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A crumpled photo, few clues and a search for father adoptee never knew

A still-young Monica Scanlon in the box that she'd been brought home in. | Family photo

Monica Scanlon has never seen her father’s face. Not in person. Not yet.

All she has seen is one crumpled color photograph, nearly half a century old.

The Greenville, South Carolina, woman, who’s the controller for a big construction company, was born in Memphis at a home for unwed mothers. Her mom was a Tennessee teenager who got in trouble with a boy from Chicago.

It was 1970. Being pregnant without benefit of marriage back then, especially if you were Catholic, was shameful, something to be hidden. Her brother and sister wouldn’t even learn about the baby until years later.

The teenager named her newborn “Joan” — the baby’s grandmother’s name — in hopes her mother would soften and let her keep the girl. She didn’t. Signing away her rights, weeping, she left her dark-haired daughter at an orphanage, saying goodbye to her forever, she thought.

Five weeks later, on Oct. 12, 1970, the phone rang at the Nashville home of Dave and Pat Spilker. After several miscarriages over their five-year marriage, the couple had registered with Catholic Social Services. The caller said a baby was available. Pat Spilker, surprised, said the first thing that came to mind: They were supposed to go on vacation to Florida the next day.

“Do you want this baby, or do you want to go on vacation?” the lady on the phone asked.

They wanted a baby. They had only a few hours to prepare for the transition from childlessness to parenthood. Florida would wait.

“I called my friend Carol and told her, ‘We have to pick up our baby tomorrow I don’t have one thing,’ ” Pat Spilker says. “She gave me some shirts and this box to bring the baby home in — a white, rectangular-shaped box with a little soft pad in it. Babies born in Madison, Tennessee, at that time came home in these boxes.”

They went to get her in their 1966 Ford Fairlane and were introduced to a baby with black hair that stuck straight up.

“She looked like a bird that had been pushed out of the nest,” says Spilker, who now lives with her husband Dave, a retired engineer for GE, in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Monica was later joined by an unexpected brother, Steven.

“Of course, two years later I got pregnant, and we had our son,” Pat Spilker says.

No baby is easy to raise. But Spilker, a homemaker all her life, says: “Monica was a nightmare. She was bright and beautiful and inquisitive and never sat still. There were times I thought, ‘Oh, dear God, what did we do?’ I had a friend say, ‘I know why you got her: Nobody else could do this.’ She was a nightmare. She was curious about everything.”

Including where she came from.

“She used to sit and look through the picture albums,” says Spilker. ” I said to my husband, ‘What is she looking for?’ Never dawning on me she knew she was adopted. I knew she was looking for something from an early age.”

They told her she was adopted “when she got into 12 or 14,” says Spilker. “We celebrated Adoption Day. She had a brother sticking his lip out, saying, ‘I wish I was adopted.’ He didn’t have an Adoption Day.”

When the siblings fought, Steven would taunt Monica: “At least, I didn’t come in a box.”

Mothers and daughters often have complex relationships. Pat Spilker and Monica were no different.

“There were some problems with Monica and me,” Spilker says. “It got a little worse as I got older. She wanted to find her mother; never said a word about her father, always, ‘I want to find my mother.’ I told her, ‘I’ll help you do that, but we’re not going to do it now, not the right time, I think you should wait.’ I wanted her to wait until she was married and have a child of her own.”

In 1995, Scanlon was pregnant with her second child when Oprah Winfrey did a show on adoptive kids finding their parents. It happened to coincide with an 11-day window when adoption records were unsealed.

“There was a two-week period in Tennessee,” Pat Spilker says. “To me, that was part of God’s plan.”

The window quickly closed, she remembers: “People objected, and they closed the records.”

Scanlon was able to contact the agency that handled her adoption, and people there contacted her birth mother, Stephanie Cook.

The moment Cook picked up the phone and heard it was a social worker, she knew.

“I said, ‘You found my baby!’ I always knew I’d see her again.”

Cook says she never looked for her daughter because she “didn’t want to intrude.”

Now, they exchanged letters. Scanlon flew to St. Augustine, Fla., where Cook lives. The Spilkers bought her ticket.

The reunion wasn’t like the movies.

“It was very slow-moving, feeling each other out,” says Scanlon. “It’s not like we ran across the airport into each other’s arms. It wasn’t this big Oprah moment.”

Not for Scanlon and her birth mother. But her grandmother — who forced Cook to give up her baby in 1970 — collapsed in tears.

“My grandmother apologized 100 times for making her give me up,” says Scanlon.

Then, they had a party.

Monica Scanlon. | Family photo

“My whole, entire birth family was there,” Scanlon says. “All of sudden, they bring out this birthday cake, loaded with candles, and say, ‘This is for all of the birthdays we missed with you.’

“That’s where I fell apart, bawling. The emotion associated with everything runs pretty deep. And there’s negative ones, too, my birth mother bears to this day. A lot of hatred for her mother because of this. I don’t think she ever forgave her.”

For Pat Spilker, sharing the daughter she struggled to raise was difficult. She says that, at first, Monica going to Florida was “a spike in the heart.” But meeting Cook helped. And Scanlon wrote her a letter, telling her she would always be her mother.

Spilker decided “she’s allowed to love this woman, her birth mother. There’s always room to love somebody else.”

For Cook, getting to know her daughter “made me complete.”

She doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that it wasn’t until after meeting Monica that she met the man she would marry.

