Reunited after nearly 40 years, mother and daughter find comfort in tough circumstances

Sean C. Morgan

In 1970 Joan Ann Smith was in a difficult situation. She was pregnant with her fourth child and divorced from the child’s father.

“I was on welfare, and the kids’ dad was not supporting us at all,” Smith said. She couldn’t afford a fourth child. “I had to make a decision, and I put her up for adoption.”

When her daughter, now Elizabeth Ann Ormsby, was born, that’s what Smith did. It turned out to be a difficult experience for both, but with a happy ending.

Thirty-seven years later, Ormsby found her mother in Sweet Home – and possibly more importantly, her sister.

She was able to spend four years getting to know her long-lost sister, Felicia Ann Smith, 51, who died on June 17 from lung cancer.

“Felicia wrote me a lot of letters,” Ormsby said. “I went about my life feeling complete, finally.”

Getting there was a long journey through adversity, some of it self-inflicted.

Smith had three children when she divorced her husband, the late William A.R. Smith.

Since she was planning to give the baby up for adoption, hospital officials didn’t want her to see Elizabeth, but Smith hadn’t signed papers yet, so she was able to hold her daughter for about 20 minutes after giving birth.

“She told me she was sorry but hoped I would go to a good Catholic home,” Ormsby said.

Bad luck started early for Ormsby. She went to a family immediately, but the father of the household lost his job. She was placed in another home, and that time, the father became terminally ill.

It was Dec. 22, 1970, and the social worker contacted another family, telling them she had a little girl whom she didn’t want to spend Christmas in an orphanage. Ormsby’s adoptive mother drove from Santa Monica, Calif., to Long Beach – nearly 20 miles one way – through the rain with no windshield wipers to pick her up. She was an hour late, but the social worker was holding Ormsby in the dark and rain.

And Ormsby ended up in a Catholic home. She had three brothers, two of whom were also adopted. When she was about 8, Ormsby’s parents told the children about their adoptions. That explained a lot.

“I was getting picked on because I didn’t look like anybody,” Ormsby said. “I was excited I was adopted. I was loved enough to be given a life – not an easy life – but food in my belly and a roof over my head.”

Her adoptive mother was cold and stern, she said, all discipline and hard like a New Yorker – which she was, while her father was warm and loving.

Ormsby started down a rough path early. By 9, she had smoked her first cigarette. From then on she sneaked cigarettes when she could. By 11, she was moving on to harder stuff: pot, coke and speed. One of her brothers was a pothead, she said, and she grew up in the Venice, Calif. beach scene, hanging out with bands, surfers and gangs.

“I ended up going to a foster home for awhile in Riverside,” Ormsby said. “That foster mom was the best foster mom.”

The woman mixed the right amount of discipline with love, “the most loving, sweetest mom on earth,” Ormsby said. Ormsby’s behavior improved some, and she kept trying.

But Ormsby couldn’t stay out of juvenile hall. They called her incorrigible, she said. When she tested positive for drug use, she was sent home. On her way home, her adoptive mother told her to pack a suitcase and not to come back. Ormsby was 15, living on the streets of Venice.

“I met a lady there who took me under her wing,” Ormsby said. She had a place to stay, but she had to work three jobs and stay in school to keep it. And Ormsby started attending a 12-step program.

Two weeks before her high school graduation, she dropped out of school and moved to Independence, Mo., with her drug dealer. She was pregnant when she split up with him.

“I needed to fix me,” Ormsby said. “I wanted to be a good example.”

She sobered up, and she even quit smoking during her pregnancy. But one month and 27 days after her daughter, Crystal Lee, was born and three days after Ormsby’s 20th birthday, Crystal Lee’s father took her. He crashed his car and killed Crystal Lee.

“I don’t remember the next three days,” Ormsby said. “I went into a blackout, getting loaded on any and every drug I could find.”

The next thing Ormsby remembered was her landlord and best friend bailing her out of jail for an assault charge. As they left, a police car chasing another car struck her landlord’s vehicle two blocks from the police station, killing her landlord and paralyzing her best friend. Ormsby was in a coma for 12 days, but her injuries were minor.

