Twins on quest for father's identity

0

Kristi Turner, left, with sister Kelly Mendenhall, right. The twins were born in Lewiston and adopted almost 33 years ago. They are now looking for their biological father.

LEWISTON — They were born at 10:18 a.m. and 10:19 a.m. on Dec. 3, 1984, weeks early, as twins sometimes are.

Each weighed only 4 pounds or so — so small that doctors wouldn’t let them leave Central Maine Medical Center until they gained weight — but they were healthy otherwise, with bright blue eyes and smooth heads. They weren’t identical, but they were close.

In the hospital, they were named Jennifer Marie and Jessica Michelle Heywood. 

They would grow up 3,000 miles away as Kristi Lee and Kelly Dee Mendenhall, adopted by an adoring Arizona couple.

Advertisement

“It was just a really great childhood,” Kristi said. “We did really well in school. We played sports. We hunted and fished and enjoyed the outdoors.”

The sisters always wondered, though. Where did their blue eyes come from? Who gave them their height? Did any medical problems run in their family?

Why were they given up?

They solved half of the puzzle when they were college students and found their biological mother.

She’d suffered a traumatic brain injury in childhood. She hadn’t been able to care for herself, let alone twin daughters.

But their biological father? After almost 33 years, he remains a mystery.

They’ve flown to Maine, knocked on doors around the Twin Cities, found a Lewiston phone book and called every name that seemed to fit what they knew. All to no avail. 

The twins thought they’d found him once, twice. The name was right but other details were wrong. Or the details were right but, to the heartbreak of everyone involved, the DNA was wrong and the mystery would only deepen.

Now the sisters are asking for help.

They want to know where they came from.

“We don’t want anything from him. Just to know — just to know who they were,” Kelly Mendenhall said. “And to tell them we were OK, if they were wondering.”

‘They were just amazing children’

Leanna and Gary Mendenhall had been trying for years to adopt.

They were teachers in Arizona, but their network of loved ones extended across the country. In December 1984, they came to the attention of a friend of a friend in Maine.

The man was a doctor in Lewiston and he had a patient who had just given birth to twin girls. The family was considering adoption. They wanted to find a home outside the state. 

Gary Mendenhall was away on a hunting trip and unreachable, so his wife got word first. 

“When he came home from his hunt (that) Monday, I was at school teaching and he saw all these notes by the phone: ‘twin girls,’ ‘4 pounds.’ So of course I didn’t have to tell him anything; he was already pretty shocked when he saw the notes,” Leanna Mendenhall remembered with a chuckle.

Within a week, they were in Maine, holding their newborn daughters.

“It was the greatest thing that ever happened to us in our lifetime,” Mendenhall said.

The adoption, arranged through a local lawyer, was largely confidential. The Mendenhalls knew only that the babies were healthy and their birth mother had challenges and was unable to care for them.

Dressed in red Christmas outfits, the girls were soon on a plane to Arizona. The Mendenhalls, dazed by the sudden adoption, had no baby supplies and one bag of hand-me-down clothes for them. It wouldn’t be a problem.

“When we came home, our friends were having a party in our house and two of the women who’d had babies had brought over everything they owned. So we had everything we needed when we got home,” Mendenhall said. “Two cribs, clothes, bottles. A bassinet, even. Everything that we could have wanted was here and it was amazing. The couch was covered with diapers. It was really something.”    

As years passed, the babies grew into happy little girls. They loved camping and fishing, were talented athletes, did well in school.

“They were just amazing children. We were surprised at every turn,” Mendenhall said.

The Mendenhalls always told the girls they were adopted. The couple had encountered adults scarred by secret adoptions and they didn’t want their children to go through that.

“We told stories of how they came to be with us from the very beginning. There was never a surprise or a minute when we had to say, ‘Oh my goodness, what are we going to tell them?’ They’ve known from before they could understand it,” Mendenhall said.

Kristi and Kelly were never upset by their adoption. If their biological mother was too disabled to care for them, they thought, it was probably best that they have different parents. And they adored their parents as much as their parents adored them.

But it came up sometimes, especially when someone commented on how tall they were or noticed their deep blue eyes or when friends talked about their own parents and family medical issues. Who did they look like? Where did they come from? Were there health problems they should know about?

“We always had that in the back of our minds,” Kristi said. “We wanted to know. We always wanted to know.”

Mendenhall understood her daughters’ curiosity.

“It didn’t bother me at all,” she said. “If it was me, I’d probably want to know.”

