2 women travel to the past and discover relatives One was an adoptee, the other gave up daughter.

April 29, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

A year ago, two women embarked on similar searches for their pasts.

Mary Jo Kehne, a Baltimore art therapist, wanted to find her birth mother, who put her up for adoption in 1953.

Nina Calvert wanted to find the daughter she was told had been adopted by a Baltimore doctor and his wife.

Along the way, they became friends and comrades, sharing a journey only birth parents and adoptees can understand -- a quest for a piece of themselves.

On Wednesday, as part of an annual demonstration known as "Open My Records Day," Kehne, Calvert and Calvert's daughter, Dori Phelps, will march in Washington to protest the almost universal practice of sealing adoption records.

They will wear T-shirts that Kehne designed and march with members of the area support group that brought Calvert and Kehne together.

A year ago, when Kehne marched with her group, she didn't know how quickly her search, which seemed almost hopeless at the time, would yield answers. And she didn't know how bittersweet those answers would be.

Calvert, who last May was just toying with the idea of a search for her daughter, did not imagine what an accomplished investigator she would become in a few months.


Every December since 1961, Nina Calvert had felt a vague, sickening panic.

Thirty years ago, as a pregnant 19-year-old, she had sought refuge in a Washington boarding house, so she could give birth secretly.

As Christmas approached that year, Calvert became increasingly anxious. She had to have her baby so she could go home to Tennessee for the holidays. Her family would never understand if she stayed in Washington.

On Dec. 9, she gave birth to a girl. On her 20th birthday -- Feb. 16, 1962 -- she signed the papers giving up the baby. For years, the date depressed Calvert, but everyone assumed it was because she was obsessed with her age.

"From a birth mother's point of view, it was a lose-lose situation," Calvert says now. "If I did this wonderful thing, why did I feel so bad? I was told I would be an intruder if I looked for my daughter. It seemed everything I'd done had been the wrong thing for the right reason."

Calvert married in March 1962. Her husband knew about the out-of-wedlock daughter, but no one else did. Her two sons begged her for a sister, but Calvert said she never wanted to have another daughter.

In February 1990, Calvert faced her usual depression. This time, she decided to do something about it.

"I always thought [before then] that Dori would knock on the door one day and there she would be," Calvert said. Calvert stopped waiting for that day, joining support groups and telling her family members about the daughter she had given up.

Through the support group, the Adoptee-Birthparent Support Network that serves Baltimore and Washington, Calvert quickly learned the tricks of the search trade. Most adoption agencies provide "non-identifying" information, such as first names and ages. The next step is usually the courthouse, where marriage licenses can provide vital clues.

"In the support group, they told me not to believe the part about the doctor and his wife from Baltimore [adopting the child]," Calvert said. "It turns out that 95 percent of birth mothers are told their children are adopted by doctors. I think I'm the only one I know where that turned out to be true."

Using public records, Calvert determined that the agency she used had arranged 56 adoptions in 1962. She went through the names, until she narrowed it down to one Towson family.

Calvert and a friend drove to Towson to check marriage licenses. En route, Calvert decided to drive by the home of the family she believed had adopted her daughter. She saw a slim, dark-haired woman getting into a car. There was definitely a resemblance.

Calvert knew it was her daughter. "I said, 'Oh holy gosh, this is it.' You feel like a fugitive when you're doing this. We followed her through the streets of Baltimore."

Dori Phelps' errands were not that revealing. But her tag number gave Calvert another clue, leading to an address in the Hamilton neighborhood.

Although Phelps' phone number was unlisted, Calvert used a criss-cross directory to find a neighbor's telephone number. In January of this year, she called twice, asking the neighbor to tell Phelps to call.

Dori Phelps picks up the story here: "I assumed it was a creditor, because who else could get that kind of information. I thought, that lady has a lot of nerve, bothering my neighbor. I'm going to call her back and give her hell."

She dialed the number, but her anger turned to astonishment when she heard Calvert say, in her gentle Southern accent, "Were you born Dec. 16, 1961? I think I'm your mother."

They talked for two hours. Calvert's "lose-lose" situation changed forever during that conversation. It was as if, the two women agree, they went from having a little bit less than most people to having a little bit more.

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