From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul

After 40 Years

When I came home from my nursing job on June 13, 1992, I did my daily chauffeuring of our four kids, then rummaged through the mail. I was pleased to see that a copy of my birth certificate had arrived from Nebraska. That put me one step closer to my passport, which I needed for a much anticipated 25th high school reunion cruise with my husband, Mike.

Humming, I tore open the envelope—and the bottom dropped out of my world.

Across the top of the paper the words boldly proclaimed, “Adoptive Birth Certificate.”

There must be some mistake. You don’t just open the mail when you’re 42 and have a paper claim you were adopted!

My parents, Beatrice and Albert Whitney, were both deceased, so when I came to my senses, I called someone of their generation who would know—my uncle. He was evasive and uncomfortable. He hemmed and hawed, but I wouldn’t let it go. He finally said yes, I was adopted when I was two years old, but my parents had made everyone promise not to tell me. Reeling, I called my older sister, Joan. She, too, hesitantly confirmed the truth.

I was devastated. It felt as if my whole life had been a lie. I thought I knew who I was, but it turned out I had no idea. As illogical as it sounds, I felt betrayed by the Whitneys and abandoned by my own birth mother.

Mike and the kids understood some of what I was going through. Finally Mike said, “Honey, why don’t you try to find your birth parents?”

“Not every story ends happily,” I retorted. “My mother didn’t want me once. Why should she want me now?”

“Look. No matter what happens, you can’t feel worse than you do right now. If you found them, if nothing else, you could probably get some medical information that would be helpful to both you and our children.”

After some consideration, I realized he was right. But where should I start?

Though I’d grown up in Riverside, California, I knew I’d been born in Omaha, Nebraska. Then Joan, who was 13 years my senior, remembered a crucial piece of information: my biological parents’ first names. I contacted social service agencies and started the long search process. A social worker suggested I place an ad in the classified section of the Omaha paper. I almost sloughed off the suggestion. Who reads newspaper classifieds unless they’re looking for a job or a used car?

On the other hand, it couldn’t hurt. There was a remote chance that someone who knew either my biological or adoptive parents would see it. I decided to give it a try. The ad read: My name is Linda, born to a Jeannie and Warren in Omaha on 8/7/50 and given up for adoption. My adoptive parents are deceased. I do not wish to cause any problems but am seeking available info or possible reunion. It gave the phone number of a social services agent in Lincoln who’d been helping me. I didn’t put much stock in this particular avenue of search. I paid the paper for the first few weeks, and went on about my business.

The first ad ran on October 25. On Monday, November 2, the telephone rang. It was the social services agent. “Linda,” he said, “I think you’re going to have a very merry Christmas.”

A woman named Jeanenne Hankinson had seen the ad, read it over and over again, and finally called the agency. She had information about me no one else could have known. “Shall I give her your number?” he asked.

When the phone rang that afternoon, I was nearly too nervous to answer. Mike held my hand. The woman on the other end said, “Is this Linda?”

“Yes,” I answered. “Is this my mom?”

And two strangers burst into tears.

When I regained my voice, I said, “I can’t believe you happened to look in the classified on the one day I placed the ad!”

Softly, she replied, “Honey, I’ve been looking for your ad in that newspaper every day for 40 years.”

I thought at this point that nothing else could surprise me, but the story that she told left me gasping for breath.

She had been married when she was 17, and had me that same year. By the time she was 18, she and my father had realized it was all too much for them, and had divorced. She was thankful to find a full-time job in Omaha and felt blessed to find a lovely older couple, the Whitneys, to care for me. The only problem was that the Whitneys lived all the way across town, an hour-and-a–half each way on the streetcar. Though she hated to do so, she agreed to leave me with the Whitneys during the week and pick me up on the weekends.

For a year, the arrangement worked well. I was obviously well cared-for and enjoyed the Whitneys’ 14-year–old daughter, Joan. But one day, my mother received a frantic phone call from Beatrice. She said that social services had found out about our arrangement, and unless the Whitneys and my mother quickly signed some routine papers, I would be taken from all of them. Mom hurried to the lawyer. He told her the same story. She didn’t really understand the legal terms in the paper, but she kept telling the lawyer she’d do anything not to lose me. She never wanted to give me up.

It seemed the crisis was averted. The very next weekend was my second birthday, and Mom excitedly came to get me, bearing presents. But when she arrived, the Whitneys’ apartment was empty. They were completely gone.

She did everything she could to find me. The Whitneys’ lawyer refused to talk to her. Mr. Whitney’s boss knew nothing except that he’d quit abruptly. Suddenly worried that the papers she’d signed were adoption papers, she called social services, but they said all adoption information was confidential.

Without money to hire a lawyer or private investigator, she kept doing what she could by herself. For years, then decades, she scoured phone books from all over the U.S. And every day, she read the classifieds, searching. For 40 years, she’d never given up hope.

My first emotion was rage at the Whitneys, who, with twisted logic, had loved me so much that they’d stolen me from my mother. But then I thought of my birth mother, and the heartache she’d suffered for decades. My suffering of a few months felt like nothing in comparison. But my third thought was a joyous one: Mom did love me. She did want me!

I can’t explain the immediate bond we had. We burned up the phone lines. Mom was married, had a son who had died, and a daughter named Deb. She and her husband had also adopted a son from Vietnam. Mom had graduated from college when she was 53. I poured out all the details of my life as well.

We actually met, as fate and the electronic age would have it, when someone from the Faith Daniels show saw the story of our reunion in the Omaha paper and flew us to be on the show. I’m sure it made great TV: We fell into each other’s arms, weeping copiously.

That Thanksgiving, my new family came to celebrate with us in Utah. On Christmas day, I flew to be with Mom in Grand Island, Nebraska for two weeks.

I have too much faith to believe that finding Mom was coincidence. Even the timing seemed preordained. You see, we had time to get to know each other, and to become soul companions, for the next year and a half. After that, she suddenly became very ill with a kidney disease and died.

But that year and a half was a precious gift. As painful as discovering the truth was, I’m so grateful that it happened.

I no longer think of the classifieds as a place where you find jobs and used cars.

I know that sometimes, just sometimes, you find your heart there, as well.

Linda O’Camb

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