In a long-ago Baltimore newspaper clipping, a daughter finds clues to her mother — and more questions
By Ellen Uzelac
For The Baltimore Sun|
Jan 06, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Ruth Angel Hudson has answers for most questions in her life except for this overarching one: Who is my mother?
It haunts her — the not knowing.
“No one ever talked about her. All I knew was her name,” says Hudson, 30, a new mother herself. “I remember pleading with my dad: `Tell me something. Give me something.’ I wanted to know: Am I like her? Am I not like her? Is she dead? Is she alive?”
Last September, Hudson discovered a short profile I wrote for The Sun in 1991 about her mother, Sharon Owens. The headline: After 15 years, woman, 31, calls shelters her home.
Those seven paragraphs answered a lot of questions — and raised many more. By her own admission, Owens had been a teen runaway, prostitute and crack addict. She had wandered in and out of homeless shelters since turning 16. When I spoke with her, she was living in a women’s shelter in Washington, D.C., not far from Capitol Hill.
“Without shelters,” she told me, “I guess I’d be hopeless.”
At the time, Owens had five children, including Hudson, then 9 months old. She would have a sixth, a son, a year later. All her children were removed from Owens by court order. Hudson’s dad raised her and her two youngest brothers. The fate of her other siblings? Unknown.
Hudson, 40 weeks pregnant and overdue with daughter Nova, called me the day after she read the article, part of a package on second-generation homelessness. Nearly 30 years on, I didn’t even remember writing it.
“Before the article, I didn’t know anything. At least now I have something tangible I can hold in my hand. She’s not just this Jane Doe that nobody knows anything about,” says Hudson, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“It struck me that she talked about hope. It’s so sad but in her I see a strength. And a heart. For me, being 30 years old, being college-educated, being married and now having my own daughter, I wish she could have had the life I have — a life of love, ability and safety.”
Still, Hudson wonders: Are you out there somewhere? Then there are all the other questions that cascade from that one. Who and where are her three oldest siblings? All Hudson knows is that they were adopted in Washington as babies and that the names her mother gave them are Arthur, Shawn and Roland.
The not knowing, it haunts me now, too.
Sharon Owens, are you out there?
Is she alive?
Stories die when they’re not passed on. The only two people who could have told Hudson her origin story are deceased. Her paternal grandmother, Ruth Babb, died in 1999, her father, Arthur E. Babb, in 2015.
Since she was a teenager, Hudson has searched for clues that would unlock the mystery. When she was 7, her grandmother told her that her mother was dead. Years later, when she was in college, her father implied one Christmas Eve that she was still alive. Neither of them would ever open the emotional vault that contained her mother’s life story.
“As a young girl, I just threw it under the table and didn’t talk about it,” says Hudson, whose father, a tough disciplinarian and heavy drinker, raised her and two brothers, Charles and Alexander, in Alliance, Ohio.
“I put my game face on and always took not having a mother as something that just was. My dad didn’t understand how to raise a girl. For most of my life, I feared him. I learned what it meant to be a girl from my friends’ mothers, TV and school counselors.”
Her friends’ moms taught Hudson how to do her hair and makeup, how to interact with other kids, and, as she puts it, “how to be a lady.” Clair Huxtable, the mother figure played by Phylicia Rashad on “The Cosby Show,” taught her about empowerment, ambition, and, most important to Hudson, “that a woman could have a voice, a woman could do anything.” School counselors, meanwhile, threw her a safety net, encouraging her to excel. Hudson is currently working on a master’s degree in school counseling through Walden University.
Hudson was removed from her mother’s care shortly after she was born. She has no memory of her early childhood. She doesn’t know where she lived or with whom or for how long after she was placed in emergency care by the family division of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. She believes her father, likely at the urging of her grandmother, obtained custody of her and two brothers when she was around 3.
A scant paper trail provides a few crumbs. Legal documents that her father kept in a black fanny pack on the top shelf of his bedroom closet revealed Babb’s acknowledgment that he had fathered Ruth Angel Hudson and her brother Charles.
Also in the pack: paperwork detailing Hudson’s name change at age 4 from Lylybell Angel, her name at birth, to Ruth Angel. Hudson’s dad, who found Lylybell silly, named his daughter Ruth in honor of his mother. He kept Angel in deference to Sharon Owens. Hudson would later call her beloved Cabbage Patch doll Lylybell.
Hudson also has a document confirming the adoptions of her three oldest siblings as well as her birth certificate, listing her mother’s full name: Sharon Alettie Owens. When I ask her to spell Alettie, she says: “A as in apple, L as in love, E as in earth, T as in teacher, T as in teacher,” and then “I.E.”
Photographs that an aunt gave Hudson two decades ago hint at more mystery. Sharon Owens, in a blue sleeveless dress and wearing a white headband with her hair pulled back, smiles from the pictures. Hudson, in another photo shot that day, looks like she is 3 or 4. The now-faded Polaroids were taken at her grandmother’s house on the Fourth of July. Hudson believes it was the only time Owens visited.
“How did my mom feel in that moment, knowing she had lost all of her children? Was she not capable? Did it have something to do with my father? My father once said I look just like her. I don’t know if it caused him pain, if it was too much for him,” she says.
“I’ve never had a woman get close to me as a mother figure. I never really knew what that looked like. Sometimes, when I was feeling alone or wanting answers, I’d look at those pictures, hoping to unearth a memory, hoping to feel something.”
Living in the dark, looking for the light.
When Hudson and her husband, Braylon, discovered she was pregnant with a girl, Hudson began poring over family documents and photographs, searching once again for answers.
“She’d spend hours digging through her files, organizing her thoughts, writing things down, looking for linkages,” her husband says. “I would look at her and see such determination in those moments. It was this fire that just grew brighter and brighter.”
