Finding Karen Black: Roots Become Wings by Diane Bay is a New Year, New Books Fete pick #memoir
Finding Karen Black: Roots Become Wings
A bittersweet story that begins with the delightful discovery of a famous birth mother.
In 1959, Karen Black gave up a newborn daughter to adoption. While Karen pursued a career in acting that led her to Hollywood fame, 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.
Finding Karen Black: Roots Become Wings takes the reader on an inspirational 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.
A lifetime of longing had come down to this one moment. Standing in the shade beside our country mailbox, I stared at the envelope in my trembling hands. The return address read Illinois Secretary of State, Records Department. Time slowed. Blood throbbed in my ears. I prayed for strength to handle whatever I found inside.
Then I unfolded my original birth certificate:
Mother: Karen Blanche Black.
Age at birth: nineteen.
Tears rimmed my eyes as I gazed at the name of the woman who had given me up for adoption fifty-three years ago. The woman whose name I finally knew, thanks to a law that opened Illinois’ adoption records.
I clutched the certificate to my chest and hurried to my home office. Now would begin the arduous, long-awaited process of searching for my birth mother. I mentally prepared myself for days scouring the internet, for near-misses and disappointing failures.
But that’s not the way it happened at all. When I typed my birth mother’s name in a Google search, the first link led to a Wikipedia page: Karen Black, a Hollywood actress. Her photo looked familiar, yet nothing like me. And anyway, this particular Karen Black was famous. What were the chances she was my mom? I scanned the details just to dismiss the idea.
“Karen Black (born July 1, 1939) is an American actress, screenwriter, singer, and songwriter.” I did the math in my head. She would have been nineteen on my birth date. “Black was born as Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge, Illinois.” She was from the Chicago area, same as me. I clicked back to Google and stared at the page. All the other entries were about this same person. A tingle ran up my spine.
I did an image search and started finding photos of Ms. Black at a younger age. There were striking similarities between us. Stunned into silence, unable to believe what I saw on the screen, I pushed back in my chair and looked out the window at the woods beyond our yard. Could this really be happening? Adoptees don’t find their birth mothers in two clicks and ten seconds!
Five minutes later, I was outside walking our dogs and clearing my head. I called my husband, Rich, and told him all about it. “So, she really could be my mother,” I said. “What do you think I should do? How should I contact her? Maybe search for her address and send a letter?”
“Well,” he replied with a grin in his voice, “is she on Facebook?”
I turned around right then and hurried home. Of course, she would be on Facebook. I was sure of it. Five minutes later, I found her fan page and typed a brief message:
Hi Karen. Illinois has recently allowed adoptees like me to access their original birth certificates. I just received mine today. I was born on March 4, 1959 at Cook County Hospital, and the name listed for my mother is Karen Blanche Black. Would this happen to be you? I realize this is not your everyday question. I promise to not make anything public. PS I don’t want your money, just want to know if you are my mom.
I pressed enter. And then nothing. Silent days dragged on with no reply. Waves of worry engulfed me, and a tide of longing swept me into the past.
Part One: Life Apart
Chapter 1: 1963–1965
My crayons glowed like gems in the morning sun on our Formica kitchen table. Jazz music drifted in from Dad’s Hi-Fi. Mom was baking chocolate chip cookies, and their warm aroma filled the room. It was the perfect suburban childhood day; nothing was missing. At least not yet.
I turned around, peeking over the vinyl chair back. “Can I have a cookie now?” I asked.
“They're almost ready,” Mom said.
“Okay. I’m making a picture of Daddy.” I held it up for her.
“Mm-hmm,” she mumbled. She pushed the cookies off the baking sheet and didn’t look up. The sunlight showed off her curly hairdo, gingham dress, and freckled arms.
I turned back to my artwork. It looked like Daddy all right, with brown hair on the sides of his head, and none on top. Just then, he walked in from the living room wearing his ever-present dress shirt and pocket protector. “I’m drawing your picture,” I told him. “Look, here’s your glasses and there’s your pocket.”
“Can I hang it in my office?” He smiled. “Come outside with me, DiDi. I want to talk to you.” He took my hand, and I hopped off the chair. Mom watched us leave while she wiped her hands on her apron.
Outside, Dad and I sat on the cool cement of our suburban stoop. I snuggled in beside him and looked out at our street. The house straight across matched ours, a modest brick cape cod with dormer windows. Rows of elm trees stood soldier straight, two guarding each home. Near the corner, friends played hopscotch on the sidewalk.
Daddy looked up at the trees for a long while. I fidgeted, curious what he would say. I counted the polka-dots on my new pedal-pushers. At last, my father pressed his glasses up on his nose and cleared his throat. He smoothed my silky dark hair.
Our brown eyes met, and his sparkled with a secret. “DiDi, you’re a big girl now.”
I smiled and held up four fingers.
“Right.” He gave me a squeeze. “Your mommy and I want you to know, next week we’re bringing home a baby sister for you.”
My eyes widened in wonder. Dad took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then he smiled. “We’re adopting her like we adopted you.”
“Adopted?” I frowned up at him, trying the new word.
“Adopted means we chose you,” Dad said. “You have another mother, your birth mother. She loves you, but she couldn’t keep you, so we got the chance to bring you home to live with us.”
“I have another mommy?” I asked, absorbing this amazing news without knowing its implications. I didn’t question why Mom was still in the kitchen and wasn’t with us.
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It’s a brand-new year, full of possibilities. Did you make any resolutions/goals for 2023? If so, please share one.
I am reading Dan Blank’s Be the Gateway, a marketing plan for creatives. I intend to follow his advice to help my book and my art become sought-after in 2023.
Why is your featured book a must-read in 2023?
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 CA account to win.
Runs January 1 – 31, 2023.
Drawing will be held on February 1, 2023.
Diane Bay is an artist and author. She studied graphic design and creative writing at College of DuPage where she received her Associates Degree.
Diane has written a memoir about finding her famous birth mother, Karen Black, and the bittersweet year they spent together. She has been a speaker at events and on podcasts. She divides her time between oil painting, teaching, and taking care of a granddaughter. 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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