Reese Hoffa was 4 years old when he burned down his family's house. He remembers the circumstances vividly. His brother Lamont, then 6, held a cigarette lighter to the fabric cords that hung off the curtains, then used a cup of water to douse the flames. When the water ran out, Lamont disappeared into the bathroom to get more, leaving the lighter on the bed. Reese picked it up. He pushed it toward the cords, flicking the silver dial, pleased to see the flame. Then, he recalled thinking, "Uh-oh, the curtains are on fire."
Weeks after the blaze that consumed the two-story home, another moment seared itself into Hoffa's memory. His mother, an unmarried teenager, took him and his brother to a large brick building with long corridors and lots of children. He rode a Big Wheel for a while. Then Diana Chism embraced her sons, got in her car and drove away. Reese ran out the door, shouting for his mother to return. Administrators at the St. Thomas-St. Vincent Orphanage in Louisville wrestled him back in the building, which had suddenly become his new home.
"Deep down inside, I thought maybe she would be back tomorrow," said Hoffa, now 27, who competes today in the shot put at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. "It never happened."
Chism never returned to the orphanage and Hoffa, eventually separated from his brother and adopted by another family, plunged kicking and screaming into a new life. Though at first reluctant and confused, he grew from an introverted child into a successful and huge man -- 6 feet, 253 pounds -- with a sense of humor that seemed to match his size. A natural athlete and relentless worker, he became one of the world's best and most entertaining shot putters, claiming a silver medal at last year's world indoor championships.
As he matured, however, the disturbing memories from childhood did not diminish. The mental snapshots, his only possessions from his youngest days, flashed into his mind again and again, vivid enough to generate questions and frustration, but not substantive enough to provide understanding or peace.
For nearly two decades, Hoffa searched for the missing pieces in his broken history, driven at first by the pain from his youth, then, much later, by plain curiosity and a deep, deep yearning for . . . for what, he wasn't quite sure. The truth? His first family? An understanding of himself? As he looked for something he wasn't sure he would ever find, he had no way of knowing that, all the while, his mother was searching, too.
'Losing My Brother'
After the initial shock of his mother's departure, Reese Hoffa -- born Maurice Antawn Chism -- concluded he had been left in some sort of castle run by nuns. The orphanage housed about 450 children, who slept in a room as big as a gymnasium filled with dozens of beds. He used to sneak around at night, searching for his brother so he could crawl into bed with him.
"I remember it being very cold," he said, "and always being scared."
Of course, he had a good idea why he was there.
"I burned down our house," he said, "and that put a strain on our family."
About 18 months after their arrival at the orphanage, the brothers were driven to a farmhouse in nearby Bardstown. Stephen and Cathy Hoffa -- since divorced -- introduced them to three girls and a little boy. Dogs ran about the backyard and toys filled the children's rooms. They would all be family.
Officials from the orphanage, however, urged the Hoffas to adopt only Reese, saying that Lamont was having problems of some sort, according to Cathy. One day, Reese went by himself with the Hoffas. This time, he remained. He expected Lamont to join him, but he never did.
"The hardest part," Reese Hoffa said, "was losing my brother."
For months, the newest addition to the Hoffa family seemed withdrawn, his new mother -- now Cathy McManus -- observed. He rarely spoke. He played by himself. He called his parents "sir" or "ma'am" or "hey," but never Mom or Dad. Though he doted over the babies in the family -- Cari and, later, Chris -- it wasn't clear that he knew the names of his siblings, let alone aunts or uncles. He did not address them and did not seem interested in remembering.
One day, McManus asked Reese if he wanted a new name. He said "Michael Knight" in honor of the character on "Knight Rider," his favorite television show. They settled on Michael Reese, and he continued to go by "Reese."
New name or not, Reese, by then 5, had old longings. For months, he said, he wrote down combinations of numbers, a desperate, childish attempt to discover an avenue to his brother.
"I was," he said, "trying to figure out his phone number."
But the numbers, of course, never worked.
Growing up in Louisville, Diana Chism had few friends and almost no family life. A biracial child with Anglo-Saxon features, she felt persecuted at school and shunned in her neighborhood. Even at home, she said, she felt isolated: Her older sister had moved out; her brother rarely came around. Her mother, who ran a bar and restaurant, worked seemingly around the clock, spending most nights at the apartment above the business. Chism never met her father. By the time she was 10, she said, she lived largely on her own.
