At 63, woman finally finds motherly love after being adopted by younger woman

Sunday, February 13, 2005

By Pat Shellenbarger
The Grand Rapids Press

Ashley didn't know how it felt to be loved by a mother. As for her father, "when he was sober, he was the greatest guy," she said. "He would give you the shirt off his back." But when he was drunk, which was most nights, he would sneak into her bedroom and molest her, she said.

Her mother was "cold, very cold. I don't remember my mother ever being a mother to me. I was no good. I was worthless. I remember one time I was in the bathtub, and she threw a penny in, and she said, 'You're not even worth this much.' And I believed her; she was my mother."

Her mother died some years ago. But at dinner the other night, Ashley, 63, looked across the table at a woman 11 years her junior and said: "She's my mom. She's the mother I always wanted, my gift from God that I prayed so long for, a mother who would want me no matter what."

She started to cry, and Theresa Anderson-Varney, 52, stood up and hugged the woman she had adopted three years ago.

"I am her mother," she said. "There's no question about it. She's my daughter, as much as if I had given birth to her."

As adoptions go, this kind is rare. Of the average 400 adoptions approved in Kent County every year, a dozen or so are of adults, said Sandy Recker, an adoption specialist and referee for the Kent County Circuit Court Family Division. But most of those are young adults, often 18 or 20 years old, adopted by stepparents.

A case in which the adoptive parent is younger than the adopted child is "fairly unusual," Recker said.

Theresa Anderson-Varney wasn't aware it was legal in Michigan until she began thinking of adopting Ashley.

She and Ashley had been friends for years, and Theresa, a clinical psychologist, was mindful of the emotional scars Ashley carried from her childhood and a long, troubled marriage.

The women could have remained close friends, but both decided to formalize the relationship through adoption.

"Considering the situation, it was the right thing to do," Theresa said. "It was one way to show Ashley she had someone who truly loved her and would not leave.

"I know a lot of people won't understand this."

They sometimes get strange looks in public when the older woman calls the younger one "Mom." It never occurred to the Anderson-Varneys some might think the adoption is just another form of same-sex marriage.

"I had not even thought of that," Theresa said. "I suppose people who have sick minds are going to twist and turn it. We are conservative Christians, and that's just far out there. It's ridiculous. I'm her mother. I really am her mother. She's getting the love of a mother she never had in her life."

Ashley was born in Byron Center and raised in Grand Rapids. She remembers scrubbing and waxing floors at age 4 and standing on a wooden box to iron clothing.

She always wanted a Teddy Snow Crop hand puppet offered by an orange juice company, but never got one. Christmases brought nothing for her, while her older sister got expensive gifts, such as a bicycle.

Her mother "was drunk all the time," she recalled. "She said she worked because I drove her crazy. I didn't feel like I deserved to have a mother. I mean, who would want me?"

Her grades were good enough -- A's and B's -- for her to be accepted at the University of Michigan, but instead, when she graduated from Kelloggsville High School and a boy asked her to marry him, Ashley jumped at the chance.

"I wanted to get away from my dad, get away from my house," she said. "I had no self esteem, and here was someone wanting to marry me."

Continuing a pattern set early in her life, she blamed herself when the marriage was rocky.

A decade ago, she left him, but a church elder told her she should go back to him.

The elder told her, "'Oh, he's changed. He's better,' " she recalled, "and I believed him. I thought God would be mad at me if I got divorced."

So she went back to him, but the marriage remained troubled.

Ashley said she made excuses, telling their two children she had bruised herself, or she'd say she didn't feel well and would stay in bed all day.

She began seeing a therapist. When her parents heard she was talking about how they had abused her, they disowned her.

When her mother died 12 years ago and her father 10 years ago, she wasn't allowed to attend the funerals, she said. Their obituaries didn't list her among the survivors.

When Ashley was 11, another girl was born in Colorado, then raised in the Upper Peninsula town of Iron River. Theresa Anderson-Varney grew up happy and secure in the knowledge her parents loved her.

