Eric Ogden for Reader's Digest
“May I speak with Jeanne Kerr?” I said, crossing my fingers.
“Who’s asking?” the voice cracked.
“It’s Regina Louise. I think we may’ve met a—”
“I don’t believe so,” she said. The line went dead.
I crossed out another Jeanne on my long list. The last time I’d seen the Jeanne I was looking for was in 1977, when I was 15. That day, I’d stood in a juvenile courtroom prepared to speak about what it would mean to me for Jeanne Kerr, my beloved counselor from the Edgar Children’s Shelter in Martinez, California, to adopt me.
I’d met Jeanne when I’d arrived at the shelter on May 1, 1975—a day before I turned 13. I was confused by her excitement regarding my pending birthday. Then came balloons, cake, and strangers singing to me as if I were a big deal. In no time, it felt good to be where Jeanne was. I’d grown up without a lick of kin, so I had taken my cues from Donna Reed and June Cleaver. I loved how they treated children, their soft-spoken ways. I prayed to meet someone like them who could see I was worth the trouble I was born into.
In court, my social worker presented evidence of my “escalating” behaviors: running away, telling lies, sabotaging foster care placements so I could return to the shelter, to Jeanne. “It’s unnatural, Your Honor, how much she loves this woman,” she said.
The judge agreed, and Jeanne’s petition to adopt was denied. I believe my social worker objected because Jeanne was white and I was black. The National Association of Black Social Workers had issued a statement against transracial adoption, seeing it as an attack on black families. I was put in a residential treatment center for severely emotionally disturbed girls. From there, I’d go through 30 placements before landing in a group home in San Francisco. I stayed there until the age of emancipation, after which I flailed through life. Then I became a mother, and everything changed. Now I had someone else to love and to think about.
By 2002, I co-owned and operated two hair salons, and my teenage son was a thriving scholar-athlete. I decided to write a book about my life from ages 13 to 15, a journey that included meeting Jeanne and losing her.
“Your memoir claims abuse and neglect, so you need someone to verify what you’ve written,” my editor said. I had two weeks to locate that person.
My writing coach suggested I find Jeanne. I couldn’t bear to tell her that I’d spent years ordering phone books from Nova Scotia to Hawaii, the number of times I’d been hung up on, the dead ends I’d followed. But now I could scour the Internet, and I began searching on countless sites. Marriage license? Nothing. Certificate of birth of child? Nothing. Death certificate? Hesitantly, I punched in her name. That, too, came back with nothing.
Had I made Jeanne up? But there was the blue corduroy dress she’d hand-sewn for me, with rainbows in my favorite colors. I’d lost it many years ago. There was the way she called me “sweetheart” or “punkin,” the way she smelled of Cream of Wheat, warmed milk, vanilla, and brown sugar.
Then I remembered that, as a child, I had been warned that everything I said and did was put in a file so anyone who wanted to could learn what an awful person I was. I called the county and asked for my file. When the package arrived, I nuzzled it to my bosom like it was a newborn. Inside was a stack of papers filled with legal jargon, incident reports, and letters from one institutional director to another about my need to be “terminated.” But there was no road map to Jeanne.
With two days left to corroborate my story, I asked Jules, a friend and correspondent at a magazine that had access to research databases, for help. My deadline passed before she finished her search, so I changed the names of my characters. “Jeanne Kerr” became “Claire Kennedy.”
Jules sent me the search results a week later: She had an address! I wrote Jeanne a letter and sealed it with a kiss in red lipstick. The day before I left on my book tour, I received an envelope in the mail—it was my letter, stamped with the words Addressee Unknown.
In Los Angeles, I was interviewed by radio talk show host Tavis Smiley. He asked: “You have it all: You’re a spokesperson for foster care, have a thriving salon business, a well-adjusted child. What more would you like?”
I replied without hesitating. “Someone to say they are proud of me.”
Afterward, back in my hotel room, I checked my e-mail and saw a message with the subject line: “I am so proud of you, sweetheart!”
My heart stopped. I opened the e-mail, and it was from Jeanne. My breath caught in my throat. Was someone playing a joke on me? Only later I’d learn that a former coworker of hers had read an article about my book in which the reporter revealed the real name of Claire Kennedy, and the ex-colleague told Jeanne, “Your Regina is looking for you.”
In her e-mail, Jeanne wrote, “Please reach out to me once your tour is done. I don’t want to be a bother.” I couldn’t wait—I immediately dialed the number she had given.
“Hello?” The voice at the other end sounded hushed, just as I remembered Jeanne’s timbre; she had a particular way of saying “hello” that softened me from the inside out.
“I can’t believe it’s you,” I said through my absolute bewilderment. “I never stopped thinking of you.”
“You were my first child,” she told me. “I never stopped loving you.” Her words reverberated, and all I could do was listen. “They said I was the wrong color and that I wasn’t allowed to love you.” Jeanne continued. “I have something I want to give you. It is your birthright.”
I held my breath.
“I want to make you my daughter.”
From the moment I had lost Jeanne, I had known she was the mother I was meant to have in this life. I went on to live as if she’d never left, as if she were there to guide my actions. I believed that one day I’d have the chance to tell her “thank you.” On the phone with her, I knew my deepest wish was on the verge of coming true.
Three weeks later, I sat for six hours at LaGuardia Airport in New York City, waiting out a storm that had delayed Jeanne’s plane. I paced and smoothed my skirt. Finally, a woman rushed toward me, her long gray-white ponytail swinging from beneath a baseball cap. She wore an oversize sweater splattered with gigantic multicolored peonies, green polka-dot capri pants, and kitty-cat ankle socks paired with a well-worn pair of running shoes. I looked at her, head tilted like a curious puppy. I would not have worn those pieces together if God himself had ordered me to, and I flushed with mortification. It was then that I knew I was not only a daughter but her daughter. I earned a full adolescenthood of stripes in that one moment. It had been nearly three decades since I had felt her fingertips lift my chin through the weight of my grief of having to leave her, the only person who’d ever told me “I love you.”
“Hi … Mommy,” I said. I felt electrified saying the word for the first time. My entire life I had guarded it, my body a safe-deposit box, holding it until I could give it its rightful place.
In November 2003, I stood in the same juvenile courtroom in California where Jeanne’s adoption request had been denied in 1977. I was 41, and I was with my son; Jeanne, her husband, and her son; and my partner, Stevie Anne, and her family. After the judge swore me and Jeanne to honor and love each other as mother and daughter for the rest of our lives, I turned to Jeanne, cupped my hand around her ear, and whispered, “Thank you—Mommy—for loving me when no one else could.”