02/13/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
Kathy Roberts was little more than a child herself on the morning of Dec. 22, 1969, when, frightened and alone, she caressed her newborn daughter in the maternity ward of Hartford's St. Francis Hospital. "Don't forget about me," the 16-year-old murmured through tears. "I'm doing this so you can have a good life."
Kathy could not have foreseen that, in years to come, her own life would be marked by an almost unimaginable trail of loss—and renewal. On that wintry day, she hoped only that her sleeping infant would wake just long enough to see her. But the baby did not stir, even when a nurse in a starched white uniform came to take her away. Kathy had held her daughter for only an hour—and for what, she was certain, would be the very last time.
It was at an ice-skating party two years earlier in her home-town of Meriden, Conn., that Kathy, one of 12 children of Arthur Roberts, an electronics assembler, and his wife, Anna, first saw 16-year-old Fred Mason. "I just remember how cute he was," she recalls. "How he stood out from all the others." Soon the two were inseparable—and intimate. "It never occurred to us," says Fred, "that something that felt so good could end up creating such sadness."
But it did. One night in May 1969, Fred went to Kathy's house as usual. But instead of a welcome when he arrived, he found Anna Roberts, "her hands on her hips," says Fred, "symbolically barricading the door." Kathy was pregnant, Anna told him, and he had two options: "If you love her, you can come in. Otherwise, go away and never come back." For Fred, whose own father had abandoned his family, it wasn't a hard choice. "I responded that I did love Kathy," he says. "I committed myself." But, with the quiet support of Fred and her parents, Kathy decided that it would be best to give up their child for adoption. She went north to West Hartford and spent the next several months at the St. Agnes Home for unwed mothers.
The day that Kathy gave birth, 28-year-old Sandy Sander was ironing in her kitchen, 40 miles away in the town of Bran ford, when she received a long-awaited call from Catholic Family Services. She and her husband, Gary, 31, set off immediately to pick up the baby girl they named Jill.
Not long after Kathy returned home, Fred decided to join the Navy—but not before presenting Kathy with a $300 engagement ring on her 17th birthday But, says Kathy, "it was difficult for me to think of Fred without thinking of the baby too." She later returned the ring and decided to move on with her life.
In time, Fred married a piano tuner, became a laser technician, settled in California and had two children. Kathy stayed in Meriden, found work as a police dispatcher, wed a state employee and, in what would be one of her life's greatest sorrows, learned that chronic endometriosis would make another pregnancy impossible.
Over the years, Kathy never stopped grieving for her lost child. "Every time one of my brothers or sisters had children, that was tough," she says. There was also Mother's Day 1987, when a woman at church handed her a corsage and then snapped, "Oh, you're not a mother," and snatched it back. "I felt stabbed in the heart," Kathy says. "I wanted to scream, 'Yes, I am!' "
By that time, in Bran ford, 17-year-old Jill Sander had been feeling yearnings of her own. In 1988 she contacted the Catholic Family Sendees office and initiated a search for her birth mother. Several months later, Kathy, recuperating after a total hysterectomy, was watching a talk show about adopted children reunited with their birth parents, when, she says, "everything suddenly came crashing down like a ton of bricks. It was just too much. I prayed for death."
What she got instead, that same day, was a phone call from a man who identified himself as a social worker from Catholic Family Services and asked if her maiden name had been Roberts. Then, recalls Kathy "he said, There's a young person who would like to meet you. Are you familiar with who that might be?' "
"I screamed, 'Yes! Yes! I had a little girl!' " says Kathy. "And then he asked if I would like to meet her."
Though her husband had mixed feelings about the prospect of a reunion, Kathy arranged to meet her daughter in the agency's second-floor office. Five days later, when the blonde, brown-eyed young woman walked in, Kathy remembers, "I felt like I was looking in a mirror."
At first the two women were too stunned even to hug. But in the coming weeks, they bonded. "You know how when people fall in love, they say sparks were flying?" recalls Kathy. "You could just feel the electrical current."
Jill introduced Kathy to her adoptive mother, who by then was divorced and remarried to Bill Chisholm, 56, a lab technician. "Nobody can take away that I'm Jill's mom, and no one can take away that Kathy is too," says Sandy, who loaned Kathy boxes of Jill's childhood memorabilia, including her first communion dress and Brownie uniform. "We consider it teamwork." But Kathy soon learned that her newfound motherhood could also bring burdens: At 19, Jill announced that she herself was pregnant by her musician boyfriend, and on April 25, 1990, she gave birth to an 8-lb., 8-oz. daughter, Teresa.
If there remained a missing link in the resolution of her past, Kathy decided, it was Fred. He had moved back to Connecticut eight years earlier, and she had contacted him shortly after her reunion with Jill. At first he was reluctant to see his daughter, but with the end of his second marriage, he felt free to connect with her. In January 1991, with Kathy standing by, Fred visited Jill at her apartment in New Haven. But she wasn't the only one who made his heart leap. When he saw Kathy, recalls Jill, "love was written all over his face."
Kathy's own troubled marriage eventually ended in December 1991, and it was then, as she remembers it, that "everything clicked." She and Fred began to realize "what was available to us, but this time we didn't want to blow it." They began to date seriously. Then, on Valentine's Day 1992, Fred gave her a small cherrywood box. "He was very quiet, and when I opened it up and saw the ring, all I could do was stare at it," says Kathy. It was the same ring that he had given her 22 years before. "He said, 'You know what that means, don't you?' And I said, 'Well, yes, of course!' "
Six months later, 150 of their friends and family received the invitations that read, "Kathleen Marie Roberts and Frederick Gordon Mason request the honor of your presence as they FINALLY join their lives together in holy matrimony."
Today, Kathy and Fred live in a sunny apartment in Wallingford, Conn., across the street from Fred's first wife and children, Sean, 11, and Karen, 13, who visit regularly. Like any family, they have tensions: Jill sometimes resents that her parents ever separated, and there are times, says Kathy, that "seeing Fred interact with his two kids, I wish that could have been Jill." But none of this friction was in evidence last April 8 at the wedding of Jill and her baby's father, Jim McDonald: The processional was led by both her mothers; both her fathers gave her away.
In the midst of it all, Kathy looked lovingly at her husband and pondered the forces that had, after all these years, finally reunited them. "It's as if God took our love and put it in a place for safekeeping," she says. "All the old feelings are still there, just like when we were kids.
"Kids," she adds after a moment's pause, "who are very wise."