Eric P. Mull
Alone in her kitchen, Julie Mooney cradles her cell phone. After 33 years of searching, Julie has finally obtained her birth certificate, located her birth mother, looked up her number, and begun dialing it. The 49-year-old mother of three has her finger poised over the final digit.
She sits there shaking, not knowing what to do. Armed with a script of all the things she wants to say, Julie waits and waits and waits. When she finally gets up the courage to hit the final number, the call goes to voice mail, so she hangs up. But now she has the sound of her birth mother’s voice—old and broken—stuck in her head.
At 9 a.m. the next day, Julie calls again, only to get voice mail once more. But when she calls 30 minutes later, her birth mother’s husband answers.
“My name is Julie,” she says. “If you could please have Lyssa* call me, I have some questions. I got her number through Bible study.” One hour later, the phone rings. This time, it is the woman she has been searching for.
“I appreciate you calling me back. My name is Julie,” she says. “I have something very personal and private to discuss with you. Is this a good time?”
The woman on the other end says yes, so Julie continues. “Well, recently Ohio passed a law that allowed me to have access to my own birth certificate, and I’m currently seeking medical records.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the woman responds.
“Well, if you have a moment, I’ll discuss this further with you,” Julie says. “But it’s very personal.”
“Fine,” the older woman says, her voice hardening.
“My name is Julie, and I was born May 18, 1966, in Cleveland, Ohio, and I was placed for adoption,” she says.
There is no response. So Julie reads off the script in front of her.
“Ohio law has recently given me access to my original birth certificate. The name Lyssa Marie Kappel* was listed as my birth mother, and that’s what led me to you.”
When this is met with silence, Julie waits for the line to disconnect. When it doesn’t, she goes on.
“If I reached the wrong person, I apologize,” says Julie, hoping to dissipate any building anxiety. “I also would like to thank my birth mother for the gift of my life, and if she ever had any doubts about placing me for adoption, she should put that at rest, because I was raised in a wonderful family. I had beautiful parents, and I have three beautiful daughters.”
Lyssa begins to cry.
“That person would be me, but I never wanted to give you up,” she says. “It was just a different world back then.”
Julie had wondered if she’d ever hear that voice and the story it had to tell. When Ohio voted in March 2015 to loosen its closed adoption law, Julie became one of 400,000 adoptees who were finally granted access to their original birth certificates. “It’s a very personal journey,” says Betsie Norris, the executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland. “For each person, they have to make a choice about how much they want to know and what they want to pursue.”
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Norris, who was herself adopted in 1960, founded the organization as a support for birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees working to better understand the adoption process. “When I started searching, I felt like there was a common misperception out there that some people felt that if my adoptive parents had done a good-enough job, I wouldn’t need to do this,” says Norris. “I was a happy, whole, and healthy person, and I wanted to know the truth of my existence.”
Julie felt the same way. She was born at 3:25 a.m. in Cleveland’s Booth Memorial Hospital and weighed seven pounds and seven ounces. She spent the first six weeks of her life at an orphanage, the Jones Home for Children.
When JoAnne and Paul Hancy saw her perfect little body for the first time, JoAnne said, “Now that’s a baby.” They took her home to the new four-bedroom split-level house they’d built in nearby Berea, Ohio, where she joined her older sister, Amy, adopted three years earlier. The couple raised the girls to understand and appreciate the importance of adoption as well as their adoptive parents’ own roles.
Courtesy Julie Mooney/Cleveland Magazine
“My kindergarten teacher called my mom one day and said, ‘Congratulations! I don’t know how you did it, but your daughter has the whole class wanting to be adopted,’” recalls Julie. “I just thought [adoption] was the greatest thing, and I made it seem like I was really special, and that’s what my parents made it seem like.”
Julie was 16 when she received her first information about her birth parents. JoAnne thought Julie was old enough to know more about her past and sought out Family and Children’s Services to provide a document that detailed non-identifying biological characteristics for both of Julie’s birth parents.
According to the records, her mother had been 22 years old, of Canadian and German descent, and raised in a strict religious family. Her father had been 23. He was a mechanic and had put aside his education to help out on the family farm. Their relationship had formed from a casual friendship, but they were unable to assume the responsibilities of parenthood.
“I was so intrigued with it, but I didn’t want my mom to know how obsessed I was,” says Julie. “As you get older, because it is a closed thing and you can’t talk about it, you almost feel guilty for your adoptive parents if you show any interest.”
After she presented the information to Julie, JoAnne hid the document in a metal lockbox on the shelf of her bedroom closet. When her parents left the house, Julie took it down to study it and discovered small white envelopes addressed to each of the girls.
Julie opened Amy’s first. It contained a note card with the name that Paul and JoAnne believed had been Amy’s given name at birth. Excited, Julie opened her own envelope. A different message was scrawled on hers: “To my knowledge, we do not know Julie’s birth name.”
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She was crushed. But still wanting to respect her adoptive parents, Julie resealed the envelopes and put them back where she’d found them.
What little she knew fueled her imagination for years.
“I always pictured my birth mother being blond,” she says. “I remember we’d go to restaurants, and with every blond woman I’d think, That could be my mom.”
Julie was able to put her curiosity on the shelf from time to time, but it was never completely out of sight. In 2009, she lost her adoptive mother to lung cancer. By then, cancer had also claimed her grandmother and both of her aunts.
