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The Girl with Two Mothers

Joan raised me. Finding Mary took 55 years but filled me with happiness and a sense of resolution.

Joan O’Rourke Sundermann, left, and Mary Hayes Somers.

Among the many gifts I received as a young girl was one no one else had. The book was small, to fit a young girl’s grasp. Heavily coated white paper held an illustration of a girl being tucked in by her mother. Aloft, like a guardian angel, was a hazy drawing of a second woman, benignly observing the scene below. The title said it all: The Girl with Two Mothers.
    I was just like that girl.
    “When we married we were going to have four or five children,” Paul Sundermann recalls. “When your mother found out she couldn’t have children, she lost all of her confidence.”
    My mother Joan was a delightful woman, creative and warm. Overwhelmed by the loneliness and isolation of the 1950s’ suburbs, she waited seven years for a door to motherhood to open. Adopting two children in three years was her dream renewed.
    Several years after Joan’s death in 2007, Paul gave me my adoption paperwork. At first glance, I thought the packet not terribly useful. The psychological evaluation, family court summons and baptismal certificates, all in my adopted name, were no help. In the mix, however, was a court document legally changing my name from Mary Elizabeth Hayes to Anne Sundermann. I stared at that document for an eternity. There it was: the answer to a question I had long denied asking.

The Right to Know
    “In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage — to know who we are and where we have come from,” Roots author Alex Haley wrote. “Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning.”
    In states where adoption records remain under seal — such as Maryland and Pennsylvania — adopted children and birth parents often go begging for information.
    Pennsylvania, long behind the curve, has made recent strides toward openness.
    “Most people can look at a parent and have an answer to the question Who am I? For Pennsylvania adoptees, that simple but essential question remained unanswered,” says adoptee-rights advocate and Pennsylvania State Rep. Kerry A. Benninghoff.
    Benninghoff sponsored HB162, which reinstates the right of adult adoptees to apply for and receive a copy of their original birth certificate, as can all other Pennsylvanians. The bill passed in 2016, after eight years’ effort. Adoptees will be eligible to apply for a copy of their original birth certificate in October 2017, exactly one year after the bill was signed into law.
    Maryland adoptees have been denied their records since the late 1940s. Like many states, Maryland seals the original birth certificate after the adoption is legally finalized and issues a new birth certificate with the adoptive name. Adoptions after January 1, 2000, are generally open, but there is a right of refusal for birth parents so that they may maintain their anonymity. Groups such as the Adoption Rights Coalition fight for adoptees’ access to their original documents.
    Despite restrictions on original documentation, both states offer adoptees access to “non-identifying” information about their birth parents. How this information is presented differs depending on circumstances. In my case, the non-identifying data contained several key pieces of information: the fact that both my maternal grandparents were born in Ireland and their age when I was born. These two facts, combined with the Hayes name, opened a path to a reunion.

Clues from Across the Pond
    In May 1927, the SS Adriatic pulled into New York from Cobh, Ireland. My grandfather, Patrick J. Hayes, was aboard. Having left the urban poverty of post-famine, post-World War I Limerick, he jumped from the frying pan into the fire, arriving in New York two years before the Great Depression.

The wedding photo of Patrick J. Hayes and Mary Maher, the couple on the right.

    Following the well-worn path of Irish immigrants, Patrick settled in Brooklyn, married and started a family. The oldest child, Mary, moved into Manhattan, working as a travel agent as she put herself through night school. In her free time she socialized at the Whitehorse Tavern, a well-known watering hole in the West Village, where she met my birth father.
    Catholic Charities supported Mary throughout her pregnancy, moving her to Philadelphia and taking care of her health needs. But as was the case in that era, there was little support afterward.
    “I had one glance of you, then they took you away,” Mary recalled. “I was never allowed to hold you, yet I never forgot your face; you remained in my heart.”

My Online Journey
    Through Post-Adoption Search Services, Catholic Charities of Philadelphia provided me the backstory on my birth family, but no names or addresses. For an additional fee, a locator service is offered. I sent that payment in March but continued with my online detective work. Several online services aided my search.
    The Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, LDS, has long kept a database of its “dead ancestors.” Long before the internet, LDS kept databases, census records, parish lists, and birth, death and marriage certificates. Today, the LDS genealogy databases are available to all at familysearch.org.
    The familysearch.org site offers a smorgasbord of information, both domestic and international, including census and military, often with scanned images of the records and photographs. Members of familysearch.org can use the site as their personal family album, hosting photos, documents and of course, the family tree.
    Genealogy searches can lead down many paths. With Hayes such a common name, I had a lot of options. For purposes of my search, the LDS’s passenger ship lists were critical. By late April 2015, I had narrowed the search down from the hundreds to a half-dozen possibilities.
    In early May I jumped at an opportunity to use a friend’s paid Ancestry.com account to explore the details of my birth family, the family of Patrick J. Hayes. There I found naturalization records and more: The 1940 census convinced me that I was in the right place. All the women in this family were named Mary, as was I.
    In addition to its traditional genealogy resources, Ancestry.com has revolutionized family searches with an accessible “spit” DNA test. Being a stickler for a double-blind test, I sent in one test under Anne, and months later, a second sample under Mary Elizabeth, using different computers and emails. The results on the second test assured me that I was a close match for the first test, pairing the two as identical twins or as the same person.