"When I was a little kid, I knew God had something special in mind for me, that there was something special I was supposed to do," she said.

When she was 18, she decided to become a psychologist. She went to college, was married and divorced, earned a doctorate in psychology at Michigan State University, then opened a clinical practice in Grand Rapids.

This, she thought, must be what God had in mind: helping people through her practice.

Thirteen years ago, she met Ashley, who was working as a volunteer answering a crisis line at Cornerstone, a mental health agency.

They became friends and soon discovered a common goal: stopping the sexual exploitation of patients by their therapists.

Theresa is chairwoman of the Michigan Coalition on Sexual Exploitation by Helping Professionals.

Together they lobbied the state Legislature to make it a crime for a mental health professional to have a sexual relationship with a patient. Under oath, Ashley testified before a legislative committee she had been forced into a sexual relationship with a therapist.

Six years ago, Theresa, single and childless, invited Ashley and her husband to move into her sprawling house in southeast Grand Rapids, where Ashley functioned as a personal assistant and her husband took care of the lawn.

In 2002, after 41 years of marriage, Ashley filed for divorce. Later that year, a Kent County Circuit judge granted the divorce and, in 2004, a personal protection order was issued, directing Ashley's ex-husband to leave her alone.

Once a week, Gary Ristau, a clinical social worker in Chicago, drives to Grand Rapids to counsel Ashley.

She used to drive to his office, but travel has become tougher since she was diagnosed a year ago with polymyositis, an auto-immune disease that makes it difficult for her to walk.

"I had expressed to you how I had always wanted a mother," Ashley reminded Ristau during one of his recent visits. "There's something inside that always wants that."

"Right," Ristau said. "There's always that emotional hole. There's this emptiness. It's like a hole right through the middle of you."

Three years ago, she joked about it with Theresa. "I came home and said, 'What I really need is a mom.' I said, 'You would be a great mom.' "

Theresa thought about it, checked with an attorney to be sure it would be legal, then offered to adopt Ashley. They decided to pray and ask Theresa's adult children and Ristau what they thought.

Her kids approved, but Ristau at first wasn't so sure.

"I didn't know whether to encourage it or discourage it," he said. "I had no basis to go on. I wanted to know what their expectations were. The more we talked, we decided, yeah, this could be really helpful."

On Jan. 7, 2002, Kent County Circuit Judge Kathleen Feeney signed an order approving the adoption. A new birth certificate was issued, showing that on Oct. 14, 1941, a child named Ashley Anderson-Varney was born in Byron Center. Her mother, the birth certificate says, is Theresa Anderson-Varney.

As for the mother's date of birth, that was left blank.

Since then, the two have done lots of mother-daughter things. When Ashley was in the hospital, Theresa stayed with her and put cold cloths on her forehead.

"Other people would do it, too," Ashley said, "but it feels good when my mom does it.

"When I look at her, I realize I'm older than she is, but the age doesn't matter. Yeah, she really became my mom.

"It's hard to explain, but that hole in me was filled. I think you'd have to have that hole in you to know what it feels like to have it filled.

"I think my whole inside, all of me, finally felt like I had someone who would never throw me away."

Mother-daughter fun

Theresa has taken Ashley to ride the carousel and visit Santa Claus at the mall. Through eBay, she bought her 20 Teddy Snow Crop hand puppets.

"Yeah, it's fun," Theresa said, "but it's building the memories she never had. It's part of the healing process."

Theresa concedes the adoption perhaps also fulfills her need to have a child -- even one 11 years her senior with two children and six grandchildren.

"It's a blessing, because I did not have my own kids biologically," she said. "I treat her absolutely as I would treat my own daughter. She is my own daughter.

"God makes families in lots of different ways. I realized what God had in mind for me was to be Ashley's mom. It breaks my heart what she's been through. It's such a blessing to me that I can make such a difference to make up for those terrible things."

Ashley said: "I think she always wanted to be a mom. I told her, 'You got out of it easy: no diapers.' "

Then she added: "If I live long enough, you might get me back in diapers. You missed it at one end, but you may get it at the other."