There are some people in this world who seem to just radiate goodness. Whether talking to someone for the first time or the hundredth, these people are consistently kind, compassionate, friendly, welcoming… all those rare and precious qualities that can warm the coldest heart in the same way a gentle fire can warm the coldest hands.
Jennifer Crow is one of those people.
Tall, athletic, unassuming, with an openhearted smile and a demeanor that always seems to be just on the verge of a good laugh, Jenn’s life is rich with a good marriage to husband, Keith, three sons, the grocery store she and Keith own on Maine Street, the church they attend each Sunday. It’s a life that seems to resonate with the certainty of knowing where she came from and where she’s going. And so it is.
Born on April 18, 1966 at Sacred Heart Catholic Hospital and Orphanage in Spokane, Washington, Jennifer Mary was put up for adoption at birth. Six weeks later, she became the adopted daughter of Don and Jerry Lou Mathews and sister to Chris Mathews, also adopted. “I had great parents,” she says, her smile sincere, her words coming without a moment’s hesitation. “And I had a perfect childhood. My family was really close.” She pauses, anticipating the next question. “I don’t remember a moment…I guess I always knew I was adopted,” she says. “My parents never hid it from me or anything. We talked about it, and it just seemed…normal. In fact, I thought for a while that everybody was adopted. But, even when I learned that wasn’t true, I didn’t seem that different from anyone else. Of course, I always had questions about my birth parents, but I didn’t really ask. I didn’t want to because…well, that would have hurt them—especially my mother. That would have hurt her a lot. Besides, they didn’t know anything except that my birth mother was Polish. That’s all they knew, so that’s all I knew. It didn’t really make any difference to me, anyway. As far as I was concerned, my parents were my parents.”
Jenn’s adoptive father was in the military, causing her family to move several times over the years. From Spokane, they moved to Washington, D.C. and, from there, to Pueblo where she went to high school in nearby Rye.
As the years passed and Jenn grew older, she found herself wondering a bit more frequently about her birth mother, but any questions she had, she answered herself with the story of her mother as she imagined it: a young Polish girl, maybe sixteen years old or so, had gotten pregnant and decided to put her up for adoption because there was no way such a young girl could care for a baby on her own. And, for Jenn, that story was as far as it went. Her record was a “closed” adoption; all information was sealed from everyone, including both Jenn and her adoptive parents. Even if she’d wanted to learn more, there was no one to ask. The hospital and orphanage had burned down a decade or two after she was born, destroying the chance that a visit to her birthplace might provide her with any information. “But I never really wanted to look into it,” Jenn says.
If she had looked into it and, by some strange set of circumstances, had been able to get in touch with her birth mother, what would she have said? “Thank you,” Jenn instantly replies, as if this is a question she’s asked herself many times. “I would say thank you for having the courage to put me up for adoption so that I could grow up with the wonderful parents and family I had. That’s what I would say.”
In 2009, Jenn’s adoptive mother died. Although still grieving her loss, Jenn’s curiosity about her birth mother began to grow stronger. At first, she tried a few chat rooms to learn what she could, but she still wasn’t all that serious. Then, she learned she could request a copy of her birth certificate from the state of Washington. It finally arrived, bringing with it precious information that answered a few questions Jenn had been asking all her life.
Her mother’s name was Wanda Helena Kulin. She was originally from Pennsylvania. There was no father listed on the birth certificate. And, at the time of Jennifer’s birth, Wanda was 44 years old.
“That…” Jennifer stops and begins again. “That caught me by surprise. She was forty-four years old… and she couldn’t keep me? A woman forty four years old should be able to take care of herself and a baby. Why did she give me up?” She stops herself with a shrug.
In 2015, Jenn heard about a DNA test offered by Ancestry that would provide her with information about her ethnic heritage; however, there was also a chance that, among their database of test results, she might learn of people to whom she was related. “So, I got one for Chris and one for myself,” she says. “We both sent in our samples, and then…just waited to see what each of us found out.”
Finally, after six long weeks, the results came. They confirmed that, yes, she was Polish. They also showed that there were genetic matches in the Ancestry.com database.
At this point, Jenn flips open her computer, goes to the Ancestry website and a screen comes up. A long list of names appear, the majority of whom—according to Ancestry.com—are third and fourth cousins.
But, up at the top, there’s a single name—actually, just the initials “J.R.”—and a note: the test shows “with strong confidence” that J.R. is a first cousin.
