Reporters and local television crews swarm Betsie Norris in the lobby of Vital Statistics as adoptees pick up their receipts for their birth certificates from the call windows. Each and every one stops, gives Norris a hug and thanks her for all she’s done before they head home to wait for their birth certificates to arrive by mail.
Wearing a bright yellow Adoption Network Cleveland shirt, Norris smiles continually as the hours slowly roll by. She’s like a savior to them, helping them in their search for truth.
Most hope to be reunited with the parents who gave them life, although more than a half-century of darkness means many could discover their birth parents have long been dead or moved on. A select few also face the possibility that they will still be denied access to any information — in the months leading up to the release of adoption records, birth parents wishing to conceal their identity were allowed to remove their names from their childrens’ birth certificates. More than 250 birth parents have decided to keep their secrets safe.
In the ‘60s, there was a huge stigma regarding adoption, says Norris. “Women would be seen as loose. Nobody would ever marry them,” she says. “The whole family’s reputation would be tarnished.”
Unmarried women who were pregnant were often forced to give up their jobs and sent away to homes for unwed mothers or forced to live with extended family throughout the last months of their pregnancies. In unwed mothers homes, a woman might take on a pseudonym to further hide her identity.
Once a child was born, the birth mother returned home just days after recovery — presumably back from a long vacation — and coached to forget about the experience and carry on with her life.
“You kind of give up everything and it stunts emotional growth,” says Norris. “For a lot of birth mothers, getting this contact from the adoptee — on one level they’re happy and it’s a relief because it’s something that they’ve maybe secretly hoped for — but it brings them emotionally right back to, ‘I’m a horrible person. I’m not worthy. People are going to hate me if they know about this.’ ”
Betsy Gosnell’s birth mother was sent to a Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers in Cleveland five months before giving birth. Betsy began looking for her in 2006.
“My dad said to me, ‘If you’re going to search, you need to search now because we’re not getting any younger and neither is your birth mom,’ ” she says, while standing in line at Vital Statistics.
Betsy’s adoptive father worked for Summit County Children Services and raised her to be proud of her adoptive heritage. While most kids had posters of teen heartthrobs on their bedroom walls, she had posters and coloring books on the history of the adoption process.
“When my mom was getting ready to bring me home from the adoption agency, the neighbor ladies threw my mom a baby shower,” says Betsy. “It was very open.”
With the help of Adoption Network Cleveland, Betsy obtained a copy of the Ohio Birth Index and discovered she was the only female born on Feb. 7, 1966, at the Cleveland Clinic. The Adoption Network identified her birth mother and found an address for her in the Deep South. Thereafter, Betsy sent a series of letters every couple of months with pictures that covered her childhood and some of the major events of her life.
“I figured it’s easy to throw a letter away,” says Betsy, sharing her story with those around her in line. “But it’s hard to throw a face away especially when you’re looking at yourself.”
After two years without a response, Betsy sent a final letter. Like a grade school questionnaire, it asked the recipient to check “yes” or “no” for whether she was Betsy’s birth mother.
“She checked, ‘I am your birth mother,’ and she wrote, ‘I might be your birth mother but don’t ever contact me again,’ ” says Betsy, tearing up at the memory. “She might not be ready or willing to come to terms with what happened 49 years ago, and I feel bad for her, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s my birth mother and I have a whole other family out there that I would really like the opportunity to meet someday.”
When Betsy leaves the line to go to the call window, Julie deflates and starts to cry.
“All of a sudden, something just hit me,” she says, struggling to pull Kleenex out of her purse and cover the small black tears that are streaming down the sides of her face. She looks at her friend, who’s also crying, and tells her to stop.