By the time Kristi and Kelly had graduated from high school — co-valedictorians — and were off to separate colleges in Arizona, their curiosity couldn’t be contained.

The Mendenhalls had stayed in touch with the Lewiston lawyer who’d overseen the adoption, sending Christmas cards, photos of the girls, updates on their lives. When Kristi and Kelly grew old enough, they wrote to him themselves. He was a guest at their graduation.

After they turned 18, he agreed to help.

“He provided us with the only information he knew, which I believe was a name,” Kristi said.

The name was Shirlene Heywood, their biological mother.

He also gave them a phone number for Shirlene’s brother, Mark — their biological uncle — but the number was old. He cautioned that it might not be in service anymore.

Kristi and Kelly decided to try. Sitting together, they put a cellphone on speaker and called.

“We were super anxious,” Kristi said. “We weren’t sure if this family would even have any interest in talking to us. We weren’t sure if we were going to upset them or if they would even remember. Because this was just a brother, so we weren’t sure if he would even have any idea or if his parents had told him.”

The phone rang. Mark Heywood picked up.

He wasn’t upset. He remembered. He was willing to talk. 

“We were like crying on our end. We were so excited, I think, maybe relieved,” Kristi said. “Then he told us she was still alive.”

The twins immediately began planning a trip to Maine.

Reunion

The reunion occurred in 2007 at the New Gloucester home of Shirlene’s caretaker.

Shirlene called the twins “my babies.” They gave her a yellow Care Bear because they’d heard she liked stuffed animals.

Everyone cried.

“I started bawling,” Mark Heywood said. “(The meeting) was something I didn’t think would ever happen.”

Shirlene had been in her early 30s when she became pregnant, but her family knew she couldn’t take care of a baby. Cognitively disabled since childhood, when she was hit by a truck outside the family home on Knox Street in Lewiston, her abilities were closer to a 10-year-old’s than a 30-year-old’s.  

Some family members, including Mark, considered taking the twins. But while Mark was in his late 20s at the time and married, the trailer they lived in was small and he already had two young boys. He thought his nieces would be better off being adopted by someone else.

When they went to Arizona, he said, “I figured that was the end of it.”

He thought he’d never see them again.

During that first family reunion, the twins met not only their biological mother but also uncles, aunts, cousins and a grandfather. They found out where they got their height, their blond hair, their blue eyes.

“We just wanted to stare. We just wanted to look at them,” Kelly said. “We were dumbstruck for a second.”

They also got their first hint at who their biological father might be. A man with autism had been Shirlene’s friend at the time and they’d had sex. The man’s mother had signed the twins’ adoption paperwork on his behalf. 

The Heywood family knew their names but had no idea where they might be.

Kristi and Kelly began looking for someone in Lewiston with the last name Pelletier. 

Wrong turns

Kristi and Kelly returned to Maine a few times after that 2007 reunion, both to see family members and to search for their biological father.

They had little to go on.

At the time, there were more than 200 people named Pelletier in the Lewiston-area phone book. During one Maine trip, Kristi and Kelly sat in a Starbucks and called them all.

“It was like a whole day kind of thing,” Kristi said. “We just couldn’t find this person. And then we had to go back home knowing that, well, that trip we weren’t going to find him.”

Back in Arizona, the sisters took their search online, scouring Pelletier obituaries for any mother and son whose names matched. None did.

A private investigator found an obituary for a man who had the right name and had lived in the same group home as Shirlene, and for a time Kristi and Kelly thought he must be their father. But when they reached out to family members listed in the obituary, they realized too many key details were wrong. He couldn’t be the right man.

During another visit to Maine, the twins spent four days knocking on doors of people named Pelletier, hoping someone would know something. No one did.

“I just think it’s over,” Kristi thought as they returned to Arizona. “We’re never going to find him.”

Then, a few months ago, Mark spotted a familiar Pelletier on Facebook.

“I said, ‘That’s the father,'” Mark said.

It was Shirlene’s old friend, the same man whose mother had signed the adoption papers. He was still living in the area. The twins flew to Maine to meet him and his mother.

As with Shirlene, they were welcomed with excitement and tears. The man called them his daughters. They could see, they thought, a family resemblance.

On their last day in Maine, Kristi, Kelly and the man cried, hugged and took photos out on the sidewalk with the three of them and Kristi’s baby son. The twins had finally found their biological father. They thought.

“It just so happens,” Kelly said, “it wasn’t him.”

They’d taken a DNA test, just in case, just to be sure. The results arrived after the twins returned to Arizona. There was zero chance this man was their father.

“We were pretty devastated,” Kristi said.

