The baby in the locket
The hairstylist is puzzled.
Daughter? You have a daughter? he asks the woman in his chair. He thought she only had a little boy, the one whose hair he cuts.
The woman, Sue Verrier, sputters a reply - "I do. I mean, I did. I mean, she is."
Sue glances down the row of chairs. All the stylists have stopped snipping and have pivoted in her direction. All the customers have stopped chatting. Everybody is staring until, finally, the silence gives way to questions.
"It's a really long story," Sue says. "But OK, I'll tell you, because I really love this story."
The story springs from a coincidence so remarkable, Sue tells everyone it's a miracle. It happened so quickly that everyone touched by it was shocked - but as it turns out, the miracle was in the making for at least five years, set in motion by a wise aunt who had no idea of the important role she would play.
The story continues to unfold in ways that, as often goes with profound experiences, are both difficult and beautiful.
The story begins in 1981.
Sue Verrier was a 17-year-old high school senior, and she had had a baby.
At her parents' direction, she gave the baby up for adoption. But first, she named the girl Sarah so she wouldn't think of her as "the baby" for the rest of her life.
For years to come, Sarah would occupy a prominent place in Sue's psyche.
She wrote about her - poems, mostly, and letters. In them, over and over again, she relives those emotional days when, as an insecure teenager, she gave away her child.
She had some of the poems and letters placed in Sarah's file at the adoption agency, Catholic Relief Services, hoping that when Sarah came of age, she could learn from all those pain-drenched words that her birth mother was not only thinking of her every day, but loved her.
The first two years after Sarah's birth, Sue wore a gold-toned locket with the baby's picture inside it. The hospital had sent both the locket and some baby pictures to her - by mistake, no doubt, but Sue could not make herself return them. "I knew that was all I'd ever have of her."
Worried that she might lose the necklace, which she hoped someday to give to Sarah, she eventually placed it in a jewelry box on her dresser.
Years later, Sue would have another child - a little boy - and now and then, he'd fish out the locket. "Who's that cute little baby?" he'd ask. "Is that me?"
"No," Sue would reply. "That's a little girl named Sarah that I knew a long time ago."
* * *
"I'm trying very hard to relax, trying to be nice although my insides are edgy, frustrated and sad," begins one of Sue's typical letters to her lost daughter.
She tells of the day she went to court to officially give Sarah up. She remembers exactly what she was wearing - black corduroy pants, a black-and-white sweater and boots. She went by herself.
"I sat there for a while, waiting, then had to go outside to compose myself," Sue writes. "It was so hard. I ached."
The judge stared at Sue with a stern expression, as if to drill into her the importance of what she was doing. "You understand," he told her, "that after you leave this courtroom today, it will be as though a child were never born?"
"I do," said Sue.
She was trembling and her eyes were blurred with tears as she walked back outside.
"There is no real reason to bring any of this up," she writes. "I don't have anyone to talk to about this."
* * *
She goes through her days burdened by shame.
She never talks about what she's been through, nor what's going on inside her. Her family never brings it up, either, for fear of upsetting her. As for the rest of the world, Sue has told only a few of her closest friends about Sarah. And that makes her feel like a "liar" in her dealings with everyone else.
Six years ago, Sue decides to go public with her story, in order to make peace with that part of her life and to move forward. Her plan is to submit an essay about it to the Providence Journal, which, back then, devoted a space called "First Person" to writing by readers.
Sue spends about a year thinking about, talking about, and then finally writing a piece about giving up Sarah. She is consumed by the project. Her friends, she's sure, are eager for her to just send it in, already.
"But I couldn't until every syllable was out of my body," she says. "And when it was published in the paper, I really felt free, like even if people didn't read it, I am out of the closet."
Her essay appeared on June 5, 1994, under the headline, "Somewhere today my baby is with loving parents."
She writes of being 17 in the summer of 1980 - naive, confused, into drugs and drinking, with plummeting grades.
Friends have fixed her up with a guy named Kevin - "They said we'd get along great because we were both so funny and adventuresome."
