PASO ROBLES, Calif. — The host was a good cook, famous for his mashed potatoes. No — not potatoes. Beans. Baked beans. That was it. Brooke Mayo held a finger to her cheek. "Old age is getting to me," she said at last.
The images of that night are somewhere in that head of hers. They're clear as day, just a little hard to find, like a carousel of slides stashed in the attic a long time ago. After all, it's been 72 years. Brooke Mayo was 19 then — bright and beautiful.
It was late November in 1941. Europe was in the grip of war, Pearl Harbor was days away, and Brooke was preparing to move to London with a civilian Army corps. But for one night, everyone would try to forget all that. There was a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills to kick off the holiday season. Nice, not too fancy. The famous baked beans. A turkey. The host wore a belt buckle encrusted with tiny diamonds.
FOR THE RECORD:
Mother-daughter reunion: An article in the Dec. 25 Section A about a mother reunited with her long-lost daughter said the daughter's father worked for Lockheed Martin when she was born in 1942. Lockheed Corp. did not merge with Martin Marietta to create Lockheed Martin until 1995.
Brooke had driven herself to the party. After dinner, she walked down a set of stairs to head home. He came out of nowhere, she said, and raped her. She never saw his face.
You didn't go to the police. Not back then. "They would have said it was my fault," Brooke said. "In those days, the man was never at fault. For anything."
When she found out she was pregnant, she considered getting an abortion. But it would have been a back-alley thing. "Women were dying," Brooke said. "I wanted to live."
So she went home. She went home to her mother, and she cried, and together, they made a decision: Brooke would postpone her plans to move to London. She would have the baby. "But I'd have to give her up."
The baby arrived one morning in 1942. Cherub-cheeked, just like her mother.
When you were giving a baby up for adoption, they were supposed to just whisk her away. But a little before midnight, a kindly nurse bent the rules and brought her into the room for a few minutes.
Brooke named her Delphine.
"She was so beautiful to me," Brooke said. "I held that little darling. But then I handed her back. I handed her back and I wasn't going to think about her again."
Brooke moved to London not long after the birth, staying for a good chunk of the war — arranging housing and other logistics for military officers, scampering underground into the Tube when the bomb sirens went off, gas mask in hand.
After she came back to America, she called to check on Delphine. Just to make sure she was OK.
"I called the hospital," Brooke said. "The lady said she had passed away. I couldn't believe my ears. I said: 'You mean she's dead?' She said: 'Yes. That's it. She's dead.'"
Brooke begged the woman for more information. But there wasn't any.
It felt like Delphine had barely existed in the first place. And now she was gone.
Time marched on. Nothing to be done about that.
Brooke worked as a fashion model for a spell — "hats and stuff." She became a showgirl, and moved for the work, to L.A. and New York. She was a voracious learner; at every stop, she took classes at a local college: mathematics at UCLA, drafting at NYU.
She doesn't drink now — but back in the day? Please. To this day, she starts stories with things like: "One time, when I was going with a bookie ..." She wound up in a few movies. She recalls giving Sammy Davis Jr. a ride to his agent's office.
She had two more daughters, finally found the love of her life with husband No. 4, and learned accounting to help him with his CPA practice in Los Angeles.
She'd wanted to live. And she did — a good life. A nice life. But the memory of Delphine was always with her — a weight, a yearning.
She kept a box of yahrzeit candles, a traditional memorial in Judaism, in the kitchen, next to the breakfast cereal and the electric can opener. Every August, on the 12th, she would take one out and light it, for the baby, for the dead.
She did it for 66 years.
Patricia Hamlin was stumped.
The phone had rung at her house in Wichita, Kan., one day in 1993. It was her older brother, calling from Omaha. His wallet had been stolen, and he needed a new driver's license. For that, he needed his birth certificate. When he couldn't find his, he called Los Angeles County, where he and Patricia were born. But the clerks couldn't find him in the computer system.
That's weird, Patricia thought. "So I called too." The clerk couldn't find her either, and told her there was only one explanation. Her records were sealed. Because she was adopted.
Patricia was 51 at the time. She knew her life story, or thought she did, and it was pretty simple.
She had been born in Burbank, in 1942. Her father was an engineer with Lockheed Martin, and when he took a job with Boeing, he was transferred to Wichita. She helped run an oil-drilling company in Kansas for 18 years. Now she was a middle-aged woman who liked grandfather clocks and charm bracelets, the mother of three grown children, a volunteer for the Red Cross and an animal shelter.
But she'd never been told that she was adopted.
"So now," she said, "I needed to get my head straight. As you might imagine."
That day, she launched a quest to find out what happened. To find herself.
