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“Hello?” The voice at the other end was hushed, similar to Jeanne’s. “Anyone there?”
“Yes. May I speak with Jeanne Kerr?” I crossed my fingers.
“Who’s asking?” the voice cracked.
“Its Regina Louise, I think we may’ve met a—”
“I don’t believe so,” the stranger interrupted, her voice turning a shade defensive.
The line went dead.
“… ever work at the Edgar Children’s shelter?” I’d wished to ask. This latest Jeanne joined the long list of crossed-off Jeanne’s I had scribbled on a well-thumbed notepad in pencil, pen and crayon.
The last time I saw the Jeanne I was looking for was in 1977. I was fifteen years old, standing in a juvenile courtroom, in front of a crook-necked microphone, my right hand raised, prepared to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” about what it would mean to live with someone who actually wanted me. I was asking the court to allow Jeanne Kerr, my counselor from the Edgar Children’s Shelter in Martinez, California, to adopt me. Moments earlier, my social worker had presented evidence of my “escalating” behaviors: running away, telling lies, purposefully sabotaging each foster care placement only so I could get back to the shelter, to Jeanne.
I’d met Jeanne on May 1, 1975 – a day before I turned thirteen and arrived at the shelter. 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 anywhere Jeanne was. As a young black girl, growing up without a lick of kin to my name, no one to initiate me into my girlhood, point out my potential, or model what my future could look like, I took my cues from Donna Reed and June Clever. I loved the way they treated the children in their care, their soft-spoken and genteel ways. I prayed to meet someone who would be kind to me, say encouraging words, see what no one else seemed able to: that I was worth the trouble I was born into.
“It’s unnatural, your Honor, how much she loves this woman,” was the social worker’s closing statement. The judge listened. Jeanne’s petition to adopt me was denied. I believe that my social worker didn’t want Jeanne to adopt me because she was a white woman and I was a black girl. The 1972 inaugural convening of the National Association of Black Social Workers had issued a position statement against transracial adoption. According to them, as a black person, I needed to cultivate “the necessity of self-determination from birth to death.” Apparently, a white woman loving a black girl was tantamount to genocide.
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At the time I understood nothing of the historical politics of race and class, or the ill effects of poverty. Now, I understand that this happened during a time when black families, communities, and the ties that once bound us were disintegrating at unfathomable speeds, landing black children into an already overwhelmed foster care system. The idea of black children being bureaucratically snatched from their own communities and adopted into white homes was seen as an attack on the black family. So to keep me from running back to Jeanne, I was placed in a level fourteen residential treatment center for severely emotionally disturbed girls.
By 2002, at age forty, I co-owned and operated two successful hair salons, and my teenage son was a thriving scholar-athlete. I began writing a book about my early teenage years, from ages thirteen to fifteen, a story that followed me through thirty foster homes, through meeting Jeanne and losing her.
“I need you to find me someone to corroborate your story,” Elyse, my editor told me. The word “corroborate” landed hard between us. Incriminating. It was as if I were being accused of lying, or worse.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“This is America, honey, and your memoir claims abuse and neglect, so, what that means is you need to get someone to verify what you’ve written.” She gave me two weeks to find that someone. I felt somewhat optimistic – until Elyse also requested a photo of me as an adolescent girl for the cover of my book. I sat at my desk, and stared at the photos that stair-stepped across the walls of my writing studio. Most were of my son, a few of my partner Stevie Anne. There was the painting Stevie Anne had given me on my fortieth birthday, a portrait of a little black girl with a blue dress, a Peter Pan collar, and amber-brown eyes. She represented what I might’ve looked like as a young girl: same freckles, pigtails, coloring. It was the closest rendering I had of a younger me. Still, it couldn’t vouch for me, say that what had happened had indeed happened, that the life I lived was real, mine, that I did not make it all up.
“Why don’t you try and find Jeanne?” Jane, my writing coach, had nudged again and again. There was no way I’d let her know how I had never stopped searching for Jeanne.
Elyse’s deadline buzzed in the backdrop, and I upped my attempts to locate Tom Brock, my biological father. After all, it was he who I lived with after my mother’s boyfriend tried to do to me what the middle-finger stood for; he who had reneged on his agreement to send $200 by Western Union to my best friend’s mother each month, in exchange for her caring for me. If I couldn’t find Jeanne, maybe he could vouch for my story.
I returned to the street corner in San Francisco’s Mission District where I’d found him, homeless and proselytizing, in 2000. He wasn’t there anymore and I didn’t know where else to look.
I scoured the Internet for Jeanne. Into the “search” box on each site I typed in her name. Marriage license? Nothing. Certificate of birth of child? Nothing. Death certificate? Hesitantly, I punched her name into another search box and watched the ellipsis spin. What if she’s…dead? That too came back with nothing. Perhaps I had made Jeanne up, I began to wonder. But there was the blue corduroy dress she’d hand-sewn, rainbows in my favorite colors arching across the breastbone. There was the way she called me “Sweetheart” or “Punkin,” the way she smelled of Cream of Wheat, warmed milk, vanilla and brown sugar.
As a child, I’d heard that everything I said and did was written in a file, and that the file would inform anyone who wanted to know what an awful child I’d been, and why no one wanted me. I called the county and asked if a file existed. When the large manila package with the return address of Contra Costa County Department of Human Services arrived, I nuzzled it to my bosom like it was a newborn. I opened the envelope and removed its contents. There was a half-inch stack of papers filled to the margins with legal jargon, along with incident reports concerning the various violations I’d committed, and letters from one institutional director to another justifying my need to be “terminated.”
