On a hot July morning in 2009 as I sipped a cup of coffee, I opened my email. Nothing breath-taking about that, except on this particular day, I was asked a question that irrevocably changed my life.
Are you the Ane Mulligan looking for your birthmother, Elsie Vauna Mullvain?
That spun my world and yanked the breath right out of my lungs.
Oh, I'd always known I was adopted. From the day mom and dad brought me home at three months of age, they told me I was a chosen baby.
My childhood was idyllic … well, maybe not for my parents, given the fact I was a barely-contained firecracker. But for me, it was great. Born in January 1947 in Southern California, I truly was a child of the fifties, when Cokes were a nickel and roller skates had keys.
Daddy was an aeronautical engineer, and Mom stayed home with my adopted brother and me. I was a happy kid—hyper but carefree. My best friend lived next door, and my school was a half-a-block's walk from our front door. My mom and dad believed in me and encouraged me in all I did ... uh, with the exception of giving Billy Ledbetter Ex-Lax instead of Hershey's. Come to think of it, there were a few other—okay a lot of—activities that brought down parental wrath. But that's another story.
THE MIRROR DOESN'T LIE
I can't say I was never curious about my birth parents; I was. For one thing, I didn't look like anyone. Family friends would say I resembled my mom, but that simply wasn't true. We didn't share any features at all.
Therefore, I became a people watcher, always wondering. Was that woman my mom? Could that man be my dad? Did I have any sisters? One time, I must have been about ten, I followed a woman up and down the aisles in the grocery store. She finally asked me if I was lost. My mom found me about that time, apologized to the woman, and thoroughly embarrassed, took me home. It didn't matter. Up close, that woman didn't look as much like me as I first thought.
I was disappointed but not daunted. I continued to stare in the mirror, albeit secretly, searching for someone I didn't know and wondered—a lot.
I was your classic rebellious teenager. Being part of the "enlightened" generation, I thought my folks were old fogies. They'd been in their thirties when they adopted me and were, in my estimation, hopelessly stuck in the last generation. You know the one, where they had running boards on cars, danced the Charleston, and sang songs like "Jeepers Creepers."
It's a good thing adoptions are irrevocable, or I’m sure my parents would have tried. Filled with angst and sarcasm, I tested their patience and fortitude with my smart mouth. I also demanded to know about my birth parents. They had little information, however. Mine was not a private adoption, but rather through Children's Home Society of California, a non-profit agency. They knew I was Irish, my medical history, and my birthmother had been young. There was nothing known about my biological father.
IMAGINING MY STORY
This was, of course, years before the first home computers and the Internet. I had nothing to go on. Having what my teachers always called an "overactive imagination," I fantasized what might have happened to my mother. Interestingly, some of my imaginings weren't so far off the mark.
The era was right after WWII. The boys were freshly home from the war. A romantic, my mother was swept off her feet. And left flat. I had a few other scenarios; after all, I was a budding novelist. Later, these scenes would find their way onto paper. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I survived adolescence and hit my twenties. About that time, I discovered my adopted parents were intelligent (despite past belief), and I got married. Raising our son and making a home took a front seat, and I filed away my short-lived quest. I had enough on my hands.
A HEART-POUNDING PREMONITION
A move to Georgia further derailed any thoughts of searching for my birthmother. The years passed. Then in 1998, I received a letter from my dad. He and Mom were eighty-six by this time, and Mom had Alzheimer's. She didn't know who I was any more than I did. The last time we visited, it varied in her mind who I was: one moment I was her mother, then her sister. Most of the time, she didn't know who I was, but she said she liked me.
As I pulled Daddy's letter from the mailbox, it felt thicker than normal. Anticipating a good read (he always included tidbits of family lore and funny anecdotes) I jumped into the car. It was an autumn Wednesday evening and we were on our way to church for choir practice. As my husband drove, I tore open the envelope.
But it wasn't Daddy's favored lined, yellow legal paper. It was blue and thick. The kind of stock paper they use for official court documents. Premonition made my heart pound. I took a deep breath, and with trembling hands, I slowly slid it from the envelope. A sticky-note was adhered to the outside of the folder.
"I don't know if you want this or not. Love, Dad."
