The outer door of my brick three-flat shut with an emphatic click. Shifting the weight of my over-stuffed backpack and balancing my math book on my knee I opened the empty mailbox and noted that my mom must already be home.
Upstairs I entered our apartment making a typical teenage b-line for my bedroom. My mother was sitting on her bed surrounded by the usual mess of papers. I grunted a distracted hello and entered my own domain. The floor of my bedroom disappeared months ago, shortly after my last attempt at cleaning it. As I dumped my backpack near what might once have been a desk, my mother called to me from her bedroom. As self-absorbed as I was at seventeen I immediately snapped to attention. Her voice spoke with the question of emotion unmistakably framed be the strength of decision. I went into her room and climbed up onto her bed. Glancing down into her hand I saw what had become the single most important pieces of paper in my mother’s life. A deceptively benign black heading stated “Non-Identifying Information”.
“I’ve decided to call.” My mother said. “I want you in here with me.”
I nodded, understanding.
I could hear the phone ringing through the earpiece my mother held. A youthful female voice answered.
“Is this Annette Quenette -----?” There was a pause at the other end, as if the name Quenette had to travel through time before registering to the woman on the other end of the line.
“Yes…” She answered, her voice still friendly but questioning. The way a woman might who hasn’t heard a name used in years. My mother asked her if she was sitting down. Curiosity overcoming hesitation, Annette assured my mom that she was already sitting. I watched my mother struggle to find an adequate way to phrase an impossible statement. Finally she just said it.
“I am your sister.”
Two years prior my mom had approached my sister and I with the decision to search out her birth mother. My mother was adopted at birth and had grown up with a vague question in her mind about her origins. Always present in the background was the mysterious shadow of the woman who gave her away at birth. Who was she? Why had she done this? Yet for years my mother pushed away these questions, dismissing them guiltily as she grow-up and thinking of her parents, who loved and raised her.
In 1992, however, with the blessings of her only living parent, her stepfather, she began her search. Working with an organization designed specifically to aid and support this search, my mom started the long, fearful process of piecing together her past.
The first step in the process for my mother was two-fold. She wrote to the [If you are a member of a government agency you must leave now|agency| that facilitated her adoption and obtained the infamous piece of paper entitled “Non Identifying information” and she went to the library and looked up in the local paper for adoption petitions dated May 1954. It was there that she saw the first evidence of her birth in writing. It was a petition to adopt the infant “Bonnie Rose Quenette Miller.” For the first time in her thirty-eight years, she now had a name. But whose name? A mother? A father?
Through some further investigation we discovered a woman by the name of Jeri, whose maiden name was Quenette and who acknowledged that her brother Bill Quenette had given up a child for adoption. Jeri had been one of the only family members who knew about the pregnancy that resulted in my mom being given up for adoption. Jeri was an amazing woman who opened her home and heart to my mother, my sister, and I and served for nearly two years as a liaison between my mother and Marion, the woman who had given birth to her thirty-seven years before. Marion refused to see or speak with my mom. She made it clear that due to the circumstances of her current marriage, (to a man who knew nothing about this part of her past) she wished my mother well, but wanted nothing to do with her.
Over the next two years we stayed in touch with Jeri and her husband. In that time we learned that my mom had two older sisters by Bill and Marion. Out of respect for Marion, my mother agreed to not pursue any other connections. By the spring of 1994, however, my mother was growing frustrated. One evening Jeri told my mom that she had all the information she needed to contact her sisters. Jeri was finally giving my mom her blessings.
“No, my sister is Laurie.” The friendly voice on the other end of the phone countered. It was here that mom explained further, that she read straight off the sheet of “Non-Identifying Information” that stated the date and time of my mothers birth, the current age and the ethnicity of her biological parents. A rough sketch of known medical conditions followed as well as the fact that the said couple, married, currently had two daughters, ages four and two.
Annette listened in silence as her history was recited through the phone-line. They spoke for a few minutes and Annette told my mom that she needed to call her sister Laurie. They hung up.
My mother tearfully related that not for a moment did Annette question the truth of what she said. My mom had told her about meeting Jeri, that she had known for two years that she had sisters, but didn’t want to put Jeri in an awkward position in respect to Marion. What seemed like only minutes (or was it years?) passed, and the phone rang. A different female voice spoke to my mom, telling her that this was her sister Laurie and that they wanted to meet her tonight. We arranged to meet at Jeri’s house a little later. My mom called my sister at her apartment in Hyde Park and told her to come up to Evanston, we were going to meet the sisters.
The evening that followed is a blur. An awed silence as Annette and Laurie gazed at my mom, the mirror image of their mother. A stream of stories followed. Pieces of a life-long puzzle fell into place. Other pieces were revealed. Other questions emerged. What becomes clear to me beyond question is the courage of these four women. One with the courage to seek out the truth, two with the courage to embrace it, no matter what form it took, and Jeri, the present, brave enough to link the past and future. All of them had the courage and trust to listen beyond words to the sincerity of the heart. All of them had a commitment to family beyond the limits and conventions of society.
To my seventeen-year-old eyes the world was an endless pool of peril and uncertainty. I lived subconsciously hoping to reach the end of my teenage years and emerge in a world of stability and predictability. Yet here were two women who at forty were having their worlds rocked right through the foundation. The very essence of their mother was changing, the dynamic of their family, their place in the nature and order of birth was being thrown open.
My mother didn’t go in search of her birth mother to gain a mother. She had a mother already. She didn’t go searching to extract something from the woman who gave her away. She went searching for a missing link, a truth about her past. That night around Jeri’s kitchen table we gained a family. My sister and I gained two aunts, five cousins, various uncles, second cousins, and yes, eventually, a grandmother. But it wasn’t because of some pre-formed plan, that all this happened. There is no script written for families separated by adoption. We gained a family because of the amazing character of the women involved.