On Aug. 10, Washougal resident Melanie Ausmus flew from Portland to Ontario, California, and took an Uber to a hotel in nearby Claremont.
She didn’t want a big airport scene, and was understandably apprehensive. After all, the 55-year-old Ausmus was moments away from meeting her birth father for the first time.
Ausmus called Kathy Coulter, her stepmother, who drove five minutes from her apartment to the hotel to pick Ausmus up. On the ride back to Coulter’s house, Ausmus experienced a gamut of emotions.
“I was super nervous, but excited,” said Ausmus, who grew up in Camas with her adoptive parents. “We pulled up, and Kathy goes, ‘Your dad is looking out the window.’ I was like, ‘Where, where?’ I handed her my phone, turned on my camera and said, ‘Will you please take pictures?'”
Ausmus got out of the car and greeted John Coulter, a man who didn’t even know Aumus existed until a few weeks before this first meeting. They embraced, and at that moment all of the uncertainty Ausmus was feeling “just went away.”
“I was so happy. Just super happy,” Ausmus said. “And emotional, of course. I cried a little bit. And he did too.”
That night, Ausmus got to know her new family — John, Kathy, their children (John Jr., Amy, Michael and Kelly) and numerous grandchildren. They had dinner. They talked about their lives. They pored over photo albums. Amy gave Ausmus a gift bag stuffed with small goodies and a family-tree necklace, which caused Ausmus to cry.
The next day, Ausmus went with John, Kathy and Kathy’s sister to Universal Studios, which was “a blast, just fabulous,” Ausmus said.
“They were extremely welcoming and loving and sweet right off the bat. They didn’t even have to get to know me first,” said Ausmus, who works as a program assistant for Clark County’s board of equalization. “Even before I went down there, they were telling me how much they loved me.”
During her visit, Ausmus realized how much the meet-up meant to her birth father.
“At one point Kathy said, ‘Have you noticed how much your dad stares at you?’ I said, ‘No I haven’t.’ I started paying attention, and he’d be beaming, looking at me and smiling,” Ausmus said of Coulter. “He told me he felt so terrible that he never knew that I was out there, that I was alive. He was upset that he didn’t get to know me much sooner.”
Several days later, Ausmus returned to Washougal with a “sense of closure,” according to Hayden Brown, one of Ausmus’ four children.
“She found some answers to questions or concerns she might have had,” Brown said of her mother. “She was happy with the results. I know she was overwhelmed, but she handled it very well, and when she came back she said she had a great time.”
Ausmus is excited to maintain a relationship with the Coulters going forward.
“I’ve told them we have two guest rooms, a pool, a back yard. They said, ‘We’re coming up,'” she said. “It’s going to be crazy going forward. My kids are super excited about it. Everybody’s on board. I told John, ‘I’m not going to be able to call you dad, but I can call you father,’ and he was cool with that.”
The reunion turned out to be a great thing for all involved, but took a somewhat extraordinary set of circumstances in order to happen at all.
A very happy Mother’s Day
Ironically enough, it was a Mother’s Day present that led Ausmus to her birth father.
In May, Brown and his half-sister, Alyssa Brown, gave Ausmus, their mother, a 23andMe genetic testing kit to find out more about her ancestry.
They ended up discovering much more than they’d expected.
“We’re looking at the ancestry on the website, and I see this tab that says ‘family,’ and I click on that, and it’s got this list of everyone else who’s done 23andMe and who match you. It said ‘Hayden Brown, son’ and ‘Corinna Duval, half-sister, Salem, Oregon,'” Ausmus said. “I immediately started tearing up. I had always wanted a sister. It took a while for it to sink in.”
Hayden was “completely shocked” with the discovery. He had previously taken a 23andMe test on somewhat of a whim, but had no idea the test could provide family matches.
“Something like this never even crossed my mind. I was blown away,” he said. “I thought it would be cool to buy her the test because I never knew my heritage from her side since she was adopted and never knew her (birth) father. I just kind of wanted to see what countries my ancestors were from.”