The pair go everywhere together all summer, then break up in November. When Sue finds out she's pregnant, they have one more conversation - "I had to remind him of the week my parents went to the Vineyard and we slept in their bed."
Sue also has to tell her parents.
"I can still remember my mother saying, 'Susan, you're an emotional wreck, how could you ever handle a baby?' Without another word, they agreed I would give my baby up."
A pregnant girl in high school was not as common a sight back then, and, intentionally or not, Sue's schoolmates make life hard. Those who know she'll be giving up the baby feel compelled to comment that "I could never do it because I wouldn't have the heart."
A group of girls throws a baby shower for Sue during graduation practice. "I felt belittled," Sue writes. "That night I drove to the adoption agency and left the presents in the foyer for someone else's child to enjoy."
Two weeks after graduation, on June 26, 1981, the baby is born.
"A girl. She was beautiful. I brushed her red hair once and held her to feed. A memory I'll never forget. The next day a nurse brought her in to me and I kissed her good-bye. I lay on the back seat of my stepfather's blue Citation and cried the entire way home."
Sarah spends three months at St. Vincent's Nursery in Providence. Just as the agency is about to place the baby with a family, Sue alarms everyone by insisting on seeing her one more time. She needs "to say good-by, this time for good, for real, forever."
She holds her for a minute, and both of them cry.
"I loved my child then - and now - more than anyone could know," Sue writes. "The pain in my heart is so great sometimes, but I can't imagine ever living without it.
"I didn't do the right thing for me, but I did do it for her - for Sarah."
* * *
The Sunday that the essay runs, in a house about three miles away from Sue's, a stranger, Connie Decoteaux (pronounced Dakota), picks up her Sunday paper and turns immediately, as she always does, to what was then called the Sunday Brunch section.
Decoteaux is a fledgling writer whose own writing will eventually appear in the First Person space. Until it does, she is faithfully reading whoever else is writing, to weigh their talent against her own.
On this particular Sunday, the headline - "Somewhere today my baby is with loving parents" - makes Connie stop. She feels instinctively - she has no idea how - that this essay is about someone she knows, about a favorite niece, originally named Sarah, now called Jennifer, whom her husband's brother and his wife adopted as a three-month-old.
Connie begins to read the piece, and with each paragraph, her certainty grows. There are so many matching facts: The baby's mother met her boyfriend 14 years ago (Jenn was now 13); the mother used a Catholic adoption agency; she visited the baby in the nursery; and the baby had red hair.
"This is all fitting, this is all fitting," Connie thinks. When she gets to the essay's last two words - "for Sarah" - that clinches it. She sprints across her kitchen to the phone and dials her sister-in-law.
But then, before anyone can answer, she hangs up.
It strikes Connie that if her sister-in-law hasn't seen the article - which she clearly hasn't, or she would have called, for they are quite close - maybe she is better off not knowing.
Because Connie remembers all too well what her own daughter was like at 13, how they argued all the time - "I knew that if she'd had another place to go to, she would've packed her clothes and gone."
No, she thinks, better to leave well enough alone - "Adoption laws are the way they are for a reason."
She paces back and forth in her kitchen for a long time. And for days afterward, the article haunts her. She considers just giving the clipping to her sister-in-law, but then, what if Jenn finds it one day in a file somewhere?
Not knowing what else to do, Connie clips the essay out of the paper, folds it up and carries it in a succession of wallets - for five years.
It's the longest secret she's ever kept.
* * *
This past June, Jennifer Tracz (rhymes with grace), graduates from Coventry High School.
She is a petite and pretty young woman, with fair skin and long, strawberry blond hair. As delicate-looking as she is, she is quite sturdy, with a knack for baseball and a practical, level-headed approach to life.
Her adoptive mother, Karen Tracz, thinks back 18 years to that evening in July 1981, when Catholic Relief Services let them know it had a baby for her and her husband.
