When I was a little girl, I often pretended I had an older brother. There were hardly any kids in our neighborhood, and I was lonely. I spent hours exploring the creek and the woods behind our house in Madison, Tennessee, with my imaginary brother by my side. I knew exactly what he looked like. He watched over me and liked to laugh a lot. I talked to him.
I even named him. The one girl in the neighborhood who sometimes played with me despite our age difference was crazy about the Beatles. She always chose Paul as her pretend boyfriend, which left me with John. I decided that was the perfect name for my brother.
Despite my frequent prayers that my brother would magically appear, he never materialized. When I was 5, my little sister was born. She was followed three years later by my little brother. That was when I realized that I could wish all I wanted, but an older brother was an impossibility. I sadly put that childhood dream to rest.
But that changed one September afternoon in 2015.
Seated at the glass top dining table in the kitchen of my East Cobb home, I took a break from my work as a freelance writer and gazed out the window at our garden. My eyes fell on the bird feeder Dad had given me and my husband Kevin, an old silver-plated platter adhered to a pole. I loved spotting the bluebirds that frequented it because they reminded me of my dad, who died from Parkinson’s disease nine months earlier. The day before he died, every time I looked out his bedroom window as I sat vigil next to him, I saw bluebirds flitting through the field behind his house.
Bob Montgomery had been a successful songwriter, producer and publisher in Nashville, and I’d been listening to one of my favorite songs he wrote called “Misty Blue” performed by Dorothy Moore. It had landed him a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year in the R&B category in 1976, but Boz Scaggs and David Paich won for “Lowdown.” Dorothy traveled from Mississippi to sing her hit at Dad’s funeral in Nashville. His death still weighed heavy on me, but listening to his music brought me some comfort.
The ringing of our house phone interrupted my blue mood. It was my mother, who asked me how I was doing.
“I am having a crazy week with all these deadlines,” I said.
There was silence on the other end of the line. Then she said, “Well, it’s about to get crazier. Are you sitting down? I’ve been contacted by a man who thinks he might be your older brother.”
The dad I knew
My father was born in Lampasas, Texas, in 1937, the only child of a housewife and a stone mason. They moved to Lubbock, Texas, when he was 12. There he met his best friend Buddy Holly. Buddy’s aunt taught them how to play a $12 guitar she’d ordered from Sears & Roebuck. The two started a rockabilly duo called Buddy and Bob with Dad singing lead and Buddy harmonizing when they were 14 years old. They had a regular radio show on KDAV every Sunday afternoon. A high point of their duo was when they backed up Elvis Presley at the Cotton Club in 1955. A few years later, after Dad and Mom married, and Buddy formed the Crickets, Dad decided to concentrate on songwriting and learning production under Norman Petty’s tutelage. Dad wrote “Heartbeat, “Love’s Made a Fool of You” and “Wishing” – all of which Buddy recorded.
The year after Buddy was killed in a plane crash, my parents moved to Madison, a Nashville suburb, when Mom was pregnant with me. Buddy’s old girlfriend was named Echo, and they named me after her in honor of Dad and Buddy’s friendship.
Dad got signed as a writer with Acuff-Rose Music and worked as a TV repairman to support us until 1967 when his song royalties surpassed what he made at his 40-hour a week job. With enough savings to cover our living costs for a year, he sought a job on Music Row, finally landing a position as an A&R man in the 11th month. The first album he produced was for Bobby Goldsboro and it launched his career with the international hit “Honey.” Mom sang backup on that record.
He wound up enjoying more than 60 years in the music business as a songwriter, producer, publisher and industry executive. He produced many artists including Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and published many No. 1 songs, including “Love in the First Degree,” “The Wind Beneath My Wings” and “Behind Closed Doors.” When Dad died, write-ups about him appeared in newspapers around the world.
I thought I knew everything about Dad. How could this be possible?
“Mom, this is crazy,” I said, doing calculations in my head. My parents married when Mom was 17 and Dad was 20. I was born three years later. If it was true, Dad would have gotten a girl pregnant when he was 17.
I was beyond shocked. My mind was swirling with questions. Did Dad know? Why now? Does he look like Dad?
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“John. His name is John Bates.”
I caught my breath. I’d never shared with anyone my childhood fantasy of an older brother named John.
