This is a story that could morph into a mother-daughter reunion in Modesto.
Shortly after her mother died in May 2008, Fresno's Debbie Goodman received a strange letter in the mail.
It contained words clipped from a newspaper and pieced together to read: "... you are an adopted child."
Never miss a local story.
"It was really creepy," the 52-year-old substitute teacher said.
She reported it to the police, if only to have it on record.
In February 2009, she received another letter, same style. This one read: "Many people know your Real mother. Ask ronne where she is."
Again, Goodman filed a police report. An officer told her the experience suggested the sender probably was a relative or someone who knew the family's deepest, darkest secrets.
Except, she told him, she wasn't adopted. Just to be sure, she obtained copies of her birth certificate. The two-page document bears the names and signatures of the only mother and father she has ever known.
Soon after, though, she visited an elderly aunt. Goodman told her about the letters and how she was disturbed by them because, "I wasn't adopted."
"Oh yes you were," the aunt replied.
Whoa ... . What?
"The room was spinning," Goodman said. "She sat me down at the kitchen table and told me her version of story, which is probably closest."
Since then, Goodman has talked to several other relatives. Every one of them knew all along what she didn't learn until she was 51 years old and what her aunt confirmed. And each tells a different story about her past, Goodman said.
She's tried to sort through the versions with one goal in mind: To find her biological mom and hear it from her directly. That, she said, is what brings her search to Modesto.
First, though, a bit of background:
Goodman was born Aug. 8, 1957, at Community Hospital in Fresno. Her father, Bill Goodman, carried her out of the hospital a few days later, taking her home.
He and wife Irene raised Debbie, moving back and forth between Fresno, Modesto and Merced in the early years before buying the home in Fresno where Debbie lives today.
Half-brother Ron Goodman -- the "ronne" in the note? -- said he remembers being a teenager when they brought Debbie home. He recalls they lived in Merced, not Fresno, and he said he doesn't know the biological mom's name or where she might be today.
He said Irene, his stepmother, couldn't have children of her own.
"She wanted a baby in the worst way," Ron Goodman said.
His father and uncle knew a well-connected lawyer in Merced who found a teenage girl that had gotten pregnant by an older man. The lawyer, Ron Goodman said, got hospital officials to list Bill and Irene Goodman as the biological parents on Debbie's birth certificate because they never wanted her to know she'd been adopted. Bill Goodman also ordered relatives never to tell her.
"I was around during a lot of those conversations," Ron Goodman said. "He was adamant about that."
Other relatives suggest either Bill Goodman or another relative fathered the child. Some said the biological mom was a young woman -- not a teenager -- who was married to a military man serving overseas when the affair happened. Debbie Goodman believes that Bill Goodman probably was her biological father.
"When I was 13, I asked them if I was adopted," Debbie Goodman said. "Lots of kids ask their parents that. They said, 'Where'd you get that?' "
But when she obtained a copy of her birth certificate in February 2009, there were actually two pages stapled together. The original, she said, misspelled Irene's maiden name and reversed her first and middle names. Her mom's signature looked more like "Jean" than Irene. And her own name was misspelled -- Deborah instead of Debra.
The second certificate, stapled to the first and seemingly newer, contains accurate spellings and name order, Goodman said.
"They went and corrected the mistakes," she said.
Bill Goodman died in 1972. Irene enjoyed a close mother-and-daughter relationship with Debbie.
"Irene really doted on Debbie," Ron Goodman said.
Which brings us to the Modesto connection. Over the years, Irene received phone calls from a woman named Betty, Debbie Goodman said. Irene's mood and manner changed during those calls.
"My mom (Irene) always had this infectious laugh," Debbie Goodman said. "I could always tell who she was talking to. But when she talked to this Betty, it was different. I'd hear (Irene) say, 'She's fine. She's going to college.' Stuff like that, never elaborating. And (Betty) called frequently -- probably once a month."
The calls — at least the ones Debbie Goodman knew about — stopped coming around 1980.
After Irene's death and the arrival of the mysterious letters, she went through her mom's book of phone numbers and found the name of Betty Smith, whose number had a 209 area code and a 526 Modesto prefix.
The Polk directory of 1978 linked the number Goodman found — now disconnected — to a Betty Smith living on the 1300 block of Topaz Way in Modesto. And there are several Betty Smiths living in the Modesto area. Goodman has spoken with a few them, and has come up empty so far. She hopes to contact the others so that she can ask the question of a lifetime — the same one P.D. Eastman made famous in a children's book: "Are you my mother?"
The answer, if her biological mom is still alive, won't change the love she had for Bill and Irene Goodman. But it will give her something more than pieced-together newspaper clippings and family theories about her life.
"It all comes down to the same conclusion," she said. "I'm adopted, sort of."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org