From as far back as Debbie Brennan Sallee remembers, she knew she was adopted and it made her feel special, in a good way.
“My parents made me feel this is such a special thing,” Debbie says. “I would even share this greatness during show-and-tell at school. They raised me feeling that way so it wasn’t a bad thing.”
Born on February 24, 1968, in the Houston area, Debbie was adopted by Johnny and Madonna Brennan just three days later. The Brennans thought they could not have children and were thrilled when they learned through friends that a teenager had just given birth to a little girl and could not keep her. The adoption took place quickly through an attorney. At the hospital, Madonna wanted to meet the mother but was not allowed. She did note the name on the door to her room — Garza.
Debbie says she had a wonderful life with her parents and when she was seven years old her mother gave birth to a little brother Johnny, and then later a sister, Lori.
When Debbie was nine years old, the family moved to New Caney, Texas.
She continued to feel deeply connected to her adopted family, but sometimes thought about where she came from.
“When I started in my teenage years, I considered looking for my (birth) parents,” Debbie remembers. “I had brown eyes and was dark complected unlike the rest of my family. I had pretty skin color. People would ask me ‘What’s your nationality?’ I don’t know,” she’d tell them, “maybe Italian, Indian, or Heinz 57.”
She hadn’t considered Hispanic until Madonna at some point told her the name from the hospital room door was Garza.
Thoughts of finding her biological parents were set aside and Debbie met her future husband, Curtis Sallee, in 1993.
They got married in 1995 and moved to Tyler, then Henderson, and have been in Ben Wheeler, Texas, now for 23 years. Their daughter Cheyenne was born in November 1999.
Having her own daughter made Debbie’s life complete.
“We were busy from the day that girl was born,” she says. “She came out of the womb running.”
Caught up in cheerleading, sports, and Van Oil Queen pageants, life was non-stop so Debbie said she didn’t have time to think about her biological parents much but her brother Johnny liked to joke with her about it and include himself in the picture.
“Our family’s crazy,” he’d say, “Don’t you want to find our real parents.”
In 2008 Debbie was diagnosed with cancer.
“Cheyenne and I became closer than most,” Sallee said. “When she was in junior high and high school we were like best friends.”
Debbie says, fearing she might die caused her to want to share all she knew with her daughter and that time together bonded them even closer.
“It was a gift,” Debbie says.
Debbie had a rare cancer with a tough success record. Thankfully, the radiation she did worked.
Debbie opened her own business, OMG All Star Cheer in 2010. She also started a DJ business in 2014 and although she no longer owns OMG since 2016, she does continue to DJ at special events.
All of the emotions Debbie experienced during these years made her think occasionally about finding her birth parents but there were just too many other things to do so it continued to go to the back of her mind, only to have brother Johnny keep bringing it up.
“He drove me crazy the most about ‘why don’t you want to find your birth parents,’” she says.
Her mom, Madonna, also asked her from time to time, especially after she’d watch a reunion on “Oprah.”
Sadly, Madonna passed away in 2010. Dad Johnny remarried and has had a series of strokes, making communication difficult, but Debbie says they stay in touch.
This past November, Debbie heard about a friend who found her birth parents from a DNA test.
“She met her mom and two months later the mom died,” Debbie says, and that brought home the idea that she wanted to pursue finding her birth parents before it’s too late. “If I keep waiting, that could be me.”
She hesitated because she feared she would cause disruption in her birth family’s lives.
“I didn’t want to disturb my birth family. I don’t want to throw a monkey wrench into their lives.”
When Debbie mentioned to her brother and sister that she was finally thinking about finding her birth family, brother Johnny didn’t waste any time.
“He told his wife, Carolyn, to order the DNA kit and have it sent to her house and he also said, ‘Merry Christmas,’” Debbie says fondly.
The kit came and Debbie videoed herself taking the test.
“I was doing it jokingly,” she says. “The odds are slim.”
She sent the DNA in on December 6 and went on about her life thinking she probably wouldn’t hear anything.
