Jean Strauss does not show her feelings lightly. She is a disciplined woman who almost made the U.S. Olympic rowing team—a woman who still thinks that rising at dawn to flog a reluctant scull through bone-chilling waters is good for the soul.
But on an early-morning plane to Minneapolis last month, Strauss could not even try to hide her emotion. “I feel nervous,” she said, dandling her year-old firstborn, Kristoffer, on her knee. “I feel excited. I feel like smiling a lot. My stomach is still back on the ground. I’ve only had seven hours sleep in four days.”
Strauss was on her way to Minneapolis for an event about which she had long dreamed: She was to meet her natural mother for the first time, the stranger who, in lonely misery, bore her in California 33 years ago. Almost as important, she was to meet her four half brothers and three half sisters, whose existence just a week ago she wasn’t even sure of. Like uncounted Americans, Strauss had spent years of heartbreaking effort to unearth this long-hidden family; the records of her quest filled a journal an inch and a half thick, and now she was about to be rewarded. In that, she was luckier than thousands of adoptees, whose desperate gropings through dusty documents never even lead to a name. Strauss had found many names: Lenore Love was her mother, and people named Sue, Bobby, Charlie, Cathy, Mike, Jim and Mary were her brothers and sisters. She had voices to go with most of the names because she had talked to them on the phone. She even had an appointment to see them: On arrival, today. And now, like so many adoptees who finally succeed in such a search, she was scared.
The plane landed, and Strauss hefted Kristoffer, put on the black floppy hat she had promised to wear for identification and marched into the airport.
Nobody was waiting to welcome her.
She scoured the concourse, ticket area, baggage carousels. She haunted the paging phone and called the homes of her newfound family. Nobody answered. An hour passed. “I’ve imagined so many different ways that this [reunion] could happen,” she said, “but this wasn’t one of them.” Suddenly, her face wore the look of one whose secret fear may be realized. “I need a hug,” she said.
The Daughter’s Story
“I grew up in Lafayette, California,” Jean Strauss had said a few days earlier. She was sitting in the women’s dining room of her private club in Worcester, Mass., wearing a proper print summer dress and looking like the New England college president’s wife she is. “I was born in Martinez, 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. I was adopted through an agency there. From before I can remember, my parents had a storybook they read me about being adopted. They made me feel that the woman who was my natural mother cared about me, that it was difficult for her to let go. I grew up with great parents, and I felt lucky on all counts.” She was raised, along with adopted brother Joe, by Lou and Betty Sacconaghi, a comptroller and a housewife, and although Lou died when she was 9, she had a happy childhood. She took her history degree at Berkeley in 1978, tried out for the 1980 U.S. Olympic single-sculls team, played pro tennis briefly and began studying for a master’s in writing at USC. While there she worked as the university’s Olympic coordinator and met Jon Strauss, a USC vice-president. They married in 1985 and moved east when he became president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She became pregnant, then went to California to succor her adoptive mother through a struggle with cancer that proved fatal last year. “I never talked to my mom about searching,” Jean says. “I didn’t want her to feel our relationship was threatened.”
But all those years, one question had persistently demanded an answer. “I wanted to find my roots,” she says.
As it happened, one of Jean’s USC professors back in 1983 had been looking for his daughter, who had been put up for adoption, and one afternoon, they talked. “He was so angry about how closed the records are,” she recalls, “I began to get furious myself.” She decided she had to find her mother, whom her adoptive parents said had been a secretary, and in December 1983 she discovered legal papers in her adoptive mother’s safe: Jean Strauss, she learned from them, was born Cecelia Anne Porter. She wrote to the agency that had handled her adoption and found out more. The records said that her mother was born in Portland, Ore., Aug. 10, 1934, and that her father was a medical student of Norwegian ancestry. The records gave neither parent’s name, but she did learn that in 1960 her mother had actually asked about her. “I knew then that she cared,” Strauss says. “That really made me feel good. They also told me that by the time I was 5, my mother had four other children. I guess that’s how I became obsessed, when I realized I had four siblings—not just parents but contemporary siblings. I’d always wanted to come from a big family.”
