders.”
In 2000, Samantha’s mother was in an accident where her car was struck by a drunk driver. “She had a pretty bad head injury; although the doctors said she fully recovered, I never really thought she was the same after that,” she says. Less than a year later, her mother would lose her house to a fire. “After the house burned down, I stopped asking her about my father. I just didn’t want to cause trouble,” Samantha explains. Her mother began showing signs of early onset Alzheimer’s and later passed in 2015. As she held the ashes of her mother, she gave up on any chance she would find the identity of her father. She felt orphaned.
Samantha and her mother Katherine Watson
It would be 2 more years, at the spreading of her mother’s ashes during her uncle’s burial service, before Baker would once again be on the trail in search of her father. “When my uncle died. He wanted to be buried with his parents up in Epworth near McCaysville, Georgia. So we made preparations for a funeral here in Rome, and burial several hours away. He had been so close to my mother, I figured this would be a perfect time to spread her ashes and give her rest.” Meanwhile, the family had cleared decades of collected memories from his home, finding boxes filled with old photos and letters from Samantha’s grandparent’s house. One box was labeled ‘Samantha’ and given to her at the funeral, it sat unopened next to her as her aunts drove hours to the gravesite. “The service was beautiful and peaceful. I felt very much at peace putting my mother to rest with the family she loved so much. On the way home the sun was shining through the back window, and I noticed the box next to me. I opened it and began looking through the loose photos of me as a young child with my mother and grandparents.
I saw an envelope tossed in with the mix. It was sealed on Redmond Hospital letterhead. I have worked at Redmond for many years, and was curious what it might be about. Inside I found receipts and a folded typed request to the Atlanta Vital Records signed by my mother. It requested that my birth certificate be corrected to include the name Lawice Hugene Cooper as Father. I sat there looking at the name in shock. My breath caught in my chest. I cried out ‘I found him! I know my father’s name!’ My aunts pulled the car over and we just cried! I finally had a name. On the day I gave my mother a resting place, I felt so emotionally resolved. The sun was shining in on me that day, perhaps it was she that gifted me closure.” Samantha called her husband Ben, and by the time Samantha got home Ben had found her father under the name Gene Cooper of Fort Payne, Alabama now residing in Gold Hill, North Carolina.
Questions of secrecy surfaced once again for Samantha, “Why had they all kept it a secret? Had her conception been a mistake? Was it consensual? Was he a bad man? Had he been on drugs? These had all been the machinations of her teenage mind. However, now as an adult, Samantha was concerned how to approach someone she never met but missed with all her heart. Knowing that he was the only one who could answer the questions she still held, she had no choice but to reach out to him. She emailed him an explanation of her identity, her mother’s name and age and her own date of birth. Within two hours she received the reply in caps, “THIS IS GENE COOPER. I GOT YOUR EMAIL AND WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK WITH YOU…” Baker’s heart raced. They arranged a time to talk on the phone, and she cried with joy. The truth would soon all come to light.
Step back in time to 1972, Katherine Ruth Watson is a student at Reinhardt University who also pulls a shift at Redmond Hospital as a billing clerk. Daughter of a wounded veteran of the Second World War and Korean War and a fulltime nurse at Northwest Regional Hospital, Katherine is one of seven siblings and the pride of her religious middle-class parents.
Gene Cooper, age 23, is a hardworking and outspoken young man from Fort Payne, Alabama. He spends all the time he has honing his skills at billiards. It’s a warm evening in Jackson, Mississippi and Gene is holding strong at the largest billiards hall in town, when he is captivated by a beautiful young woman from across the room. Katherine and Gene hit it off immediately, and for nearly a year they find ways to sneak away from their responsibilities to be together. They are madly in love; but their families have some reservations, and are unprepared for what happens next.
Samantha Lee Watson is born December 1973 just days before Christmas. Gene and Katherine long for nothing more than to build a life together, but accusations ofexploitation, blame, immorality, and shame ignite a feud between the families. The young lovers are torn apart; Gene Cooper’s name erased, and a child is raised in secrecy.
So why didn’t Katherine ever tell her daughter, who her father was? Baker believes it’s because “she was heartbroken.” When she spoke to her father that very first anticipated time, “I could hear the same overwhelming emotions in my father’s voice. He was tearful, happy, guilty, and maybe a bit remorseful. But I told him, none of that matters now.”
They talk for hours about the past; he had spent years travelling, playing billiards on the professional circuit as Gene “the Machine” Cooper. He married in his 50’s, and has a lovely wife and step-daughter. “I am his only biological child. When we spoke we were both so overcome. He said he had been looking for me. He had been so scared that he would never know who his child was. He told me about my mother. He remembered what she wore the night they met.” That first talk with her father fills that empty place in her heart, and fulfills the desire for a bond with the missing piece of herself, her real father.
They talk about the present, and a family is reunited. Meeting face-to-face the first time in 2018, children and grandchildren together. All of Samantha’s questions of her origin are answered, “I recognize his facial features in my children- Spencer, my son, has his smile. My outgoing nature is definitely from my father who lives fast and works hard.” She laughs, “He loves life, loves people. He’s loud, boisterous, and fun- just like me.”
They talk about the future; on the phone they talk and text several times a week. Father and daughter together at last; both so thankful to have the chance to be a family.