“No, I’m not going to stop,” Betsy says loudly, her voice gruff and stern. She has been emotional all week, already coming to terms with the enormity of the adoptee’s journey. Julie, however, is still awakening to the idea.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Betsy says, placing a warm hand on Julie’s arm. “Yesterday morning, my husband said to me, ‘Are you happy?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Then they’re happy tears. Cry. Go ahead. Let it out.’ ”
Julie’s birth certificate arrives in a small business envelope nearly one month after her trip to Columbus. When she sits down in her chair in front of the living room window, she’s alone with her 12-year-old daughter, Jordyn. The two had been lying in bed watching the news when they announced a year and a half ago that the adoption law would be reversed, so they wanted to open the birth certificate together.
As Julie opens the envelope, Jordyn records video for her two older sisters, 18-year-old Madelyn and 20-year-old Megan, whose middle name was taken after JoAnne Hancy’s mother.
When Megan was born, Julie invited JoAnne into the delivery room. “I wanted her to experience the whole thing,” says Julie. “I wanted her to be there.”
As Julie reads the information, she discovers just as many questions as there are answers. Her birth mother’s age and length of pregnancy don’t match what was contained in the non-identifying information provided by Family and Children’s Services all those years ago. Although the certificate verifies Julie was born in Cleveland, it lists her birth mother’s place of residence nearly 80 miles away from the hospital. And while Julie’s initial assumptions regarding her birth mother’s name is correct, there is an additional surprise.
“She didn’t name me,” says Julie.
“That was very hard for me to read,” Julie says, one week after receiving her birth certificate.
In the days that followed, Julie conducted online searches that revealed Lyssa was married less than a year after Julie’s birth. Julie also had two younger siblings who both live in New England.
“I’ve always wanted a big family,” says Julie. “I wanted that Norman Rockwell painting of Thanksgiving where you’re all around a big table.”
The possibility of having such an end is there, but she’s still hesitant given how things turned out for Betsy.
“I’m not looking for this joyous reunion where we’re going to run into each others’ arms in a daisy field crying, ‘I love you,’ ” says Julie. “Wherever it falls, it falls.”
Julie stands impatiently in her living room in white pants and a bright pink floral shirt, looking out the front window with Leanne and her two youngest daughters, Madelyn and Jordyn. They’re waiting for Lyssa’s arrival.
When Julie spoke to her on the phone for the first time 48 hours earlier, she offered to meet Lyssa in New England. Lyssa agreed, but later that day decided she and her husband would come to Ohio instead.
“She wondered how I was [doing] her whole life and she can’t wait to see me,” says Julie.
Outside, the sky is the deepest blue they’ve seen in months. The trees are finally budding. While the four wonder what Julie’s birth mother will be like, Julie keeps her adoptive parents in the back of her mind.
She spent all morning preparing a traditional Thanksgiving meal to make up for all the holidays she missed with her birth mother. But she cooked it how her parents always did, right down to the Amish-style stuffing made with butter-soaked sourdough bread and the green bean casserole with frozen French-cut green beans, Swiss cheese, cream cheese, white pepper and corn flakes.
When a silver sport utility vehicle pulls into the driveway, Julie can’t wait any longer. She heads straight for the front door with Leanne and the girls right behind.
Julie walks down the small sidewalk toward a slightly wrinkled woman. She stands tall in black denim jeans, black tennis shoes and a gray vest over a thin baby blue long-sleeved sweatshirt. Her steps are small and careful. A tiny silver cross graces her neck. Her hair is no longer red but has a faded honey wheat hue, cut short and windswept like a modern day Farrah Fawcett.
“You must be Julie,” she says, when she’s within arms reach.
The two pause for a moment, studying the other’s face for the first time. They then lean in as if to kiss, and Julie throws her arms around her mother’s neck. Lyssa slowly lifts her hands to rest gently on Julie’s shoulder blades as she nestles her face in the crook of her neck. Behind them, Lyssa’s husband looks on, smiling.
When they’ve finished hugging, introductions ensue — first Leanne, then Madelyn, then Jordyn. Lyssa takes each one into her arms and hugs her however briefly before going on to the next. Julie embraces Lyssa one more time and tells her she’s beautiful before following everyone inside.