Around the time of her mother’s diagnosis, Julie had a mammogram and discovered a lump in her right breast. When asked for her medical history, Julie had to say she didn’t know.
“It’s like a stab in your identity,” she says. “Having three daughters, I feel it’s not fair we don’t know our story.”
The lump was benign, but her mother’s death and her own lack of medical history spurred Julie to pick up the search for her birth mother.
A friend found a website where anonymous individuals, called birth angels, help people search for their birth families. That led to an angel named Marge, who accessed the Ohio Birth Index, a registry for babies born on any given day in a given county. Knowing Julie was born in Cleveland, Marge narrowed the list to 44 women who had given birth within the city limits on May 18, 1966. Julie went through the names line by line, making note of all those listed without a father and with babies left unnamed, since those characteristics increased the possibility that the baby would be put up for adoption. She also looked for names indicating the German origin referenced in her non-identifying information. The name Kappel was among those listed. “I had a feeling that was my name,” she says.
Map by 5W infographics for Reader's Digest
But there was no way to verify it. So for two years, Julie put the search to rest, believing she had exhausted all the leads available.
Then, in 2014, she reconnected with her friend Betsy Gosnell at their 30th high school reunion, the same day Julie’s father was buried after battling cancer of the lungs, brain, and adrenal glands. As kids, she and Gosnell had bonded over their common experience as adoptees. It was Gosnell who introduced Julie to Norris and her Adoption Network Cleveland, and it was through the network that Julie learned about the upcoming changes to Ohio’s records law and resolved to be among the first to file her paperwork.
Norris is with Julie on a rainy March morning as she stands in line—along with 400 or so other adopted Ohioans—at the state’s Office of Vital Statistics in downtown Columbus.
Julie can barely contain her excitement when she is given her ticket—number 44—to officially file her request for her birth certificate. “It’s my favorite number!” she says, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Even numbers are always a sign. There are four people in my family.” She is referring, of course, to her adoptive family.
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Julie’s emotion is understandable, but it may be premature. Most people lining up for their birth certificates obviously hope to be reunited with the parents who gave them life. That said, more than a half century of darkness means many could discover that their birth parents have died. A few 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 identities were allowed to remove their names from their children’s birth certificates. More than 250 birth parents have decided to keep their secrets safe. Other birth parents are bound to have mixed emotions when confronted by their children’s requests.
“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,” says Norris. “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.’”
Julie is right about the positive sign. Her birth certificate arrives in a small business envelope nearly one month after her trip to Columbus. (As of October 31, 2016, the state of Ohio had released 9,068 files to adoptees, according to adoptionnetwork.org.) When she sits down in her chair in front of the living room window, she’s with her 12-year-old daughter, Jordyn, who records video for her sisters, 18-year-old Madelyn and 20-year-old Megan.
As Julie reads the information, she discovers that her initial assumption regarding her birth mother’s name—Lyssa Kappel—was correct. In the days that follow, Julie conducts online searches that reveal Lyssa was married less than a year after Julie’s birth. Julie also discovers she has two younger half siblings who 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.”
Two months after receiving her birth certificate, Julie stands impatiently in her living room, looking out the front window with her two youngest daughters, Madelyn and Jordyn. They’re waiting for Lyssa.
“I’m not looking for this joyous reunion where we’re going to run into each other’s arms in a daisy field crying ‘I love you,’” says Julie, who dressed for the reunion in white pants and a bright pink floral shirt. “Wherever it falls, it falls.”
When a silver sport-utility vehicle pulls into the driveway, Julie heads straight for the front door, with the girls right behind. She walks down the small sidewalk toward a slightly wrinkled woman. Lyssa stands tall in black 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 has a faded, honey-wheat hue, cut short and windswept, like a modern-day Farrah Fawcett.
“You must be Julie,” Lyssa says when they are within arm’s reach.
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The two pause for a moment, each 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 Julie’s neck. Behind them, Lyssa’s husband looks on, smiling.
When they’ve finished hugging, introductions ensue—first Madelyn, then Jordyn. Lyssa takes each girl into her arms and hugs her 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-framed mirror hanging beside a black baby grand piano. They stand and study each other in 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.
“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.’”
Lyssa and her husband spend five hours at Julie’s house that evening, sharing stories and perusing photos of Julie’s childhood. Lyssa says she didn’t know much about Julie’s biological father and explains how she wore large coats during her pregnancy to hide it from her family, friends, and coworkers. She desperately wanted to keep her story private.
“Pregnancy is hard enough,” says Julie later. “But then to have to hide it and be alone—it broke my heart for her.”
At dinner, Lyssa tells 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 persuade 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, Lyssa says she tried to find Julie about a year after the birth and again a few years ago, when she hired an attorney to track her down. But at that point, Ohio’s adoption-record law made it impossible for Lyssa to find Julie.
The meeting was emotional for everyone, Julie says. “My goal wasn’t to re-create this mother-daughter relationship. 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.” She told Lyssa, “Every child I had, I thought about you after I had them.”
Julie also told her she didn’t want to push too hard. “You need to process this,” she said. “If you decide to do nothing for a while, that’s fine. If you decide to never do anything, that’s fine, but this part of the story is over.”
But Lyssa responded, “Well, I can’t imagine not having those beautiful little girls in my life now.’”
*Name has been changed.