INHALE AND ... HOLD
That was all. For once, my overactive imagination was flummoxed. I exchanged glances with my husband and peeled off the yellow sticky. I caught my breath as I read aloud:
THE ADOPTION OF ROBERTA ANN MULLVAIN
Though I'd never seen nor heard that name before, I instinctively knew it was mine.
And suddenly I wasn't me anymore.
But who was I?
I glanced at my husband, but he had his eyes on the road, oblivious to the heart-stopping drama taking place in the passenger seat. I opened the blue folder and quickly scanned its pages, until I saw it - My mother's name. Elsie V. Mullvain.
A myriad of emotions and thoughts whirled. Scenarios played out and were cast aside. With one breath I was excited—then afraid. Tears of joy welled as I thought of open arms, welcoming me, then quickly turned to sorrow with the fear of rejection. I tried to picture her, but her face remained shadowed. I didn't know how I truly felt or should feel. For a word merchant, I was an empty page. I refolded the papers, and slid them in the envelope. We'd arrived at church and I desperately needed to compose myself.
Later that night, I called Daddy to say I received the papers but quickly dismissed the subject and chatted about other things. They were old school, from an era that never had open adoptions. I knew he and Mom would be terribly hurt if I did anything about this. I had to put them first. After I hung up, I put the papers in the safe and closed the door.
And yet …
By this time, another year had passed, and I'd reached an age where changes were taking place that I wasn't so happy about. After all, who wants wrinkles and triceps that waved goodbye for a full five minutes after you'd gone? I needed a place to lay the blame for the havoc gravity was playing on my body.
When I brushed my teeth in the morning or combed my hair, I found myself staring into the mirror again, my hand paused it in its work, wondering whose face it was. Whose nose is that? Who do I blame for the bunions? How did my mother age? Did I look like her? Did her hair turn to beautiful silver or was it salt and pepper? I had a million questions and no one to ask. I decided it was time to search for Elsie.
Although I now I had the Internet, I met with a lot of closed doors. Who knew The Children's Home Society of CA held their records tighter than a Scotsman holds his purse? I would get nothing from them beyond medical information—which I already had.
SEARCHING FOR ELSIA ... BUT WAS I?
I posted my mother's and my name on a California adoption search board. There I met Barbara, who gave me some ideas of how to search using an Internet search engine. I found about a dozen or so Mullvains in the U.S., but no Elsie. Not an overwhelming number, so undaunted, I emailed those with email addresses and snail-mailed letters to the others. I received quite a few answers from distant and not-so-distant cousins, but no success in finding my Elsie.
I continued to ask questions, searching everywhere. Then in March of 1999, I received a phone call. The woman said she had an Aunt Elsie Vauna Mullvain, and she would forward my letter to her. However, she cautioned, when she'd told Elsie about my letter, her aunt said when she was young, she'd let a friend use her name.
That sent me to the state of Confusion. Was that true? Or was she lying to protect herself? In truth, it made no sense. Back in 1947, a person's good name meant everything to them. I was left to wonder if my search had ended in success, or was this only step two? I waited. A month later, I received a letter from Elsie, and with it, more of her story.
While she told me about her situation back then, which remarkably matched my earlier fantasies, she did not want a relationship with me. I understood and honored that. My only other communication was to send her flowers on her birthday that year. The card merely said, "Thank you" and no name was included.
LOOKING FOR SISTERS
I didn't contact her again. Although I was saddened a bit, I never knew her, so the loss then wasn't as hard as it could have been. After all, I had no mental picture of her; she was still faceless to me. I never got a sense of her personality from her letter. Maybe it was strength of will, but I closed that door.
However, through the cousin who had called me I learned I had three sisters. Growing up, I had a loving relationship with my adopted brother, but I'd always wanted a sister and now had three … somewhere.
I prayed and hoped maybe one day when my mother passed away, I could find my sisters. Once again, my overactive imagination got into high gear. Would they want to know me? Were they like me? I only had one problem. I didn't know their names. It would be difficult to search with out those—not only that, they were most likely all married with new names. And how would I know when my mother died? And if I managed to find them, how would I approach them?
Reluctantly, I put the dream into God's hands. It was never out of my mind though.
On June 10th, 2001, my adopted mother went to be with the Lord. Four months later, Daddy joined her. I felt like I was truly an orphan, and I began to think more and more about my sisters. If I could somehow find out if Elsie was still alive … then I remembered my promise to honor her request, so I did nothing, except write it all in my journal and in scripts for the stage.
