At her recent high school graduation party, Ashley Wyrick got some great stuff: an iPod, a digital camera, even a pair of sapphire earrings. But when Ashley opened the big white box from her godfather, Steve Gibbons, she found an old patrolman's uniform jacket, size 42. It didn't seem like much, but Ashley dissolved into tears. "It was like a waterfall," says the 18-year-old. "I was like, 'I know what this is.'" That surprising gift had served as Ashley's very first baby blanket.

On a December night in 1987 near Redwood City, Calif., Gibbons, then a 30-year-old officer with the California Highway Patrol, pulled his car to the side of the road to stretch his legs when a brown paper bag caught his eye. "As I walked over, I heard a little whimper," he recalls. "I opened the bag, and there was Ashley." Astonished, Gibbons wrapped up the hours-old infant and sped to a hospital, where staffers pronounced the 6 lb., 4 oz. girl healthy, though cold.

The tale made the papers and the baby was dubbed Miraculous Mary. After an unsuccessful search for her parents, she was adopted at age 1 by her foster family, Leo Wyrick, a 50-year-old carpenter, and his wife, Kathy, who between them had five grown children. Wyrick and his wife split when Ashley was 4 in a bitter divorce that left Leo with sole custody. Still, Ashley recalls a happy childhood: "I would go to work with him—carry this little tool box and pretend I was working."

But for most of her young life, Ashley knew nothing of the sad events surrounding her birth. At 6, rummaging through a hall closet, she discovered a scrapbook of newspaper clippings made for her by Sheryl Greenspan, the perinatal nurse who had cared for her shortly after she was found. "I just looked at the pictures," says Ashley. "I didn't even know it was me."

She was still in the dark in 1996 when Leo died of brain cancer at age 59. Leo had told her she was adopted, but it was only the year after his death that his oldest child, Serene Herrmann, now 42 and Ashley's legal guardian, revealed the full story. Ashley was just 10 at the time. "I remember her telling me that even though this all happened, I'm loved, I have the support of a family," says Ashley.

Experts say the kind of early abandonment Ashley endured will almost certainly have lingering repercussions—though so far she has proved remarkably resilient, according to those who know her. "Abandonment has a profound impact, and the fear of it never leaves," says Susan Anderson, a psychotherapist and author on the subject who has not met Ashley. "But those feelings can become smaller. You can grow a healthy world around the wound."

In Ashley's case, says Serene, "there were a few years when she wasn't very strong after Dad died." Kids at school, who had learned the story of Miraculous Mary through local gossip, teased her. "She would come home every day crying," says Serene, who also has a daughter Kelly, 21. But therapy helped, and so did a transfer to a new school where her past was unknown. By eighth grade, "Ashley started blooming," says Serene.

Then came another blow. In 2003, Serene was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and her prospects were grim. Says Ashley: "I was like, 'Great. Everywhere I go, someone dies.' I almost blamed myself." Instead, she became a caregiver, says Serene, now in remission: "She would jump in bed with me and just hold my hand." Ashley's generosity of spirit seems no less remarkable than her lack of rancor. Looking to the future, she plans to become a psychologist because, she says, "I feel like every kid needs a voice. I clammed up a lot. It helps to have someone there."

In the meantime, the scrapbook of newspaper clips documenting her early life serves as a kind of touchstone for the missing pieces of her past. "If I'm having a bad day, I'll bring it out," she says. "I have most of it memorized. The pictures affect me the most." But she does not want to be mired in long-ago events. "I sometimes wonder why my [birth] mother did what she did, what her circumstances were. I don't want to hate her, and I don't. But I definitely don't dwell on it," she says.

As for Serene, she has this message for Ashley's biological mother: "Thank you for giving her to us. And I hope you see what you've missed."

  • Contributors:
  • Vickie Bane/Redwood City.