Meeting of the Moms: Opera singer spends first Mother's Day with both moms

 

May 17, 2018

From left: Susie Munz, Katie Saunders and Jenny Jessup celebrated Mother's Day with champagne and stories from Katie's youth. Katie had almost lost hope of finding her birth mother before meeting her last September. Photo courtesy of Katie Saunders.

For the first time in 50 years, Katie Saunders spent this Mother's Day with her birth mother-a woman she first met last September after searching for her biological parents who met in Haines in the late 1960s.

Growing up as an adoptee, Katie Saunders sometimes struggled to find herself in the reflections of her adoptive family. She wondered where she got her eye color or her musical talent. Since meeting both her birth parents, many of those questions have been answered, and a few more she probably never asked.

"My birth father and I have this weird thing where we don't just sneeze once," Katie said. "We sneeze 20 times."

The CVN last summer reported the story of Katie's unexpected connection with her birth father, Allan Gregg, after she sent her saliva to ancestry.com to trace her Scandinavian ancestry. Katie, who was adopted and never knew her biological parents, is an accomplished opera singer. She, thanks to a cousin who researched Katie's blood relatives, discovered her lineage led back to Mimi Gregg, the daughter of a famous soprano. Katie sang "Mimi's Summer Serenade" last June at the Chilkat Center in front of 33 family members, including Allan Gregg.


But last summer Katie told the CVN she had few leads in the search for her birth mother, who was listed as Jennifer Jane Campbell on Katie's birth certificate. Jennifer, who Katie now calls Jenny, sang and Gregg played guitar in a band they formed during high school. The pair had a short-lived romance that ended when Gregg left Haines for the U.S. Air Force Academy in June 1967. Shortly after he left, Jenny found out she was pregnant. At 17 years old with another year before she graduated high school, Jenny left Haines for Indiana with her mother, Phyllis DeCamp. Eight months later, Jenny gave Saunders up for adoption. Susie Munz adopted Saunders when she was six days old.

The path to meeting Jenny began after Katie read the CVN story and noticed a name she hadn't heard before-Don Krake. Jenny's mother Phyllis returned to Haines later in life and married Krake. Katie searched for the name Phyllis Krake and found a list of addresses and phone numbers that Jenny was also associated with.

"I had been using every means to find Jenny, but she had moved around and been married several times," Katie said. "None of the phone numbers panned out."

But there was one address listed in Greenville, South Carolina. It just so happened Katie had planned a trip to meet Allan Gregg and some of her friends in Greenville. Katie said Gregg volunteered to knock on the door.

"Jenny didn't live there anymore, but the person who lived there knew her daughter, Laurie," Katie said. "He got in contact with Laurie. Laurie knew who Allan Gregg was because Jenny had told her all the time that she had to give up this baby. Me."


Gregg called Jenny and asked if she wanted to meet him at a restaurant that weekend. "He said, 'How would you like to meet your daughter?" Jenny said. "I was in total shock. Later, all I could think of was 'Am I going to be smart enough or pretty enough? Will she like me? I hope I don't disappoint her.' These are the things that go through your mind when you're meeting your child for the first time."

Katie said the initial meeting was surreal. Jenny told Katie about her life, and how difficult it was to give Katie away. They talked about each other's lives. Katie noticed they shared similar mannerisms. "What do you say when you meet somebody that you're connected with biologically, but you don't really know them? We had to give her time to process everything. I had an advantage because I'd been through the process with my birth father."

Jenny also used the word "surreal" to describe their first meeting. "I had her pictured a certain way," Jenny said. "I saw myself so much in her. It was a moment that was indescribable for me. It was joy, happiness, sadness, disbelief, everything. I just wanted to hug her and not let her go."


Katie always knew she was adopted, but had no special interest in finding her birth parents. Still, she was curious about them because she didn't always see her characteristics in her adoptive family.

Katie's adoptive mother Susie was supportive of her daughter finding her birth mother. She knew it would be difficult because Katie was born in Ohio, a state that had strict records laws and didn't reveal information about birth parents. Susie said the state social worker from the adoption agency gave her few details about her daughter's birth parents when they initially adopted her.

"All they would tell us was the father was going to a military academy, her mother couldn't keep her and that she had a strong musical background," Susie said. "I was always watching for that so I could encourage it. When Katie was two years old she could sing 'All of my Favorite Things.' The music came to her so easily."

Susie said by the time Saunders was in seventh grade she taught herself to play five instruments. Saunders said she was a sophomore in high school when she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. "I grew up on a farm in Indiana and had no exposure to opera. The first time I saw opera was in that movie Amadeus. It just kind of came out and I had no idea why."

Jenny and Katie have met several times since September. Getting to know Jenny has not only strengthened Katie's sense of self, but has also illuminated the nooks and crannies of her identity. "For me it just reinforced who I am. As an adoptee you grow up wondering, 'Why do I do this or that? Why do I feel this way?' When you have your biological parents you can look to them or your family and see those traits in others. As an adopted child you can't see where these traits come from."

Katie, Susie and Jenny all say they underestimated the power genetics play in the hardwiring of human habits and physical characteristics. Not only do both Katie and Jenny have glacier-blue eyes and a penchant for music, as children they both tended to have messy hair.

"The funniest thing of all was Katie and I have a hair thing," Jenny said. "I never wanted to comb the back of my hair."

"That was always a battle," Susie said. "Katie would brush what she could see and forget the rest. She just didn't bother with it. I used to have catch her and say, 'Wait, you forgot this.'"

Katie said she has opposite sides of her personality that come out. On the Gregg side, she has a regimented and disciplined demeanor, which enabled her to learn five languages and sing classical opera. From Jenny's genes she received a "wacky imagination" and an appreciation for "raunchy humor."

During Mother's Day weekend, the three women shared old photos and talked about their pasts. They went out to dinner and laughed at Jenny's yarns. Susie described Jenny as a "freshly opened can of 7 Up" and admired the sense of humor Katie and Jenny shared. Susie thanked Jenny for her part in bringing Katie into her life.

"It was just a joyful all-around feeling of gratefulness between Jenny and I," Susie said. "Jenny said she appreciated how I had raised Katie. And how could I not appreciate what she did?"

Susie and Jenny discovered that their paths had likely crossed when Katie was a girl. Susie had worked as a nursing director in a number of nursing homes in central Indiana-the same nursing homes Jenny worked in as an assistant.

At different times they both had lived in Broadripple, a town just north of Indianapolis. "There were a lot of places we both had been," Susie said. "I think our paths crossed many times, but we never met." Another curious coincidence: Susie said she and her late husband considered three names before choosing Katie. One of them was Jennifer.

For her part, Jenny feels like she has a new family to get to know. "I have a whole new bunch of people to be funny for," Jenny said. "I can tell them my old stories and they'll think they're hysterical."

Besides finding a new audience, Jenny also described Mother's Day weekend as the culmination of a lifetime of wondering what had become of her daughter. "Finally after so many years my questions were answered," Jenny said. "There's a feeling of peace that has come for all of us with this full circle. It's not ended for us. It's our new beginning."


Katie said she felt grateful for what she called "the meeting of the moms."

"I thought 'Gosh, why do I feel so comfortable? Why do I feel emotion and love for this person that I just met?" Katie said. "I'm usually a very logical person, but it was there. It was there with both of them."

 
 

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