AUSTIN -- On a cold day last January, Lynette Carlson turned on her computer, logged into the social network website Facebook and found a message in her inbox that would change her life forever.
With a click of a mouse she opened the note and read: "Have you ever lived in Slayton, Minnesota or Roswell, Kansas? If so, does the name Steven Michael ring a bell to you?"
"At that point I was bawling my eyes out," she said.
Lynette was as sure of her answers as she was of who sent the message. She had finally been discovered by the son she gave up for adoption. Being found -- being reunited -- had been a dream of hers since her baby boy was taken from her arms.
Twenty-nine years ago today, Lynette Carlson gave birth to her only child -- a son she named Steven Michael.
Lynette knew the name wasn't permanent, but a newborn baby should be given an identity at the very least. Steven was a name she liked, and Michael was the name of her younger brother.
As a 22-year-old single woman, Lynette knew she couldn't raise a child on her own. The father, who lived in Worthington at the time, was already married and unwilling to have any more involvement in the situation.
When Lynette learned of the pregnancy, she was already three and a half months along and had just come off a four-day drinking binge. She was an alcoholic, but she was able to set her need for alcohol aside -- if for nothing more than sheer fear she had already done immeasurable damage to the baby growing inside her.
Within days of learning of her pregnancy, Lynette turned to the pastor in her church for guidance. He helped connect her with Bethany Christian Services, an adoption agency in Orange City, Iowa.
Two months before her anticipated due date, Lynette relocated to Rock Valley, Iowa, where pregnant and unwed women were taken in by "shepherding homes." Lynette moved in with an older couple who was willing to help her out in the final weeks before the baby's arrival. Little Steven Michael was born in the Rock Valley hospital on Dec. 24, 1981.
She saw the baby, heard his cries and held him close despite the discouragement of hospital staff. They feared Lynette would form a bond and make it all the more difficult to follow through with her decision to give the little boy away.
"I knew my plan of action when I got down there," she said. "I knew I wasn't coming home with him."
Still, she was determined to spend their hospital stay together.
"I told (the staff) that my name was not signed on the dotted line yet," said Lynette of her pleas to hold the baby. In the end, those moments together made giving him up "a lot more harder."
She returned to her parents' home in Slayton a week after the birth, empty handed and with a heavy heart. Not a day would go by without her thinking of the little boy.
Lynette went through a closed adoption, meaning she would have no contact with the baby once he left the hospital. During the transition process, the baby spent nearly four weeks in a foster home before being adopted into a family from Grand Rapids, Mich.
It was while the baby was in foster care that Lynette's request for a photo was granted. Two photos would be the only thing she'd have to hold on to for more than 28 years.
"I had called Bethany every year around his birthday in December," she said. "During the year, I would call them if I moved, to make sure they had my new address, new phone number and where I was working so if and when he tried to find me, they could get ahold of me."
Lynette had also written two letters to her son, both of which she copied and mailed to Bethany Christian Services (BCS). In the first letter, she simply wanted to know how he was and if he was OK. The second letter, written on Oct. 31, 1995, was longer -- four pages -- and included details about herself and her family.
That second letter, after having specific details blacked out by Bethany, was forwarded to the adoptive parents in Grand Rapids. They decided not to show the letter to their son until he was older. At the same time, Lynette carried her copy of the letter in her Bible.
As the years went by without hearing anything, Lynette attempted to move on with her life. After moving out of her parents' house, she tried college in both Marshall and Willmar before spending more than a year getting her life back on track in an alcohol rehab facility in Brookings, S.D. She's now in her 26th year of sobriety.
Lynette lived and worked in Worthington for several years prior moving to Austin 11 years ago.
"When (Steven Michael) turned 18 was the year I moved to Austin," she said.
This time when she called BCS, it wasn't just to give an update on her whereabouts. She wanted information.
"I wanted his name, address, phone number and where he was working and they told me it's better off for him to find me than for me to find him," Lynette said.
Unfortunately, new rules now blocked information from being released until the child turned 21. Another new rule required her to pay Bethany $100 to open up his file.
Both proved to be an emotional setback for Lynette.
She hung onto the faith and hope that he would look for her.
Mulling it over
When baby Steven Michael was handed over to his adoptive parents, he was renamed Benjamin and given their last name of Nagel. He joined an older brother Joe -- adopted by the couple four years earlier.
"I don't remember when my parents sat me down and told me they weren't my real parents," said Ben, who still lives in Grand Rapids. "I remember in kindergarten telling people I was adopted."
Ben's strong bond with the family who raised him left no doubt they would support his decision to find his birth parents. He said no one will ever take their place in his life.
