It started with an old photo, blurry and fading, stuffed in a drawer in Palm Springs, California.
Its owner, Margaret Ann Harris, is one of two people in the image.
In it, the former P.E. teacher — Maggie, her friends called her — is on the left side, her neck covered in lei. On her right is a man. He is tall, dark and wearing an aloha shirt.
In the background is a row of trees. Fern Grotto? It could be Kalapaki Beach.
Maggie knew, of course, but she passed away in 1997 and the photo sat untouched for three years until it was given to Jennifer Kolling.
Maggie was Jennifer’s biological mother, but the two never met.
“Here,” a friend of Maggie’s told Jennifer when Jennifer was on a quest to learn more about her birthmother. “You should have this.”
The photo was old but characteristics were distinguishable. It just lacked hard, sharp detail.
It was taken in 1968.
“One picture,” said Jennifer, who was given up for adoption after she was born in January 1969. “And they gave it to me.”
Now it was Jennifer’s. But who was the man? Was it her father? Why would her mother keep just this one photo? And even if it was her father, how could she track him down without a name? She was trying to fill in as many answers as she could.
She still is, though she’s made progress. Her search — which has gone on for years — has led her to Kauai. She spent weeks on Kauai this summer showing the photo around, chasing down leads, some of which fizzled, some of which didn’t.
“I met half the island showing that picture,” she told The Garden Island.
Leads took her back to the music scene on the island in the late 1960s. It took her to the old days of the Kauai Surf hotel, now the Kauai Marriott. She met guitarists, famous names and people who weren’t related to her but offered to adopt her into their ohana, anyway.
“Amazing,” Jennifer called the experience.
And after years of wondering and months of searching, she’s located a family who says the man in the picture is related to them. Does that mean she has found her long-lost relatives? Jennifer and the family are planning a DNA test to see if they could be related.
“I want to see where I came from,” Jennifer said about her pilgrimage which started with a picture in a California drawer and ended on the Garden Isle. “And then I’ll be happy as a clam.”
The search begins
The journey began in 2000.
Married and living in Pleasanton, California, with a two sons and a daughter, Jennifer felt it was time to learn more about who she was. She always knew she was adopted. Her family is Japanese and she is the “hapa haole” of the family, as she called herself, but she felt it was time to begin looking.
She started with the clues that were in her County of Santa Clara adoption file.
It gave her mother’s full name and date of birth. A letter explained that her mother couldn’t raise a child as a working, single mother and that she thought a family could provide a better upbringing than a full-time babysitter. It didn’t give her father’s name. In the description report, it listed him as 25 to 30 years old, “Oriental, Micronesian” and mechanically inclined.
“Your birthmother loved to travel and had a particular interest in Hawaii,” the March 1969 county report states. It reads like an impersonal, yet strangely personal letter. A report written directly and professionally to Jennifer in the chance that one day, she would want to read it. “According to your birthmother, your birthfather is a man that she dated during a vacation to Hawaii.”
It took only a few months to locate friends and former co-workers of her mother. Maggie traveled every spring and summer break to Hawaii, Maggie’s friends told Jennifer. One of Maggie’s friends said they traveled to Kauai not too long before Maggie passed away. The friend said Maggie knew people on the island like they were neighbors.
OK, Jennifer thought, so it’s Kauai.
And, the friend told Jennifer, one of Maggie’s closest pals on the island was a woman by the name of Aunty Mabel Timmerman.
Jennifer had her first name.
The first friend
Aunty Mabel used to waitress at the Golden Cape, the bar inside the old Kauai Surf hotel at Kalapaki Beach. She served drinks and met tourists and locals for 20 years.
It was a lively scene.
“That was a very well-known hotel in all the islands,” Mabel said. “There were professional entertainers.”
It’s where Mabel, now 82, befriended Maggie. She remembers her old companion well.
So when Jennifer tracked Mabel down at her Lihue home this past August and showed her the picture, Mabel’s face lit up.
“She was a wonderful friend,” Mabel said of Maggie. “She was very active. A nice personality. … She knew quite a bit of people here.”
The two spent their summers on Kauai together, listening to music, hanging out at the beach hotel. But it surprised Mabel when Jennifer introduced herself as Maggie’s daughter.
“I never even knew that she had a child,” Mabel said.
But Mabel didn’t know the man in the photo. She recognized the face, but the name escaped her. He was a musician, she said, but the name wasn’t there.
“The face looks familiar,” she said, looking at the picture. “As you get older, you kind of lose the memories.”
There are around 6 million adopted Americans, according to Rich Uhrlaub, legislative chair for the American Adoption Congress. ACC is a nationwide support, education and advocacy organization for adoptees.
Jennifer, who is 45, isn’t alone in her search, he said, though there aren’t official estimates on how many adopted children search for their birthparents.
“But sooner or later they all think seriously about it,” Uhrlaub said.
That’s because it is an instinctive curiosity to know where one comes from.
Jennifer’s search isn’t unique in the sense that she started it later in life. Many do. And Uhrlaub estimated that 75 percent of adoption files don’t identify the fathers, just as Jennifer’s didn’t.
“Often, women start thinking about it when they start having children,” he said. “Men tend to start of thinking it when they’re facing mortality, when they have health issues.”
There is also the fear of offending the adoptive families. Waiting until after adoptive parents die to begin a search is common. And there is a fear of a second rejection, or disrupting another’s family.
“It’s an incredibly emotional process,” Uhrlaub said. “But adoption done right is a beautiful thing.”
