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In 2020, a Thanksgiving like no other

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Before the social worker came for the baby, their mother scraped together enough money to take the children down to the local Olan Mills for one last family portrait.

Baby Pauline was dressed in a pretty little Christmas dress. There had not been enough money for baby shoes.

There had not been enough money for much.

Marianne Harris was divorced from the father of her three eldest children; Pauline’s father was gone.

After the social worker came in December 1976, Pauline was gone, too.

“I was so heartbroken when our mother told us the baby was going to be adopted,” sister Tracy Kjelland recalled.

Tracy Kjelland says she has searched all her life for her baby sister Pauline, and this September the two were finally reunited. (Courtesy of Tracy Kjelland)

Kjelland was 9 then, old enough to write a letter to Pauline to read someday. Her mother placed the letter – along with drawings by her two brothers, then 7 and 8, and the Olan Mills photo – in a box and begged the social worker to let it go with the baby so she would remember them.

Kjelland could never forget.

“I’ve been looking for my sister all my life,” she said.

She hoped that somewhere Pauline Harris was out there looking for her, too.

She was.

But we are getting ahead of the story.

Baby Pauline was 9 months old when she was adopted in Southern California in late December 1976, not just because of financial strain, but also because Harris worried that the child would feel rejected when her siblings went to stay with their father, Kjelland said.

Her mom, she said, knows about rejection. Harris and her brother were abandoned by their parents when they were preschool age. Both were adopted by a couple who later decided to keep her brother. But not her.

“My mom wanted better for Pauline,” Kjelland said. “That’s a testament to her strength. An altruist is what she is.”

Still, losing Pauline hurt.

“All those months I spent praying for a girl, hoping it would even the testosterone-laden playing field and provide me with a lifelong giggle partner, were crushed, crumpled into a spitball and shot into another dimension,” Kjelland said.

She vowed she would find Pauline. But all she had to go on was a name and a date of birth.

Jan Rybolt cradles her soon-to-be-adopted daughter Pauline, whom she renamed Erin, in late 1976 in San Diego. “It’s this photo which I saw on Facebook that made my heart leap — because I knew it was her,” says Tracy Kjelland, Erin’s elder sister. (Courtesy of Tracy Kjelland)

“For nearly 30 years, I searched. And searched. And searched,” Kjelland said.

But then came 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and a host of family tragedies.

Days after the pandemic shut down businesses in March, Kjelland’s husband lost his job.

In April, her father suffered a heart attack, the pandemic locking down hospitals so she could not be by his side as he recovered.

In May, her best friend’s father passed away.

Then, in June, her mother’s cancer returned. Chemotherapy proved too much for her mother’s heart, weakened after a double bypass in 2019.

In August, just days before her mother turned 76, she was placed in hospice and moved into Kjelland’s home.

“All these horrible things that kept happening we blamed on 2020,” Kjelland said. “And then came September.”

Back in 2014, Kjelland had registered with Search Angels, a nonprofit that helps people locate their birth families. Somehow, her entry was overlooked. With her mother’s declining health, Kjelland said, she had renewed her search because she wanted her sister to meet their mother before it was too late. In September, she contacted Search Angels again and learned that, all along, there had been a match to a woman who had submitted her information in 2009.

But that woman’s contact information was out of date. And she was no longer Pauline Harris but Erin Linn.

“I had a name now, and I went looking for her on Facebook,” Kjelland said. “And I found this photo of a little girl in the arms of a woman, and I knew it was her.”

Kjelland sent a message to Linn, but received no response. Undeterred, she reached out to Linn’s Facebook friends and found her mother-in-law.

Hundreds of miles away on a September night at a post office processing center in North Platte, Nebraska, a woman named Erin Linn was on break from sorting mail when her mother texted that her uncle had suffered a heart attack. A few minutes later, her mother-in-law texted that she had received a Facebook message from a woman in Albuquerque who believed Linn might be her sister.

“I always knew I was adopted,” Linn said. “They taught me to be proud of being adopted because I was chosen to be loved.”

Still, she wondered about the people in an Olan Mills photo she had kept in a box for years. She wondered about the girl who wrote the letter and the drawings that came in the box.

The box was stolen about 20 years ago. But the desire to find those people remained.

“I’ve been searching, oh, gosh, for years,” she said.

In 2009, she had submitted her information to Search Angels, but heard nothing back. Once, she found a school photo of a girl who might be a sister. The girl, she said, had an awesome dimple.

But her search was always thwarted. Notes were buried in a book or lost. An email was never retrieved. The password to an ancestry.com account was forgotten.

And now, here was a message from a woman on Facebook who was searching for her.

The woman, she noticed, had an awesome dimple.

“It was a crazy emotional night,” Linn said. “I’m crying at work and saying, ‘She found me! She found me!’ ”

The two sisters called each other the next morning.

“We just squealed and cried, and talked for hours,” Kjelland said.

The next day, Linn and her husband drove 664 miles to Albuquerque.

“I couldn’t wait,” Linn said. “I had to be there.”

Both sisters say it was as if they had always known each other.

“The second she walked in the door, it felt so natural, so amazing,” Kjelland said. “It felt like home.”

Brother Russell Harris drove to Albuquerque from his home in Henderson, Nevada, and brother James Harris drove down from Aztec to meet Linn. On Sept. 30, they laughed, joked, cried, hugged, took plenty of new family portraits and selfies, and learned about what they had missed in the past 44 years. It was, for them, a Thanksgiving like no other.

Linn got to do something she had always wanted to do – hug her birth mother and thank her for the decision she made all those years ago.

“I told her I’m glad she did what she did,” Linn said. “She made the right choice. I had the best childhood.”

Kjelland also got to do something she had always wanted to do.

“I get to say I have a sister,” she said. “I get to have a sister.”

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.

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