OCEAN SPRINGS – Jackie White’s greatest Christmas gift didn't come wrapped in pretty paper and adorned with a bow.
It wasn’t a new car, an iPhone or one of the latest and greatest electronic gadgets.
It was her birth mother.
After extensive research, White located her biological mother, Bette Fanning, who had given her up for adoption in 1965.
“I was a single mother. I had been divorced from my first husband. I had three boys. I just felt like I couldn’t raise her as good as somebody else might be able to,” said Fanning, who was living in Quincy, Mass. when she made the decision to give Jackie up for adoption.
“At the time, my brother and his wife lived in Florida, so all of the kids and I came down to Florida and that’s where I had Jackie. My brother found me a doctor and the doctor was the one who knew a lawyer that dealt in adoptions. I never saw her. I just knew that she was a girl.”
White, who grew up in Pascagoula and attended Sacred Heart Elementary School and Our Lady of Victories High School, was a child when her parents told her that she had been adopted. “I was probably eight years-old,” she said.
By the time she learned she was adopted, White’s adopted parents had already been divorced for just over three years.
“He remarried about a year later and he and his wife were the ones that raised me,” said White, who was pregnant with her first son when she began the search for the woman who gave her the gift of life.
“I was 19,” she said. “I tried to go through resources that I knew (to find her).”
One of those resources was Ocean Springs resident Lettie White, her future mother-in-law. “She tried to help me go in the right direction and did as much research as she could,” Jackie White.
Fanning also thought about trying to find the girl she gave up at birth.
“Then I kind of got the feeling that maybe she wouldn’t accept me and you don’t want that rejection,” said Fanning, who is a parishioner of St. Anastasia Parish in St. Augustine, Fla. and a worker with the Diocese of St. Augustine’s Catholic Charities office .
“But (Jackie) got brave and she did it.”
It took 26 years for Jackie White, who is the mother of two boys and a girl, to find her mother.
“I never had the official legal document of the adoption, so sometimes I would search for that document because I didn’t know if the document would be in Mississippi or in Florida where I was born,” she said. "So I wrote different agencies and researched hospitals. It would get so frustrating that I would finally just have to stop for a while because it kind of gets to you and you just have to put it down and stop.
“I did that numerous times over the years. I would always hit brick walls. When you don’t have a name or a true address, you don’t have these things that are so important and it makes it very difficult. When you’re adopted, your birth certificate is completely altered. So there wasn’t even a hospital name on it.”
Jackie White said that after her adopted father died, things began to fall into perspective.
“It kind of put into perspective how not many people may be around who know the story or have information,” she said. “He was never of any help in that direction, so Lettie and I got a lot more serious about it right after he died.”
Their revamped efforts led them to the Jackson County archives in Pascagoula.
As a child, Jackie White was involved in a case before the Mississippi State Supreme Court, which is recorded in the State Archives in Jackson. As a result, with the help of the Jackson County archivist, she was able to find information in those records that would eventually help her to find her mother.
“There were over 500 pages of legal documents and that’s where I was able to find my adoption record with the name that she had whenever I was born. After we found the paperwork with the name on it, it didn’t even take a month before we connected.”
Lettie White, a genealogy buff who spent many years trying to find her own grandmother, said she was thrilled at the challenge of helping her daughter-in-law locate her mother.
“It still gives me goose bumps when I think about it,” she said.
On the day she went to Jackson to comb through page after page of legal documents, Jackie was optimistic that she would find some information. “But I didn’t know how it would pan out,” she said.
“I was all by myself when I found all of this information,” she said. “I was in the library where it was very quiet and I wanted to scream. I was looking around for somebody to share it with. There were two or three people in there. They didn’t care.”
After obtaining a copy of the adoption record and some other files, including some photos, Jackie called Lettie to inform her that after 26 years of searching, they had finally hit pay dirt.
Soon after, she called her birth mother.
“The phone rang and I was thinking, oh no, because this was when all of the politicians were calling, so I go, ‘What are you selling?’ and she goes, ‘Hello’ and I go ‘What are you selling?’ and she goes ‘Nothing’ I think she said, “Is Elizabeth Fanning there?’ And I go, ‘Why? Is she missing?’” Fanning recalled.
“And I never said that to anybody in my life. And she goes, ‘I hope not.’ After that, she asked me if I had a daughter on December 2, 1965 and I took a deep breath and said, ‘Are you my daughter?’”
The two hit it off right away.
“We talked for three hours that night,” Jackie White said.
“She was asking me what height I was, what color eyes I have and comparing everything,” said Fanning, who has a distinct Massachusetts accent.
“Then she said, ‘We want to come down and see you, if that’s alright with you.’ I said, ‘Of course.’”
So, on Aug. 6, 2011, the two met for the very first time in Saint Augustine. Jackie had previously sent her mother a few pictures of herself. “I wouldn’t send her any because I wanted her to be surprised,” Fanning said.
When they finally met, Jackie was seeing her mother’s face for the very first time. “We had a good visit and a good laugh,” Fanning said. “Her husband, Jerry, hugged me as he came through the door. It was a very relaxed atmosphere.”
Jackie said Jerry has been “one of my biggest supporters” throughout the entire search.
“He was really excited for her,” said Fanning. “There was a lot of honest talk. Nobody was stiff about anything. It was a miracle. It’s still a miracle."
“We’re still pinching ourselves,” added Jackie.
What Jackie ultimately got was a package deal consisting of three new brothers – two older and one younger -- to go along with her mother. Another of Fanning’s sons is deceased.
Meanwhile, Fanning, who is widowed, has added three grandchildren and a great-grandchild to the fold.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “I had four grandchildren and now I have seven.”
Like mother, like daughter
Jackie said she has never felt any bitterness toward Betty for putting her up for adoption.
“There was always the question of (why). My adoptive parents would tell me stories but, for whatever reasons, none of the stories they told me were true. I never had any bitterness about it because, as a mother, I feel that, if you give a child up for adoption, it’s under extreme circumstances. I can’t feel bad for anyone who makes a decision based on the information they have at the time.”
Fanning said she is proud of the woman Jackie has become.
“I told her the other day that, if I was going to pick a daughter, that would be her,” she said. “She’s perfect. She sews. She owns her own sewing business (Jackie’s in Ocean Springs). And she cooks up a storm.”
The two have learned that they also have a few things in common.
“We drop things a lot and trip a lot,” Fanning said.
“When they came down to St. Augustine and I was in the kitchen banging things in the cupboard, Jerry said, ‘You sound just like Jackie.’ My husband always said that too. He would say, ‘Why are you making so much noise?’ because I was always dropping a dish or breaking something.”
“I think we are a lot alike in certain things, which kind of goes along with the understanding of psychology and sociology and genetics versus your social environment,” Jackie said. “We’re very similar in our personal tastes as girls.”
"They showed up for Thanksgiving dinner wearing almost identical outfits,” Lettie White said.
Now that they are reunited, Jackie and Bette plan to stay in touch.
“Absolutely,” said Jackie. “We talk for hours and hours. We stay up late talking on the phone. And, before we met in person, it didn’t occur to me, that she was an hour ahead of me and I was keeping her up way past what I would consider to be a decent hour.”
“It’s ok,” said Fanning. “You can call me anytime.”
Having a daughter, Fanning said, is nice because “you can talk with her about things that you can’t talk about with a boy.”
Turning toward her mother, Jackie added, “There are just no words to describe how this feels. It’s like time never existed. I just feel like I’ve known you all my life.”