BANGOR, Maine — Despite the chilly autumn night, there’s a warm, family feeling in Jacci Williams’ Bangor living room.
The four women here are telling a story — their story — and they’re speaking all at once, the words sliding on top of each other fluidly and quickly. It’s the way stories often are told in families.
Three of the women in the room share dark hair, dark eyes and a talkative streak. The fourth, Judy Hakola, has silvery hair and an air of humorous kindness.
It could be any gathering of mothers and daughters.
But it’s not.
One of them, 35-year-old Amy Hakola, calls two of these women her mother. One mother is Jacci Williams, who gave birth to her in Bangor and then placed her for adoption. The other, Judy Hakola, raised her from an infant onward in her Orono home. According to state adoption regulations at the time, the families weren’t supposed to meet or learn the other’s identity. For a long time, they didn’t.
A few years ago it would have been impossible to imagine them sharing holiday feasts, weekends at camp and informal gatherings at either household.
Now, however, their experience seems to make an old saying seem new.
Love really does make a family.
The women pass a wallet-size baby picture around the room. It shows Amy as a smiling infant on a white pillow, and it was taken by the Hakolas when she was just 2½ months old. They had been told by their adoption worker that the baby’s 19-year-old birth mother wanted a memento of the baby she had never held in her arms.
The birth mother was Jacci Spellman — now Williams — who kept the small photo in her bureau drawer “forever,” she said. She remembers that she was “young and immature” when she became pregnant — and even though her parents were very supportive, she thought adoption would give the baby a better future.
“It wasn’t about just me. It was about the baby,” Williams said.
At that time, Judy and John Hakola had adopted one son and were ready for another child.
“We thought, this was kind of neat! Let’s do it again,” Judy Hakola said wryly.
She and her husband waited, and waited, but didn’t hear from their adoption worker, a man they called “Stan the Stork.” They were about to give up when Stan called to let them know about a baby girl named Amy.
“She was very alert, and very, very small,” Judy Hakola said. “She had her head up and was looking around. She was always very independent.”
Amy Hakola, who grew up “the neighborhood kid” in her close-knit community near the University of Maine, always knew she had been adopted — but was secure in her identity as “Little Hak,” the middle girl between two brothers. In her early 20s, she took a job at the Bangor Mall J.C. Penney store. There, she hit it off with a co-worker, Anna Gellerson, and the two became fast friends — never dreaming that they were actually biological cousins.
She even met Anna’s Aunt Jacci and cousin Kate Spearing, now 31 and Amy’s biological half sister, at family events.
“We used to chitchat,” Amy Hakola said of her first interactions with her birth mother.
Sometimes people at the family events would confuse Kate and Amy. Still, nobody put the pieces of the puzzle together, although Amy Hakola was beginning to want to know more about her birth family. She had one clue: The last name Spellman was on her birth certificate.
Six years ago, Anna Gellerson called Amy Hakola from her grandparents’ house. The name Spellman came up on Caller ID. Amy Hakola thought it was a funny coincidence and told her friend so.
Gellerson, who knew that her aunt had given a baby up for adoption, had a different reaction.
“Anna said, ‘You’re my cousin,’” Amy Hakola remembered. “That’s when we started the investigation.”
Amy Hakola found her baby picture, and Anna brought it to her aunt.
“Poor Jacci, innocently at home, not knowing that her world was about to blow up,” Judy Hakola said.
Williams was sitting on the couch when she heard that it seemed likely that Amy Hakola was really her daughter.
“I literally fell over,” Williams said. “Not to be dramatic, but that’s what I did.”
She had never known that her first-born daughter lived just a few miles away.
Making up for lost time
What happens after the dramatic discovery of family? How to fit these newfound relatives into existing patterns and traditions?
In the case of the Hakolas and Jacci Williams, it was always easy, they all say. It helped that Amy and Kate were in their 20s when they discovered they were half sisters, thus avoiding any awkward adolescent trauma.
“In high school, it might not have been so easy,” said Kate, who originally had been “shocked” and a little angry that her mother had kept her first baby a secret from her for years. “After time went by and we talked, I understood, and I was happy. Amy and I were already friends.”
That acceptance was notable throughout the two families. Amy Hakola says she remembers the exact words of her new grandmother: “It’s wonderful.”
“And my father still cries when he thinks about it,” Williams said.
Judy Hakola said that there was no insecurity between the two mothers and that her sons Andy and Matt thought that the reunion was cool.
“As far as I’m concerned, the more people you have for a support system, the better,” she said.
She and her daughter had grown used to spending quiet holidays at home, especially after the boys moved away from home and Amy’s adopted father, John Hakola, died.
“We got used to it being very, very quiet,” Judy Hakola said.
But bring into the mix a new, large Irish Catholic family that loves to throw parties, and things have changed — for the better.
“You ought to see us at Christmas. It’s the best,” Judy Hakola said. “I look forward to it, I really do.”
It’s not just holidays that bind them closer together. Amy Hakola has enjoyed getting to know her two new sisters, Kate and Sarah Spearing, 29. Judy Hakola, an English professor at the University of Maine, encouraged Kate Spearing to continue her education in the field of child development.
“I bugged her big time about this,” Judy Hakola said.
Amy Hakola, a special education technician at Asa Adams Elementary School in Orono, also has a part-time job with one of her new aunts at a program for children on the autism spectrum.
Just mothers, daughters, aunts and sisters, taking care of one another. Just families, doing what families do.
“I feel very lucky,” Williams said. “I feel very fortunate, just to have things turn out the way that they did. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”