Given those circumstances, Ormsby said, a judge decided to dismiss the assault charge on condition she leave the state. She packed her Datsun B210 and headed back to California with a friend. Driving through a blizzard in Flagstaff, Ariz., she rolled her car down a hill.

“If I didn’t believe in God, I did right then,” Ormsby said. “I opened my eyes in the snow, a cigarette dangling out of my mouth.”

A truck driver picked her and her friend up and took them all the way to the intersection of Lincoln and Venice boulevards, near her parents’ home.

Her father knew all that had happened to her, but she wasn’t ready to live by her family’s rules after getting a new taste of drugs, she said. Despite surviving the crash in Arizona, “I hated God. I blamed him. I was a hateful person.”

She stayed with a friend, Carla, who would let her get loaded at home, where it was safe, Ormsby said, but there was a snag in her plan.

“I didn’t want to get loaded in front of her,” Ormsby said. “She loved me no matter what, and she hated my mother.”

Because of that friendship, Ormsby went two years with no drinks and no drugs. She returned to school, earned her GED and went to work. She had multiple jobs in construction until she took a job as an iron welder at Denver International Airport, where she helped build hangars. She and her crew had just completed a hangar when she fell off and snapped her back – and she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which went into remission.

Through all of this, she had a desire to know whom her birth parents were, she said. About this time, she was asked to appear on a Geraldo Rivera program on which children were reunited with their birth parents. She didn’t think she could handle rejection and didn’t want to run that risk, so she turned down the opportunity. She didn’t want to cause pain to her biological family.

Life was calm as she now lived in a small town in Colorado, but then things got crazy again. After a softball game, she drank a Shirley Temple. Her drink and others had been spiked. She apparently jumped out a bay window and rammed a police car.

She had been drinking soda while everyone else had alcohol. She was feeling the full effect of the drug, without the influence of alcohol. She was humiliated by her behavior. At the same time, being a drug addict, it triggered a relapse. She started drinking and getting stoned, using downers when she could find them.

In April 1994, she had enough. She called Carla and told her, “I’m done. I’m going to die or get sober.”

Carla kept Ormsby on the phone while Carla’s husband called a 12-step program. A couple of men from the Denver chapter helped her pack and move to Denver on April 15, her birth mother’s birthday. She’s been clean since, she said.

She stayed in Denver and opened a daycare out of her home and was an assistant social worker, Ormsby said. She loves children and animals, and she had a knack for seeing sadness in them.

She had more to learn.

“I said there was no God,” Ormsby said.

Carla told her, “If you don’t believe in God, how can you hate Him?”

It was hard to be sober and hate, Ormsby said, and she began to believe in a non-punishing higher power.

Meanwhile, the daycare wasn’t paying the bills, and she went to work on the night shift at Home Depot. Ormsby also started reconciling with her adoptive parents, and her mother thanked Carla for saving Ormsby’s life.

“(Carla) did what she couldn’t do,” Ormsby said. “I was missing them, and they said, ‘You need to come home.’”

Home Depot agreed to transfer her to a Ventura, Calif., store; and Ormsby rented a house five doors from her parents’ house.

Diagnosed with breast cancer again, she entered an experimental chemo program at UCLA. The treatment forced her to quit her job, but six years ago, she was pronounced cancer free.

“I’m a miracle, as far as I’m concerned,” Ormsby said. She had been scheduled for a mastectomy in 2003, but a bout with pneumonia forced her to stop all treatment. When she got back into treatment, the doctors couldn’t find two of her four tumors. The other two had dwindled.

“In that time, I had still been searching,” Ormsby said. “My entire life, I always knew I had a sister, and that her name was Lisa.”

Her adoptive mother kept telling her she only had biological brothers, Ormsby said.

In 2007, she met “the love of my life,” Michael Cook, who was also in a 12-step program and sober. Ormsby met his mother, who told her she was also adopted and had found her biological family through Search Angels. Ormsby tried it out, and on July 7, she had her birth record number. The next morning, she received an e-mail that her birth family had been found.

