The Bond Unbroken
updated 09/02/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 09/02/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT
The story began one December night in 1961 when Cummins, then a 24-year-old mother of two, was on her way home around 11:30 p.m. after seeing Blue Hawaii, starring Elvis Presley. She had just said goodbye to her girlfriend when a man grabbed her from behind, dragged her into an alleyway three blocks from her apartment in Boston's Charlestown area and raped her. "He just proceeded to tear me apart," she says. "I was afraid for my life." As her attacker fled, Cummins staggered home, sobbing and trembling, to her husband, Robert, a bus driver, who ran out to search for the man, to no avail. "I didn't go to the police," says Cummins. She and her husband discussed it, she explains, "but I was in a bad way." In fact, she feared how the police—in that era before sex crimes units or even female police officers became commonplace—might react to her story. "You're the victim," she says, "but you're going to have to keep answering all these questions. I didn't want to go over all that again and again." Besides, she remembered little about her assailant except that he was black.
Four weeks later, Cummins discovered she was pregnant. For eight agonizing months she and Robert (who died in a 1985 car accident) waited, hoping and praying that he would be the father. Even with Robert's unfailing support, "it was the longest nine months I have ever lived," she recalls. "I was constantly thinking, 'Is it my husband's baby or is it somebody else's, and if it is somebody else's, then what do we do?' " Says Cummins, who is Catholic: "I just always said, if this is the way God wanted it to be, this is what has to be."
And so it was. On Aug. 3, 1962, Cummins gave birth to a healthy 7½-pound baby girl and named her Barbara Ann. "The first time I saw her, I instantly fell in love with her," she says. But her new baby's skin was deceptively pale, and for two anxious days, Cummins waited in her hospital bed, trying to convince herself that the dark patches on Barbara's knuckles were only from clenching her tiny fists so tight. Finally the doctor told her that the baby's father was black. "I was devastated," she says. That night she broke the news to Robert. "The two of us just held each other. He cried. I cried. It hurt him as badly as it hurt me."
The young couple feared raising the visibly mixed-race child along with their two Caucasian children in the Irish-American housing projects of Charlestown, a white ethnic enclave where hostility to blacks was open and occasionally violent, particularly during the city's school busing crisis in the 1970s. "You just never saw black people in Charlestown," says Cummins. Also, tormented by shame after the rape, Cummins kept asking herself, "Am I going to look at this child and be angry with her or try to take it out on her?" In the end, she says, "I just couldn't bring myself to say, 'I'm going to take this baby home.' I didn't think it was the right thing to do."
Three days later, Cummins dressed her baby in a pink crocheted sweater set and gave her to a social worker to be placed in foster care. Robert told Cummins's mother, who informed the rest of the family that Gerry would come home without a baby and begged them not to ask why. They never did.
Three weeks later the couple took Barbara to be christened at a Catholic church, then returned her to the foster home. It was the last time Gerry would see her for more than 30 years, but all that time Barbara haunted her thoughts. "What is her life like? Who is she living with?" she wondered. "Christmas would come around and you'd think, 'What is she doing?' "
In fact, for her first seven Christmases, Barbara was living happily not far away from Cummins in Roxbury, a largely black community, with her foster mother Corrine White, now 73. "She was a beautiful child," says White, who tried to adopt Barbara but was turned down because she was divorced. "Of course, I considered her my child." Barbara, who still calls her Mom, assumed White was her natural mother. . She was in first grade when she found out otherwise. "One day, early in December 1969, the world began falling apart," recalls Williams, taking up her story in the living room of the rented three-bedroom townhouse she shares with her husband, Don, 35, and their five children in Maple Grove, Minn. "A social worker came to Mrs. White's house and said I was going to be adopted. She took me to the airport, showed me the planes, and told me I'd be flying far away to this wonderful family in Minnesota."
But growing up in Roseville, a mostly white Minneapolis suburb, was far from wonderful. "I was so alone, so afraid," recalls Williams. "Everyone was white; everyone was a stranger." Her white adoptive parents—a 27-year-old social worker and a 32-year-old computer programmer, who have asked not to be named—divorced within a year. Barbara remained with her new mother but says they were "never close." She lost contact with her adoptive father at 17. "I never had a real family growing up," she says. "I never knew where I came from, where I belonged, and I missed that."
When she was 16, Barbara started dating Don Williams at Washburn High School. Later, Don—the son of Robert Williams, who played forward for the Harlem Globetrotters from 1959 to '61—became an aspiring football player at the University of Minnesota. But at 17, Barbara became pregnant with her son Robert, now 16. After her adoptive mother said she couldn't live at home with a baby, Barbara moved in with Don's sister, and Don quit school to support his new family. Barbara still managed to graduate, and on Valentine's Day 1981 they were married.
Soon, Don, a forklift driver, realized his wife was yearning for her real mother. "For a long time I thought my family would make it up to her, would be enough," he says. "But then I could see it wasn't. She needed to know her roots, where she came from."
With Don's encouragement, Williams obtained her adoption files in 1983. Although much of the information was whited out, Gerry Cummins's first initial was on the papers; Barbara had always known her last name was Cummins. What she hadn't known—and struggled to accept when she read it in her file—was that she was a child of rape. "I knew from my adoption papers that my mother cared about me; she had me baptized," she says. Still, she kept wondering, "how could she love me if she was raped?" When Williams found no G. Cummins in the Boston phone book (Gerry is listed by her middle name, Eileen), she got cold feet. "I was too afraid to pursue it further," she says.
Years passed. Then, last February, Williams summoned the courage to try again. She requested her mother's marriage certificate from Boston City Hall, learned that her maiden name was Nephew and found a Gerald Nephew—Geraldine's twin brother—in an Internet telephone directory. On March 4, Williams telephoned her uncle's house and left a message asking Geraldine to return her call. "It was like dialing an old friend'," she says, "surprisingly easy." Then, at 7.30 p.m. on Sunday, March 10, came the call Barbara Williams had dreamed of for decades. "I think you're my mother," said Williams, her heart pounding. "No," replied Gerry Cummins. "I know I'm your mother."
Stifling her tears, Gerry apologized for giving up her baby all those years ago. "And this is the part that really got me," recalls Cummins. "She said, 'Mom, you don't have to apologize.' And I said, 'Wow, this girl is calling me Mom.' " One by one, Gerry told the rest of her children. "They were all tickled pink to think that they had another sister," she says. When Theresa heard the news, she "started jumping up and down" with excitement.
The celebrations had only begun. On April 19, Barbara flew from Minnesota to Boston's Logan International Airport and was met at the gate by Gerry, Carol, Theresa and Barbara's onetime foster mother Corrine White, whom Gerry had contacted. The Cummins family opened its arms to Williams and her children. Before long, Barbara and her two sisters discovered some unexpected similarities: All had married in the same year; each signs her name underlined with a similar swirl. Brother Ted also embraced his newfound sister, mailing her a package of books and computer disks—to catch up, he said, on 33 Christmases lost.
Williams has a lifetime of catching up to do and e-mails her mother daily with family news. Recently, Gerry added Barbara's portrait to the others on her living room wall. "Everything is the way it should be," says Cummins. "My life is now complete." And, at long last, her picture gallery is too.
STEPHEN SAWICKI in Boston and MARGARET NELSON in Maple Grove