The power of words in print: Adoptee found her mother through a classified ad

The late Joan Harker (Martin)


Ann, a friend of the Squire, stopped by on a Friday afternoon to place her dog sitting classified ad in the newspaper and made an offhand remark about how she used a classified ad many years ago to locate her adoptive mother. Although the events of that decision took place decades ago, over a quarter of a century, the ramifications of it have made a lasting difference in her life and literally given her a second family.

Ann said she always knew she and her two brothers were adopted. Her mom was a social worker and never hid the information from Ann, although it would have been an easy guess considering Ann is just five feet even and her two brothers were markedly unlike her. One was over six feet tall and the other had very straight black hair. “I stunted out at just five feet with wavy blond hair, anyone could see we weren’t siblings,” she said.

When she was barely into her twenties and living near here in Grand Rapids, she talked to a Dominican Sister who gave her clues to her birth mother’s identity. Likewise, she shared similar information, all which was ethically available to adopted people, to her brother. The sister told her what city her mother was from and the likely date of her birth. For a variety of reasons, Ann did not reach out immediately to try to find her birth mother.

Later, when she was living and working in Houston, Texas, she decided she did want to try to find her natural mother. “I didn’t want to hurt my adoptive parents feelings. I first brought it up with my dad.” It was a long time ago, but the reaction she received must have been reassuring, because she decided to move forward. “I told my mom that at my age (then) no one else could be a mother to me but her.”

She had no name to go by, but with the likely date of birth and the area, she had a thread to follow. A friend was familiar with court records and offered to look at birth records. “There was a woman born the day after that date and one woman who was born the exact day,” Ann recalled. “I thought the Sister’s information was probably right, so I guessed it was the person born on the day she said.”

The woman had been born in Muskegon, so Ann placed a long distance call from Texas to put an ad in The Muskegon Chronicle looking for the woman born on that date and included her phone number as a contact. She received a call from Michigan. “It was her best friend,” said Ann. She speculates that her mother had been too nervous to call herself and wanted her friend to initiate contact. Ann said she asked for some proof that it was her birth mother. She asked what day she was born and where. The answers were correct.

“When people saw her name in the paper, they speculated that she was inheriting some money or something, but I think she knew right away who it was,” Ann said. The woman, whose maiden name was Joan Martin was now Joan Harker, newly divorced from her husband Jim. Neither is living anymore, but at the time, the news of Ann’s existence was a surprise to everyone except Joan. She had never told her husband that, before they were married, she had had a child and given her up for adoption. The couple’s children, obviously, had no idea and the many, many cousins likewise had no notion of Ann.

When Joan had become pregnant back in the 1950s, Catholic Social Services would relocate women to a host family in another community for the duration of the pregnancy. Joan was sent to Dearborn. She gave the baby up for adoption and then returned home to resume her life with no one knowing what happened.

“She was 24 when she had the baby, so she wasn’t a kid,” Ann described. “They would go and have the baby and come back.”

Joan was one of ten children and only one sister and her mother knew of her pregnancy. Later, Joan had four children with her husband Jim, three boys and one girl and never told her children or her husband about the secret in her past.

After talking by telephone, Ann told Joan that she was coming back to the Grand Rapids area for the summer, and if she wanted to meet, they could. “I was okay if she did want to, I was okay if she didn’t want to.”

“Joan had just gotten divorced and she didn’t care, she blew the door wide open,” Ann described. Jim was upset at first, but later enjoyed Ann’s company as much as she enjoyed his at numerous family gatherings. The big extended family all had a surprise coming, except Grandmother Martin, Joan’s mom, who knew about Ann all along.

“It all started to make sense. There were 59 grandkids for Grandma Martin, but she always said there were 60. You couldn’t get her to change her mind, even when you counted out how many each family had. Now it all made sense why she wouldn’t budge.”

Ann said even her adoptive parents came into the mix, joining her birth mom and her family at gatherings, inviting her over and the whole family blended beautifully. “It wasn’t a secret anymore,” Ann described.

Pat Harker, Paul Harker, Steve Harker, Linda Woods, and Ann Westerman.

“They all relaxed and went with the flow.” She said one of her half brothers, Pat, even had fun with the revelation of a formerly unknown sibling. He would walk up to cousins and introduce Ann, saying, “This is my sister, Ann.” and then walk away, leaving them with their mouths hanging open.

Although both sets of parents are gone, Ann remains close to her extended family to this day. “We’ve vacationed together, we’ve camped together, we remain very close.” She said at one point she was able to contact her birth father, as well, but he preferred to keep his secret a secret and since has passed on as well.

And all this family came from running a small ad in a weekly newspaper decades ago.

“It’s interesting to feel this close, but there is no sibling rivalry, no garbage, because we didn’t grow up together. There is none of that drama.” She said.

Ann says that the ad she ran only was printed once and she can’t remember what it even cost. What it gave her, though, is something priceless.