Reunions: Filling the void
After years of wondering, searching, birth mothers and children know the joy of finding each other
Marney Rich Keenan / The Detroit News
Janet McDonald spent several years writing letters to adoption agencies and court systems in counties throughout Michigan in search of her daughter. Meanwhile, her daughter had been filing similar letters from her home in Pennsylvania with courts in Michigan. See full image Day 1: Tuesday Decades later, women forced to give up their "illegitimate children" for adoption still feel the pain. Day 2: Wednesday Women recall the fear and shame of being sent away to give birth and return "as if it never happened." Day 3: Today Reunions put birth mothers and the children they gave away on an emotional roller coaster.
McDonald shares old newspaper clippings about "out-of-wedlock births" with Tina Caudill, the leader and founder of Adoption Identity Movement, at a meeting in Hazel Park.
When Janet McDonald's phone rang in early spring of 2000, she was in the kitchen making dinner.
It was a phone call 33 years in the making; an answer to countless prayers and heartfelt entreaties. "Is this Janet McDonald?" a female voice said.
"Yes," McDonald answered tentatively.
"Are you sitting down?" the voice said. "Who is this?!" McDonald demanded, not wanting to wait a fraction of a second longer.
"Well, my name is Karen." The young woman spoke slowly. "I've been on the Internet doing a search, and I think your and my information match."
McDonald shrieked and almost dropped the phone.
Indeed, it was the phone call of a lifetime, from the daughter she gave up for adoption as a teenage unwed mother in 1967.
Because of adoption laws of the sealed record era (in Michigan that means from 1945-80), confidentiality and secrecy rules have long undermined the search and reunion process of adoptees and birth parents. Since 1994, adult adoptees can obtain information about their birth parents if the birth parents consent.
Birth mothers are now speaking out to forge a path to healing and to support adoption reform laws that would make it easier for them and their adult children to access their adoption records, including birth certificates which they are not entitled to now.
Women interviewed for this series say the most troubling part of giving up their babies is not knowing how their children are faring.
Many of them say that not a day has passed without them thinking about the child they gave up. Over the years, they would search faces in crowds, at airports, in stadiums. Because many of them kept the secret, they suffered silently through birthdays, Christmases and other special holidays. One birth mother bought a birthday card for her son every year for 40 years. She stored them in a cubbyhole, but they were lost in a move.
"No matter how much time has passed, you always wonder, are they OK? Are they being mistreated, molested? What if she needs me?" says Kim Grayvold of Utica. Grayvold was a senior at Bishop Foley High School when she got pregnant and subsequently felt pressured to surrender her baby, Susan, for adoption.
One day, Grayvold read a newspaper story about a fatal car accident involving three teenagers who were the same age as the daughter she surrendered. "I knew she lived in Oakland County, and the accident happened at 16 Mile Road and Crooks. I was sure that was her in the car." (It wasn't.)
Later, after hiring a private investigator from Texas for $700, Grayvold got her daughter's name and address. They connected through letters, pictures and phone calls in 2000. Grayvold now brags that her 24-year-old daughter graduated with honors from Michigan State University and is living in Ohio.
"I'm very grateful to her adoptive parents that she grew up happy and is so successful. It's just that I wish I could have known that sooner."
Without access to original birth certificates, and thus no names, ages or whereabouts, many search Internet databases or get the help of support groups. Many hire genealogical experts or find family members through obituary listings. Typically, searches take years, if not decades.
Mary Ross reunited with her long-lost son the day after Christmas 1993, when Patrick Trapp, then 24, phoned her at home.
She had not seen him (much less admitted to many in her own family that he even existed) since she left him behind at a Chicago hospital after giving birth when she was 19.
Patrick began the conversation the way many adoptees do, by asking about their own birth date.
"Does the date Jan. 6, 1970, mean anything to you?"
Ross almost fainted right on the spot. Ross now regularly baby-sits her grandchild, Patrick's 4-year-old daughter, Lyric. Both say they feel tremendous closure: Patrick from the gap filled in his own identity crisis, and Mary from loving her first-born child in a way she never could before.
Donna Roth of Ann Arbor met face to face with her child in 1997 -- 33 years after giving birth. They met in an airport in California.
In Roth's words: "When I got off the plane in LAX, all I saw was this face searching for mine and it was like looking in the mirror. We hugged and looked and hugged and looked again, cried, laughed, gasped and probably bumped into half the people in the airport. It was simply magical."
Ten years ago, Liz Scheader of New York, felt the wound in her heart begin to heal. She finally reconnected with the child she gave up for adoption in 1969 -- her only child -- a son named Damon Elgie, when he was 28.
And Mary Carolan of Caseville found closure this past spring when she was reunited with her 45-year-old son Dave Laporte, an attorney living in Chicago." "Meeting Mary," Laporte says, "gave me a sense of completeness, a wholeness."
But not all reunions are as satisfying.
Ethel Vandenberg of Fife Lake near Traverse City finally found her son, Ken, in January 1996 when he was 31. After two years of ups and downs, they had resolved many issues. By 1999, they were closer than ever, she says.
But a year later, "I received a phone call from Kenny's adoptive father saying that Kenny had been shot and killed near his home in Detroit. I went into shock and hysteria.