They’ve started their search over again. This time they don’t even have a name.

The search continues

When the twins were born, everyone thought Pelletier was the father. It was a shock to find out more than 30 years later that he wasn’t. 

“Right now I don’t (know who it could be),” Mark said. “I thought for sure it was him.”

The twins said Shirlene can’t provide much information about what happened 33 years ago, either because she doesn’t remember or because her disability makes her unable. That’s left Kristi and Kelly to try to piece together the story of their conception.

They don’t have a lot to go on.

They know Shirlene was living with her parents and another brother on Lowell Court, off Lowell Street, in Lewiston. At some point, she also lived at Cooks Boarding Home in Sabattus and spent time at Lewiston-Auburn community centers or workshops for adults with disabilities.

They know her other brother’s friends sometimes came to the house while Shirlene was there, and some of them became friends with her. They believe she also liked to walk around downtown Lewiston on her own and she might have met people on those journeys.

They know whoever it was, he was not a member of the family. DNA tests ruled out Shirlene’s father and brothers.

Because the twins were born seven weeks early, Shirlene must have become pregnant sometime in mid-April of 1984.

The twins recognize that consent would have been iffy at best. Even if Shirlene said yes to sex, she may not have had the capacity to fully understand the situation. And if their biological father was someone who coerced her — a group home employee, for example, or someone who took advantage during a walk — it clearly would have been illegal.

But Kristi and Kelly want to know who their biological father is, regardless of how they came to be.

“It’s not the greatest thing to think about, but even so, we would still want to try to meet,” Kelly said.

Mark said his sister was curious about sex, and he believes she probably consented and “was all right with what happened.” If the twins’ biological father happens to be found, Mark said, he’s not looking for revenge. 

“I’m not punching nobody,” he said. “It’s been 30-something years. What happened happened.”  

Although they have information about their mother’s side of the family — and they’re immensely grateful for that — the twins still deeply feel the need to know about their paternal side. Are there medical issues they should be aware of? What family traits got passed down? Do they have any brothers or sisters?

“It’s a piece that’s missing,” said Kristi, who is married and now goes by Kristi Turner.

She and her husband have a young son. One day, she believes, he’s going to ask about her family background. She’d like to have answers.

The twins know the odds of finding their biological father are slim. Their next step is to submit their DNA to one of the popular genealogy sites, such as Ancestry.com, but a hit from that “seems like something that’s going to be almost impossible,” Kristi said.

They hope a public plea might yield some answers.

Maybe their biological father has family in the area who will see their photos and notice a resemblance. Maybe neighbors or friends will remember something from 33 years ago.

Maybe their biological father will read this story.

“We aren’t looking for money,” Kristi said. “We’re not looking to get you in trouble. We’re not looking for a long-lasting relationship where you need to call us and talk to us all the time and visit us. We will come to you. We just want to meet you and know about you. That’s it.”

ltice@sunjournal.com

Have information about the twins’ biological father? Kristi Turner can be reached at (520) 235-4164 or at kristi.turner16@gmail.com.

Kristi Mendenhall, left, and Kelly Mendenhall, right, celebrate their first birthday. The twins were adopted in Lewiston by an Arizona couple in 1984.

Twins Kristi and Kelly Mendenhall pose with their adoptive mother, Leanna Mendenhall, in this updated photo. Now adults, the twins are looking for their biological father.

Kristi Mendenhall, left, and Kelly Mendenhall, right, at about age 6, holding the red Christmas outfits they’d worn as newborns on the flight from Maine to Arizona.

“We told stories of how they came to be with us from the very beginning. There was never a surprise or a minute when we had to say, ‘Oh my goodness, what are we going to tell them?’ They’ve known from before they could understand it,” said their adoptive mom, Leanna Mendenhall.

Kelly Mendenhall, left, and Kristi Mendenhall, right, during junior high school. The twins were always curious about their adoption and biological family.

Kristy Mendenhall, left, and Kelly Mendenhall, right, pose during volleyball season. The twins loved to play sports growing up in Arizona.

Kristi Mendenhall, left, and Kelly Mendenhall, right, during an internship with the Arizona Diamondbacks after college.

Shirlene Heywood in her early 30s, around the age she was when she gave birth to twin daughters.

Kristi Turner (nee Mendenhall), left, with sister Kelly Mendenhall, right, and their biological mother Shirlene Heywood, center. The twins are now looking for their biological father.

Kelly Mendenhall, left,takes a photo with her biological mother, Shirlene Heywood, during a visit to Maine. 

Advertisement