It was about 6 p.m. and Karen was getting ready to go to ceramics class. The phone rang. Karen answered it. And what she heard was so exciting, she immediately forgot most of it.
"Where are we supposed to go?" asks her husband, Michael, practically jumping up and down on the couch. Karen had to call back to find out.
On their way to pick up their new child, they stopped first at Connie's, and now all of them together were jumping around. They thought they were getting a boy. Instead, they were presented with this little girl - with red hair, just like Michael's.
"Red. Carrot top. It was sticking out everywhere," Karen said.
The staff told Karen they were giving her this one - "a screaming neemie" - because Karen was 30, and a nurse, who wouldn't be unnerved by such an impatient baby.
"She used to scream so loud, her legs would go out, purple. She was like a board. She hated to wait to be changed, to be fed." People would say, "Oh, my God. Doesn't she make you nervous?" Karen would just look at those little legs and laugh.
The couple were supposed to take the baby home the next day, but she came down with pneumonia and spent a week at St. Joseph's Hospital. Every day, Karen visited her there, and got her ready for bed every night.
"I already knew her by the time she came home," says Karen. "That was kind of good."
They named the baby Jennifer.
She was an active girl. She was climbing out of the crib at 19 months, and quickly mastered the stairs. By the time she was 2, she could hit a baseball with a little bat.
Her favorite toy, though, was a stuffed ET doll. ET suffered so much wear and tear that, at one point, it needed its eyeballs glued back in. Family members joked that when Jenn gets married, she'll take ET down the aisle instead of flowers.
* * *
Karen is widowed now; her husband died two years ago of a heart attack. She lives in Coventry with Jenn and her other daughter, Melissa, who is also adopted.
The girls have always known they were adopted, and Karen has always told them that, when they are old enough, she'll help them find their birth parents.
This past spring, Jenn, on the verge of turning 18, reminds her mother of that promise, but doesn't push the issue - "I didn't want to get her upset." Instead, she pokes around on the Internet, trying to make progress on her own.
Meanwhile, her family is planning to throw a party at the end of June to celebrate Jenn's birthday and graduation.
A few days before the party, Connie comes by with graduation photos of Jenn, and as the two women chat outside on the deck, Karen confides: "She's going to be 18. She's talking about finding her mother, her birth mother."
At last, thinks Connie, the moment has come. Now she can unburden herself of this newspaper clipping.
"Hey, I've got something," Connie says. She pulls out her wallet, withdraws the clipping and hands it over, explaining everything about it - how she found it, why she kept it, why she never showed it to anyone.
Karen reads the article, and when she's finished, declares, "Oh, I don't think it's her."
"Come on," says Connie. "I mean, come on." It's plain to her that Karen simply doesn't want the author of the article - this woman named Sue - to be Jenn's birth mother.
Karen reads it over again, and finally, she has to admit it: "It is. It is."
"Yeah, I know it is," says Connie. "I know it deep down inside, way down deep, to the end of my toes. I know that's her."
"You know," says Karen, "this is going to be as easy as looking it up in the phone book."
She hands the clipping back to Connie.
"If Jenn comes to you first, give it to her."
* * *
Jenn wants her yard to look nice for her graduation party, so she and her best friend Erin Guindon clean it up. They have so much fun doing it, they clean Erin's yard, too, and when they're done, they have a brainstorm: Why don't we start a landscaping business?
They run an ad - just once - in a local weekly called The Reminder, and wait to see what happens. They get two calls. One is from a landscape company looking to hire help.
The other is from a woman named Sue.
* * *
Sue Verrier is not the type to pay for leaf-raking. Ask anyone, she says. "I'm kind of cheap."
But in July, in advance of throwing herself a 36th birthday, she decides the yard is beyond her. She wants to hire a kid to tackle it, and asks around at the high school, at the church, at various schools and all around her West Warwick neighborhood. No luck.
Finally, Sue looks in The Reminder and finds several landscaping ads.