She went to the California hospital where she was born; a records clerk brought files on Jean and her mother but wouldn’t let Jean see them. Strauss says, “I thought, ‘Grab them. Pick them up and run.’ But then I thought, ‘What if I get arrested? My mother doesn’t know I’m searching.’ I wasn’t comfortable with her finding out that way.” When her hospital record was finally released to her in 1984, all of the identifying information had been whited out.
The Mother’s Story
“The ’50s were not nearly as humane as people like to believe,” says Lenore Love—born Lenore Cecelia Porter—in her small, neat apartment in eastern Washington State. “They had the McCarthy period, the Hungarian Revolution…. We have a tendency to romanticize the naive, innocent ’50s, but the society was not tolerant. Other than murder, I can’t think of what a girl could do that was worse than what I did.
“I had a job as secretary to the registrar at the University of Oregon Medical School. I just had one or two dates with this student—I was not a loose woman. He took me to a bar. I’m not a drinker, and I don’t remember much. I remember him holding me. I remember him saying, ‘I guess we’ll have to get married’ or something like that.” She never dated the student again, but four months later she went to a doctor. “I didn’t believe him when he told me I was pregnant,” she says. “Then the doctor took me out to his car and sat me down. He knew I was a young Catholic person. He said, ‘Lenore, the baby’s head is already four centimeters big.’ I can remember that like it was last night. I was terrified. I felt like running, but there was no place to run.
“My mother was softer than my father. He just sat and stared at me, his eyes going right through me. It must have been an awful shock for his baby girl to make this terrible mistake. His only reaction was that I could come home for Christmas—I wasn’t showing yet—then I would have to go away. If I was a good girl, this wouldn’t have happened.” Her voice falters.
The med student denied any responsibility. A priest sent Lenore to wait out her pregnancy at a Seattle old-age home, but she fled in terror after an elderly woman in a nearby bed died in the middle of the night. Lenore rode Greyhound buses until she fetched up in the California home of friends of her parents. They took her in, reluctantly and with hostility, and let her stay until April 12. That day, with nobody she knew by her side, she gave birth.
” ‘You have a beautiful baby daughter. How can you dare give her up?’ ” Lenore says the doctor asked her. “I called my parents, and I was told I couldn’t bring her home,” she says. “I held her and I held her. I got to bottle-feed her. Those were not easy days; they would take her away to the nursery for the night. I knew those days were going to come to an end. I had signed the papers. I had to hand her over to a caseworker in a car. It was brutal. I watched the taillights go around the corner. I just stood there. I didn’t know what to do.”
The distraught young woman returned home. Within 10 days her mother had introduced her to Lou Iacarella, a teacher 10 years her senior. They married five weeks later. “The priest took Lou aside and told him I was not a virgin,” Lenore says. “I was this fallen woman, this Mary Magdalen. When Lou and I quarreled, I would say to myself, ‘Remember who you are. You’re not worthy to tie his shoelaces.’ ” Though Lenore moved to Minneapolis with lacarella and bore him seven children, the marriage was unhappy; it ended in divorce and annulment after the church ruled that parental pressure, not love, was the basis of the union.
Lenore never forgot her lost daughter. “I’d look for Cecelia in each one of them,” she says of her seven other offspring. They were told about their missing sibling. Says Charlie: “I always said I came from a family of eight.”
After the divorce—her husband died four years ago—Lenore moved to Washington State, married Russell Love there, divorced last year and kept searching for the child she had given up for adoption. She even registered with adoptee organizations. But she wasn’t looking for her daughter alone: Lenore, like Jean, was adopted, and she wanted to find her own parents. “I want to know me,” she says. “There’s a chink missing from adopted people. An answer is an answer, even if it’s on a tombstone.” Lenore still has no answer about her own parents.
