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Family Ties: An Adoption Story

Twelve years ago I adopted a baby girl from Russia, a golden-haired if somewhat scrawny 5-month-old I named Anya. Landing back in New York, with my new daughter asleep on my lap, I felt joyful, giddy—overwhelmed—by lack of sleep, my rush of good fortune, and the intense emotion of having Anya and seeing her birthplace.

Vladimir, three hours northeast of Moscow, is an ancient and lovely Russian city of gold-domed cathedrals and colorful dachas. Yet I saw it mainly from a car window: I spent my two and a half days there hurrying between my Stalin-block lodgings, the orphanage, and the government building where I signed legal papers leading to that singular moment when Anya was put into my arms, for forever.

Then in a rush we were off—leaving Vladimir to return to Moscow and the U.S. embassy, for Anya's medical exam, passport photos, and visa. Yet my brief view of my daughter's roots left me wanting more. I'm curious by nature, a reporter by trade. It was inevitable I'd go looking for information, but I never imagined I'd find what—or, really, who—I did.

From Russia with love

This infant with the tulip-shaped mouth and huge brown eyes had already amassed a bit of a dossier. By poring over the official paperwork, I started to get a glimpse of my daughter's history.

The records revealed that Anya's birth parents were Alexander, a truck driver, and Yelena, a housewife. They had given Anya up at the maternity hospital, they explained, due to a "difficult situation in the family" that sounded as if it could be financial. "We have four children," the parents wrote. The documents also included an address. I quickly rounded up a friend to translate and within two weeks of my return wrote my first letter to Anya's birth family.

I was thrilled when Alexander responded just a month or so later. "Hello, Mrs. Joan," he wrote in his letter to me. "It's very good that you decided to write us. Having been in Vladimir and generally in Russia, you, as a journalist, I think, understand what a shaky, unstable economic situation exists in our whole country, as well as in every family." Paychecks were hopelessly delayed; assistance checks for children were three to four months late, Alex wrote. Government food handouts for children had come to a dead halt, and daycare had become prohibitively expensive. To make matters worse, a chronic illness had taken its toll on Yelena's health.

The letter did include some sweet reminiscences: "It's too bad that you weren't here in the summer," Alex wrote. "There are so many the summertime I often go to the forest to pick berries and mushrooms." Mostly, though, his first letter and follow-up communiqués were hopeless and sad—snapshots of a family shattered by the crash of the Soviet economy as it moved in fits and starts toward a market system. "I hope you will understand us and not judge us," Alex wrote of his and Yelena's decision to give up their baby. "We are happy that Anya will not see that which her sisters and brother are seeing now."

Of course I didn't judge them. My heart went out to them, my daughter's first family. I only wanted to know about them, learn about their lives. The next year, Alex's sister, Irina, sent photos of Anya's siblings and a cousin; Alex sent birthday wishes for Anya ("We wish her health, happiness, and serenity").

Later, there were hints of improvement in their lives: a job for Yelena, a swimming party at the river, plans to send me a matryoshka doll. But, inexplicably, in 2000 the letters from both Alex and Irina suddenly stopped. I wondered and worried, but was caught up in my day-to-day life with Anya as she grew from a baby to a toddler to a happy little girl headed off to school.

American girls

Then, in October 2004, the connection was reestablished, with a bang: Irina's young husband had died, she wrote; so had Yelena's mother—hence the gap in communication. And then I arrived at her letter's bigger shocker—the news that felt like a one-two punch to my stomach: Yelena had given birth to two more baby girls, in 2000 and 2003. Both, like Anya, had been left at the orphanage.

I knew, immediately and certainly, that I had to find those babies. They were my daughter's sisters, and I needed to see them, secure, in someone's home. So I recruited my Ukrainian friend Jurii, and we got busy searching the Internet and calling phone numbers to track down the right official in Vladimir. We did, and in a wonderful turnabout from the infamously unhelpful Russian bureaucracy, Mrs. Z., the Vladimir regional adoption official, located the records and delivered the welcome news that both babies were out of the orphanage.

