A daughter's difficult journey

When Terri McLaughlin began looking for her mother, she didn't know what she'd find. In some ways, she's still looking

June 04, 2006|By ABIGAIL TUCKER | ABIGAIL TUCKER,SUN REPORTER

Her birth mother was blond. Terri McLaughlin knew this intuitively, even though the highlights in her own dark waves came from a bottle. Her two boys were blond, and Terri was sure that this trait was passed down from the stranger who'd cradled her for a week at the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers in Washington, before the adoption process ground into motion and someone came to take her away.

In childhood fantasies the woman was tall, like Terri, with the same cloudless blue eyes. She was always very young; her age was the only information Terri's adoptive parents knew for certain. The girl had been just 16 when she gave birth in 1968, which made Terri, raised in the Laurel area as an only child, believe they would be like sisters.

"This is how old I am; this is how old she is," Terri said to herself each birthday.

Her adoptive mother - who was already 40 the year Terri was born and whose coloring was dark - would have been devastated to know that her daughter daydreamed about the golden woman, so Terri kept the thoughts secret.

Still, her image lingered in Terri's mind as she went on to study at Towson University, marry a landscaper and have three children of her own. She lived in a neat little Laurel ranch house with a backyard pool and drove a minivan. Her days were filled with a part-time job in event planning, volunteer work at a Washington homeless shelter, her children's lacrosse practices and her own softball games. Her nights were spent boiling cheddar dogs for the kids and sipping margaritas on the couch.

Does she live this way? Terri sometimes wondered. Could we be friends?

It wasn't until her adoptive mother died of skin cancer in 2000 that Terri started trying to answer those questions. After months of grief, she found some comfort in thinking that she might have another mother somewhere, who could love her just as much.

But the search that followed did not end as Terri dreamed it would. Where she expected joy and comfort, there was only sadness and turmoil, a woman so lost that she was perhaps past finding - though, as it turned out, she lived just a few miles away.

The search shifts

The social worker assigned to the case had hardly any leads. No photographs, no current address. The court documents Terri requested weren't much help, she said, and neither were records saved by her adoptive parents.

Frustrated, Terri asked the caseworker last year to switch to finding her biological father - a faint hope. She assumed she'd been conceived during a one-night stand, or was the product of a failed high school romance. If the man's identity was known at all, he likely would be the harder parent to find.

Then, in October, as she was pulling out of a supermarket parking lot, her cell phone rang.

"Terri, this is your father," a voice said.

Terri remembers sobbing as her 12-year-old son, Ryan, looked on from the passenger seat, mystified. The voice sobbed, too.

Chris Hayes, 56, was living on a houseboat in Deale, where the social worker tracked him down. It turned out that he'd been married to Terri's mother for 10 years.

He arrived in Laurel a few days later, bringing with him one of two younger brothers Terri never knew she had, and the story of a woman named Donna Jean Stewart.

They grew up together in Langley Park outside Washington. He was a drummer in a rock band; she was in the eighth grade.

They split up when she got pregnant. Donna wanted to have the baby, Chris said.

After the adoption, Donna never returned to school. She got pregnant again with Chris, and this time they got married to raise their son and then his little brother, bouncing around Maryland for 10 unhappy years. They were snorting a lot of cocaine, Chris said, and her outlook grew increasingly dark and irrational. She was jealous and, at times, violent. She once hurled a metal bucket through the window of Chris' pickup truck, and splinters of glass pierced his eye, he said. One of the boys remembers her waving a knife at him.

Chris said he filed for divorce in the early 1980s.

He showed Terri snapshots of a stunning blond with pale, faraway eyes.

Recognition

Chris hadn't seen her in more than 20 years, since she'd stopped visiting their children.

"Look for her," he told Terri. "But you might not like what you find."

About 8 the next night, Terri got another phone call, this one at home.

"I found your mom," Robert Brewer said.

Learning the woman's name had been a breakthrough for Robert, a captain with the Prince George's County Police Department who'd been helping his close friend Terri with her search. For months he'd tried everything he could think of, using the bits of information the courts had released, even paging through old Washington-area high school yearbooks for likely candidates.

But once he knew the woman's name, he could run an Internet search for previous addresses, several of which were in the Laurel area. He stopped by; no one was home.

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