She learned their names. She wondered about her sister’s name, Felicia, thinking it was awfully similar to Lisa.

Ormsby wrote a letter postmarked Aug. 22, 2008 from Santa Clarita, Calif.: “Please understand that I am not looking to upset you, nor do I wish to invade your privacy. I am yearning to know my birth parents.”

Smith received the letter on Ormsby’s 37th birthday, Sept. 1.

“I saw the card, opened the letter and just dropped in my chair,” Smith said. Her daughter Felicia was there and asked her what was wrong. “I told her, ‘This is from your sister.’”

Smith responded through e-mail on Sept. 10, 2007, Ormsby said.

“I cried. I couldn’t read it. It’s still the most special thing.”

The e-mail read: “I received your card and letter on your birthday, and 37 years were washed away and I was back to that day when I had to make the most difficult decision. I prayed to our Father to help me do the right thing by you. I insisted on seeing and holding you and giving you a kiss and hoping that you would forgive me one day but most important, that you were going to a much better home than what I could provide at that time.

“Sorry it has taken me so long to answer you but trying to find the right words to let you know your quest is over has been hard.”

Ormsby wrote back: “I can only imagine what you went through, how hard it must have been for you to make that decision, but I am filled with nothing but gratitude that you made that sacrifice in order for me to have a chance at life. So many babies do not get that chance. That shows me you are a strong, compassionate woman.

“I hope that by me contacting you, that I haven’t caused you any grief. If you could feel even half of what I am feeling right now, you would be the second happiest person on earth.”

They started exchanging e-mails and photos. Smith was shocked by how much Ormsby looked like her sister. They found other connections too. Elizabeth was Smith’s confirmation name. They share a middle name, and Joan is Ormsby’s confirmation name. They also learned that at one point growing up, the two families actually lived within 2 1/2 miles of each other.

A year later, Ormsby met her mother and sister at Waterloo Park, and they celebrated Ormsby’s 38th birthday.

“I couldn’t get to Oregon fast enough,” Ormsby said. “They were waiting for me. All I remember was mother, and everything else was a blur. I felt complete the moment I was in her arms and she was in my arms.”

Then she heard, “here’s your sister.”

When she saw her, it was like looking in a mirror, Ormsby said, “except I’m younger and prettier.”

She also met her nephew, Brandon Courteau, Felicia’s son.

“I knew my search was over,” Ormsby said. “I was ecstatic.”

The camp host suggested calling a newspaper with their story, but they decided to keep it between them, private and personal.

Ormsby’s biological brother Bobby Smith learned of her existence in December of 2008 and they met the following August. Ormsby met her other brother, Edward Smith, when Felicia was in the hospital in January this year.

She said it was clear that Edward was reluctant to have anything to do with her until they met.

“He came out. We had the exact same eyes. I looked at him. I was scared to death. He came out and said, ‘Sis,’ and opened his arms.”

After her first trip to Oregon, Ormsby said, she spent more time talking to Felicia than to her mother. “I got to know her quite well.”

Felicia had struggles with alcohol, Ormsby said, so she told her sister she wouldn’t talk to her if she had been drinking. Felicia quit cold turkey.

Ormsby said she was especially proud of Felicia, “a patriot” who served in the Air Force as an airplane mechanic for more than 14 years. She also served a year in the Navy reserves.

“She was a tough girl who also had a feminine side to her,” Ormsby said. “I loved that about her. I just loved that I could have someone to relate to like that. It was as if we had been around each other all our lives.”

Ormsby was in Sweet Home in June to be with her family as Felicia was dying of cancer.

Ormsby, now a mortgage consultant, operates Izzy B. Consulting, she said. “I save people’s homes in Granada Hills, Calif.”

Smith moved to Sweet Home from Las Vegas in 1997 remarried to William A.R. Smith. His brother lived in Silverton. They moved to Oklahoma, where Bobby lives, after his brother died in 2000. Felicia had moved to Sweet Home in 2001 from Michigan.

When William Smith died in 2006, Mrs. Smith returned to be close to Felicia and Brandon.

She mostly was a homemaker. She ran an office supply business for a time.