The results came back on January 14 this year showing matches with about 10 people, thought to be first, second, or third cousins — other people that had sent in their DNA. She emailed those 10 saying, “We may be cousins — I’d like to talk to you.”
No one responded.
Sister-in-law Carolyn wasn’t satisfied so she sent another email the same day, this time telling the recipients that the birth mother’s name was Garza.
Within hours Carolyn received emails wanting to help. What turned out to be a third cousin living in Arizona, called her dad, Jake Garcia, and asked him who the mother might be. The family did some quick detective work and got back to Carolyn with answers.
At 4:30 that afternoon, Debbie gets a call from brother Johnny.
“In a quivery voice he says, ‘Debbie I want you to know I’m still your favorite brother.’ I can hear Carolyn crying and then Johnny says ‘we found your birth mother.’ We were all three crying.”
Her name is Mary.
The day before, on January 13, was Mary Garza Stark’s birthday. It was her birthday wish for the past 52 years that she would find the baby she gave up for adoption. The next day, her wish finally came true.
Mary was in her home in Katy, Texas, on January 14 when she got a call from her cousin Jake in Wisconsin.
“He said someone was looking for her mother. All she knew was she was born February 24, 1968, and she was known as the Garza baby. ‘Do you know anybody that would be her mom?’”
“I lost it,” Mary says. “I couldn’t breathe. I knew it was her. I said, ‘I’m her mother.’”
Mary got Debbie’s phone number from Jake. “I knew it was finally going to happen.”
She had a lot of emotions to process that afternoon and a long-held secret to tell her family.
Mary Garza grew up in small town Cuero, Texas. The family moved to Houston when she was 16 years old. It was a big change for her and she wasn’t sure how well she fit in but she adjusted.
She was 19 years old and working in the subscription department at the Houston Chronicle when she met Stan Stark.
“I was very impressed with him, he was a gentleman,” Mary recalls.
They saw each other off and on for a while, but he was often not in the picture. They hadn’t seen each other for several months when Mary discovered she was pregnant.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” Mary says. “I didn’t even know until I started showing. I was a small person at the time. I could hide it wearing a girdle. I did a good job because nobody knew. My mom thought I was gaining some weight. I never went to the doctor.”
On February 24, 1968, Mary had recently turned 20 and was sharing her room at her parents’ house with her friend Phyllis. Phyllis came home from a date that day and found Mary in distress on her bed.
“I was in terrible pain,” Mary recalls. “I said my stomach hurt.”
Phyllis woke Mary’s parents and they took her to the hospital where they all found out for the first time when the doctor informed them that Mary was pregnant and in labor.
She had a baby girl.
“They went into shock,” Mary said of her parents, “then total denial. I don’t remember a lot of what happened. My parents told me I couldn’t keep her. You just didn’t do that at the time. It would deface the family name they said.
“I don’t remember signing her away but I know she was gone the next day,” Mary says. “I didn’t know how all that happened. I knew she was a girl and I knew what day it was.”
Although she saw Stan a few times during her pregnancy, Mary hadn’t told him until after the baby was born and given up for adoption. They continued to go in and out of each other’s lives for the next few years. Mary got pregnant again in 1969 and had a son, Scotti.
“I knew how my parents would feel so I ran away. I told my parents I’ve already lost one child, I’m not losing this one.”
Mary and Stan finally got together for good and got married in 1976 when Scotti was five years old. The family lived in Houston where Stan worked in sales and marketing and then computer consulting and Mary worked in administration.
“We had a good life,” Mary says. “But I always brought up the baby I gave away. Every birthday, every holiday, I would wonder what she was doing, what she was like, and was she okay — everything a mother thinks about.”
For some reason Mary had in mind the adoptive parents’ name was Fitzgerald.
“The hospital (where the baby was born) got torn down years later and I didn’t know where the records went. I looked for the name Fitzgerald all over the South but didn’t find her.”
That was years ago and Mary had all but given up that she would ever see her first born when that call came in from her cousin Jake on January 14. She told Stan.
“When I heard the news, I came inside and I sat down and I was crying hysterically. I couldn’t believe it. Our daughter has found us,” she told him. “He was in shock.”
