Elizabeth Hunterton says finally tracking down her biological mother — and learning she was not the one who left her in the airport — has been "so much more beautiful than anything I could've written"
Elizabeth Hunterton
Credit: Eric Ita Photography

Elizabeth Hunterton always knew she had been adopted, and spent her youth dreaming that perhaps she'd come from royalty — a misplaced princess who'd been lifted away on the talons of a majestic eagle.

The truth, she'd come to learn, was less glamorous: She was discovered abandoned at the gate of a Nevada airport by two pilots in January 1980, with nary a clue as to how she wound up there.

"I was about 10 days old," she tells PEOPLE. "I grew up my entire life trying to figure out what I did in those 10 days that ultimately led to them saying, 'Let's just leave her at the airport.'"

Though she was quickly adopted into a loving home, Hunterton, now 41, says she spent years allowing the missing puzzle pieces of her life to gnaw at her — until this past August, when, thanks to 23andMe, she was able to connect for the very first time with her biological mother.

"It was really through this process of finding my birth mother that I'm able to rewrite my narrative," she says. "I had really prepared myself to be rejected by both sides of my biological family… And It ended up being so much more beautiful than anything I could've written."

Elizabeth Hunterton
Elizabeth Hunterton as a baby
| Credit: Courtesy Elizabeth Hunterton
Elizabeth Hunterton
Elizabeth Hunterton
| Credit: Courtesy Elizabeth Hunterton

Hunterton, who was crowned Miss Nevada in 2004 and still works for the organization as CEO, was raised in a white family in Reno, uncertain about her own race and left wondering if everyone from her friends to her Starbucks barista were somehow related to her.

She was aware of her unconventional origin story, and always planned to try and find her biological parents, but had little to work with — no known birthplace, birth date or race made things tricky, even with help from a private investigator sent by the TLC show Long Lost Family. (He was unsuccessful).

"When this all started unfolding, there were certainly points that I thought to myself, 'Maybe I'll just walk away now,' because it just got hard," she says.

Elizabeth Hunterton
Elizabeth Hunterton with her husband Nate, stepson Cameron, and sons Eli and Nathanel
| Credit: Bob Campbell Photography

Though DNA databases helped her track down her biological father in 2018, she learned he had died in 2004, and never even knew she'd been born, leaving her with even more questions than when she started.

Her journey was only about to get even more complicated: When her 23andMe profile found a few hits in March, she reached out to three different women thinking they could be a match. Each time, she began to build a relationship but was crushed to learn that the women — all related to her in some distant way — were not her mother.

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She decided to throw in the towel on her search, deciding that the first woman, who had passed away, had to be her biological mother: "I pulled out my bucket list, crossed it off, wrote her name down, and that was it," she says.

But just as she shifted her focus away from her search and back on to helping her 5- and 6-year-old sons with at-home schooling, she received yet another connection, this time a second cousin who was finally able to put her in contact with her birth mother.

In August, she summoned the courage to send a handwritten, two-page letter — and soon, she was able to communicate with her biological mother for the first time ever, in the form of an emotional email that finally snapped the long-missing puzzle pieces into place.

Elizabeth Hunterton
Elizabeth Hunterton's letter to her biological mother
| Credit: Courtesy Elizabeth Hunterton

She now knew after all this time details most people take for granted: she had a Black father and a Japanese mother who'd met at the Fort Ord military base, and she was born in a hospital in California. She also learned that the airport abandonment, long a source of pain, hadn't been intentional.

"When I received her email, she shared that she wasn't able to take care of me as she believed I deserved," Hunterton recalls. "Therefore, she gave me to her roommate who was supposed to take me to an adoption agency. When my birth mother was told that I was actually left at the airport instead, it took quite a toll."

Hunterton says the shock of the letter's contents initially sent her spiraling — but now that she had the knowledge of exactly where and when she'd been born, she was able to track down her birth certificate.

Elizabeth Hunterton
Elizabeth Hunterton with her parents Catherine and Tom
| Credit: Courtesy Elizabeth Hunterton

Lo and behold, she had coincidentally been given the middle name "Elizabeth" at birth, a discovery Hunterton says helped her feel more connected to her identity.

In an emailed statement Hunterton is sharing with PEOPLE, her biological mother — who requested anonymity as she continues to come to terms with the recent, unexpected connection — says that she was initially "surprised, scared and truly overwhelmed" by the prospect of meeting her long-lost daughter, but is now looking forward to the day they can meet in person.

"I was shocked to hear from her and by the amount of research she did. It was all very overwhelming and brought back a lot of painful memories," the 65-year-old says in the email. "However, it's also a tremendous blessing to find out what a strong and wonderful woman she turned out to be. One day, when we've all healed a bit more, hopefully we'll be able to meet."

Hunterton says she's still unsure whether her birth mother ever tried searching for her, but feels as though she'd never forgiven herself for what happened, and therefore had never allowed herself to search. Only now is she beginning to heal.

"She has such a good heart," she says. "We exchange occasional emails and texts and holiday niceties. But the good thing is, I have a mom. I don't need to put any unfair, unrealistic expectations on her. I just give her permission to be exactly who she is and it's perfect."

Elizabeth Hunterton
Elizabeth Hunterton with her parents, Catherine and Tom
| Credit: Courtesy Elizabeth Hunterton

Hunterton's biological mother recently moved into a two-bedroom condo in the Bay Area — and out of her father's home for the first time. The author and consultant says she hopes that once coronavirus restrictions ease, they'll be able to meet in person.

"She's now giving herself permission to live her life and it's actually pretty beautiful," says Hunterton. "She says, 'All my hopes and dreams are in you. I never thought that anybody that looked like you could come from me, somebody that's poised and eloquent and successful. Those are just things that never happened for me. But here you are.' So now she's living her life, and it's pretty beautiful to watch her heal and kind of come to life.'"

She adds: "I think that was a really beautiful way for the story to unfold, that in the end, it flowed so beautifully, both through my mom, myself and my birth mother. It really kind of unified all three of us in different ways. But it was all I could've ever hoped for to hear from her."