She befriended an older boy in the neighborhood who treated her well. At 13, she became pregnant. But when Lamont Dion arrived, there was none of the typical celebration that surrounds a new life.
"When this child was born," Chism said, "it was no different than a Barbie doll to me. . . . I can't believe anyone allowed me to bring Lamont home."
Chism sent Lamont to government-sponsored day care but it wasn't long before she dropped out of school. At 15, two years after Lamont was born, she gave birth to Maurice Antawn. As her babies became boys, she found herself working 12 hours daily at a retail store but still struggling financially.
"It was just a really bad situation," Chism said. "I had two children, and no way to take care of them. We couldn't survive."
And then came the fire. Chism threw buckets of water on the flames until they were extinguished, but the fire smoldered inside the walls. By the time she noticed another burst of smoke, it was too late. Then, the only thing she could do was grab her boys and run. That night, they stayed at a hotel paid for by the Red Cross. Later, she and her boys bunked with her sister.
She doesn't remember exactly how much time passed before she drove her boys to the orphanage, which closed its doors less than a year after her sons' arrival and was demolished in 1983. She knows, though, that she was emotionally in ruins at that time, overwhelmed by her daily life. During the car ride, she said, she told her boys what was about to happen, but she knew they did not understand. When she left the building, she said, she felt like running.
"I thought it would be better for them," she said. "I thought they wouldn't have to worry about anything, everything was going to be fine. I didn't realize I would basically be dead, and I was. You never can recover from that, for years and years after."
'A Perfect Child'
Cathy McManus adored her adopted son, who grew big and strong. He was, she said, a "perfect child." He did chores without complaining. He was polite and kind. He got good grades and excelled at sports. He bagged groceries and drove a truck for a lighting company in Augusta, Ga., where the Hoffas moved after another fire -- this one Reese had nothing to do with -- destroyed much of their farm.
But for a long time, McManus sensed, Reese did not let his guard down. Reese saw the distance, too. He had no interest in building a bridge into the heart of strangers. His ambition was simple: He wanted to ensure his behavior didn't cause him to be abandoned again.
"All I wanted to do was please my adopted family," Reese said. "I thought, if I ask to do too much, maybe they will ask me to go back to the orphanage. For a long time, I had a great respect for them, but not really a love for them. For a long time, the entire family could have gotten wiped out, and it wouldn't have mattered."
A Mother's Search
Two years after taking her sons to the orphanage, Diana Chism married an enlisted Navy man and moved with him to Connecticut. The marriage lasted just six months, but Chism landed a job working for a real estate company and began to pull her life together.
By then, in her early 20s, she realized how angry she was, how confused she had been. She blamed her mother and sister for leaving her alone as a child. She went back to Louisville, seeking answers, explanations. There, she was reunited with Lamont, who had been removed from the orphanage by her sister Fannie, 10 years her senior. But Fannie, who became Lamont's primary caretaker, had not located Reese. His personal file was sealed.
Diana Chism, once fixated on escape, became fixated on finding Reese.
"I had no idea what had happened to him," she said. "I looked all of the time. I was so distraught. I just wanted God to tell me where he was so I could stop worrying."
Chism called the social worker with whom she arranged the space at the orphanage, begging for information. The social worker declined to open his file, but said Reese had been adopted by nice people who had moved after a fire damaged their farm.
Then, she let slip what Chism believed an important clue; her son had changed his name to Michael Ray. Though she didn't know his last name, her hopes surged.
Lamont provided another hint; he recalled a sculpture at the center of the town in which he had visited his brother's family. Chism believed she had seen the sculpture. Reese, she ascertained correctly, must have been in Bardstown. Full of hope, she drove to Bardstown.
She spent hours at the local library, poring through news clippings on schoolchildren and graduating classes. She stared at reels of microfilm in a building that sat perhaps 10 minutes from the house into which her second son had been adopted, searching for Michael Ray, a boy who did not exist.
Fix It or Shut Up
Cathy McManus used to watch Michael Reese Hoffa work -- mostly at sports -- and found herself amazed at the resilient young man he had become. As he matured, he grew closer and closer to his new family, but he never bared emotions about his old one.
