Imagine receiving a letter that begins something like this: “Hi, my name is Michelle, and I think I’m your daughter.”
If you’re a woman who has never given birth to a baby girl, you’d label this a case of mistaken identity at best, a hoax at worst. But if you did bear a child three decades ago that you gave up for adoption, the letter would probably elicit a much different response.
And that is exactly what happened when Mary Sanchez, living in southern California at the time, opened such a missive in January 1997.
“When I saw the name on the return address, I thought the letter was from an old summer-camp friend that I’d lost touch with. But as soon as I began reading, I realized it wasn’t from her. I was flabbergasted,” remembered Mary. “It was two pages long and included a photo of a pretty woman with her husband and two children. Coincidentally, she had the same last name as my friend. She also looked enough like her birth father to leave no doubt as to who she was.”
Besides writing about her family, Michelle related how she had hired an investigator specializing in family searches to find her birth parents. Since Michelle’s father’s name was on the legal adoption papers, and men rarely alter their last name, he was easier to locate than Mary, whose last name had changed by this time.
Once the search began, it took just a few weeks to identify both individuals.
As Mary continued reading the letter, she came across two sentences that still warm her heart: “Could we please get together? I would love to meet you.”
“At that point, I just sat down on the couch and started to cry, then I told my husband about her. He was even more flabbergasted than I was, because he didn’t know she existed,” said Mary, who vividly recollected his eight-word response: “You what? Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
According to Mary, her husband, Jose, was more shocked than judgmental.
“He was very accepting of the news,” she said. His support for the two women to connect was immediate as evidenced by his next question to Mary, “When can we meet her?”
“It wasn’t anything that I ever expected to have resolved, so I never talked about it,” explained Mary, who moved to a home for unwed mothers in Los Angeles when she became pregnant with Michelle at 16.
“I wasn’t old enough to care for myself, much less a baby,” she added. After giving birth, she turned the baby over to an adoption agency and signed mandatory paperwork agreeing to never try to locate the child.
“I felt I had given up that right. Plus, I didn’t want to upset her or her adoptive parents. Over the years, I often wondered what had become of her, but never to the point where I’d remotely try to find her,” stated Mary, who appreciated that Michelle made the initial contact by letter rather than by phone.
“I think calling cold turkey would have been hard on both of us,” she said. “When I was ready to reply, I didn’t trust myself to talk on the phone, because I didn’t want to sound like a crybaby,” she admitted. Instead, Mary wrote an email back, inviting Michelle and her family to come to her home. Considering Michelle lived less than 100 miles away, it was logistically simple to arrange.
Unsurprisingly, their initial meeting was one of the most memorable days of Mary’s life. Her first thought upon seeing her daughter was how much she resembled her birth father. Michelle’s first thought was how much she, herself, resembled Mary—especially her smile.
“It was summer, and we all had cool drinks and just sat around my living room and got acquainted for a few hours. We hugged and kissed. We were both shy and excited at the same time, not sure how we’d be received. That quickly passed, though,” remembered Mary. “Getting to know Michelle, her husband, and two children was more wonderful than I could have hoped it to be. She is a warm, loving person and was as happy to meet me as I was to meet her. There was no recrimination of any kind. It was just a real feel-good meeting. Before they left, we’d made plans to see each other again.”
One reason Michelle wanted to find her birth mother was to obtain family medical history. The other reason was to see if they might possibly establish a relationship. Michelle had known from a young age that she was adopted. The man and woman who raised her were the kind of parents whom adoption agencies dream about working with, and they never considered withholding that information. So it was not unusual for Michelle’s adoptive mother to encourage her to find her birth mother.
“In raising Michelle, her parents gave her the self-confidence and permission to do what she needed to do to make her life feel complete,” praised Mary. “I can never thank them enough for that and all they did for Michelle. Their unconditional love and guidance turned her into the amazing woman she is today. My gratitude knows no bounds.”
The get-togethers continued as often as the two families could synchronize schedules until 2005. That’s when the Mary and Jose bought some property in Ferndale, Mont., that they’d fallen in love with and began a new life there.
“Fewer people, less traffic, no sales tax, clean air, clean water, and a price we could afford—we were thrilled,” Mary said. “It’s the best move we’ve ever made. Jose and I were in total agreement about it.”
To their delight, Michelle visited them for the first time this past summer. She flew into Kalispell, rented a car, and drove to Ferndale with her phone arm hanging out the window taking videos of the lush farm and mountain landscape to share with family and friends back home.
“We did touristy things. Shopped in Bigfork walking hand-in-hand down the street; ate at different restaurants, went down to the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas near Arlee, and drove around Flathead Lake,” recounted Mary. “She was constantly amazed at how gorgeous everything was.”
While it was certainly a mother-daughter reunion, Jose was part of the picture every step and mile along the way. Despite his willingness to give the gals quality time alone together, Michelle had other ideas on that subject. Leaving him at home was never an option as far as she was concerned.
“She insisted he come with us, and he was very pleased to be included,” said Mary, smiling. “Jose is really good at being a piece of furniture. As long you don’t try to sit on him, he’s okay.”
When Michelle left to head back to the airport, Jose’s words summed up Mary’s feelings precisely: “It feels like there’s a hole in the room.”
Although some women might be reluctant to share experiences like this, Mary Sanchez had no such qualms. On the contrary, she valued the opportunity to relate her story.
“I am so privileged to know this beautiful person. People should be aware of the blessings available for them if they will just be more open-minded and less judgmental,” said Mary. “Michelle was a gift when she was born. I gifted her to adoptive parents. Now I’ve been re-gifted to have her back in my life and to hear her call me ‘mom.’”