Wheresmysister
    Recognizing the trend toward open adoption, Maryland provides birth parents and adoptees before January 1, 2000, the opportunity to use a third party to search for their child or parent. These registries act as a go-between. Searchers submit details such as place of birth and birth date to the Maryland Mutual Consent Voluntary Adoption Registry. If there is a match, the registry contacts both parties to see if there is desire for connection.
    One site for prospective adopters, Adoption.com also provides a reunion registry. Bingo.
    “Decades after the adoption,” Mary relates, I told my daughter Deirdre, then 15, that she had an older sister and the circumstances of the birth. In 2012, an adult Deirdre posted a message on adoption.com — username Wheresmysister — with some detailed information. But there was no reply.”
    In the wee hours of a Monday morning in late May 2015, I stumbled on Deirdre’s posting. It confirmed that my search candidate was indeed my birth mother and, most important, that she had been looking for me.
    It’s her, It’s her, It’s her, was all I kept thinking. At 3:30am, no sleep was to be had, so I did a paid search through an online service. There I found contact information for Mary, Deirdre and her husband.
    My caseworker from Catholic Charities sent letters out to all.
    A week later, Deirdre responded.
    “We found her,” she said to Mary.
    After a flurry of paperwork and consent forms, Deirdre and I were in contact.

The Mom Reveal
    After 55 years of wondering and five months of searching, it was all before me. A marathon five-hour Facetime session served as a first introduction to my birth mother. A week later, I was on the road for a six-hour drive to Connecticut where, finally, we met in person.
    Meeting Mary was profoundly moving. I have no other experience with which to compare it. She says it “healed her wounded heart,” and I know it filled mine with happiness and a sense of resolution. Our visit was perfect.
    Deirdre hosted a nice lunch for us, including Mary’s sister Patricia and her family. We spent the day telling stories, sharing photo albums and laughing at the twists and turns of our lives.
    Mary is an amazing woman, a retired history professor and college administrator with a hearty laugh and clever wit. Physically, I resemble Patricia, with our thick hair and a strong chin. But there is something around the eyes that mark me as Mary’s. Temperament wise, our love of a good story and a resistance to the status quo link us as mother and daughter.
    In the two years that have passed, we have become an integral part of each other’s lives. New memories are created, and weekly calls and holiday visits keep the connection dynamic.

Gathering of the Clan
    Many members of my new family are on social media sites and genealogy sites. In addition to Mary, Deirdre and Patricia, I now have a network of cousins stretching from New York to Limerick to London. It is easy to keep up with family goings on via Facebook.
    In late March, Hayeses, Hanniffys, Wades, Franklins, McDermotts and Grahams gathered at The Strand Hotel in Limerick, Ireland. Photos were passed around, stories told and songs sung. Later, my cousin James and I toured the County Limerick countryside, stopping at graveyards, churches and farmsteads connected to our family.
    As they say in Ireland, it was lovely.

Four Hayes women, left to right: Mary Somers, Anne Sundermann, Deirdre ­Fischer and Patricia Hanniffy.


   Resources   

Access to adoption records in Maryland: http://dls.state.md.us/data/polanasubare/polanasubare_coucrijusncivmat/
Adoptions-Report.pdf

Adoptee Rights Coalition: www.adopteerightscoalition.com
Ancestry.com

Ellis Island Archives: www.libertyellisfoundation.org/family-history-center

FindMyFamily Reunion Database: www.findmyfamily.org/Maryland
LDS Database: FamilySearch.org

Maryland Adoption Database: https://adoptiondatabase.quickbase.com/db/7c2gsmqv?a=q&qid=109

Maryland adoption board: https://adoption.com/forums/130/maryland-adoption-records

Maryland adoption laws: www.laws.adoption.com/statutes/maryland-laws.html

Mutual Consent Voluntary Adoption Registry: www.dhr.maryland.gov/adoption/search-contract-and-reunion

National Library of Ireland: www.nli.ie

Searching for birth relatives: Child Welfare Information Gateway: www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/f-search


Anne Sundermann is director of Calvert Nature Center.