“This man would like to talk to you,” my mother said, “but I told him I wouldn’t give him your contact info until you gave your permission. He’s got a Facebook page if you want to check him out.”
She told me she would forward me some side-by-side photos that he’d emailed her.
I checked my inbox and clicked on her email. I couldn’t believe what I saw. The resemblance was startling.
I didn’t talk to anyone else about this development, except my husband, who was out of town on a photo shoot. It all felt too raw and emotional. My thoughts and feelings were like dandelion fluff scattered in the wind.
I tried to find John Bates on Facebook, but dozens popped up in the search. One looked like a possibility based on where Mom said he lived, but his profile photo was Shemp Howard from “The Three Stooges.” Dad loved that slapstick comedy. I was never a fan but would watch it on our old black-and-white TV just to be near him.
I called Mom and told her I would accept a friend request from John if he sent one. I accepted his request, and studied his profile.
From his Facebook page, I learned that John loved John Wayne movies and comedies like “Blazing Saddles.” His favorite TV shows were “Gunsmoke,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The High Chaparral” and “The Roy Rogers Show” — all of Dad’s favorites. One of Dad’s prized possessions was an autographed poster of Roy Rogers.
John and his wife had retired to Florida the previous year. Several shots showed him fishing, which was one of my favorite things to do with Dad. There were photos of his little towheaded granddaughters and Siberian huskies. My husband Kevin and I have had Siberian huskies our entire married life. The similarities were uncanny.
Tears sprang to my eyes when I saw one photo. It was a shot of John sitting on the edge of the pool with sunglasses on, smoking a cigar. The resemblance to Dad in that photo shocked me — same build, same thick, wavy salt-and-pepper hair. Dad had given up cigarettes before I was born, but he enjoyed a good cigar.
I was beginning to think there was a good possibility John was my dad’s son.
After praying and studying his Facebook profile for about 20 minutes, I decided to reach out with a private message:
“Hi John, I spoke with my mom Carol late yesterday, and she told me that you think there is a strong possibility that Dad is your dad as well. I would be glad to help you in your search for the truth. If you are interested, I’d be happy to talk to you although as you can imagine I’ve been in some shock these past 24 hours.”
By the time he answered, it was almost 11 pm:
“Howdy! Just now seeing this — I was out back soaking in the hot tub. I am grateful for any assistance, and can appreciate how weird/awkward this must be for all concerned, so I will do my best to be sensitive to the feelings of all concerned. Did your mom show you the side-by-side photo I forwarded to her?”
The fact that he had been out in the hot tub until late in the evening made me laugh. That had been my dad’s routine for several years. After exchanging a few more messages, we agreed to talk the next morning.
He answered on the fourth ring, sounding a little out of breath. “I was working in the garden and lost track of time,” he said. Like Dad, he had a soft voice with a Texas accent, and almost every time I had spoken to Dad in recent years, he was working in his garden.
We talked for about 30 minutes. I learned he had a dry sense of humor and served in the Air Force, working with bomb sniffing dogs. He’d recently retired as the chief 911 operator in Detroit after 20 years with the Michigan State Police. He told me he and his wife Geri have two sons. So do Kevin and I.
I wondered why he was looking for us and why now. He explained that he’d always wanted to know where he came from and when he developed essential tremors in his 30s, an involuntary shaking condition that often runs in families, he started looking for clues to his biological parents.
“Don’t get me wrong, I have a great life and have a great family,” he said. “We didn’t start looking too hard until after my adoptive father passed in September 2012 at age 90. I was really close to him and talked to him every day. My adoptive mother never wanted to talk about it, but from her hospital bed she gave me an important clue: Your parents were young street musicians in Lubbock.”
John and his wife Geri ran into a lot of dead ends in their search until he took some DNA tests. That’s when the name Montgomery started popping up in his profile. That led to a cousin who led to Dad and then to me. I agreed to take a DNA test, too.
John and Geri already had plans to visit Atlanta the following month to attend the Scottish Highland Games at Stone Mountain.
“I doubt we’d have the DNA results by then,” he said, “but would you want to meet?”
I had only recently learned about my Scottish roots, that the Montgomery clan was from the Lowlands of Scotland and its tartan was a deep cherry red and purple, my favorite colors.
