Finding Ann Marie

On Mother’s Day, a Gaithersburg woman discovered her birth mother—and a past—she never knew.

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Ann Mary Roberts was an uptown girl in the ’60s, a pretty, 16-year-old pianist attending an all-girls Catholic school in upstate New York. Her parents had seven children and her father had Hodgkin’s disease. They caught her sitting on a bench one day in a shaded park with the boy they had just learned got her pregnant. She was on a bus the next day, destined for her older sister’s house in Maryland, with a phony wedding ring and an alibi—“tell anyone who asks that your husband is in Vietnam.”

Her last trimester was spent at a home for unwed mothers in Massachusetts. She was eating a forbidden stash of chocolate on Halloween when the stomach pains struck. She thought it was indigestion. I was born the next day.

I knew none of this, not even the state of my birth, until the letter arrived.

“Honey, a young man dropped this off for you,” my mother said, handing me a brown envelope labeled “Christine.” It was Mother’s Day, 1987. I had just transferred to a college in upstate New York, and was living at home in Albany until I found campus housing.

I took the letter and headed for the family room couch, thinking it was from a friend until the pictures started falling out: a cute little girl with painted fingernails, a dark-eyed woman feeding wedding cake to a man who looked like a mob boss and that same woman with an older lady who looked just like her, both smartly dressed in crisp black-and-white suits, sipping drinks on a balcony. I was breathless as I stared at the photos of this woman with my own dark brown eyes and auburn-streaked hair.

Dear Christine,

…I was 17 when you were born… I remember holding you on my lap; your eyes seemed to look right into my soul…. I knew I couldn’t keep you and my heart was broken and still is…. I visited you at the infant home but I couldn’t hold you because you were behind a glass window…. You are a five to ten minute drive from my house…. I named you Ann Marie…. We are good people, nothing to be afraid of.

Love, Ann

“Honey, who’s that letter from?” Mom asked from the kitchen.

My face felt hot and flushed, as if I’d been caught reading someone’s diary. My mother, Gail, had suffered miscarriages; the deaths of a baby, her father and brother; and my father’s affair—the affair that left her with three young children to raise, with me the oldest at 7. If there was one thing I vowed as a girl, it was to make my mother’s life easier in whatever way I could. She had devoted her life to us, and unlike other adoptees I’ve known, I never felt loved one iota less than my younger brother and sister whom she’d given birth to.

I was 13 and playing a game with a girl down the street when she got mad and spat: “I don’t care what you say, YOU’RE adopted!”

I ran home in tears to our babysitter, Vivian, who put her claw-like nails to work dialing my mother at the restaurant as I sobbed at the kitchen table. My mother rushed home from a double shift waitressing to talk about the bomb our neighbor had dropped. I felt betrayed; yet I couldn’t be mad at her. I was overwhelmed to think that this woman who had always been my mom might not fully belong to me.

We went to her room and she took out a beige envelope from the depths of her closet. Then we sat together on her water bed, reading the Catholic Family Service caseworker’s letter. It told me I was Irish, German and Welsh, that my birth mother was 5 feet 5, intelligent and sensitive, had taken piano lessons for years and hoped to major in music; and that my birth father was 17 when I was born, athletic and enjoyed team sports and the drums.

I’m no longer French or Dutch, I thought, as I looked at the framed picture of me and my grandmother atop the lace on my mother’s dresser. My grandma, with her chestnut hair and large brown eyes, had always been the person I thought I looked like in a family of blue-eyed blonds. Now, it was as if I had woken after a car accident to discover I had a new face; in a single day I had traded one ancestry for another.

Then Mom said: “Chrissie, when you’re older, I’ll help you search for your birth parents if you want to find them.” I tucked that offer away, thinking I might dig it out sometime after college.

“Who’s the letter from, Honey?” she asked again from the kitchen.

I walked into the room, eyes cast down at our red and cream linoleum floor, and said, “Mom…it’s from my birth mother.”

“What! Who the hell does that woman think she is, sending you a letter? What if you didn’t know you were adopted? I can’t believe she didn’t contact me first!” my mother ranted.

I didn’t disagree, yet a craving for answers got the better of me a few weeks later. I called the number Ann had written down and arranged with her husband to meet the following week after I got off work.

I scanned faces that entire evening at the local department store, wondering if one might be hers. I straightened and re-straightened the tie displays and paid frequent visits to the ladies’ room.

After work, I stood outside on the moonlit sidewalk in front of the store, waiting for a woman as foreign to me as the person who had just sauntered past on her way to her car. Yet the stranger I was about to meet shared a secret part of me. I pulled my cardigan closer to fight the chill of the spring night.

I saw a woman with shoulder-length brown hair walking toward me from the lot. She was dressed in navy linen pants and a beautiful white blouse that was billowing in the breeze. She seemed to be studying me.

When she was only a few feet away, I saw that her eyes were moist.

“Ann?” I whispered.

Before I could say anything else, she wrapped her arms around me and cried, “Oh, my baby.”

I have a mother; I’m her baby, I thought. I felt like a married woman cheating with another man.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said as I pulled back.

She introduced me to her husband and we went to an Italian restaurant down the street, where we filled each other in on 19 years of personal history. What I remember most from that night are her arms. She had the same tan skin tone as me. And she kept saying, “I always thought you would have blue eyes, like your father.”

A few weeks later, I met my birth father, Gregg. Ann had tracked him down in a neighboring town to tell him she’d found me. My lunches with Ann and evening get-togethers with Gregg were electrically charged; we had an instant rapport. I learned that Ann had a master’s in music, taught piano and was trying to have a baby after almost dying during a recent tubal pregnancy. And that Gregg was an English teacher, a poet, a music aficionado and father of a 13-year-old boy.

As the months passed, though, I struggled with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with my mother. I wanted to share what I’d learned, but I didn’t want to hurt her.

As our initial excitement ebbed, Ann, Gregg and I each struggled with something else: I was not Ann Marie; I was Christine, a complicated composite of everyone involved. And it seemed to me our reunion made them mourn the loss of Ann Marie once again, or at least the Ann Marie they’d imagined all those years.

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