After Hayden found Duval’s Facebook profile, Ausmus sent her half-sister a message.
“I wrote, ‘Hey, I was adopted in 1964. My name is Melanie. I see we’re half-sisters, according to 23andMe. If you want to connect, here’s my info,'” she said. “That was on a Saturday. On Monday, I was sitting at my desk at work and I looked down and I had a message. It said, ‘Hey sister. Good to hear from you. I suppose you have lots of questions. I have some answers. When can I call you?’ I couldn’t wait to get home that evening. I got home and she called me.”
From that conversation, Brown learned that her birth father was named John Coulter and had been living in Claremont, California, for the past 45 years. She also learned that Coulter had no idea she had been born.
“Both of my birth parents grew up in Longview (Washington). They went to high school together and were dating,” Ausmus said. “In 1963, she got pregnant and told him she was having an abortion, and then I guess they broke up. Then he dated Corinna’s mom two months later and got her pregnant, then a month later shipped out for the Navy, so he didn’t see my birth mother getting a belly.”
Right away, Ausmus started thinking about going to California to meet Coulter and his family.
“Absolutely I had to go,” she said. “I kept checking for reasonable flights and finally found something. I asked (my husband Tom), and he said, ‘Go. You need to go.'”
Adopted family life
Ausmus was born in Vancouver in 1964, and adopted three months later by lifelong Camas residents Peter and Jeanette Gillas, who had also adopted a son, four years older than Ausmus, from the Spokane area.
Peter worked at the Camas paper mill and Jeanette worked at a Sears Catalog store. They also operated a drive-in dairy, where Austmus worked from ages 14 to 20.
Ausmus attended Camas schools, graduating from Camas High School in 1982. She was a volleyball player, cheerleader, talented singer and took third runner-up in the Ms. Clark County competition one year.
“My childhood was fantastic,” she said. “I’m still good friends with over half the people I went to school with. I love the small-town community feeling. I had horses and dirt bikes and everything. I’ve always known that I was adopted, as long as I can remember. Same with my brother. My parents didn’t want to hide anything from us, which was wonderful.”
Even though she had two supportive, nurturing parents, Ausmus said she couldn’t help but wonder about her birth parents from time to time.
“I was always curious,” she said. “It was mostly focused on my birth mother for some reason, probably just because I was a girl. I thought, ‘Does she sing? Do I look like her?’ I would pull out Christmas albums, and there was Rosemary Clooney, and I was convinced that she was my birth mom because she sang so well and had blond hair.”
In 1998, Ausmus’ husband at the time hired a confidential mediary to track down Ausmus’ birth mother, Amber Keaton, who was living in Eagle Point, Oregon, and had two sons.
“Her and one of my half-brothers came up here and stayed with us for a weekend,” Ausmus said. “We became very close. All those years I had a relationship with that part of my birth family. Then she ended up moving to Homer, Alaska, because that’s where my half-brothers were.”
Ausmus had some conversations about her birth father with Keaton, who died last October, but those talks didn’t lead anywhere.
“I had asked her about him. Some of the information was incorrect, but whatever,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘I’ll just go on Facebook, put his name out there, say he was from Longview, does anybody know where he is?’ And I never did. I just never did it. I’m not sure why.”
From her DNA testing, Ausmus has gained a birth father, stepmother, five half-siblings and 12 nieces and nephews. She plans to drive to Salem to meet Duval for the first time in September.
“I thought it was awesome because I knew she was going to be really excited to finally be able to meet that part of the family,” said Nolan Brown, Ausmus’ son. “Plus, after all this time, 55 years, it’s a big deal at that point. That kind of blows my mind. It’s quite a story to have a little test done and all of a sudden, ‘Oh, by the way, you have a sibling.’ An interesting little test took a crazy little turn.”
“I just feel that your path goes somewhere for a reason,” Ausmus said. “There’s lots of DNA tests out there. What if I had done Ancestry instead of 23andMe? I wouldn’t have matched with Corinna. I would’ve never known. I think it’s so cool. I’m super, super happy and super blessed. I mean, whose story is like this, you know?”