“I’d love to,” I said.
Waiting for DNA results
I was struck by John’s build when I saw him standing near the front entrance to the Highland Games. He mirrored Dad.
It was a beautiful but hot day. I wore a scarf with the Montgomery colors, and Mom was with me. John and I chatted easily as we browsed the booths. The Montgomery clan happened to be hosting the festival and games that year, so its booth was busy, and we found lots of information. We still didn’t have the DNA results yet, but my confidence was growing that he was my brother.
That evening John and Geri came to our house for dinner. As soon as my husband Kevin met him, he whispered in my ear, “You don’t need a DNA test.” After dinner, we sat out on the back deck and talked late into the night.
When John and Geri saw Marley, our 12-year-old Siberian husky, they asked where we’d gotten him. It turned out that one of their dogs had come from the same breeder in Tennessee and the same bloodline. The coincidences kept piling up.
A few weeks later, I got a call from John. “Hey, sister,” he said. “We’re a match.” He forwarded me the results. Not long after that phone call, we were texting and for the first time I wrote: “I love you.” He responded: “I love you more.”
I cried and then texted back: “That’s exactly how Dad used to respond when I’d tell him I loved him.”
A family whole
It has been almost a year and a half since I discovered I have a big brother. We remain in frequent contact, via text and Facebook messages, and we celebrated the last two Christmases together. This summer John and Geri attended the Montgomery family reunion at my cousin Jane’s house in Belton, Texas. He is hopeful the DNA trail will eventually lead him to his birth mother. A man who may be his half-brother has agreed to take the DNA test. He is awaiting the results on that one.
Last Father’s Day, John wrote about his journey in a Facebook post, describing it as “a blur of blessings and life-changing revelations.”
“Father’s Day seems like an appropriate time to publicly reveal my biological father’s identity, confirmed by DNA testing with surviving family members,” he wrote. “His name is Bobby LaRoy Montgomery. We have connected with Bob’s surviving family, and — after the initial shock wore off — they’ve welcomed me into the extended family as one of their own. I do not like to use the term half-sister or half-brother …… to me, they are simply my brother and sisters. It is this juxtaposition of family dynamics that has created a roller coaster of emotions within me that is nearly impossible to put into words. Today, I honor both my First Father and my adoptive Dad. I can only hope that both men are enjoying the music of the angels, as music was most assuredly an important part of both their lives.”
When I found out that John was my brother, he gave me a copy of a book called “The Primal Wound.”
“This explains a lot about how I feel,” he said.
A few lines from the book hit me hard: “The universal law is love, and there is no one from whom this love is to be withheld. Children begin to experience a spiritual sense in their connection with natural wonders … We can all smell a flower, touch a tree, observe a butterfly, and look up at the stars to find a place in the natural order, a connection to the cosmos. We can find our place in the universe.”
As I write these words, two bluebirds are perched outside my window. The indigo colored male is looking directly at me. Native American cultures believe the bluebird symbolizes abundance and joy. My heart is full. John is everything and so much more than I prayed for all those years ago as a little girl with a big imagination. I still miss my dad so much it hurts, but now I have an older brother who reminds me so much of him that it makes my heart sing.
ABOUT THE STORY
Advances in DNA technology have had a dramatic impact on modern life. It has freed innocent people imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit and helped African-Americans pinpoint exactly where in Africa their families originated. For Marietta writer Echo Garrett, it helped introduce her to a brother she never knew existed. This is her remarkable story.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE WRITER
Echo Montgomery Garrett has been a freelance writer since 1988. Her articles have appeared in more than 100 media outlets including Delta Sky, Parade and Private Clubs. Named 2013 Georgia Author of the Year by the Georgia chapter of the National League of American Pen Women, Echo has written 14 books, including the award winning “My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change.”
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Bita Honarvar is an Atlanta-based photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Guardian US, Chicago Tribune and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she was a staff photojournalist and photo editor for 16 years. Her work has taken her around the United States and abroad, including stints in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.
Read more of our Personal Journeys about finding long-lost family members:
AJC videographer Ryon Horne sets out to find the sibling
he never knew.
Maureen Miles set out to find the father she never knew but found a brother instead.
Legacy of loss
Leslie Mackinnon's road to reunion with her long-lost sons