Braylon Hudson, 29, co-creator of a nonprofit transitional house for court-involved youth, says he felt instant empathy when his wife first told him about the gaping hole in her family history.
“My next reaction was just wanting to protect her, love her, help her heal, help her cope. I had no idea the extent of what that coping would require. In that moment, I didn’t know it would take years,” he says.
“Ruth is strong, she is resilient, she’s independent. The biggest thing for us was her learning to relinquish some of that to me, allowing herself to lean on someone,” he adds. “On the surface, you wouldn’t imagine she’s had so much loss in her life. In moments of vulnerability, it’s different. She longs for a mother figure — someone to lean on as a young woman, a young wife, and now, of course, as a mother.”
Last summer, at her husband’s suggestion, Ruth Hudson sent a DNA sample to Ancestry.com, the genealogy website, hoping to pick up her mother’s trail. There were hundreds of matches on her father’s side. On her mother’s? Only a couple of distant cousins, a dead end.
Then the unexpected happened. That light Hudson has looked for most of her life? It shined on her.
Xavier Roberts, a technical business analyst in Miami who has a passion for restorative genealogy, had been trying for years to trace Hudson’s family on Ancestry. His grandfather and Hudson’s grandmother were first cousins.
“It’s the missing branch,” says Roberts, 35. “There were a lot of lost connections on that side of the family. The first time I talked to Ruth we talked for three hours. It’s been this continuous round of discovery.”
Sharon Owens, are you out there?
Family history has fascinated Roberts since he was 9. “The fact that you are part of this bigger picture, that just ignited a spark in me,” he says. “I always was that child who asked questions. I needed to understand the hows and whys.”
For weeks after talking to Hudson, Roberts searched various websites for a sign of Owens. Ancestry. Find a Grave. Google. Family Search. Genealogy Bank. “I came up with 30 people named Sharon A. Owens, but they weren’t the right fit,” Roberts says. “I’m missing something, I kept telling myself. Something obvious is missing. I have a Newspapers.com subscription. I thought: `OK, let’s try this.’ It’s the only thing I hadn’t done at that point.”
When nothing turned up in the Washington papers, Roberts expanded his search to Virginia and Maryland.
“Sometimes, the smallest detail will lead you to big discoveries. I didn’t expect to find an article, see her mom’s face, and know more about her background than Ruth did. Here I am with the information Ruth needs and I’m conflicted because she’s nine months pregnant and overdue. I didn’t want to bring her pain and anxiety,” Roberts says. “Yeah, Sharon Owens may have had her troubles, but she still was a mother. And someone still cares enough about her to want to know what happened.”
On Sept. 7, Braylon Hudson watched his wife open the email from Roberts that contained The Sun story published Feb. 18, 1991. I ask him: How did you feel, watching her in that moment?
“If you’re looking at a glass bust that you cherish and it’s about to fall off the shelf, you extend your arms and stand ready to catch it. That’s how I felt. Is she going to be OK or do I need to catch her?” he says.
“Then I saw determination, a spark that said: `This is what I needed. All that research, it wasn’t for nothing.’ There’s a degree of sadness knowing her mom lived a life that was so challenging, but she made beautiful children who are now living beautiful lives. There is beauty in that sadness as well.”
‘Man, if you knew ... ’
It’s not just Hudson who wants answers; her brothers do as well.
Charles Babb, 31, says he asked his father once why things hadn’t worked out with Owens. His response? “Man, if you knew, man if you knew,” says Babb, a home health care supervisor in Alliance, Ohio, who has played professional football in Europe. “It’s the most I ever heard him say.”
Alexander Babb, a 28-year-old forklift operator in nearby Akron, says his mother’s absence has affected him in ways he can’t fully explain. “I just stopped asking about her after a while. All I know is masculinity and alpha. I can’t show emotion or sorrow. It’s hard to trust people. I don’t know if that will ever change,” he says.
Babb says he had only ever seen one photograph of his mother. The one I took of Sharon Owens to accompany the article was the second.
“I was shocked,” he says. “I look exactly like her, but light-skinned. It’s a good feeling to know a little bit about her and see another picture. What I see in her is a strength to survive. A lot of people would have crumbled.”
Sharon Alettie Owens remains a mystery to solve.
The House of Ruth women’s shelter at the old Madison Elementary School in Washington doesn’t have records from 1991, when Owens lived there. And media representatives for medical examiners in Washington, Maryland and Northern Virginia say there is no death certificate on file for her. If she is alive, Owens would have turned 61 in November.
“There’s a degree of sadness knowing her mom lived a life that was so challenging, but she made beautiful children who are now living beautiful lives. There is beauty in that sadness as well.”
Braylon Hudson, husband of Ruth Angel Hudson
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Sharon Owens, are you out there?
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“At this point in our lives, we’ve dealt with so much sadness and a childhood that could have been more nurturing and loving. I will never stop wondering what happened to her. I will never stop looking,” Hudson says. “I want to know this woman who birthed me. If she is alive, I want to meet her with an open mind and an open heart. If she isn’t alive, well, I’ll leave it at that.”
It’s possible Hudson’s three oldest siblings — Arthur, Shawn and Roland — could locate their younger sister one day through Ancestry. The “missing branch,” as Roberts would have framed it. “It’s still up in the air whether Shawn is a boy or girl,” Hudson says. “I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have a sister.”
Hudson, meanwhile, hugs 3-month-old Nova — keeping her close, keeping her safe.
“When I look at her, even in the wee hours when she doesn’t want to sleep, I just look and smile and laugh. It’s a beautiful thing to have someone love you without even truly knowing you yet. We have a strong connection already,” she says. “When I look at my daughter, I promise her closeness, I promise her love, and I promise her connection.”