Memories Shrouded in Doubt
When you grow up the way Regina Louise grew up -- abandoned by her parents, physically abused by caretakers, shuttled from foster home to foster home -- you learn to doubt your memories. Even the good ones, especially the good ones, come with a disclaimer: Maybe they never happened.
Louise remembered that a woman once wanted to adopt her. The woman took Louise to the ballet and opera, taught her to believe in herself, and made her a beautiful blue dress with rainbows and hearts stitched on the front.
Then the woman disappeared from her life.
By the time Louise, the successful owner of two Bay Area hair salons, sat down to write her memoir in 1999, she was 37, and none of the adults from her childhood who could corroborate her stories could be found.
The scars on her body told her she had been beaten. But did the blue dress ever exist? Was the love that deep? Maybe myth had mixed with memory. Maybe it never happened.
This is the inheritance sometimes left to children who leave foster care with no lasting bonds with adults: There is no one around to tell the kinds of stories that seed memories, stories that start with “Remember when you ... ?”
What she could recall, and what she felt, she wrote down. In the summer of 2003, Louise’s memoir, “Somebody’s Someone,” arrived in bookstores. Though she did not know it then, writing about her dark past would alter her future in ways she had only dreamed about as a child.
Louise was a toddler when her biological mother left her in Austin, Texas, in the care of a woman who took in kids. Her father only vaguely knew she existed.
Louise was often mistreated. At the age of 11 she ran away to North Carolina to rejoin her mother, who did not want her. She was sent to Richmond, Calif., to be with her father, who also rejected her. She ended up in the foster care system.
In 1975, on the eve of her 13th birthday, Louise arrived at a children’s shelter in the Bay Area city of Martinez. Jeanne Taylor worked at the shelter, and where others saw bad behavior in Louise, Taylor saw potential.
She nourished it with trips to the opera and ballet and by demonstrating to Louise her potential for good. When Louise showed up with Converse sneakers that she had stolen, Taylor made her return them. But mostly she made the girl want to behave.
Taylor wanted to adopt the girl, and Louise wanted more than anything to be adopted by her. But some social workers -- and the National Assn. of Black Social Workers -- preferred to place black children with black families, believing those homes to be more suitable settings. Taylor was white, single and 31.
The court denied her petition to adopt.
That denial meant Louise would spend the rest of her childhood moving: She lived in at least 30 homes and facilities in all. She became an expert at running away, figuring that if she kept leaving places she did not want to be, a social worker would put her in the one place she felt at home -- with Taylor.
Instead she was sent to a restricted treatment facility for severely disturbed youth. It was bad enough to feel alone, but now her keepers treated her as if she were mentally ill, medicating her.
Taylor sometimes visited Louise, but with restrictions. The two could not leave the facility’s grounds; the best they could do for privacy was to drive around the parking lot talking. Eventually, Louise stopped hearing from Taylor. She did not understand why. And the question would trouble her for years.
But the fact that Taylor had wanted her, had believed in her, sustained Louise; it made her want to make something of herself. She did well enough in school to be accepted to seven colleges.
With all her belongings stuffed in a garbage bag, she left her last group home for San Francisco State, as alone as when she had entered the foster care system. There would be no family to turn to, no home to visit during the holidays, no one to say, “I am so proud of you, sweetheart.”
Louise studied social work and theater but did not graduate from college. At 23 she had a son. She married and divorced and for several dreary years she floundered. She worked for a temp agency, had a paper route, ended up for a time at a women’s shelter.
A turning point came when Louise revisited a childhood dream of becoming a hairstylist. After cosmetology school she landed an apprenticeship at a Vidal Sassoon salon. She and a business partner then opened a salon of their own, and then another.
Even as life got better, the past continued to dog Louise. She decided that writing a book was the best way to let go.
When her editors asked for people who could be contacted to corroborate her story, she requested her file from the social services department.
There she found something she never expected: letters Taylor had sent years ago. Nobody back then had bothered to give them to Louise.
“Some things we must face alone, but I am always with you in spirit,” Taylor wrote in 1976. “You are always in my heart.”
Instead of resolving questions of doubt, the old letters revived them:
If she loved me then, Louise asked herself, where is she now? Did she forget me?
Louise never forgot Taylor. Again and again she asked: Where is she? What happened?
Louise started trying to find her, searching the Internet, checking marriage records, even putting up posters in their old neighborhood.
As her book was nearing publication, a friend produced a list of potential addresses for Taylor. Louise, who was living in Berkeley at the time, went to all of the local addresses, hoping Taylor would answer the door with a Hi, pumpkin.
She wrote letters to the addresses out of town. Then, as she remembered, she had an angry talk with God.
OK, I’m done, God.... I’ve spent my life looking for this woman, bettering myself for that moment when I knew we were going to meet [again]. I knew it. And you mean to tell me I was following my heart, and this is what it’s about?