The first person she calls charges hundreds of dollars. The second person has such a thick accent, Sue can't understand him. The third person is a girl - someone named Erin - who can't answer a question without first asking this other girl who's with her - Do we go to West Warwick? Do we charge $10 an hour . . . ?
Why not just put your friend on the phone? suggests Sue.
The two girls agree to come by and look at Sue's yard and give her an estimate.
* * *
On Saturday, June 19, Jenn and Erin walk up to Sue's front door, at 25 Pepin St.
Though it seems that people are home - the car's in the driveway, the front door's open and music is playing in the house - no one comes to the door.
The girls decide, to heck with it for now, we'll call back later. But when they do, no one answers the phone. After a few weeks of nothing happening, they give up landscaping, figuring "if they're all like this, why bother?"
Sue, it turns out, was cleaning her basement when the girls came by and didn't hear the knock. She thinks she's been stood up.
She hires the guy she can't understand.
* * *
Now Jenn's graduation has passed. So has her birthday. It's the beginning of July, and things are starting to settle down in her house.
Except, of course, there's still this matter of finding her birth mother. The fact of being 18 years old is burning in her brain, and makes the search seem urgent.
Late one night, awake and at the computer, Jenn composes a long E-mail message to her favorite aunt, telling her "I want to find my birth mom."
She doesn't want to go to her mother for help, she explains. "Since I have been on her bad side lately, I'd rather not bring up the subject. She knows I have always been interested in finding her, and now that I turned 18 . . . that is what I intend on doing."
Jenn goes on in her E-mail letter to tell Aunt Connie of her efforts thus far: how she's rifled through folders in the house ("I found nothing, not one kind of adoption paper or anything . . ."); rummaged through a filing cabinet ("nothing in there either"); asked her mother directly, and got only limited answers ("She must know more stuff, wouldn't you think???") and has gone on-line, only to learn that she needs certain base-line information before she can get very far.
"What do you think I should do???" Jenn asks. "Should I just be brave and ask her, or should I just keep looking throughout the house myself? I don't want to hurt her feelings. Which I know they will be hurt, 'cause when we talked a few weeks ago, she kiddingly said, 'What? Do you want to leave me now?' I know she was kidding, but still there is a truth in everything.
"I don't think she realizes how serious I am about this."
She is serious, she says, because she needs to know where she came from, whom she takes after. She wants to know if her birth mother is dead or alive, if she is living here or elsewhere - and moreover, "if she thinks about me."
"I don't feel like a whole person," writes Jenn, " 'cause I don't know any of what I need to know. Of course, I know myself to a certain degree, but deep down, I know nothing.
"Do you know any information at all??? I know she talks to you the most out of all the family and I thought maybe she talked to you about any of this."
* * *
All Connie has to do is read Jenn's greeting, and she knows something is up.
Usually, Jenn and Connie's E-mail exchanges follow a whimsical drill, whereby Connie will sign off, "Your beautiful, adorable, loving, wonderful ... Auntie," and then Jenn will start her next E-mail that way - "Dear beautiful, adorable, loving, wonderful ... "
This one begins, "Dear Aunt Connie."
Connie prints out Jenn's long letter and reads it sitting down, then sends back a brief reply:
"I want you to come over to my house as soon as you can. I have something here that will help you. I have had it for 5 years and have been waiting for this day. I was going to keep it for ever. If you never asked, I was never going to show it to you. Come over soon, we have a lot to talk about. And thank you for this, I am honored that you asked me.
"Love, Aunt Connie"
* * *
A few days later, Jenn tells her mother a white lie - that she's off to Aunt Connie's for computer help - and heads over to see this mysterious "something."
They go out onto Connie's deck.
But before Connie will show the newspaper clipping to Jenn, she wants to make sure Jenn knows what she's doing, that she realizes lives could change as a result of this, and that there is no changing them back again.
"You can't go 'Whoa! I don't like this! I don't want to do this, anymore!' Once you open that Pandora's box, it's open."
