Jerri McKinley became more than a mere mystery to Kris in mid-August by way of a third party. Emails and phone calls between the two women made smooth the path to last Saturday’s visit at Wells’ Madison Street home.
Those who toil or tinker with family trees would have cheered.
And anyone who’s a sucker for a tear-tugging story with a happy ending would not have been disappointed.
It was a meeting made in history.
It was the first-ever meeting of a mother and a daughter.
Never a secret
Kris Wells has known she was adopted for as far back as her memory reaches.
Bob and Martha Whiteside made sure of that.
The couple, who had tried to have children for nearly a decade, made the decision to adopt. At the time, they were living in Barnsville, Ga., while Bob Whiteside attended seminary.
While home in Jackson for a visit, the Whitesides received a call from their case worker.
“She told us, ‘We’ve got a baby for you, but there’s only one thing wrong with her. She has red hair,’” Bob Whiteside said. “Martha immediately said, ‘I’ve always wanted a baby with red hair.’”
The couple made the trip to Savannah, Ga., and returned several days later to Barnsville with their 5-day-old red-headed daughter.
Two years later, Martha Whiteside gave birth to son Shan and later a second son, Russ.
Martha died of brain cancer in 1997; Shan Whiteside died of complications from leukemia in 2006 at the age of 34.
“I’d always wondered about my birth mother and wanted to know why,” Kris said. “But I never set out to find her because I didn’t want to take the chance of hurting my mom and dad.
“But after my mom died and Shan got sick, I started thinking about my own medical history, for myself, but mostly for my own children.”
Kris and her husband, Thomas Wells, chief photographer at the Daily Journal, are the parents of daughter McKenzie, 20, and son Wesley, 14.
Her father had the same concerns.
“After her mother died, I thought about family medical histories and encouraged Kris to look for her birth mother,” said Bob Whiteside, a retired Methodist minister from Starkville.
But her adoptive parents knew very little about the circumstances surrounding their daughter’s birth.
“We knew where we got her, but not where she came from,” he said.
Where she’s from
Jerri Bennett had just finished high school and was working and planning to begin college when she discovered she was pregnant. She was 19 and single.
She was torn between doing what she wanted – keeping her baby – and doing what she thought would be best for the child she was carrying.
“I grew up in a house, in a family that was less than ideal,” she said. “I did not want to bring a baby into that environment. And I really would have had no other choice.”
She opted for giving her soon-to-be daughter a chance at a better life than she thought she could give.
On April 9, 1969, in Telfair Women’s Hospital in Savannah, Ga., Jerri gave birth to her baby.
Her older sister, Pat, was with her.
“It was a bad delivery, a hard delivery,” Jerri said. “I lost a lot of blood and was hooked up to a lot of tubes. They brought my baby in for me to hold, but I couldn’t because of all the tubes. My sister held her and put her on my lap.
“I saw her for about two minutes and then they took her away. It was devastating in every way. I got over the physical devastation fairly quickly, but the mental and emotional stayed with me for 43 years.”
When she was released from the hospital, Jerri went to work for a time in the same building where the Whitesides had picked up their adopted daughter.
Six months after her daughter’s birth, Jerri met John McKinley. They have been married 42 years.
Early on in their marriage, Jerri, who’d been told she would likely be unable to have more children, lost a baby girl.
Later, living in Germany where John was stationed with the Army, the couple began the process of adopting a child. Eventually, the call came and after the mountains of paperwork were completed, the McKinleys were about to meet their son.
“We were told, ‘Go look to see if you want him; he’s been rejected once already,’” Jerri said. “He was 13 pounds and looked 3 months old as a newborn. He had carrot orange hair.”
All Jerri McKinley could say was, “I want him.”
Four weeks later, she discovered she was pregnant with son Jason.
Finding her birth mother was something Kris Wells thought about from time to time – “Sure, I wondered what it would be like.”
She even wrote a letter several years ago to professional locator Troy Dunn seeking his help to find her mother.