“It’s like my life stopped at 20 and did not begin again until I met her, and that’s when I was able to let somebody in,” Cook says. “I never was complete. I always felt bad I couldn’t start anything because my baby was gone. I didn’t want to start a new family because my old family was gone … Meeting her was everything.”

As for her father, Cook couldn’t tell Scanlon much. She had pushed him from her mind after he suggested the baby might be another man’s. Years of drug abuse didn’t help.

But she remembered his name — Bill Martin — and remembered meeting his parents in a Chicago suburb on the North Shore. She had one photograph that somehow survived the purge when she flushed his letters down the toilet. And she remembered their romance.

“I met him on spring break, in Daytona Beach,” Cook says. “I was in high school, 1969. The song, I remember, riding on the beach in his convertible, the song I remember, singing: ‘You made me so very happy, I’m so glad you came into my life…’ ”

Blood, Sweat and Tears, the group’s first hit.

“The other thing I remember is standing at the shoreline,” Cook says. “He was talking about the ocean. He said, ‘It came all this way just to kiss our toes.’

“Eighteen, you know … Those memories just came back to me — the car and the ocean kissing our toes.”

She went to Chicago to see him as a high school graduation present from her parents.

That wasn’t when it happened. It was over the following Christmas break.

“We met in St. Louis. I rode the bus from Memphis State University, and he took the bus from Chicago. We decided on St. Louis because it was the mid-point. I remember the place we were staying. We could look out the window and see the Arch.”

By February 1970, she knew she was pregnant.

“We were raised Catholic, so it was a very big deal,” Cook says. “I told my mother, and she arranged for me to go to this home, St. Gerard’s in Memphis. It was horrible, a bunch of young girls. We never talked about our pregnancy. Everybody was in the same boat, and we tried to make things normal. But there was a palatable, underlying sadness to everybody. It was so sad. It was terrible.”

After her daughter was born, she remembers sitting on a green sofa and being handed the baby.

“I saw her. I held her. I had to go. I was by myself. My mother didn’t come because I had done a very bad thing. I had to sign her away.

“I just turned 19 in April, so young, so naive, and my mother was a very … She was doing what at the time was expected and, I guess, accepted.

“I’ve been thinking about all of this. People can be so cavalier, talking about women and their babies. ‘Just put the baby up for adoption, and everything will be fine.’ A baby just gets into your soul and becomes a part of you, and to take away that woman’s choice — my choice was taken away from me. I was not informed. Who knows what choice I would have made? The thing is I was not given any choice at all but told, ‘This is what is going to happen.’ ”

This is the only photograph Monica Scanlon has of her father, second from left wearing green, with her mother and, on either side of them,  his parents. | Family photo

More years passed. Facebook came around, with its sense of universal connection. In March, without telling anyone — not the Spilkers, not Cook — Monica Scanlon posted the old photo of Stephanie Cook, Bill Martin and his parents.

“I thought, I’m going to post this picture on Facebook,” says Scanlon. “Someone in Chicago knows these people, I’m sure of it.”

But why? Why dredge this up now? Why tear up somebody’s life, perhaps?

“I’m pushing 50,” says Scanlon. “I’d like some medical history, to be honest with you. You may need a kidney someday.”

Pat Spilker doesn’t buy that.

“I don’t think it’s for the health reasons,” she says. “I think she just wants to find him in this journey. She’s asking, ‘I wonder if I have any other brothers and sisters. You’re always wondering. You just do. Adopted kids do. I think this is important to Monica. She is excited. She was so excited finding Stephanie.”

Says Scanlon: “We’re strangers. I think I just would like to ask him basic questions on my family’s history. Do I have any siblings? Because Stephanie never had any other children. I’m a big believer in ancestral stories and things carried down in the DNA. I’d like to get a feel for that side of my family and their history and experiences. I’m not mad at him, no ill feeling at all, not, ‘Hey, why did you do this to her?’ They were kids, and this happened. You know, everybody did what you did in 1970.

“It would just complete the picture for me, whenever you go anywhere. I don’t know the half of it. I want to know the other half. … very hard for adoptees, we have identity and abandonment issues. It’s a big deal, a huge deal, to know who you are, where you came from, where your people came from.”

The Spilkers are resigned to this.

“Monica was a risk-taker in many, many ways,” Dave Spilker says. “Always jump into the fire before she thought about it. There was a chance when Monica went to look she wouldn’t be satisfied, that her birth mother wouldn’t be satisfied. Now, there is the same risk.

“If she doesn’t find him, that’ll be OK, too,” Pat Spilker says. “She’ll accept it. She’s got a good father, I think she’s interested, too, in knowing if she has any siblings.”

And what does Stephanie Cook think about her daughter seeking out the man she stood with on that long ago beach, feeling the warm ocean caress their toes?

“What I think about it or don’t think about is irrelevant, actually,” says Cook. “This is for Monica. She wants to find her father and find her DNA. Maybe she has siblings, all kinds of things. These are her decisions to make.

“She’s a grown woman, a strong woman. She’ll be able to handle anything that comes.”

A last question: You threw everything away except that picture. Why did you save that one photo?

“I don’t know why,” Cook says. “I guess for this reason.”

Monica Scanlon’s birth mother Stephanie Cook, left, dancing with her adoptive mother Pat Spilker at their granddaughter’s wedding in 2014. | Family photo