Finding Karen Black: Roots Become Wings
Finding Karen Black begins with the delightful discovery of a famous birth mother. But Karen’s fame didn’t change her daughter’s life—Karen’s love did.
In 1959, Karen Black gave up a newborn daughter to adoption. While Karen pursued a career in acting that led her to Hollywood, her child grew up near Chicago. For five decades they knew nothing about each other. In 2011, Illinois opened their sealed adoption records, and Diane sent for her original birth certificate. She was amazed to discover that her birth mother was the actress whose unconventional beauty had captured the zeitgeist of the ’60s and ’70s cinema. Karen starred in some of the decades’ prominent films including Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Great Gatsby, Airport 1975, and many more.
Diane messaged Karen on Facebook, and Karen responded with joyful acceptance. Their reunion was healing but bittersweet, because it came at a pivotal moment: they had exactly one year to deepen their mother-daughter bond before Karen lost her battle with cancer.
Finding Karen Black: Roots Become Wings takes the reader on an emotional journey from childhood longing to dream fulfilled, and from the first moments of a joyful reunion through a year of discovery, loss, and renewal. This remarkable story is a testament to the power of the mother-child bond, the importance of our roots, and the belief that love lasts forever.
On the morning of August 8, 2012,Rich and I sipped our coffee on the front porch, our laptops on a table between us. I opened Facebook with a glum sigh, something that had become automatic.
My heart jumped.
“There’s a message from her!” I reached for Rich’s hand.
He put down his cup, and sheltering my hand in both of his, he prayed. “Heavenly Father, please help Diane deal with whatever she finds here.”
I held his hand tight and clicked.
The private message box opened, and I read the best reply I could have imagined to my question, Are you my mother?
I am. Been a long time. I hated leaving you behind, turbulent waves of sorrow. Thank you for making this possible Diane. (Her phone number and email address here.) Your father is still a good friend, a genius, a professor, a television producer. You will love him. We will all love each other. I’m kinda stunned.
I was stunned myself, swathed in a brand-new kind of peace, vaguely aware of my husband crying beside me, still squeezing my hand. The entire world spun silent and suspended as I turned to Rich in slow motion and smiled.
Tears wet his cheeks, and relief shone from his eyes. “Oh, Di, I was so worried you’d get your heart broken.” He wiped tears from my face, and then from his own as we laughed together.
I wrote a simple reply to Karen, thanking her and giving my phone and email. I was almost mute with amazement. Happy was not a good description, even joy, while closer, wasn’t expansive enough. I was a ghost who’d come alive; a black and white sketch bursting with colorful paint; Dorothy stepping into Oz. I’d become three-dimensional. All that day, my heartbeat was a lullaby and breathing was a pleasure. My soul danced and sang and flew. I hoped this lovely peace would melt into my bones and last forever.
On the second day of this new life, Rich and I had finished lunch when my cell phone rang. I pulled it from my pocket and bobbled it when Karen’s number appeared. My throat tightened. Rich met my eyes, and I nodded, unable to speak.
“I need to take it outside,” I whispered.
“Good luck, baby.” He opened the door for me.
On our back deck, I plopped down in a patio chair and took in a deep breath. Exhaling, I pressed talk and brought the phone to my cheek. “Hello,” I answered, trembling.
“Hello, dear,” said a husky voice.
A smile burst from my heart. “Hi… Mom!”
“Hi, Daughter!” Karen replied, sounding as excited as me. “It's so wonderful to hear you!”
I twisted in my chair so my legs were hanging over the arm, bouncing. “I can hardly believe this is happening!”
“So where are you, right now? What does it look like?”
She wants to picture me talking to her. “Well, I’m outside on my deck, sitting in a green patio chair under a tan canopy. It’s sunny and warm out, and birds are singing in the woods past our yard.”
“Sounds lovely! I miss the woods in the Midwest. There are no good trees here in Southern California. I’ve never felt at home here, but this is where the work is.”
We both love trees. Should I talk about that? My mind buzzed with panic and delight, but Karen didn’t seem to notice the pause.
“Thank you so much for this, Diane! You’ve done a great thing by contacting me. I always thought about you. My brother, Peter, helped me try to find you, but we…we couldn’t.” Her voice dropped to silence, so I spoke up.
“I was hoping you tried. I signed up for two adoption registries, the International Soundex and an Illinois list. If you had joined, they would’ve connected us. Did you ever hear of them?”
“Yes, Peter talked about that, but I had two bad experiences with people contacting me saying I was their mother, which shook me up, you can imagine. My husband, Stephen, and I decided not to put my name out there.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, and sighed in relief. She’d just been protecting herself. “So how did you decide I was your real daughter?”
“Because you had the date right! March 4, 1959. Those others had different dates. It’s scary being an actor, being famous, because people can treat you very badly if they like. And I’ve always been awfully gullible. It’s how I lost my fortune, being too trusting. We really have no money at all now. But anyway, we didn’t join the registries, so you’ve done a wonderful thing for me, Diane, by reaching out and making this possible.”
“Well, your being famous did make it super easy for me to find you. And I’ve always wanted to meet you—”
“Oh! But how were you able to feel that way?” Karen cut in with passion in her voice. “You didn’t have hard feelings about it?”
“No, never! I don’t know why, but I only ever wanted to thank you for giving me life. So… thank you! I love life!” I stood up and paced around the deck, running my hand through my hair in joyful disbelief.
“Well, I don’t know what to say to that, but thank you. What a great attitude! It was the hardest thing I ever did to give you up.”
She paused, and then her voice took on a more somber tone. “Diane, it’s quite unnatural for a mother to be separated from her newborn. I remember sitting in a fetal position on my bed, rolling along the wall, unable to control my sobbing. They didn’t let me hold you. If they had I would never have let you go. I got to see you one time; a kind nurse led me to a window. I peered through the glass. You were in distress! You had scratched your face with your little fingernails. It was all so much to bear.”
At that moment, I wished she had held me, that she had kept me. Her openness was amazing. “Thank you for sharing that.” My words came out in a whisper. I could barely breathe as the revelation of my mother’s love washed over me.
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Finding Karen Black carries the reader into the life and thoughts of the main character, Diane, an adoptee whose sealed adoption records hide her history and birth parents’ identity. The story arc is clear, bringing us into the emotional moments which define her journey toward reunion and into the year she shares with her mother, Karen. We travel with her as longing becomes embracing, holding means having to let go, and grief dissipates into joy.
One lucky reader will win a $75 Amazon (US or Canada) gift card.
Open internationally. You must have a valid Amazon US or Amazon Canada account to win.
Runs August 1 – 31
Drawing will be held on September 1.
Diane Bay is an artist and writer. She studied creative writing at College of DuPage where she received her Associate Degree. Like her birth mother Karen, Diane loves life and lives in the present moment. Oil painting is her passion. Diane currently lives in western Kentucky and is an active member of the Paducah Area Painters Alliance and other creative groups. She and her husband, Rich, have three adult sons and four grandchildren.
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