In 1984 Strauss wrote to Portland for copies of city directories from the mid ’50s and pored through them for any secretary named Porter. There weren’t any. A few weeks later, looking yet again, she accidentally saw the heading “STEN” and realized it was short for “stenographer.” Looking hastily down the names, she found a Lenore C. Porter listed at the Oregon Medical School. “In 1985, I was in Portland on Olympic business,” Strauss says. “I drove past the places where Lenore C. Porter had lived, but I never got the guts to go in.” She did visit the medical school. From class lists she concluded that her father had graduated in 1955, so she wrote to state agencies and obtained copies of his medical and driving records. The man she identified is a psychiatrist in the northwest, and she wrote to him.
“I was satisfactorily married in 1955,” the doctor replied, denying parenthood but wishing her well. It would be three years before Strauss learned that the adoption agency was wrong; her real father is not Norwegian.
Strauss devoted her next several years to marrying, having her baby, caring for her dying adoptive mother and completing her master’s degree. By last spring she was getting discouraged about ever finding her roots, and her husband, Jon, suggested she try a detective. Strauss hired Sheila Klopper, a San Jose private investigator, who scoured Portland records for a marriage license for Lenore C. Porter. Finally, Klopper located Lenore’s marriage certificate in a town 150 miles from Portland and through it was led to Iacarella’s hometown, Minneapolis. Minutes later, dialing the Iacarellas in alphabetical order, she reached a distant relative who gave her Lenore’s phone number in Richland, Wash.
Strauss stared at the number. What could she say? And how could she say it? What if her birth mother no longer wanted to hear from her?
Impulsively, she dialed directory assistance for the Catholic Church nearest Richland, and then events moved very fast. Lenore: “I know all the priests around here. I’ve worked as a choir director and organist. Father Leonard called me. He said, ‘Your daughter wants to know if you would be willing to talk to her.’ Then it dawned on me: ‘You mean Cecelia?’ ” Jean: “The priest called me right back. He said, ‘Call her. She’s been looking for you, too.’ ” Their first words were “Hello, Lenore?” “Cecelia?” “I talked to her for 45 minutes,” Jean says. “Before I hung up, she said, ‘Do me a favor. Call Sue.’ When I talked to Sue, she said, ‘Call Bobby and Charlie.’ They said, ‘Call Kathy…’ All of a sudden I had seven brothers and sisters, and seven nieces and nephews. It was overwhelming.” Almost immediately, everybody decided to meet in August on Lenore’s 54th birthday, in Minneapolis, where most of the lacarella children still live. Only Lenore was wracked by anxiety. “Jean’s voice was so much different than mine,” she worried. “It was a stranger’s voice. Deeper and stronger than I thought it would be. I don’t know what to expect.”
Lenore gave Jean the name of her biological father. Strauss found that he is now on the faculty of an eastern medical school, and she wrote him. He has never responded. When Lenore heard about the letter, she started a daylong crying jag. “I’m much angrier with him than I ever knew,” she says.
“Jean Strauss, please pick up the nearest phone, “said the voice on the airport’s PA system, and after she did, they all came running through the terminal, a jumble of lacarella children and grandchildren and spouses, with Lenore struggling to keep up; they swept their new sister and daughter into their arms in a mass of kisses.
“We’ve been here three hours,” Sue said. “We were at the wrong gate. It’s a typical screwup for this family.”
They drove, in four cars, to Sue’s home in Minneapolis…
“She just fascinates me,” said Lenore. “She has a real resemblance to Bobby over there.” The room was filled with Iacarellas, all searching for resemblances: One had Jean’s chin, another her smile, and Michael, the oldest, played the trombone, like Jean.
“I always wanted a big family,” Strauss repeated. “Now I’ve got one.”
It was not all smooth. “I find myself trying to keep Lenore at a distance,” Jean confessed, “because she’s so intense sometimes.” None of them intends to be distant for long. Jean has already made tentative plans to meet with many in her new family again.
At dinner somebody asked whether, on that day when the social worker’s car pulled away, Lenore imagined she would ever see her daughter again. Lenore started to answer, her composure broke, and tears flowed freely. Jean took her hand, squeezed it and looked into her eyes; Lenore looked at her daughter with love and amazement.
“Everyone told me back then that I had made a terrible mistake,” she said. “But Jean wasn’t a mistake.”