Connie runs through all the possible nightmare scenarios: That Jenn won't like the woman. That the woman won't like Jenn. That, in the five years since the article appeared, the woman's circumstances have changed. That she has a family now whom she's never told about Jenn. Even that she's a "toothless hooker."
"I thought I hit every problem I could see," says Connie. "I was trying to get her to understand. And finally she got so frustrated. She said, 'Aunt Connie. I just want to ask her some ques-tions.' "
With this, Connie relents. She tells Jenn about the newspaper clipping and hands it to her to read. All of the suspense around it has given it such a charge, Jenn can't immediately grasp its meaning. She reads it again, paying close attention.
She knows her name had been Sarah, and that she was born with red hair.
She says, "Oh, my God."
* * *
Hours pass before Jenn feels ready to look Sue's name up in the phone book. She is at Erin's house by then, and Erin is growing impatient. "What are you waiting for?" she asks, for she had nearly cried to read the newspaper essay.
"I have to think of what to do first," says Jenn.
But Erin can't wait that long and starts flipping through the phone book herself as Jenn watches. When Erin doesn't find the name quickly enough - "she wasn't looking anywhere near V" - Jenn finally grabs the book.
Her eyes run down a list of Verriers, and she runs across the address, "25 Pepin St."
"That sounds familiar," she thinks. Then she makes the connection, and screams.
"What?" asks Erin.
"Hel-lo?" says Jenn, who is shaking now as she prompts her friend. "Sue? Twenty-five Pepin Street?" - the address where no one answered their knock a month earlier.
It's 8 p.m. by the time Jenn musters the nerve to call Sue Verrier - ostensibly to ask if she still wants her yard done. Jenn figures that maybe in doing the lawn, she'll figure out for sure - somehow - whether this Sue Verrier is the same Sue Verrier who wrote the article.
"This is Jenn, calling back about the landscaping," she tells the woman on the other end of the phone. "I don't know if you still want it done or not."
"Absolutely, yes, I do," says Sue, for it was just her bad luck that the landscaper she'd hired never showed up, and her party is three days away. "Is tomorrow morning all right?"
Jenn is supposed to baby-sit her sister that day, but she can get out of it. She tells Sue that tomorrow morning is all right.
They talk a little more before they hang up, with Jenn purposely providing a clue about herself - how she and her friend have been really busy cleaning their own yards, because they had graduation parties, and that she also had a birthday.
Sue's ears prick up.
Since her essay ran, she's obtained certain "non-identifying information" about Sarah from the adoption agency, including the fact that Sarah is now named Jennifer.
(She also knows that the adoptive parents are a nurse and an engineer, that the mother has brothers, the father has sisters, and that they have another adopted daughter, who is younger.)
Now here is this girl Jennifer on the phone, with a recent birthday and graduation. Exactly how old is she?
To find out, Sue makes up a story: She's worried she'll be liable if the girls take a dip in the pool while she's not home and fall and crack their heads open - "So, not for nothing, you guys sound young. How old are you?"
"I just turned 18," says Jenn.
"When was your birthday?" asks Sue, unable to help herself.
Sue almost falls down. Her heart is pounding, and for a few seconds, there is silence on the phone.
After they hang up, Sue immediately calls her mother and grandmother - "You're never going to believe who I'm going to meet in the morning! Sarah!"
* * *
That morning, Sue dresses her "fabulous best" for her job at a roofing company, hoping to impress Jenn, who is to come by with her friend at 7:30 a.m., before Sue leaves for work.
As the hour nears, Sue runs through her house, looking out every window, trying to see the girls before they see her.
As soon as she sees Jenn, Sue's mind goes back 18 years - "Oh, my God, she's the walking image of her father.' " He was small-framed, with fair skin and thick, strawberry blond hair and blue eyes, just like this girl now approaching the house.
At that moment, all of the questions Sue longed to ask her - "thousands of questions, a million questions" - vanish from her mind. The questions have been answered just by seeing her there.
As calmly as possible, Sue walks out to greet her young landscape help. She's got pitchers of water for them, and a radio - "trying to make this the best job in the universe" - and she just keeps staring at Jenn.