“He rejected my request,” Kris said.
Two states away Jerri McKinley, who said she’d thought about searching for her daughter for 43 years, had decided a year or so ago to put action to her thoughts.
“I was so afraid of rejection, some sort of reprisal,” she said. “So, I always put it off, thought I’d do it later.”
Later finally arrived.
Jerri contacted the Georgia Adoption Reunion Registry.
“About four weeks later they called and said, ‘We found her. She lives in Tupelo, Mississippi,’” she said. “I had no idea it would be that quick. I could not breathe.”
Kris, a design product specialist at Sherwin Williams, was on her lunch break one day in August when she received a call on her cellphone. A social worker told Kris her mother had been searching for her.
“She said my mother wanted to know if I’d consent to contact,” Kris said. “And I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, yes.’”
The social worker proceeded to read a letter to Kris from her mother – “That’s when I started bawling.”
Of course, there was paperwork, but Kris completed it quickly and happily.
Two days later, a lifetime of questions were finally answered.
“I had my birth mother’s name, her phone number and that she lives in Glenville, Georgia,” Kris said.
Later that same day, mother and daughter spent 45 minutes on their first phone call.
“It was easy, easy conversation,” Kris said. “We were all over the place in that first call trying to cover everything.”
Hearing only one side of the conversation were Jerri’s sons, Joe and Jason.
“I told Kris I had to get off the phone and tell them everything she’d said,” Jerri said.
There’ve been conversations aplenty since that first late summer phone call, and emails too. Kris has friended both Joe and Jason on Facebook.
And last Saturday came the long-awaited meeting.
A family affair
Inside the Wells’ house, excitement was palpable as Kris waited for her birth mother to arrive.
Also gathered were Bob Whiteside and his wife, Sallie, Kris’ husband, Thomas, and son, Wesley.
A little after 10, a white Prius with Georgia plates delivered Jerri, John and Jason McKinley to Madison Street. Joe was unable to make the trip.
Kris and Jerri walked toward one another with purpose and huge smiles. They embraced for the first time.
Introductions made, the conversations began. Both birth mother and adoptive father told their stories. And seated side by side on the sofa, mother and daughter talked.
From his chair by the sofa, John McKinley looked at his wife and then at her newly discovered daughter. “Her hair reminds me so much of how yours once was,” he said, providing long-sought-after evidence regarding the source of Kris’ red hair.
For those looking on and listening, other familial similarities soon became amazingly apparent.
There’s a resemblance in enough facial features to prove kin. Their hands are near-mirror images, and as they sit talking – or listening – they clasp their hands in the same manner.
A second, longer hug in the kitchen early on brought a confession from Jerri, “I’m a crier,” she said, huge tears trailing down her cheeks as the hug ends.
“So that’s where she got it,” Thomas Wells said of his wife who was also weeping.
While admiring the work Kris and Thomas have done on their house, Jerri and Kris tell tales of painting projects, wallpapering, tiling and it’s clear there’s a home improvement gene that’s been shared.
Other family members – those by blood and by adoption – reveal other characteristics the two have in common: “A lead foot and a hard head.”
Mother and daughter sat together at the dining room table Saturday and looked at photos from both families. Kris shared with Jerri a poem she’d written for her adoptive mother – “You would have loved her,” Kris told Jerri.
There was also a poem Kris wrote as a senior in high school for her birth mother, thanking her for giving her a better life.
“I was never angry,” Kris said. “I had such a great family and I’ve always been of the opinion there was a reason she did not keep me. I’m thankful she did what she did. I’m just glad I’m here.”
With their first meeting behind them, mother and daughter know the roads between Tupelo and Savannah will become more familiar to both.
The mother who has worried and wondered for 43 years whether her daughter had a good life now knows the answer.
“I feel like I have had a million-pound weight lifted off my shoulders,” Jerri said. “Just to know she has been in such a loving home all these years and that she’s turned out to be such a special person.”