With that done, and overcome with emotion, Mary called Debbie’s number at 10:30 that evening. Debbie sees the Houston number on her caller ID.
“I knew it was her. I’d been waiting patiently. I was upbeat. I didn’t cry. I didn’t know what to expect,” Debbie says.
Then Mary says, “Hi baby girl.”
Debbie says, “I laughed, we cried, and I told her ‘I don’t need an explanation. I had a good life. I just want to meet you.’”
They talked for a couple of hours, getting to know each other and they hit it off so well with so many things in common.
“It was amazing,” Mary says. “We talked about our curly hair and so many things. We laugh alike. We don’t like vegetables. For two hours we went on and on and on. We didn’t want to hang up.”
Cousin Jake had indicated to Debbie earlier in the day that Mary was married to Debbie’s biological dad but said he didn’t want to give away too much information so Debbie waited to hear from Mary. When she got confirmation of this news she was so excited.
Debbie said to Mary, “You mean you and dad are married? I found my dad too?”
“It was a really special moment,” Debbie says, and they just keep coming.
Debbie also learned she has a full-blood brother, Scotti.
It was a heart-packed first conversation and they agreed to talk again after a good night’s rest.
The next day Mary called her two brothers to tell them about her daughter. They said they couldn’t believe she’d carried this all by herself all these years.
“I made a promise to mom and dad and kept it.” Mary says. “But they’re both gone now.”
Then she called her son.
“I was crying so bad he couldn’t understand what I was saying. He thought I had a deadly disease.”
Mary told him, “You have a sister, a full-blood sister.”
He was in shock but he thought it was great and he is really happy to have a sister.
“From then on it’s been nothing but love and support from the whole family,” Mary says. “So many happy tears — nothing but love and happiness.”
For the next couple of days Mary and Debbie talked often by phone and neither could wait to meet each other. So, Mary and Stan arranged to drive up from Katy, while brother Scotti got a flight from California where he lives and works in the wine industry. In the meantime, Debbie’s friends and family start making plans for the great reunion that took place Saturday, January 18 at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Van, Texas.
With Debbie, her husband Curtis and daughter Cheyenne by her side, and brother Johnny and his wife Carolyn, sister Lori, and numerous other family and friends surrounding them, Mary, Stan, and Scotti made their way through the crowd to join them. The hugs were strong and tender, deep and long. Mary and Debbie couldn’t stop holding each other for a good five minutes and continued to reach out for each other for the rest of the gathering.
“The feelings of finding and meeting your daughter for the first time in 52 years, I don’t know how to explain that feeling,” Mary says. “My heart was bursting.”
The moment was perfect for Debbie too.
“I had my plan and it went just like I wanted it. That moment, to get to turn and hug her was amazing and weird at the same time. I had a connection with the woman that raised me. But I immediately was able to call her (Mary) mom. Our hugs are wonderful. It’s not the same as the mom that raised you. It’s more we are one. We laugh the same. We think the same.”
The crew all came to Debbie’s house and they had a party that night with about 30 people. They sang karaoke, played pool, and had a great time Debbie says. At one point, Debbie requests a song, “Brown Eyed Girl.”
“I got my first dad-daughter dance,” she says. “He’ll never know how much that meant to me.
I wanted to share with them who I am. He was smiling. If you draw a heart and make it bigger and bigger that’s how I felt because he was dancing with me.”
The next weekend Debbie went to Houston and met Mary’s side of the family and says they had a “first” birthday party with her extended family. She recognizes her own face in so many of her cousins, she says.
She talks with brother Scotti from time to time and they enjoy discovering how much alike they are and both have a great sense of humor.
“We would have given mom so much hell if we’d been brought up together. There’s a reason they kept us separate.”
So, where does this family go from here?
Mary and Stan are moving to Ben Wheeler.
“We don’t want to be apart,” Mary says. “We’re still catching up. I have so much to share with her. After so many years apart, I just want to be next to her for as long as I live. I’m 72 years old. Let me be a mom to her. I’ve loved her all this time and now I can actually show her.”