There’s also been a shift in how it’s viewed nationally. Fourteen states, such as Colorado, have made laws that make it easier for adopted children to access their files. Online search registry sites are more common. The stigma of the 1950s caused by an unwed mother giving up her child isn’t nearly as strong today.
“The philosophy is shifting,” Uhrlaub said. “It used to be a religious, social issue, but the truth is, today, adoption is a $1.4 billion industry in America.”
Jacquelyn Wesolosky, Hawaii representative for ACC, ranked Hawaii’s adoption records laws as somewhere in the middle.
But Hawaii searches are unique in some ways. It’s an island state with military members and tourists whose populations turn over regularly, mixed with native and foreign-born residents. Added to that is the isolation of the islands, which can be a draw for people looking to make a clean break from something.
“There were people who came to Hawaii to relinquish children,” Wesolosky said. “It’s far away — in the early days, it was more isolated than it is now. … This was a place to get away from another life.”
Added to these factors is a tendency in the Hawaiian culture to be more reserved about sharing personal information, she said.
“I think we’re a little reticent to be really out there with our issues,” Wesolosky said.
One Hawaiian woman interviewed for the story said the same thing.
Don’t be “niele,” she told a reporter, using the Hawaiian word for nosy.
“The Hawaiian way is ‘Don’t be inquisitive,’” she said. “You don’t disturb the lives that have developed.”
During Jennifer’s search on island, names and leads would appear, then get crossed off.
It was exciting to develop, but frustrating to see stall.
“We think we have it,” said Matt Smith, a friend of Jennifer’s from California who moved to Kauai and helped her with her search. “But then you pull a thread and nothing happens. You pull another and something happens. It’d be nice to pull that last couple of threads and watch this thing unfold.”
One of those leads was musician Jack Wilhelm.
Jack met Jennifer at JJ’s Broiler at Kalapaki Beach because he thought they’d be overlooking the very spot where the photo was taken.
But it wasn’t him in the frame, and he didn’t know who it was.
“I would have accepted it with open arms if it was me,” Jack said, adding that once he saw the photo he knew he wasn’t the father. “I would have been elated.”
He recognized Maggie though. He can still see her, with her red hair at the Golden Cape nightclub, listening to the music.
“I remember her sitting at the bar,” said Jack, who still plays music around the island. “As a musician, you see the lonely hearts.”
Jack agreed to take a copy of the picture and ask around.
In case the search never reached a conclusion, he offered to adopt Jennifer into his family, which Jennifer accepted.
“She was precious, you know,” Jack said. “I really wanted her to find her father.”
Then Charlie Fu saw the picture.
An old musician himself, he thought it might be a fellow by the name of John, whose name is being changed for this story at the request of his family.
Jack called Matt to relay the tip. By then, Jennifer’s monthlong stay on Kauai was up. Back in California, she had a list of names, some crossed off, some she didn’t know much about. From Pleasanton, she contacted TGI to see if the newspaper could publish the photo, and ask, “Does anyone know this man?”
When TGI contacted Jack and Charlie, they said they were sure of the ID. It was John, they said.
“It came to me in about 30 seconds,” Charlie said, looking at the blurry photo for a second time. “His smile, his face.”
John played music, Charlie said, but not as a steady gig. He was a policeman at one point, which old colleagues on the force later confirmed.
“Even with the fuzzy picture I could tell it was him. Good-looking Hawaiian man,” said retired Maj. George Costa Sr., whose father worked with John on the force in the 1960s. “Uncle (John) was a very, very nice man. You can see that in the picture. They were our neighbors and very close family friends.”
Then John’s niece, listed in the phone book, saw the photo and said it was her uncle. A little later, John’s daughter, Jamie, who got the photo from the niece, said it was her father.
Yes, John was a police officer, said Jamie, whose name has also been changed. Their family moved from Kauai around 1965 after her parents divorced but John stayed. He also worked at Kauai Surf as a beach boy.
“He was always strumming on a ukulele,” said Jamie, who now lives on Oahu. “He loved to play music.”
But she hadn’t heard anything about Jennifer. Both her parents have passed away, John in the 1980s.
“I’d love to talk to her,” Jamie said of Jennifer. “I find this all very interesting.”
Jennifer and Jamie spoke a couple of times over the Thanksgiving weekend. They exchanged pictures, stories and laughs.
“I feel like I want to be adopted by her family,” Jamie joked.
The next step, Jennifer said, is a DNA test to see if they can identify a possible relationship. Jennifer and Jamie are scheduling a test, so Jennifer could be back in Hawaii in January.
“I’m so grateful,” Jennifer said in a phone interview from California. “I’m so excited.”
She said she didn’t consider the part of the search that some adoptees worry about, the fear of interrupting another family’s life. Uhrlaub, from the ACC office in Colorado, estimated that 90 percent of biological parents who are located are happy they were found.
“I never did think of the other end of it,” Jennifer said. “I had all this time, my whole life, to process this.”
But what if the results come back negative? Will it be any consolation knowing the ID in the photo, but knowing, too, it wasn’t her father? Would it be another dead end?
“I don’t know,” Jennifer said. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
The test results can’t say definitely if the pair are half-sisters. It can indicate various degrees of probability, according to David Haymer, a professor in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. The only way to indicate to near-certainty would be to test the father.
Still, it can point to likelihood.
And what kind of proof do you attach to a picture that’s sentimental enough for someone to hang on to for 40 years? A photo that went from San Jose, to Palm Springs and, finally, to Kauai?
“It’ll either be a really fun experience,” Jennifer said of her journey, which now hinges on test results. “Or we might be sisters.”