Lost and Found
Seven siblings raised by five families reconnect in SJ
By Kate Morgan

There are many kinds of families. For one group of South Jersey-born siblings, a family is a big, beautiful, intricate, complicated thing – and not to be taken for granted.

Peggy and Michael [whose names have been changed] had seven children in Camden County. The first was a boy, Jacob. A sister, Mary Anna, followed 18 months later.

The couple struggled financially, but as Mary Anna recalls, her parents were loving and supportive. Peggy was pregnant with a third child, and after Becca was born, things began to derail.

“My brother and I were just two kids of a working-class couple who were very much in love and who were struggling,” says Mary Anna, now 32. “As far as I can trace it back, what changed everything was when my father lost his brother in a freak accident. From everything I’ve heard, that’s when my dad took a turn. Being an adult now and having adult siblings, I can understand it. Losing a sibling in a bizarre, sudden way would be devastating.”

Mary Anna says her birth father would come and go, disappearing from the family’s home for weeks at a time. Her birth mother turned to her parents in Oklahoma for help, and the new baby, Becca, was sent to live with them.

“They took Becca just to alleviate some of the pressure,” Mary Anna says. “And when my mom got pregnant again I know she very much wanted to keep the baby. My dad found a classified ad for a couple that was looking to adopt, and they met them in the office of a family attorney.”

“My mom became convinced that adoption was the best thing for the baby, but she wanted to meet other couples, and she wanted to take me and Jacob with her to see what they’d be like with children. I was 2-and-a-half. It honestly never seemed strange to me. It seemed like sharing; we had more babies than we had room for, so we shared.”

That baby, Lisa, was adopted by a couple in Toms River, where she’d be raised as an only child. Two years later, Rebekah was adopted by a family in Medford Lakes. Two more sisters followed, also two years apart. Meghan and Lesley were raised in Gibbsboro by the same family.

Not long after Lesley’s birth, Michael and Peggy divorced.

“It was a big blow for [Peggy,]” Mary Anna says. “Knowing we had so many sisters out there that had already been separated into different families, my mom didn’t want Jacob and Becca and I to be split up, but she knew she couldn’t afford to keep us together.”

Mary Anna was sent to Oklahoma, where she and Becca, then 10 and 9, were officially adopted by their maternal grandfather and step-grandmother. Jacob returned to South Jersey to live with Michael.

In her new home, Mary Anna began keeping journals, jotting down the little information she had about the four sisters she knew were out there somewhere.

“No one in the family knew about my younger sisters,” Mary Anna says. “The three of us [Jacob, Becca and herself] knew, but we also knew it was a secret. I always kept track of the story for my siblings. I started keeping journals when I was 10. I still have them. I’d written out the places we lived when they were adopted and their birthdays. I’d jot down memories as they came to me. I wanted to preserve things for them, for when they came looking. That was my way to be a big sister to them. When they found me – and I always assumed they’d find me – I wanted to be worth finding.”

Each daughter’s adoption agreement included a stipulation that she not reach out to her biological family until after her 18th birthday. Mary Anna knew Lisa, the eldest of the adopted babies, would turn 18 in 2003, so she was shocked when, in 2001, an email showed up in her inbox.

“The subject was just ‘Hello,’ and I almost didn’t open it,” Mary Anna remembers. “But then I saw the first line, and it was, ‘You don’t know me, but you’ve known about me your whole life.’ It was like that moment when you’re at the very top of a roller coaster, and you can see the drop coming, and then your stomach just falls into your shoes.”

A few months later, Jacob, Mary Anna and Becca reunited with Lisa, then 16, at their biological mother’s SJ apartment.

“It was surreal,” Mary Anna says. “Lisa comes in, she’s 16, and she has all of my features on her face, just in different shades. It was like someone had done a sketch of my face and then just colored it in wrong. I was not expecting that visceral feeling of connection. It’s just that suddenly this thing happened that I still don’t have a vocabulary for.”

OPENMaryKing17_600x380_acf_croppedLisa, now 30, says once she was reunited with her older siblings, something much larger was set in motion.

