Since she was about 4 years old, Towanda resident Dena Mitchell has known she was adopted, but it wasn't until last year she had the chance to meet her birth parents.
Mitchell found out she was adopted when she was playing with her cousins at age 4 or 5. Her cousin had told her she wasn't really their cousin. She ran in to the house to tell on them, knowing they would get in trouble for saying such a thing, but instead her mother informed her she was adopted.
"I was mortified," she said. "The whole concept of adoption. I was like 'where's my mom.'"
The only thing she remembers out of that conversation now is her adopted parents telling her, "We chose you."
Since that time she has wanted to find her birth parents, trying many times, but never having any success.
"I kept running into brick walls," she said.
That changed a year ago September. It started when she received an e-mail message from a man she didn't know, a retired police officer from the Chicago area. He was doing research for adoptees and their families and had seen her information on one of the adoption registry Web sites.
"In the e-mail he told me that I was one of two baby girls who were born in Kansas City, Mo., on Sept. 25 and were placed for adoption," she said.
He also told her their names were Baby Girl Jones or Baby Girl Edwards. The Jones baby had been given a name by her birth mother, but the Edwards baby had not.
One thing about the two possibilities that stood out to her was how common the names were. She had always thought it would be something more unique because her life was beyond ordinary. Those names also would be harder to track down.
That e-mail did get her started again in her search.
As she shared her desire to find her birth parents with her family and friends, some encouraged her and others asked why.
Mitchell had questions she wanted answered: why was she given up for adoption, was her mother young and did she know who her father was?
She ran into some difficulty in her early searches because Missouri adoption records were closed. To get records, one had to make an appeal to the courts or submit a copy of one's birth parents' death certificates. Since the time of her earlier search, there had been some changes to allow adoptees to obtain non-identifying information.
It wasn't much, but it was a start. The day she received the letter in the mail, she recalls her heart racing.
Page 2 of 4 - "I was eager to see what this document could tell me about my life," she said.
"There was always the question in the back of my head 'who do I look like, who do I act like.'"
That letter didn't get her much closer to the answers she sought. All of the names, towns, schools, hospital, etc. had been whited out on the document. She took what clues she could from the document and learned her parents met while working at the GEM store in Kansas City.
She learned her birth mother and father had talked about getting married, but decided to part ways around the time of her birth. Her mother already had two other children.
"In the 1960s it was taboo to bring home a third child with no father," she said.
She learned more about the appearance of her mother and father, as well as their families. One thing that stood out to her was that her mother was 22 and her father 23 when she was born. They weren't young kids themselves, and they had even talked about marriage.
"I must have read those documents 100 times, wondering how I could use this information to solve a 40-plus-year-old mystery," she said.
To help come up with a name, she took the document, which had been produced on a typewriter and determined how many letters were in her mother's name as well as the name of the town. She developed a list of possible names and searched for towns in Missouri with the proper number of letters.
While this was a good attempt, she learned later her birth mother went by her middle name, as did her adopted mother.
She also began to look for places that helped adoptees search for their birth families and found out about Search Angels. She said her Search Angel's name was Heather.
Heather encouraged her to continue to update her registry with any additional information, as well as to search through posts of those seeking to locate their children who had been adopted.
She said she looked through countless posts before she found one that stood out as a possibility. There was a contact e-mail listed. After not receiving a response, Mitchell contacted Heather who did some further checking and found another way to contact the person.
Mitchell said it was at this point it felt like she was on a fast roller coaster after years of searching and waiting.
She received a phone call from a lady who had posted the information for her sister. It wasn't going to be until the next day the lady herself would call, but it wasn't much later her phone rang again and it was a lady who said something about Mitchell possibly being her daughter.
Page 3 of 4 - They verified information and details Mitchell had gathered, and she was fairly certain she had found her mother.
"It was just surreal," she said. "It was like the twilight zone. I was fairly certain that I had spoken with my mother for the first time in almost 50 years."
Mitchell and her husband had been planning a vacation and decided to use that time off to plan a trip to go meet her mother.
She had learned her mother's name was Sue, she had two older brothers and her father was Jerry Lee.
They decided to arrange a time to meet, and she would meet her mother on a Friday, a day that had great significance to her, since it also was the day she was born.
After learning her father's name, she asked Heather if she could help locate him and within 15 minutes Mitchell had his name, phone number and other information.
She made a call to her father and talked to him about the details of her birth, discovering it was her father. She talked to him on Sept. 22, 2012, and later discovered her father's father, Dean, had died and was buried on Sept. 22 several years earlier. She also learned she had four more siblings.
Mitchell met her mother for the first time Sept. 28, 2012. She arrived with flowers and an "it's a girl" balloon for her mother.
She said when her mother fist looked up at her eyes, she began to cry and embraced her.
"It was awesome," she said. "We spent about six hours talking about all that had happened."
She said her mother had felt somewhat betrayed by her father. She also felt she was not able to care for a third child by herself, so she decided to give her up.
Looking through old photos, Mitchell discovered her and her mother look almost alike in their high school photos. She thinks now that she is older she looks more like her dad.
After Mitchell was born, her mother had talked the nurse into bringing her daughter in so she could see her although it was against hospital policy. Mitchell said she was looking for any identifying mark so she could one day know for sure who she was.
For the next eight months until her mother passed away, Mitchell talked to her on the phone every day and visited her regularly. After her mother passed away, Mitchell and her new-found family spread her mother's ashes on a zipline in Missouri on Sept. 28, 2013, another of many strange coincidences Mitchell encountered along this journey.
Mitchell still has two sisters and a brother on her father's side she has not met yet.
Page 4 of 4 - She described her meeting with her father as "not quite as robust as the meeting with my mom."
"He was a little more reserved," she said.
They talked and went through yearbooks from his high school years.
Now, Mitchell has a better sense of herself and her family, something she has especially desired since having children of her own.
Julie Clements can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.