Not only that—both had been adopted by Americans. Would Mrs. Z. do me one more itsy-bitsy favor, I pushed, and get in touch with those families for me? She complied almost immediately, and in one 24-hour period I received a near-frantic phone call and an e-mail from the two American mothers. "Who are you?" "Why is your name on a Russian letter I can't read?" they quite reasonably demanded to know.

I still wince at the worry I must have caused them. But I quickly explained our unusual, exciting relationship. And I was able to turn to Anya, 8 years old by then, to deliver the precious news: She had two birth sisters—here, in the United States! -- healthy, aged (at the time) 1 and 4, in Greenwood, Indiana, and in the New York suburbs.

My daughter's sisters

I asked the other mothers if we could get to know each other, try to build a bond for our daughters. One was thrilled. Jennifer and Brad Condon, in Indiana, adopted Lily, Anya's youngest sister, from Vladimir in 2004, after traveling there earlier for their son, Cameron. From Jennifer I've received family photos and upbeat e-mails: She shared her view that "this connection is the most unique and awesome situation for Lily. I think about my own sister, Stacy, whom I'm very close to. I really want that for Lily." I want it for Anya, too.

The other mother, who adopted Lily and Anya's middle sister, is much less sure. On a hot afternoon soon after we first connected on the phone, I sat in a Manhattan café across from a woman I'll call Jane. Jane didn't—and doesn't—wish to share personal information; I still don't know her last name or hometown. She was happy, though, to see the photocopies of the letters and the photos from Russia. Her daughter was still young, and she was wary of contacting Alex and Yelena or promising anything further.

But still, we've made a connection with the Condons that I never could have imagined a dozen years ago. I'm immensely grateful that the baby girl I thought I would raise as an only child has turned out to have family across the country and across the ocean. When Anya spoke to Jennifer on the phone that first time, I couldn't miss the light in her big brown eyes. Discovering her sisters made her "happy, surprised, excited," she told me. We both look forward to meeting the Condons when their daughter is a little older. The improbable circumstances that brought us to this point only reinforce for me that family ties, biological and adoptive, are compelling and strong: I'm joyful my daughter has both.

Finding other families

After finding Anya's family, I discovered other amazing stories of connections between adopted kids and their birth families.

Russian-born Denisen was 3 when her parents, Joy and Fred Croom of Raleigh, North Carolina, heard from their adoption agency about Denisen's birth sister. She'd been adopted by a Maryland family, who had learned about Denisen while still in Siberia. A local woman knew the whole story.

Back in the U.S., the two families spoke, and when Denisen was 6 and her sister 4, the families met on the Carolina shore. "The girls jumped out, stared at each other, and hugged," Joy Croom says. They looked so alike, she said, "each felt she was looking in the mirror"—an experience I understand, having practically choked on my coffee when I saw baby pictures of one of Anya's sisters; she was the spitting image of my daughter.

Like Denisen's sister's family, it's not entirely uncommon to learn about U.S.-based birth siblings before you even leave your new child's native country. While Sally and Peter Bruderle of Oakton, Virginia, were completing their daughter's adoption in Paraguay, they learned that Beth had a brother, Matt, in Pennsylvania. The families met and became close; Beth and her other brother—the Bruderles' biological son, Bobby—were even invited to take a key role at Matt's bar mitzvah.

Sometimes the twists of fate in discovering siblings almost defy imagination.

It turns out that Beth and Matt have a brother named Ian; he's the son of Ron and Robin Netter of Buffalo Grove, Illinois. An incredible coincidence brought the Netters and the Bruderles together: In 2004 both families were touring Paraguay, seeking information on the children's birth mother. A social worker put the pieces together and introduced them.

And then there are people who got involved with their children's families at the start. A former classmate of Anya's has a brother, Rudi, born in Cambodia; their mother, Paula Shirk of Brooklyn, New York, has connected with Rudi's family in a dramatic way. She is supporting the whole family, in a village near Phnom Penh. She's supplied the motor scooter the father uses to carry fish from the village to sell in the city; she's paying the children's school fees. "When I adopted Rudi, I didn't know I was bringing Cambodia home with me," Paula told me. "But as soon as I saw their faces on the photo, I knew I had more work to do."

Joan Oleck is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York.