"I've had a good life for the past 28 years and I love my parents -- I love my whole family and they know that," Ben said. "They had nothing to worry about.
"My adoptive parents were more supportive than I could hope for," he added. "I knew it would be exciting for them."
When Ben turned 18, he went to BCS in Grand Rapids and requested the file he hoped would hold the answers to his life.
"They wanted to charge me $25 to file the paperwork and it really made me angry," he recalled. "I kind of gave up at that point."
What he needed was more time to think things through.
Days before Christmas in 2009, Ben had thought about it long enough. Friends with a BCS caseworker in his church, he asked her for advice rather than visit the local office. It was then he learned the filing fee was eliminated and it wouldn't cost him anything to get his file.
Ben said it wasn't the money that aggravated him -- it was the principle. After all, this was the agency that kept him from getting to know his birth mother.
On Jan. 25, Ben received a letter in the mail notifying him that there was no denial filed, meaning he could have his file and his birth mother was interested in connecting with him.
It was a big moment in Ben's life, and he wanted to share it with his family. His mom, dad, stepmom and sister-in-law joined him when he went to the BCS office to get his file. In it, he finally saw and read the four-page letter Lynette had penned on Halloween 1995, complete with all the black marks the agency made to hide certain information.
"After that, my sister-in-law and I went to a coffee shop," Ben said. "She brought her laptop with her and we started looking on People Finder and stuff like that."
Eventually, they tried Facebook.
"There were 44 different Lynette Carlsons," he said. "One of them was my age, so I knew that wasn't her. From the letter she wrote me, it sounded like she was sober for 10 years."
With a click on the second Lynette Carlson in the Facebook directory, Ben was certain he was looking at his birth mother.
"It said she was sober for 25 years, that she was a Godly woman and it said Minnesota," he recalled.
That's when he sent her a message through Facebook's messaging system.
Growing up, Ben wondered about his birth mother -- he wondered what they shared in common, what she liked and why he had certain cravings. That last question was answered during their first telephone conversation.
"When I was pregnant with you, I craved and ate nacho cheese Doritos, Coca-Cola, chocolate chip cookies and pizza," Lynette told him.
He quickly admitted to her that those were his four favorite things to eat.
Ben's mom was at his side when he made that initial phone call to his birth mother. It may have been for a bit of moral support, or simply to show his mom that no one could take her place in his life.
He still laughs about that first conversation with Lynette -- she had just poured herself a bowl of cereal before the phone rang.
"My favorite food group is cereal and I always wondered where it came from," he chuckled. "I like cereal so much because I'm retarded when it comes to the kitchen."
That's where the two differ. Lynette loves to bake -- everything from cookies to bars to breads, but Ben said he doesn't have the patience to whip up anything that takes longer than five minutes.
The two continued getting to know each other through Facebook, e-mail and weekly telephone conversations as they planned a time when they could finally meet face-to-face.
That trip came in August, when a couple from Lynette's church offered to drive her to Grand Rapids for a mother-son reunion.
Lynette remembers the 12-hour trip, which included a ferry ride across Lake Michigan, and the fears she had about the reunion.
"We hit it off so well on the phone, I was wondering if he was really going to like me when he saw me and how I was going to get along with his family," she shared.
The two reunited at the home of Ben's mother on Aug. 10, with a camera crew from Fox TV on hand to tape the tearful reunion.
"Everything I expected is what it was -- I felt like I knew her for 28 years," said Ben. "But that's also part of my personality. I get along with people and I don't hold anything back. It was more emotional for the rest of my family."
Forming a bond
Lynette is the oldest of three children, and her brother and sister think it's a "cool deal" that they have a nephew. They, along with Lynette's mom, Fran Carlson of Slayton, are all eager to meet Ben for the first time. They talked with Ben via telephone in July.
"My sister is planning on her, Mom and I making a trip over to Grand Rapids," said Lynette. Plans for Ben to come to Minnesota over Christmas were foiled when he recently accepted a new full-time job.
"I haven't had a real job in about a year," said Ben.
He is eager to meet the rest of his extended family, and has asked Lynette for information about his birth father. She has had no luck, however, in that regard. He now lives in Mankato and never told his wife about Lynette or the child he fathered.
"I'm going to assume that he doesn't want anything to do with (Ben)," Lynette said.
While Ben may be a bit disappointed, he's at least found part of his lost family.
"It was more of a relationship thing (to find Lynette)," he said. "I'm the kind of person ... you can never have too many people in your life.
"I just thought, 'Hey, she's my mom -- she's going to be like me," he added. "I've heard these horror stories of people getting doors slammed in their face, but that didn't bother me. I knew that wasn't going to happen."