“I think me coming into the picture made it a reality that it was possible for us all to be reunited,” Lisa says. “Becca and I kind of took things into our own hands with Little Rebekah [their nickname for the sibling]. Mary likes to say we went rogue. We found her adoptive parents, and we called her mom and said, ‘So here’s the deal: we’re her sisters. We know she just turned 18 and we would like to see her, but we don’t even know if she knows we exist.’ Her mom was wonderful and facilitated everything.”

Two years later, it was Meghan’s turn. She and Lesley had been raised in the same town where they were born, and the girls had unknowingly encountered biological family members more than once. Peggy worked at a nearby Target, and Jacob taught a tae kwon do class the sisters took as children. Once she was 18, the other siblings reached out to Meghan. Then the only one left was Lesley – the baby of the family.

“I know that statistically, not all adopted people search for their biological family,” Mary Anna says. “It’s statistically unlikely that all of us would’ve met, frankly. But deep in my heart, I always felt they would all come back. I don’t know why I was so sure of it, but I was. It didn’t even cross my mind how real the possibility was that they wouldn’t all come looking, until Lesley.”

Lesley, now 25, says she struggled with anger and isolation throughout her teenage years, due in large part to unanswered questions about her origins. By the time she was nearing 18, she’d decided some stones were better left unturned.

“I was 17 when Meghan met everyone,” Lesley says. “I was so angry – this was years of anger, of not having questions answered, of not knowing anything, of feeling like an outcast in my own family. I eventually decided I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to forget. Meghan would bring it up to me, but never in any kind of aggressive way. I came home for Christmas, and she was like, ‘So, um, almost all of our siblings are going to be in New Jersey for a dinner at our birth mother’s house.

There are seven of us. You’re the youngest. You should come.’”

“I didn’t have words,” Lesley continues. “Eventually, we sat down and she showed me their Facebook pages. That whole moment was a whirlwind of ‘I have siblings! There are other people who went through this!’ I wish I had known. It would have made things different.”

Bastards_9780393088618 (1)Though the siblings had all met by 2009, work schedules and homes spread across the country meant all seven had never been in the same room at the same time. Last year, Mary Anna wrote a memoir chronicling her family’s dissolution and how they’d put themselves back together. She titled it “Bastards.”

“I called it ‘Bastards,’ not because we don’t know who our parents are, but because there is something about that word that implies ‘not real,’” Mary Anna says.

“On paper, my sisters and I are not related at all. On paper, the only person I am related to is Becca. On paper, my birth mom is my sister, our brother is our nephew, and Lisa, Little Rebekah, Meg and Lesley are total strangers. There is this idea that you have a ‘real family,’ and then there’s everybody else. The thing is, in adoption, everyone is real, and that’s what I needed to say in the book. My publishers asked for a photograph of all of us together, and I had to say, ‘No such photo exists.’ We realized we had to do something about that.”

So when the book was released in June, Mary Anna rented an apartment a few blocks from her home in LA, and for the very first time, they were together as a family.

“I think we’ve always wanted to make up for lost time,” Lisa says. “So when we went to LA there was a very strict rule of no significant others. We just wanted that one time in our lives for all seven of us to be together in the same place at the same time.”

Mary Anna says she’s still going through a kind of withdrawal after having all her siblings in the same city.

“After the reunions, it’s hard because you remember how difficult it is to make these things happen,” she says. “I wish there was a way we could all be together regularly. I’d move mountains and drop everything and do anything for these people.”

Lisa, who now lives in Florida with her husband and four children, says explaining the family tree to her kids can get a little complicated, but in the end, she feels blessed to have gotten to know her siblings and her SJ roots.

“My son from a previous marriage was adopted by my husband,” Lisa says. “So he has grandparents from his bio-logical father, and then my parents, and my biological parents and my husband’s parents. He’s got all kinds of grandparents. But for him, it just means more of a good thing. I don’t think any family is ‘normal.’ I don’t believe in normal. I think normal is whatever you make it, and more people just means more love.”

December 2015
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