"Questions, questions, I gotta ask this girl questions," she thinks to herself. She calls to mind all of the "non-identifying information" she knows - but "how am I going to work this into conversation before I go to work?"
They start walking casually around the yard. "Rake this over here," says Sue, pretending she actually cares. She is dying to hug this girl. She feels somehow apart from herself, as if she has to remind herself to think, to breathe, to stop talking so fast.
"So, do you kids have any younger siblings?" Sue asks, hoping to unearth the detail about Jenn's younger sister.
"I have a little sister. She's 12," says Jenn.
That does it.
When Sue's friend Marita picks her up to go to work, Sue is screaming in the car - "You won't believe who's in my yard! It's her, it's her! You won't believe it! It's her!"
Jenn, for her part, is just as agitated. She can't believe this is real. When she and Erin take a break from their lawn work, Erin says something that stamps itself on Jenn's brain.
"Just think, we could be sitting in your mother's back yard."
* * *
That afternoon at 5, Jenn and Erin are supposed to stop by Sue's to be paid.
Jenn couldn't care less about the money, and her heart is pounding "10 million times a second," but she has the presence of mind to take along her birth certificate and a baby picture.
They arrive at Sue's, along with another friend, Shannon Matteson, who doesn't want to miss this. Sue is keeping an eye on her son and her friend Marita's two children, who are playing in her pool.
She looks up to see the three girls, and her own heart is jumping out of her chest as she heads into the house with them to get the cash. She's trying to act nonchalant; she introduces the girls to the pet turtle who lives in an aquarium near the door. But her brain is racing, trying to think of more questions.
She pays the girls and they're standing around making small talk - with both Sue and Jenn fishing for information - and then it occurs to Sue that she'd better get back out to the kids in the pool.
Although the last thing she wants to do is let Jenn leave her house, she also want to give them an out if they're ready to go. So she bids them good-bye, asking, can they come back next week - to mulch?
Jenn says yes, but hangs back as her two friends go out the front door. She asks Sue, "Can I speak to you privately?"
"Absolutely," says Sue, curious. She has no idea what this is about. She doesn't know that Jenn knows anything about her. She leads Jenn out the side door, where they stand together near a porch swing.
"Um, do you like to write?" asks Jenn.
"Yes, I do," says Sue.
Jenn takes a folded-up copy of the article, highlighted in blue, out of her back pocket - "Are you the same Susan who wrote this?"
"Did you find your daughter yet?"
"No, she's not old enough," says Sue, referring to the adoption laws. "She has to be 21."
"I think this article is about me," says Jenn.
"Are you adopted?"
"What hospital were you born in?"
"Is your mother a nurse?"
"Is your father an engineer?"
"Does your mother only have brothers?"
"Does your father only have sisters?"
"And you have one little sister."
"Yes. I brought my birth certificate and a baby picture," says Jenn, handing them to Sue.
Sue looks at the photo. Her knees buckle and tears come.
The picture shows Jenn as an infant, looking just as she did on the day Sue visited her in St. Vincent's nursery - "So fair. Fair as an Ivory bar with a red mop on her head and blue, blue eyes."
Now Sue really wants to hug Jenn, but again, she holds back. She doesn't want to scare the girl.
"Come in the house," she tells her, and starts flipping through an organizer on her counter, searching for a little card with a newborn baby's picture on it.
She wants to show the picture to Jenn, to say "this is my baby." But she can't find it. It must be downstairs in the rec room.
Jenn goes into front yard to tell her friends what's happening - that "I think it's her" and "she has something to show me." She tells them to go for a drive and to come back in an hour.
Meanwhile, Sue unearths the file - "My proof. Eighteen years of letters and little poems."
* * *
Jenn feels warmed to read this rich cache of writing. "I always wondered, 'Is she thinking about me? Does she think about me?' " Now she has her answer.
She and Sue talk from 6 p.m. till midnight.