“I immediately sent him a message through the site,” Jenn says. “I told him who I was. I told him what the results said, and then I asked him if he knew anything about my mother.”
It wasn’t long before she heard back from him, in the form of a phone call. “I was at work,” she says, her face slightly flushed. “Jeff—that’s his name—sounded so nice, and he just asked me a few questions, which, of course, I answered. He didn’t have information on my birth mother. He’d been looking into finding things out about his own family, so he already knew quite a bit, including that about 25% of our DNA matched. I was disappointed but, like I said to him, at least I found my first cousin, right?” She shakes her head just slightly at the memory. “Then he asked me if I was sitting down, and I was…like…okay, yes, I’m sitting down.” At this point, Jenn’s voice takes on the tone of disbelief and wonder. “And then he said, ‘I don’t think I’m your cousin. I think I’m your brother.’” Jenn is silent for several long moments. “I think I’m your brother,” she says again, softer, as if still hearing the words for the first time.
One person can never fully understand or experience the life of another, so it’s difficult to truly know the importance those five words must have held for her. Of course, connecting with Jeff did not interfere in any way with Jenn’s relationship with Chris; he was and always will be her big brother.
But hearing the voice of a man who shared her blood and, as it turns out, had the same father began to fill in a space in Jenn's life that had always been an empty unknown. That voice, those words, were like a hand reaching out to her over the 52 years that have passed since a woman named Wanda gave birth to her, placed her in an orphanage and then vanished from her life. The phone call validated and, perhaps, anchored Jenn to her own beginning in ways that other people simply cannot comprehend.
Jeff shared with Jenn what he knew. He was born in 1964 in Portland to a woman who was 25 years old and has since passed away. There was a name of a man listed as his father on his birth certificate. When Jeff contacted him, he was told that, yes, he was the man whose name was on the birth certificate; yes, he’d been married to Jeff’s mother. But Jeff was not his son. Jeff’s mother had gotten pregnant while her husband was a soldier in Viet Nam and had put Jeff up for adoption before he returned from the war. He didn’t know the name of Jeff’s biological father, didn’t know how the man and Jeff’s mother had met; he, basically, knew nothing about the circumstances, at all.
It’s difficult to imagine how disappointing that must have been. But it seems that people who are searching for their birth parents possess a tenacity and determination that does not allow them to give up easily.
In the years since then, Jenn has stayed in touch with Jeff, developing a relationship with him and with his wife, as well. “It’s so neat to learn how Jeff and I are alike,” she says, with a half laugh. “Sometimes his wife will say something about a habit that he has, and it’s exactly the same thing I do.”
She’s also continued to look for information about Wanda Helena Kulin but has only come up with blanks. It’s as if, after giving birth to Jenn, Wanda just vanished altogether. Meanwhile, Jeff has been looking for information on their father but has come up with nothing, as well.
It seemed like all the doors were closed until Jenn heard about a show on television called “Long Lost Family”. Almost on impulse, she went to the website and filled out a form where she explained the circumstances of her life and those of her brother, Jeff. “I didn’t really think anything would come of it,” she says. And then, one day, an email appeared in her inbox from a casting producer with the show. He was interested in Jenn's situation and wanted to talk. “So, I called him and his secretary put me through right away,” she says. “We talked for about an hour, and he sounds like he might want to put Jeff and me on the show.” She just laughts. “Isn’t that crazy?” she adds.
And so, once again, it’s a waiting game as she and, now, Jeff wait to hear what happens next.
In the meantime, Jennifer continues searching. She’s learned that, although it was a closed adoption, she can now request the records of her birth, which she’s done. She hopes to get those records in August. She also stays in touch with Jeff, who’s searching from his end. Sometimes, they speculate on who their father might be. Speculation, at this point, is all they can do.
There’s a children’s book that was quite popular around the time Jennifer was born. It opens with a mother bird sitting on an egg. As the egg begins to move, the mother leaves to find food for her anticipated baby. While she’s gone, the egg hatches and, finding himself alone, the little hatchling sets off in search of his mother. The book is titled “Are You My Mother?” After searching everywhere, the little bird finally finds his mother, and the story has a happy ending.
Let’s hope the same holds true for Jenn. Even if she never meets either one of her birth parents, even if she never has the chance to ask the questions she’s wanted to ask for much of her life, maybe knowing…just knowing...something about the man who is her birth father and the woman who gave birth to her and placed her in an orphanage 52 years ago will be all of the happy ending that she seeks.