"He has always been one to look forward and plan his future," McManus said. "He used to say, 'If you don't like things the way they are then fix them or shut up.' "
Reese spent years trying to fix his past, working silently to solve its mysteries. When he traveled to sports competitions throughout Kentucky, he would comb through the local phone books, looking for Lamont by skimming through the entries that began with "Chi." The task was arduous as he had no idea how to spell his former last name. Was it Chizm? Chizzum? Chism? Chisholm? He said he wrote letters to three males named Lamont who had last names resembling Chism, but got no responses.
He could not even begin to search for his birth mother. He did not know her first name.
"I just wanted to know what happened," he said. But "it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack."
Though her closest friends knew about her son Lamont, Diana Chism told none of them that she had, in essence, lost another. She did, though, relate the story to a man named Mark Watts, an attorney at her Louisville firm whom she married in 1990 at 30.
Chism, who became Diana Watts, kept several grainy, yellowed pictures of her sons in her bedroom. In one of her favorites, Reese stared at the camera with a serious, almost mournful expression. For years, she studied the droop in his eyes and the little flip at the bottom of both ears, searching for those attributes in any light-skinned black males she encountered that appeared to be his age. She once called Newsweek magazine to inquire about a young man in a photo that seemed to resemble the Reese she remembered.
"She'd been trying to find him ever since I had known her," Mark Watts said.
Mark Watts weathered the bad days that resulted from false Reese sightings. If his wife saw someone she thought was her son, she would fall into hours of melancholy. And the issue of having children, Mark and Diana Watts hashed over for years.
"I was never going to have children again," she said. "Everything that had happened was just so traumatic."
But at 38, eight years after her marriage and 25 years after the birth of Lamont, Diana Watts gave birth to her third son, Adam Sinclair Watts.
About a year after Adam was born, Diana Watts sought closure on the issue of Reese. She had previously searched Web sites that claimed to reunite family members, but had never put out a notice. She decided to post information, promising herself this would be her last attempt to find her missing son.
It was time to move on.
"I had a conversation with God," she said. "I said, 'I can't go through this anymore.' "
A Web Find
One night, after finishing a paper for his English 1102 class in study hall, Reese Hoffa, then a senior at the University of Georgia, started what had become a routine for him: searching the Internet for Lamont. Familiar with many Web sites that allowed families to post information that could lead to reunions with missing relatives, he scanned six sites, then found a new one -- Adopt-assist.com. He recalled doing the perfunctory searching, plugging in his date and state of birth. After a few seconds, a paragraph popped onto the screen that startled him:
Match 1 Birthdate: 10/08/77 Country/State: KY
I am a mother looking for a son given up for adoption at age 4 in 1981 in Louisville, Kentucky. He was adopted by a large family of 5 or 6 and the family owned a farm at that time which was burned down possibly in Bardstown, Kentucky. Please e-mail me if you have any information about my son. His name at birth was Maurice Antawn Chism, and he has an older brother.
Reese Hoffa read the posting again and again. Everything matched. Every single detail. He felt numb, stunned, suffocated. He had become comfortable with the blanks in his past. He knew how to search; he was an expert at wondering. He couldn't fathom finding.
"At first I could not believe what I was reading," he said. "I got up from my seat and walked away, talking to myself that I may have found my mom."
Then, he went back to the computer and started typing.
For three days, Diana Watts -- who had no expectation of a response to her posting -- did not check her e-mail.
One night, as his wife tended to Adam, Mark Watts logged on to their account. When he perused the messages, he found the third of three that had been sent from a University of Georgia student. The latest read, in part:
Subject: hopeful mom
Date: Fri, 17 Nov 2000 19:10:56 GMT
From: "reese hoffa-man"
to hopeful mom I am not sure if had gotten my last e-mail, if you did it may have been a little confusing because I was not clear. I am very sorry I have had a day to collect my thoughts and hope to do a better job.
I found your e-mail address on an adoption web sit while searching for my relatives . . . well what I found in the search was you, and for that reason I feel that you are or could be my mom. On the site had some add information about the child mother had lost. That information fit me perfectly . . .
I do not want to scare you or alarm you I would just like to say hello and get to know you. I do understand [if] you do not want to talk, but I would like to know that you are doing well and if you have found my older brother Lamont...