Three or four times during the course of the evening, Erin and Shannon stop by, only to be waved away. Finally, at about 10:30, Sue invites them to come on in and join them.
They chat and chat, exclaiming over all of the common ground:
Both Jenn and Sue hate mayonnaise. Both are allergy-prone. For a few years, both attended Mass at the same Coventry parish where Jenn went to school. They're sure they must have encountered one another there.
Jenn also learns that when Sue was pregnant with her, she could not walk down the tomato sauce aisle of the supermarket without feeling nauseated. This is funny because Jenn hates tomato sauce, even on pizza.
Speaking of which - the conversation is so absorbing that Sue utterly forgets that she was supposed to order pizza for Marita's two boys and her son; she gives them cold cereal instead.
She also realizes she's forgotten something else - to give Marita's boys their birthday presents, and the cake that she's baked them. She hands them the still-unwrapped Matchbook toys, then takes a knife to the cake.
She passes a slice of it to Jenn.
"I've never given you a cake in your life," she says, holding back tears. "Here's your first piece of cake from me."
When they finally say good-bye that night, Jenn and Sue stand at the door for a long time, until Sue says what they both are thinking: "We should have a hug, huh?"
It's such a long, warm hug, it makes them want to cry. It feels completely natural - as if, says Sue, they'd been hugging all their lives.
* * *
Over the next few days and weeks, Jenn and Sue are alternately gripped by exhaustion and euphoria.
They sleep more than they they usually do, and when they're awake, they are all revved up and smiling uncontrollably.
"Energy like you can't imagine," says Sue. "For months. I was trying to decide, 'Is this it? This is how happy you're going to be from now on?' I go from very calm to talking a mile a minute and telling everybody everything and I can't physically stop myself. It's pent up or something!"
"Yeah," says Jenn. "I feel like screaming."
The two are in constant touch - either in person, by phone or through E-mail. From the start, says Sue, they discussed such "deep things" as forgiveness.
"You know," says Sue, "I've always been afraid that this kid would come up to me and say, 'How nice to meet you. I hate your guts.'
"If it was me, I think that's how I would be, you know? I wouldn't be so forgiving. I would've said, 'You should've done anything to keep me.' That's what I would say. That's what I would say to me right now: 'You should've known better.' "
Jenn, sitting next to her at the dining room table, wears a serene look as she tells her birth mother that that's ridiculous, that, in fact, she admires her for having given her up.
"She did it for me," Jenn explains. "Not for her, but for me. She could've kept me, and then I might not have turned out right. Her family could've hated her, and we could've lived out in the streets.
"But instead, she gave me a good home."
* * *
To this point, it's all been too easy. Now comes the hard part: Telling Karen, Jenn's mother.
Everyone in Sue's family has been told, including her little boy, Mark Evan. Sue took him to the shore of the Scituate Reservoir, "a big and open place," and spread a blanket on the ground and explained it all.
The boy looked at his mother strangely for a few minutes, then said, "Ma, what you're telling me is, the landscaper is my sister!" Then he remembered the gold locket he'd seen - "That was that baby that you have in your jewelry box?"
He cried. He asked why Sue had never told him before. Sue hugged him and said it's because he was too little. All in all, she thinks he took it very well.
But how will Karen be? Jenn is afraid to even bring up the subject, so much has happened behind her mother's back.
So again, she turns to Aunt Connie for advice. Connie offers to come over her house, so they can break the news together.
"My Mom knew something was up. She was, like, looking at me: What are you up to now? Because whenever my aunt's around, we're up to no good."
They all go out onto the back deck, and Jenn starts telling her. Karen breaks down in tears, so Jenn lets Connie do the rest of the talking.
* * *
"They both have the same hands," says Karen, months later. "The same texture hair."
It's good, of course, that Sue and Jenn have found one another, she says. Just speaking as a nurse, she appreciates how important it is - "When you find your birth mother, you know where you come from. You find out what you have in your family."
And given the unusual way everything came together, this reunion does seem "meant to be."