"It took me at least two years to feel human again. But, you know, we both had a journey through pain, fear, shame, guilt and grief, Ken and I. And we both became new and improved, different people. I'm not that scared little girl anymore, in part because Kenny gave me a new perspective on life."
And some are still searching. Connie Courtade, 57, from Sparta, never conceived again after giving up her daughter in 1969 at age 20. Courtade hired several investigators over the years, once paying $300 for a list of girls named Mary who were born Sept. 1, 1970. Courtade has yet to meet her only biological child.
In many cases, the birth mothers' parents, the ones who urged their daughters to give up their babies, discovered they, too, had suffered from the loss of their grandchildren.
In 1988, when Janet McDonald's mother suffered a heart attack at 62, she told Janet to retrieve a small box from underneath the bed. Inside was a photo of Janet's newborn daughter. Janet never knew the photo existed.
Janet McDonald went on to get married and eventually had five more children. The number of children was not that unusual, she says, since many women her age were having big families. With each birth came the hope of healing. Ultimately, she says, the pain remained because a lost child cannot be replaced by another.
Eventually, her first marriage dissolved, and in 1998 she began to date James McDonald, whom she later married. One of the reasons she married him, she says, is because he got it -- he understood the severity of the loss of her first born and how it shaped who she had become.
James resolved to help heal Janet's wound. On Aug. 9, 1998, the 31st birthday of the child she gave up, James showed up at the house with a birthday cake with "Lisabeth Rae," the name Janet had given her daughter, written on the cake. He set up a tripod and filmed the two of them singing "Happy Birthday."
While Janet inserts the birthday candles, James can be heard saying, "If God tells us to pray for people without them knowing it, then we can certainly celebrate birthdays without them knowing it."
Then to the camera, James says: "Lisabeth Rae: Today is your birthday, and we want you to know we are looking for you. You've never met either of us yet, but I believe God will lead us to you."
He turns to Janet. "Now, Mother," he says formally, "if you would light the candles, please."
Janet pauses before blowing out the candles. She faces the camera. Her voice is soft and hopeful as she says, "If you ever see this, I love you wherever you are."
Janet McDonald spent several years writing letters to adoption agencies and courts throughout Michigan. But since her daughter's name was changed as soon as she was adopted and a new birth certificate issued to her adoptive parents, there was no listing for a daughter under the name Janet gave her: Lisabeth Rae Huss.
Meanwhile, Karen had been filing similar letters from her home in Pennsylvania with courts in Michigan and listing her information with Internet adoption search groups. Finally, Karen found a match listing her date of birth next to McDonald's name and address.
That long-awaited first phone call lasted two hours. The questions never stopped, nor did the shrieks and tears of happiness. Lisabeth Rae had grown up as Karen Echenberg in Pennsylvania, an only child of an obstetrician/gynecologist and his wife, who had since divorced.
As soon as they got off the phone, McDonald booked a flight to Pennsylvania. Her husband filmed the reunion in spring 2000. Echenberg was then 33. When Janet McDonald opened the door of their hotel room, mother and daughter fell into each other's arms and sobbed long-held tears of joy.
Later, at Echenberg's house, McDonald sat on a couch while Echenberg sat on the carpet and lay her head down in her birth mother's lap. McDonald stroked her long black hair. "Somehow, now it feels like that you were never really gone," McDonald said.
Echenberg looked into her birth mother's eyes and said through tears, "I feel exactly the same way. I feel like I went for a really long walk and have finally arrived home. Or like I was locked out of the house and finally found the key."
Echenberg also found her birth father, Bob Moss, who had been living in West Bloomfield all these years, unknown to McDonald. Moss, who never married, says he's thrilled his daughter has come into his life.
"I've been nothing short of ecstatic about reconnecting with Karen and having a relationship with her," he says. "She's absolutely beautiful, and it's been nothing but positive. I know in my heart I'm one of the lucky ones. Not everybody has as positive experience with reunion as we've had."
For those separated who have never found each other and perhaps never will, the perspective of Judi Jones, a 44-year-old emergency police/fire dispatcher in southeast Michigan, offers some solace.
Jones was 4 months old when she was adopted from the orphanage St. Vincent and Sarah Fisher Center in Farmington in 1962. All she knows is that her birth mother was 17.
Jones says she has never searched for her, but she thinks of her often. When an acquaintance learned that she was adopted, she was asked what she would say to her birth mother if she ever found her.
This was her answer.
"I would want to tell her a heartfelt Thank You! I would thank her for all the wonderful traits she gave me. My blonde hair and gray eyes, my Polish heritage, my love of music and food, my creativity and artistic nature, but most of all giving me up when she probably didn't want to, so that a couple who had lost three children to birth defects could have a child to love.
"I was blessed with the most wonderful parents a child could hope for. I had a wonderful childhood full of loving family memories with two adopted siblings. I would like to tell her that I am well, healthy, happy and content, and it's all because of the sacrifice she made. I'm sure she would have loved me as any mother would, but I'm sure her future was uncertain at that point, and it's impossible to know what type of life we would have had together.
"I love my parents with all my being, but always hold a special place in my heart for the woman who brought me into this world. I hope she can feel it somehow and be at peace if she ever wonders about me."
You can reach Marney Rich Keenan at (313) 222-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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