“You’ve got my eyes,” Lyssa says, as she looks at Madelyn, Julie’s middle child.
“Stand next to her,” says Julie, placing them side-by-side. “My mom always said, ‘I bet Maddie looks like your birth mother.’ ”
Lyssa tugs Maddie by the arm and pulls her across the living room to an ornate silver-lined mirror hanging beside a black baby grand piano. They stand and study each other in the reflection. Their faces are heart-shaped. Their eyes are only a half-inch apart. Their smiles begin at the corners of their lips and pull upward and out, although the smile lines in Lyssa’s face are like small ravines that have carved their way across her skin over several decades.
“With my oldest grandson, people said we looked alike,” says Lyssa. “So he took me in front of the mirror like this, and he said, ‘We do look a lot alike except for the wrinkles.’ ”
Everyone laughs as Julie sidles up on the other side of Lyssa and pulls Jordyn in front of them. Lyssa’s outstretched arms hold all of the girls close while they size up each other’s features — the wisplike crows feet at the corners of Julie’s eyes, the small but sturdy hands of the girls, the tufts of hair that threaten to fly from Lyssa’s head.
“You’re right, you are young,” says Julie, turning back to look at Lyssa’s husband and then turning to her girls. “I spoke with [him] yesterday and he said, ‘Well, we are in our 70s, but we’re really young. People think we’re in our 60s.’ ”
“I’m young in spirit,” says Lyssa, her voice cracking as she speaks. “My spirit will never get old.”
Lyssa and her husband spent five hours at Julie’s house that evening, sharing stories from their lives and perusing photos of Julie’s
Sometime during dinner, Julie felt a change. She looked over at her daughters and realized they were sad and confused by the presence of her birth mother, sitting where her adoptive parents should have been.
When Julie showed Lyssa the Fox News segment that aired in March and explained that Cleveland Magazine was following Julie’s journey to find her birth parents, she was noticeably shaken and concerned. Lyssa had only ever told three people about the circumstances of Julie’s birth — her husband and one other couple.
She claimed to not know much about Julie’s birth father and explained how she had to wear large coats during her pregnancy to hide it from her family, friends and co-workers. She desperately wanted to keep her story private.
“Pregnancy is hard enough,” says Julie, as she recounts what happened during their dinner. “But then to have to hide it and be alone, it broke my heart for her.”
Lyssa told them that when she gave birth, the nurses pleaded with her to look at the beautiful baby girl she’d just delivered. But Lyssa couldn’t. She was petrified that even a glimpse would convince her to keep the child. She couldn’t take that chance.
“She said, ‘I never named you because it was so hard for me. I just couldn’t do it. I walked away and never looked back,’ ” says Julie.
Still, she says, Lyssa tried to find Julie — a year after Julie was adopted and again a few years ago when she hired an Ohio attorney to track her down. But Ohio’s adoption record law also made it impossible for Lyssa to find Julie.
The meeting was emotional for everyone. “My goal wasn’t to re-create this mother-daughter relationship,” Julie says. “I just wanted her to know that she made a good decision, and don’t ever feel bad about it, and thank you for life because that had to have been so hard.”
Julie told her, “Every child I had, I thought about you after I had them.”
But she also didn’t want to push too hard. “You need to process this,” Julie told Lyssa. “If you decide to do nothing for awhile, that’s fine. If you decide to never do anything, that’s fine, but this part of the story is over.
“She said, ‘Well, I can’t imagine not having those beautiful little girls in my life now,’ and she looked at [her husband] and she said, ‘Maybe we’ll have two lives now. I don’t know.’ ”
Julie understands that their meeting is only half the story.
While Lyssa helped fill in the details of Julie’s blank page, Julie has opened a whole new chapter for Lyssa.
“She’s got a real burden,” she says. “I helped lift a huge part of it, but I felt by lifting that, I opened up another big hole for her. She’s got to deal with that. She’s got a huge journey ahead of her.”