Karen understands the joy Sue must be feeling now. She's always has been aware that Jenn's birth mother was out there somewhere, and that this person "really loved" Jenn.
On Jenn's birthdays, at Christmastime, on any special occasion, says Karen, "I thought about that woman all day long: 'What you must be thinking today.' "
And yet. And yet.
More than five months have passed since that seismic event and Karen still isn't over the shock of it. She admits to feeling a little jealousy, a sense of having lost her little girl.
She always thought she'd be the one to help Jenn find her birth mother. "And all of a sudden to find out - bing, bang, boom, she's known for four days, she says she didn't want to hurt me - I could not function for two days. ...
"Jennifer is the love of my life," she says. "She's mine. That's it. Nobody could love her more than me or her father."
* * *
It only makes sense that at some point, the two mothers should meet. They give one another a month to get used to the situation, then make a date at the Cowesett Inn.
Karen is in a state over it - "I'm meeting some woman. What am I going to think?"
Sue, too, is "coming unglued." She arrives early at the bar, changes her seat three times and, unable to decide on a drink, orders eight little tastes of assorted white wines. She eats all the peanuts.
When Karen walks in the door, the two immediately connect and Sue feels calmer. They hug. The first thing Karen says is, "Thank you for giving me her."
The two women talk for nearly three hours, and there are "no walls," says Sue. Karen seems "very open" to her, but at the same time, is quite direct. She asks, what exactly does Sue want?
"I want a relationship with Jenn," Sue tells her, and Karen says she can have that, that it's best for everyone if they're all friends.
They spend the next two and a half hours talking over dinner about their lives - their marriages, what it's like raising children alone (Sue is divorced), and also Jenn's future.
When they part with a hug in the parking lot, Sue asks herself, "Why was I worrying?
"Jenn's her daughter. In order for Jenn to be who she is, she had to have a mother like that."
* * *
Summer and autumn pass and then, three weeks ago, with the holidays approaching, Karen's house is destroyed by fire.
Almost everything is lost - almost everything, because a few weeks earlier, Jenn had cleaned up her room, sealing many of her treasures - including family photographs - into plastic bins, which somehow preserved their contents in the basement.
Not saved was Jenn's beloved ET doll, the one that would have been her wedding bouquet. As she carried its charred remains out of the gutted house after the fire was finally out, only relatives knew it was not a family pet.
For a time, Karen and the girls stay with friends and relatives, but after a few days, Jenn moves in with Sue.
It seemed "normal," says Jenn, who has gotten into the habit of stopping by Sue's house between classes at the Community College of Rhode Island, then again in the evening, until quite late.
"I just come and go," she says, at Sue's kitchen table. "I feel rude, though, sometimes."
"Don't be ridiculous," Sue tells her. "My house is your house."
Jenn lives with Sue for two weeks, but finally gathers up her things and moves with her mother and sister into a mobile home on the property, where they plan to rebuild.
They decorate it for Christmas.
Jenn says she will miss it at Sue's, but that it's not where she really belongs.
"I guess I should be home."
* * *
Jenn is still a frequent visitor at 25 Pepin St.
She teases Sue, in fact, about her "motherly" ways - her suggestions that Jenn take a nap, that she wear a parka.
It's true, says Sue, with a helpless shrug.
Especially the first night that Jenn stayed over - "that was big for me," says Sue.
She piled blanket after blanket onto the little futon in her rec room - "like Martha Stewart, trying to make it just perfect" - while, upstairs, Jenn cried about the fire for an hour on the telephone with her mother.
"She was just so sad. It was terrible," says Sue. At the same time, to finally have her daughter there, under her own roof - "it was still nice."
"This," she kept thinking, "is what it must have been like for her parents."
Jenn was so cold and tired that night, Sue rubbed her back to warm her up - with fast strokes to make heat, the same way she warms her little boy. Then she tucked the young woman into the deep drift of covers.
She kissed Jenn on the head.
She told her, sleep tight.