Anna Bitong, Special to The Forum, Published May 18 2014
Grand Forks native connects with child she was forced to give up in 1956
On that day in 1956, she gave birth to a girl she would wait 56 years to meet, a story told in her memoir, “A Life Exposed.”
Among the many experiences she recalls in the book is meeting her husband, Marc, after a series of coincidences. He proposed to her shortly after.
She had planned to write about their whirlwind romance, but another love story emerged two years ago.
The Grand Forks native was 17 when she got pregnant, and her deeply ashamed parents sent her to Montreal, Canada, to have her baby. The family never spoke of it again.
“Before I could blink, we were packing,” Schlechter said. “They whipped me out of the country so fast my head was spinning. I just followed orders.”
In her memoir, she releases her long-repressed feelings about giving birth in a solitary hospital room.
“When I was alone in the delivery room, where was everybody? That provokes not only anger, but a lot of disbelief,” she said.
Schlechter was forced to sign adoption papers not knowing whether she’d had a boy or a girl. She watched in agony as a nurse fed her newborn, not daring to ask if she could see or hold the child.
She saw just the back of a small head with black hair, and once a year she would be haunted by the memory of a child without a face, gender or name.
“I pushed it out of my head,” she said. “I had to get on with my life, and that would have plagued me. But every March 10 I suffered. When that birth date came along, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Is she alive? Is she happy? Is she smart? Is she kind? After March 10, back to my life. Or I wouldn’t be able to function.”
Susan Rossman spent 17 years searching for her birth mother. Her adoptive mother had died when she was 10, and her adoptive father died when she was 27.
A few years later, when she was in her early 30s, the New Jersey resident began her quest for answers, seeking help from Social Services, looking for clues on the Internet, asking her adoptive cousins what they knew about her birth mother.
But her past remained a mystery.
Rossman lost hope.
Then, two years ago, a cousin revealed to Rossman the name of her birth mother’s uncle, and the mystery quickly unraveled.
Extensive online searches turned up an article about a 17-year-old girl who left her Grand Forks high school in 1956 to have a baby and never came back. An obituary for Schlechter’s mother said she had a brother and sister. Afraid of rejection, Rossman contacted the sister. Schlechter was shocked to learn that her first-born daughter was trying to find her.
“I thought I was going to die,” Schlechter said. “The first words out of my mouth were ‘no, no no,’ because it was bringing back something which I was taught was bad.”
She considered her next step.
“I woke up the next morning and I thought, you know what, it’s 2011. The shame isn’t today like it was in 1956. I can’t harbor this anymore. It’s a burden. And my curiosity was killing me at that point too.”
Rossman recalled the moment she saw the name of her birth mother on her caller ID.
“I was excited, shocked, happy,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I picked up the phone and we spoke for hours. She didn’t know anything about me or what I looked like. I emailed her a picture. She got the picture as I’m on the phone with her. It was like a rebirth of sorts.”
They agreed to meet for the first time in San Diego.
At the designated hour, Schlechter was greeted by about 40 of Rossman’s family members and friends.
The mother and daughter who had spent a lifetime apart connected instantly. They discovered they had much in common. They have the same shoe size. Schlechter ate a lot of grapefruit when she was pregnant with Rossman, who loves grapefruit.
Before the women met, Schlechter and her husband lived on the same street in New Jersey as Rossman for two years.
Both speak thoughtfully and express gratitude about finding each other after nearly six decades apart.
What their long separation took away has been replaced by a budding friendship and twice-a-week phone calls that sometimes last for hours.
“It’s still surreal. She’s a wonderful girl and very, very loving to me,” said Schlechter, who has two other children.
They say “I love you” after every conversation. And they still pepper each other with questions.
“The questions still go on, they never end,” Rossman said. “I’m happy that we relate to one another so well. We’re very compatible, which is why our relationship has strengthened and deepened and lasted so long. Otherwise, we would’ve answered some questions and gone our separate ways.”
On the first Mother’s Day after they met, Schlechter received gifts from Rossman for days: an orchid one day, a cutting board the next.
“It was unbelievable,” Schlechter said. “I called her and said, ‘Susan, what are you doing?’ She said, ‘Beverly, I’m making up for lost time.’ It was so poignant.”
Rossman plans to visit Schlechter in Thousand Oaks next year.
“It’s a really fantastic and fulfilling experience,” Rossman said. “I just adore Beverly. I think the world of her. I’m happy to be a part of her life. I hope that this continues for a lifetime.”
Schlechter is now free from the pain of her past.
“Now that we met, the secret’s out, I’m liberated,” she said. “I can talk about her to people. I don’t suffer every March 10. I can call her and say happy birthday.”
Anna Bitong writes for the Thousand Oaks (Calif.) Acorn