The adoption, it turned out, was "closed," conducted quietly and privately, as many were at the time, orchestrated by her biological mother's doctor and the couple who would become the only parents she had ever known. There wasn't much of a paper trail.
An organization that provides information to adopted adults determined that her papers had been filed in Boone County, Ark., on the north side of the Ozarks — probably, the group surmised, because the doctor had found a judge willing to sign off on the adoption there.
Through friends, Patricia was introduced to the local mayor in Arkansas, then the first of several lawyers who promised to find her records, and the first of several to fail. She flew to California to file a court petition to receive a copy of her original birth certificate, not the amended version she had at home.
Finally, last year, she got the number of a new judge in Arkansas.
"I just called him. He said: 'Yep. It's been long enough. Send me eight dollars and fifty cents."
The paperwork was a window into another time, into the ways the truth was bent to get the deal done, including the suggestion that her adoptive father commuted each day from Arkansas to his office in Burbank. But there was the record of her original name — Delphine. There too, written in tidy, loopy cursive, was the name of her biological mother.
"I found her," Patricia said. "I couldn't believe it. I'd been looking for 20 years. Now I just had to figure out if she wanted anything to do with me."
Earlier this year, Brooke Mayo was at home in Paso Robles. Life was pretty comfortable, and there were few signs that it was going to change.
She and her husband had moved here almost 20 years ago. Since he died, she had lived alone on a cul-de-sac in a planned community dotted with sycamore trees. There was a cat, Bugsy, who slept out front in a flower pot. There were four dogs rescued from the animal shelter, ruled by a trembling Chihuahua with an overbite, name of Killer. There was an old-timey sign hanging in the restroom: "Baths. Fresh, 10¢. Used, 1¢."
There were, still, candles for Delphine, next to the breakfast cereal and the electric can opener.
The postman knocked on the door. Brooke's caretaker, Robin Barris, signed for the letter and brought it to her.
"I said: 'Well, open it up.' She read it to me. I just kept saying the same thing: 'They told me she was dead. They told me she was dead.' I thought somebody was playing a joke on me."
But Robin, the caretaker, showed her the last page. There's your signature, she said. It's you. It's her.
Brooke emailed Patricia with the OK to call, and the phone rang a short while later.
"Are you sitting down?" Patricia asked.
"I said: 'Yes. I am,' " Brooke remembered. "She said: 'This is your daughter.' And she said: 'Are you all right?' And I said: 'Yes. Yes. You have no idea.' There is no way to describe what I felt. For the rest of my days that I have on this Earth, I will remember that feeling."
They talked for two hours, putting together the pieces, but realizing too that some things will never be solved: They will never know the identity of Patricia's biological father, who attacked Brooke so many years ago in the Hollywood Hills; they will never know whether the hospital told Brooke that Delphine was dead by mistake, or so she would stop looking.
They realized that for a time, when Patricia was little, they lived just miles apart, in Burbank and Hollywood. As a girl, Patricia was one of Adohr Farms' "Adohr-able Babies," and her face was on billboards that Brooke drove past time and again.
This summer, Patricia, now 71, visited Brooke, now 90, for the first time. When Patricia walked in, it was as if they were looking in the mirror: the same almond-shaped eyes, the same crinkle of the nose when they smile, the same fine, silky hair. Patricia looks uncannily like a painting that was done of Brooke in the 1970s.
Patricia's husband, Richard, quietly kept a list of their similarities: They both needed glasses as girls. They are both left-handed. They are both klutzes. They both collect grandfather clocks. They have the same taste in jewelry, in home decor. They have virtually identical personalities.
They've developed an easy banter. They trade off walkers — Patricia missed a step recently and wrenched her ankle — and both accuse one another of driving recklessly. Brooke has met grandchildren she never knew about, and great-grandchildren are next on the list.
"It's a gift," Brooke said, shaking her head. "It's a gift that God gave me. I must have done something right in this world. You know?"
They are spending the holidays together for the first time. On this, they needed to meet in the middle: Brooke is Jewish, and Patricia was raised Christian. So, in the living room, a stuffed Santa Claus sits next to the menorah. There are gifts under a small, sparkling tree, which Patricia calls a Christmas tree, and Brooke calls a Hanukkah bush.
On Christmas, they will exchange presents. They'll make prime rib.
"I will thank the Lord," Patricia said.
"And I will ask the Lord to bless this house and all of the people in it," said Brooke. "And to bless this family."
"Then we'll eat," they said, at the same time. They laughed. It was the same laugh, the sound of two women who have discovered that life can feel very long and very short, messy and perfect, all at the same time.