REALIZING THE "WHAT-IFS"
A couple of years later, I turned to novel writing. An administrative assistant at my church, knowing I was adopted, excitedly told me she and her husband were adopting a baby. I thought, "What if that baby was the grandchild of one of my sisters?"
From that "what if," I wrote When the Wind Blows. Elsie's story was part of the inspiration for that story. For the next book of that series, I wrote When the Bough Breaks. It chronicles a young woman's search for her birthmother. By then, I'd written all I knew on the adoption theme, and the story was ended. I moved on to a new series of books and a new theme.
God is trustworthy with our dreams
God has His own timing … and a delightful sense of surprise. On July 18th, 2009, I got an email from a woman named Linda, asking that breath-taking question: Are you the Ane Mulligan looking for your birthmother, Elsie Vauna Mullvain? After confirming I was, she proceeded to tell me my mother died in 2007. She also told me I had 5 sisters. Five? I felt like I'd won the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes!
MY MIRROR IMAGES
Then she sent me a copy of my mother's obituary from the newspaper, which included a photo.
I looked into that mirror of a photo and saw myself. For the first time in my life, I looked like someone. I felt like I'd come home from a long journey. For me, the bond was instant. I "knew" what she'd gone through. I understood the betrayal she'd experienced. The heartbreak. And I knew she'd loved me.
The next email brought a photo of one of my sisters. She had my face, too! One of my friends photo-shopped my red hair on my sister and we became twins, although she's nearly eight years younger than me.
Linda had handed me the greatest gift I'd ever received. But she had a gift-topper. She sent a link for Elsie's online memorial. There, I saw all my sisters and Elsie's pictorial life. I couldn't believe the resemblance. There were childhood photos of her that were identical to mine, reflecting who I was and everything I knew about myself. I saw her laughing, head tossed back, and captured her personality.
And I knew her.
Linda gave me our birth order: Me (of course), Pam, Trish, Debby, Becky, and Cindy. The photo at the top of this blog (minus Becky) is in a different order. From left to right: Debby, Pam, Me, Cindy, and Trish.
JOINING THE SISTERHOOD
I wanted so badly to meet them, but I left it to Linda and her sister, Yvonne (who babysat my sisters when they were young). I didn't want to tarnish my sisters' memory of our mother, nor did I want to disrupt their lives.
I will be forever indebted to Linda and Yvonne. They decided they'd want to know if it were them. Yvonne called my sister Trish. Within minutes of that phone call, I received an email. The subject line read: "Hi, Big Sister!"
After several emails, filled with details about the family, I called Trish.
The sound of her voice as she answered the phone with, "Hey, big sis," filled my eyes with tears and lodged a lump in my throat the size of Texas. Together we laughed and talked for more than 90 minutes. Her personality is so much like mine I could hardly believe it.
On the Friday before Halloween that year, I flew to Seattle, where they all live. I was only able to meet with 4 of them, as one of our sisters is ill. Pam, Trish and Cindy met me at the airport. I would meet Debby on Sunday. The four of us hugged and cried and laughed. They opened their arms and their lives to me.
It was beyond amazing. There was no need to get to know one another. We're so much alike all we had to do was catch up on our lives. Things I'd always thought were due to my upbringing and environment (like my love of books and even mannerisms) turned out to be in my DNA. Who knew?
The first thing Cindy did was grab my hands and examine them. Her ocean-wide smile and nod told me I had her hands. Mullvain hands. Now I understand the old saying, "blood is thicker than water."
Once I was lost and now I'm found
On Sunday, they threw a family reunion at Debby's house for me to meet my brothers-in-law, my nieces and nephews. They also invited Linda and Yvonne. That was a treat!
My sisters' paternal aunts were there, too. When I walked in the door, their Aunt Andy stared at me, agape. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear I was seeing a ghost. You're a clone of your mother. In fact, of all the girls," Andy said, "You look the most like Elsie."
What a beautiful gift!
The emotions of finding and connecting with my sisters still brings tears to my eyes. Tears of joy and gratitude to God—and to Linda and Yvonne. And to my sisters for opening their lives and hearts to me. I'm so amazed at how much I love them already.
My sister Debby Jo said it best. She told me when I came through her door and she saw me, her first thought was, "She's finally come home."
You're right, Debby Jo. I'd spent a lifetime lost, and now I'm home.