After her book was released, Louise gave an interview to a Bay Area paper and, in her frustration, used Taylor’s real name. (Taylor had been given a pseudonym in the book.) A woman who had worked at the Martinez shelter 25 years ago read the article and tracked down Taylor, who was living in Alabama.
During the first week of her book tour, an e-mail landed in Louise’s laptop with the message line, “I am so proud of you, sweetheart.”
Louise opened it and thought, Somebody’s playing a trick on me. The words were guarded, not effusive, but the message was clear: The woman Louise had been looking for wanted her to call. The e-mail was signed “Jeanne.”
It was too much to fathom. Louise closed the computer.
At Long Last
Days later, she called the number, expecting to hear a recorded message. Instead she heard Taylor’s sing-song voice.
Louise tried to catch her breath. Then she stammered, “May I speak to ... is Jeanne....”
Then it was Taylor’s turn to need air.
“Is that you?” she said. “Is that my baby girl? You were my first child. I never stopped loving you. I wanted you.... I tried.... “
Louise had to pull the phone away from her ear to mask the sound of her tears.
Learning the Truth
In the conversations that followed, the women filled in the lost decades.
After her adoption petition was denied, Taylor had tried to stay in touch, but her letters went unanswered. She thought the girl had outgrown their relationship, and Taylor couldn’t shake the view of social workers and the court -- that she was not suitable to be Louise’s mother.
Taylor, whom Louise had known as Jeanne Kerr, had married a man in the military, taken his last name and left the Bay Area. They had a son, and lived in various towns.
Finding each other was like finishing a sentence interrupted a lifetime ago. Taylor wanted to give Louise a birthright that should have been claimed a long time ago. First Taylor called her husband, who was stationed in Iraq, and discussed her plan. Then, during the second phone call, she made Louise an offer.
“Would you like to be adopted?”
Louise told her she would call back. She hung up, headed to a mirror and practiced folding her lips into a word she had preserved for just such a moment. Then she called with her answer.
“Hi, Mommy,” she said.
Face to Face
Louise was still on her book tour, so they finally met a few weeks later at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The plane was delayed for hours, and as Louise waited, she thought of the days when they had to drive around the parking lot because she could not leave the care facility.
Now there was no social worker or anyone else to say they were wrong for choosing to be family. Instead Louise had a town car and a driver and she had brought gifts: Godiva chocolates and a cashmere shawl.
When the plane landed, it was easy for Louise to spot Taylor. She was the slender woman with long salt and pepper hair, running toward her. The women embraced, cried, laughed, admired the changes and the sameness the years had brought.
Taylor handed Louise a small photo album. There she was with Taylor at a performance of “The Nutcracker,” then at an amusement park. Then there was the blue dress, the one with rainbows and hearts that Taylor had hand-stitched across the front.
Louise now knew that the hope she had built her life on was not a fable invented by a needy child. The dress was real. Taylor had come back into her life, bearing her past like a gift.
On Nov. 20, 2003, in the same Contra Costa County courthouse where a judge had denied Taylor’s request to adopt Louise decades ago, Taylor, 59, adopted Louise, 41.
Adult adoptions are not rare. Often it happens to bequeath money or an estate. But this was for something more.
The women stood before Judge Lois Haight, who said that their mother-daughter relationship would be irrevocable, that they would be responsible for each other. The judge explained to Taylor’s husband and son, Christopher, then 23, and to Louise’s son, Michael, then 17, that they were all family. The women raised their right hands and swore to abide.
Then the judge took a gavel and declared them kin.
Making a Difference
Louise, whose last name is now Kerr-Taylor, is committed to sparing children in foster care the experiences she endured and is writing a book about reuniting with Taylor. She travels the country speaking out on adoption, hoping to remove the kinds of impediments that kept her and Taylor apart. Today, some social workers and agencies remain opposed to transracial adoption, while others embrace it as a way to provide families for children.
Others have endorsed Louise’s message
Nationwide there is a movement afoot to ensure that foster children have some lasting connection with an adult before they leave the system.
Louise and others know that such children need a constant presence in their lives, someone to share good times and bad. As mother and daughter, Louise and Taylor share not just memories, but regrets.
“If only I had done something different, maybe she could not have gone through all that pain,” Taylor said, her eyes welling with tears.
“I was ripped from the only person willing to love me,” Louise said.
Now Louise is the beneficiary of the everyday gifts that mothers give their daughters. One day, while her mother was visiting, Louise returned home to find that dirty clothes she had left were washed and folded neatly. It baffled her for a moment, then she realized her mother had done it for her. That pile of folded laundry took Louise’s breath away.
Since the adoption, they have shared a series of firsts: Thanksgiving, Christmas, holiday get-togethers. This holiday season there was one more.
Louise, her mother and Christopher began living together as a family. They spent their first Christmas in the home they recently purchased in Pleasant Hill. But first mother and daughter returned to the Martinez shelter where they met nearly 30 years ago.
Louise told the children about her childhood, that she survived it and succeeded in life and that they could do the same. She spoke with the certainty of someone who knows that her past -- its pleasure and its pain -- happened just the way she remembered.