Anna Marie Mister lays out her mother's most carefully kept possessions on a lace-covered dining room table. There is Anna Marie's baptismal certificate and her infant immunization record. Tucked behind the holy cards in her mother's wallet is a tiny black-and-white photo of a clear-eyed baby girl. Thirty-five years later, Anna Marie has the same translucent eyes.
These few scraps speak volumes to Anna Marie. They tell her that her mother loved her and tried to take care of her, that she never forgot her.
"I feel like I've been born all over again," said Anna Marie, reaching over to squeeze the hand of 72-year-old Edith Neiss, the mother she has spent much of her adult life searching for.
Anna Marie located Edith in Beckley, W.Va., on July 10. The next morning, Anna Marie and her husband drove to Beckley, picked up Edith and brought her to Prince Frederick, Md., to live with them and their three children in the ranch house they built themselves.
"I love my daughter," Edith said. "I don't ever want to be separated again."
Anna Marie was a toddler in 1956 when she and her newborn brother were taken from their mother, who was deemed unfit because she was "slow." Their father, Edith's estranged husband, had them put up for adoption.
That was the last Edith heard of her children until she got a phone call from from Maria Willard, a Fort Myers, Fla., adoption researcher hired by Anna Marie.
"I said, 'I'm calling in reference to Anna Marie,' " Willard said. "She said, 'My daughter, my daughter! I have to see my daughter!' She burst into tears . . . . She said, 'She was taken from me.' "
In the short time since then, the two women have become intimates, as comfortable together as any mother and daughter.
But for both women, it is a reunion that is more than a little bittersweet.
Edith has learned that her daughter felt unloved and abused by her adoptive family, a thought that moves her to tears.
Anna Marie has heard the sad and tangled story of her mother's life, which began with abandonment by her own parents. Edith spent her childhood and early adulthood in the former District Training School in Laurel. She was never taught to read or write, which she and her daughter believe contributed to the mistaken impression on the part of social workers that she was mentally deficient.
"They thought I wouldn't be able to take care of my children," Edith said.
Edith and her husband were carnival workers living on the road when Anna Marie was born. She arrived during a stopover in Charles Town, W.Va.
Without support from her husband, Edith said, she had been relying on churches and the Salvation Army to feed and clothe herself and Anna Marie. When her daughter was 15 months old, Edith gave birth to another child, a son, at D.C. General Hospital.
She didn't get to name him or see him, Edith said. "I didn't ever get to hold him. They came in and said, 'I'm sorry, you've got to put your hand to this paper,' " she said. She realized too late that she was giving up her children, Edith said.
"I almost went and lost my mind. I about tore that hospital up," she said. Edith said she fought with doctors and nurses who tried to put her in a straitjacket. Willard and Anna Marie believe Edith may have been confined to a psychiatric ward for a time.
"When you lose your mother, you've lost the world, and when you lose your children, you're going crazy," Edith said. She has not met her son, who lives on the Eastern Shore.
Edith returned to the Laurel institution after she was released from D.C. General, and later worked for nearly two decades at a Riverdale pharmaceutical company, where she ironed uniforms. She long ago lost track of her husband, Elmer Alberts. She moved to West Virginia in 1980 with a longtime boyfriend who died several years ago.
When Anna Marie found her, she was living in a tiny, nearly windowless basement apartment. "I'd just sit around and smoke cigarettes and look at television," Edith said. "I told everybody in West Virginia, 'What's the use of me living? I ain't got a thing to live for.' " For a while she considered suicide, she said, "but the Lord told me get this off your mind, things might turn better."
"It was a time in her life when she needed me, and a time in my life when I desperately needed her," Anna Marie explained tearfully.
Anna Marie was frustrated when she was unable to get the court in Calvert County to unseal her adoption records. A break came in 1988, when her adoptive mother finally sent her a letter with the names of her birth parents and the information that social workers said her mother was "slow" and "a good worker but had to have constant supervision." Anna Marie also learned that she was born in Charles Town.
She hired a lawyer and a private investigator, and even placed classified ads seeking information. Anna Marie and her husband traveled to West Virginia in search of people or records there that could lead them to her mother. By pure coincidence, Edith was living there.
In the end, Willard located Anna Marie's mother by calling the West Virginia information operator and getting a number for Edith Neiss.