April 17, 2009
Adoptee's 35-year search for roots spurs 'resurrection'
By Carol Ann Alaimo
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Tucson lawyer Ann Haralambie refers to herself as "a 57-year-old bombshell."
And not in a flattering way.
Since birth, she's been part of a secret that stood to shatter a family she'd never met.
An adoption and family-law expert who's adopted herself, Haralambie has spent decades helping other Tucsonans find their birth parents, even as she couldn't find her own.
Now, after 35 years of searching, her persistence has paid off.
"Today there has been a healing of the hole in my heart," Haralambie recently wrote in an e-mail diary, shortly after meeting her first blood relations — an experience both bitter and sweet.
Bitter because success came too late for Haralambie to meet her biological mother, who died in 2007 — half a century after placing her for adoption under a fake name.
Sweet because Haralambie has discovered dozens of new relatives, and answers to questions that have haunted her for as long as she can recall.
In this season of rebirth and renewal, "I am experiencing a resurrection of my deepest self," Haralambie said.
"I spent my whole life thinking that I was the biggest skeleton in my family's closet."
The thought drove her to become a high achiever, to prove to the world that she was worthy.
"I've always felt an obligation to justify my existence, to give back to the world, to atone for the fact that I wasn't aborted."
Not all adoptees feel so compelled to probe their pasts, said Haralambie, who has handled scores of adoption cases in her legal practice, written books on adoption and family law and speaks at local and national events.
The adoptive brother Haralambie grew up with, for example, has no wish to search for his roots, she said.
In her case, it wasn't that her adoptive parents, a New York pediatrician and his nurse wife, weren't loving, she said.
"I couldn't have asked to have been adopted by better people," she said of James and Cecilia Haralambie, who are deceased. "But I needed to make sense of my situation. I wanted to know who I am, who my people are."
Ann Haralambie came to Tucson as a teen in 1969 to attend the University of Arizona and never left.
Over the years, she amassed a stack of search data as tall as two phone books. She crisscrossed the country checking leads that went nowhere.
At one point, she thought a nun in New Jersey might be her birth mom and sent an envelope from one of the nun's letters to be DNA-tested for saliva. Another search led her to a New Orleans newspaper family, but that also fizzled.
So she kept looking.
In January, she turned to Pamela Slaton, a New Jersey-based adoption searcher with a reputation for cracking tough cases.
Within days, Slaton concluded that Haralambie's biological mom must have recorded the birth under a false name. So she left out the name and searched with other information.
The findings led Haralambie to her birth mother's family in Ohio, and eventually to her birth father, a West Virginia attorney she doesn't want to name because he hasn't told his family about her yet.
Haralambie learned her biological parents were college sweethearts who broke up shortly after she was conceived.
Her birth mother, then a coed named Ann Cottle, chose to have the baby and place her for adoption without telling him, Haralambie said.
Eventually, Cottle married someone else and had four other kids, never mentioning her first pregnancy. But an elderly aunt, Cottle's sister, confirmed details of the secret birth after Slaton made contact.
A few weeks ago, Haralambie traveled to Ohio to meet her newfound siblings — three brothers and a sister — and a clan of cousins, nieces and nephews.
"This is something you hear about on TV. You never think it will happen in your family," said Mark Kibble of Powell, Ohio, who is relishing his new role as Haralambie's brother.
"Initially, it was quite a shock," said Kibble, 48, a technology director at a non-profit agency. "The first night I heard, I was numb. I couldn't sleep. I sat up on the couch all night.
"I'm just amazed at Ann, that she worked so hard, for so long, to find us," Kibble said. "She must have carried a heavy load all those years. I wish I could have known her 35 years ago, but I'm so happy to know her now."
Delving into an unknown past can be dicey, though.
Some of Haralambie's discoveries have been welcome. Others, not so much.
She has learned, for example, that she talks, laughs — even coughs — like the mother she never met.
But she also discovered her father's forebears were slave owners. An old will unearthed online in a public-records search shows them bequeathing "negroes" to their heirs.
"That turned my stomach," she said. "I'm such a civil-rights person."
Haralambie expects more ups and downs ahead as she pieces the past together. Divorced with a grown daughter, she is eager to know more about the medical history of her ancestors for her offspring's sake and her own.
No matter what happens next, she said, she's content knowing where she came from.
"There is a peace now," she said, "a physical peace I can feel in my body, that I have never felt in my life."
Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.