Not present in the file were the reports regarding my time spent in the Security Housing Unit (the “SHU-box”), at Guideways Residential Treatment Center. There were none of the medical consent forms the social worker had sworn my father signed in favor of my being treated with psychotropic drugs: Lithium, Stellazine, Thorazine, Melaril.
I found no roadmap to Jeanne.
With two days left to corroborate my story or else change all the names of the characters in the book, and no leads from the county’s file, I became desperate. I asked Jules, a friend and fellow author, to help me find Jeanne. A correspondent at a well-known magazine, she had access to databases unavailable to people like me. I gave her Jeanne’s full name, her birthdate, and approximate age.
The deadline passed before Jules finished her search, and I changed all the names of the characters in my manuscript, calling Jeanne “Claire.” Elyse approved a stock photo from Corbis.com of a young brown-skinned girl holding an umbrella; her identity obscured. My sense of erasure felt bone deep.
The same week I changed the names of the characters in my book, I gave the county envelope another go-through, thinking I may have overlooked a clue leading to Jeanne. As I picked up the file, a smaller envelope glided to the floor. I hadn’t noticed it the first time around. Once white, time had patinated the edges and the fold a rusty-gold. There were letters from Jeanne. Clearly, someone had opened them, read them, and Xeroxed the originals. This was my proof she was real.
Although this additional information, and Jules’ LexisNexis search results, had arrived a week too late, Jules had found an address. I wrote Jeanne a letter on paper with beveled edges and sealed it with a kiss in Russian red lipstick.
From Seattle to New York, I read to audiences. Along the way I gave interviews where everyone asked about “the woman in the book who once loved you.”
“Do you know her whereabouts?” some asked. “Has she ever reached out to you?” In between the questions, I thought about the letter that sat at the bottom of my purse, with bright red letters stamped on the envelope: Addressee Unknown. It had been returned to me the day my tour began, Jeanne’s address no longer accurate. I vowed to keep it close, a secret reminder that I was tired of looking for people who clearly weren’t looking for me.
In Los Angeles, during an interview, Tavis Smiley said: “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?”
“Someone to say they are proud of me,” I answered.
I left Tavis’ studio and headed back to my hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Comfortably nestled in my room, I opened my email and came across the subject line: “I am so proud of you, sweetheart!”
I opened the message. It was from Jeanne. Evidently an old co-worker of hers had read a newspaper article in which the reporter revealed “Claire Kennedy’s” real name, and called Jeanne to tell her “Your Regina is looking for you.”
“Please reach out to me once your tour is done,” Jeanne requested in her email. “I don’t want to be a bother.” I was stunned.
Eager to determine whether this was really my Jeanne, I dialed the number given in the email immediately.
“Hello?” The voice at the other end of the line sounded hushed, just as I remembered Jeanne’s timbre; her particular way of saying ‘hello’ softened me from the inside out.
“I can’t believe its you,” I somehow managed to say. “I never stopped thinking of you.”
“You were my first child.” Her words reverberated; my ears were caverns. “I never stopped loving you.” All I could do was listen. “They said I was the wrong color, and that I wasn’t allowed to love you.”
The weight of her words matched up easily with the familiar feeling I’d carried around my whole life, that somehow being born black was synonymous with being unwantable, unlovable.
“I have something I want to give you. It is your birthright,” Jeanne said. Thinking it was a trust fund, I held my breath excitedly.
“I want to make you my daughter.”
Her daughter? There I was, 27 years gone by between us, with no birthdays, no holidays, no rites of passages celebrated, and no photos stair-stepping up or down the walls of her den. Silence filled the space between us. What will I call her?
I sat for six hours at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, waiting out Tropical Storm Grace. She’d hit the shores of Florida, delaying Jeanne’s plane. I paced, Olivia Pope style, cased the flight information board in the waiting room, smoothed the folds from my chocolate-colored skirt. I wanted to look daughter-appropriate. I’d chosen a pair of Cynthia Rowley Mary Jane wedges in soft pink, a custom-designed handbag. A woman rushed towards me, her long gray, nearly white ponytail swinging from the back of a Mercedes-Benz-emblazoned baseball cap. She wore an oversized knit sweater splattered with gigantic multi-colored peonies, green polka-dotted Capri pants, and kitty-cat ankle socks paired with a well-worn pair of New Balance running shoes.
It had been nearly three decades since I’d seen the only person who’d ever said “I love you.” Nearly three decades since I had heard her voice, felt her fingertips lift my chin through the weight of my grief of having to leave her, and there I stood, head tilted to one side like a curious puppy. I would not have worn those pieces together if God himself had ordered me to. I was flushed with teenage mortification. And it was then that I knew I was not only a daughter, but her daughter. I’d earned a full adolescent-hood of stripes in that one spectacularly public shaming moment.
“Hi…Mommy,” I said. I felt electrified saying it for the first time. Ever. My entire life I had incubated that word, my body a safe deposit vault, guarding the word until I could finally give it its rightful resting place. The mere utterance of such a primal sound became mercurial, filling in the fissures of my soul. Jeanne handed me a small photo album. I placed it in my handbag. I was not prepared to lay eyes on that particular little girl who had to die in order for the adult me to be standing there, silently screaming time away, begging every one of Jeanne’s gray hairs to tell me their story.
In November 2003, I stood in the same juvenile courtroom where Jeanne’s first request to adopt me had been denied. I was 41 years old, and there I was with my son, Jeanne, her husband and son, my partner Stevie Anne and her family, in front of a crook-necked microphone, our hands raised to “solemnly swear” to each day live with people who were choosing to be with one another, as a family.
After the judge swore us to live, and honor, and love one another 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.”