A little about my self my name was changed to Michael Reese Hoffa most of the time I go by Reese. I am a senior at the University of Georgia. I am a member of the UGA track team I am shot putter. I finished sixth at the Olympic trials in 2000 and hope to make the Olympic team in 2004. I have another year of school and I will have a degree in Health and Physical education then off to grad school.
I really hope that you will contact me because I do care and have a genuine concern for you. so please find it in your heart to contact me.
Mark Watts immediately felt a sense of doom rather than elation.
"I was so afraid it was some sort of joke," he said. "That was my first impulse."
He approached his wife nervously, told her she needed to look at the computer, then escorted her to the screen. He didn't attempt to explain. He knew the message, if not genuine, would break her heart.
When she read the e-mail, silently, intently, she noticed one thing right away. The message mentioned Lamont. Her posting had not. How could the author have known about Lamont?
"I wasn't at all calm," she said. "I was all shaken up. I couldn't believe it."
Reese Hoffa sat in a coffee shop in Athens, Ga., when his cell phone rang. He did not recognize the number. When he answered, he felt a surge of adrenaline, a wave of shock. A woman was on the line, he didn't catch her name, saying the strangest things. It had been 19 years since his mother left him on the steps of the Roman Catholic orphanage. Finally, after all this time, she was back.
"I'm so sorry about the fire," Hoffa blurted out, the first words he could muster.
Diana Watts, shaking as she spoke to her son from her home in Indianapolis, wanted to cry.
"All these years," Watts said, "he thought the fire was the reason."
That night, they talked for two hours. It would be the first of many long conversations.
A month later, Diana and Mark Watts purchased a plane ticket for Reese to fly to Indianapolis for the weekend. Though the Watts immediately recognized Reese -- whom they had looked up on the Georgia athletics Web site -- he nearly walked by his birth mother. But after introductions were made, they embraced. It wasn't uncomfortable.
"What really surprised me is he called me 'Mom' right off the bat," Watts said. "He seems to genuinely care -- as he said he did."
Reese peppered his birth mother with questions about Lamont but the answers weren't as satisfying as he had imagined. Lamont was convicted for possession of a controlled substance five years ago, public records confirmed. The brothers met just once in Louisville. Lamont worked at a fast-food restaurant, Reese recalled. Their meeting, he said, was awkward.
Diana Watts declined to discuss Lamont's situation, other than to say: "It's very difficult to become what Reese became. Both had the potential in the first place, but as far as I'm concerned, Reese got what he needed, and Lamont didn't."
At Reese's commencement on Dec. 21, 2002, Diana sat with Reese's family, including his sister Jeanette and brother Chris. When the parents of the graduates were told to stand for recognition, Cathy McManus smiled at Diana Watts.
"You stand up, too," McManus said. "You gave me this son."
The Watts now live at the end of a cul-de-sac in a suburb of Jacksonville, Fla., with Adam, now 41/2, and daughter Elizabeth, nearly 2. They display the e-mail they received from Reese in a wooden frame.
Hoffa discovered a simple way to distinguish his mothers; he refers to Cathy McManus as his A-Mom (adoptive mother) and Diana Watts as his B-Mom (birth mother). He sees them as often as he can. Both will attend the traditional family dinner on the eve of his Nov. 26 marriage to Renata Jean Foerst, a recent Georgia graduate.
"I never questioned why she did it," Reese said. "She was trying to get a better situation. She did the best thing for me. . . . It takes a strong character for a person to say, 'I can't do it.' "
For Diana Watts, Reese still sends her emotions spilling. She looks at him, or her scrapbook of his achievements, and knows: Getting a new home, and new parents, was the best thing that ever happened to him. He thrived because she left him. Even years later, riding the crest of a better life, reunited with her long-lost son, that truth still settles uneasily.
"I don't know exactly why it was that things happened the way they did," she said. "I'm older, and I think there's a reason for everything. Reese's success, I don't think it would have been achieved with the mother he had. . . . I just could not have given him all he got."
It is this reasoning that brings her to a halting acceptance of her deeds. And there is some consolation in this: The emotions that even now torment her brought about their reunion. Practical problems drove them apart. Passion brought them back together.
"I want him to know," she said, "how much I loved him and missed him all those years."