ERIE, Pa. — Mary Beth DeSanto was watching an episode of “Long Lost Family” on March 5 while she cleaned her kitchen.
The TLC program about reunited families comforted her. DeSanto had given birth to a daughter who she gave up for adoption almost 50 years earlier. Unmarried and just 18 at the time, DeSanto, then Mary Beth Wolfe, did what she thought would be best for her baby.
But the decision haunted her.
“I loved watching ‘Long Lost Family’ because I knew at the end there would be a happy ending. But I knew it was something I never was going to have,” DeSanto, now 68, said.
“That morning in March I was cleaning the kitchen and turned on ‘Long Lost Family,’ but I finished cleaning and shut it off before it was over,” she said. “I didn’t see the ending, but within half an hour the doorbell rang and my husband brought in a letter.”
The letter from New York began:
“Hello Mary Beth,
‘My name is Victoria Rich. This may not be the letter you’d expect to receive every day. I was born at the Our Lady of Victory Infant Home in Lackawanna, NY on August 20, 1970.”
DeSanto’s daughter had found her.
“I’ve often thought that I didn’t see the happy ending on the show that day, but the letter was my happy ending,” she said.
Mother and daughter were reunited at DeSanto’s Millcreek Township home in August.
Their story was recorded for the online PBS series “American Portrait,” about what it means to be an American today. Mother and daughter are featured in an episode of “Self-Evident,” an 11-part series highlighting American Portrait stories.
“I couldn’t ask for a better daughter. She grew up to be a remarkable woman. She’s who I wish I would have been. She’s intelligent, independent, persistent. She’s not just a daughter but super-daughter. She’s not only OK, she thrived,” DeSanto said.
DeSanto has been “super welcoming,” daughter Victoria Rich said.
“I’d had an idea of an ideal situation with my mother, and thought, oh, that’s not going to happen. But it did,” Rich said. “It was kind of ridiculous how positive and welcoming she was.”
‘The best and worst time of my life’
Mary Beth Wolfe was 17 when she realized she was pregnant. It was around Thanksgiving in 1969.
She graduated from Erie’s former Academy High School on June 8, 1970, and the next morning was in the car with her parents and on her way to Our Lady of Victory Infant Home outside Buffalo, New York, where she would stay through her baby’s birth.
“On one hand I just wanted it to be over and wanted to go back to life the way it was,” DeSanto said. “But it would never be the way it was again.
“At the same time, I didn’t want it to be over; it was the only time I had with (my baby), just a few months. I wrote poems for her. I talked to her. I wrote letters to her. I knew our days were numbered,” she said.
When her daughter was born that August and was placed in her lap, DeSanto changed her mind about giving her up for adoption.
“I called my parents and told them I would be bringing her home,” DeSanto said.
“My poor parents. They were wonderful through the whole thing. Whatever I decided would be OK with them. They never pressured me one way or the other,” she said.
DeSanto didn’t sleep that night.
“I got a picture in my mind of adoptive parents picking her up and taking her home, and standing over her bassinet while she slept and thinking how lucky they were to have her,” DeSanto said.
“Then I pictured what it would look like if I took her home, and me sitting in the dark rocking her and crying because I didn’t know how to raise her. I was just a kid. I felt so overwhelmed. It was a chance I couldn’t take,” DeSanto said. “I didn’t want to ruin her life as I had ruined mine.
“When the day came, I walked out of there without her,” she said.
‘It would be like opening Pandora’s box’
DeSanto came home and got a job at Erie Insurance.
“All I wanted to do was make up for what I had done, for my family. I wanted to get a job and be good again and not be the girl that did this,” she said. “I guess I seemed kind of normal. Trying to be normal was the only way I could function. But it was like I was dead inside.”
DeSanto met and married Randy DeSanto while she was working at Erie Insurance.
“I was so lucky. I met my husband, we had two sons, and we’ve been married 48 years. I have the kind of life I wanted, and yet there was always that sadness,” especially on her daughter’s birthdays, Mary Beth DeSanto said.
“Other things over the years also triggered it, and I was always shocked when the grief came out,” DeSanto said.
DeSanto’s husband knew about her daughter. She told her sons when they were young adults. Brian DeSanto is now 47. Perry DeSanto is 43.
Mary Beth DeSanto had decided not to look for her daughter.
“It would be like opening Pandora’s box. I knew at the time that the decision I’d made was the best thing I could do for her. But after that I thought, what if she didn’t have a good life? What if, because I gave her up, something bad had happened to her?” DeSanto said.
“I knew that would destroy me,” she said.
‘The caller ID said Erie, PA’
Victoria Rich, 50, of Brooklyn, New York, grew up in the New York metropolitan area.
Parents Joe and Terry Rich adopted a baby boy from the Our Lady of Victory Infant Home in 1967 and adopted Mary Beth Wolfe’s baby daughter three years later.
“We always felt like a family,” Rich said. “We had a lot of aunts and uncles and a lot of older cousins who talked about when our parents got us and how happy everyone was.”
Joe and Terry Rich were in their 40s when they adopted their children. They had married at age 24 and had no children 17 years later.
“They both grew up in Brooklyn in Italian-American-Catholic families, and everyone else in their families was married and having kids in their early 20s,” Rich said. “It’s what they wanted, and it was really hard for them not to have kids. People would ask, ‘Why can’t she give you a child,’ or ‘Why can’t he give you a child? What’s wrong with you?’
“It was really cruel,” she said.
When the couple decided to adopt, their church, Our Lady of Victory, recommended Our Lady of Victory Infants Home in Lackawanna.
“They were unaffiliated, but there it was again. It’s why they named me Victoria,” Rich said.
Rich is a photography editor and video producer, has a master’s degree in fine arts and also has worked in art education.
For years, she had never seriously looked for her birth mother.
“It’s something that sort of was on the back burner,” Rich said. “I’d always been curious but never really wanted to look.”
Then she read “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade” by Ann Fessler.
“Most of the women expressed a lifetime of worry about their baby. They thought about their baby pretty much every day. I’d feel like an irresponsible person if I didn’t try to alleviate that worry for whoever my mother should be,” Rich said.
She did a DNA test without conclusive results and poked around on the internet. Then in 2019 New York state passed legislation granting adoptees access to their birth certificates. The law took effect Jan. 15.
“I applied, with a few thousand other people, that very first day the site opened,” Rich said.
She got a copy of her birth certificate, with Mary Beth Wolfe’s name on it, in early February. Friends helped her search the internet and find Mary Beth DeSanto.
Then the question became how to approach her. Rich drafted a carefully worded letter and enclosed some pictures of herself.
“I didn’t know if this was a secret for her. If no one knew, I wrote the letter in such a way that if it got into anyone else’s hands, they wouldn’t know,” Rich said. “And I didn’t want to come across as a crazy grifter. I didn’t go into too many details about my life. I didn’t want to overshare. I wanted to sound like a normal person, which I am, and let her know I was open to any contact that she wanted.”
Rich sent the letter via UPS on March 3 so that she could track it.
And then worried.
“You hear stories in different Facebook adoption groups. A lot of times the birth mother doesn’t want to be found. I was trying to be prepared for any outcome,” she said.
Rich was at work on March 5 with her phone face up on her desk when the call came.
“The caller ID said Erie, PA,” she said. “I was trying to be cool, and she’s like, ‘Is this Victoria? It’s Mary Beth. I received your letter.’ Then she paused and I expected her to say, ‘Please don’t contact me ever again.’ But she said a positive thing and I immediately knew that she wanted this, and that made it OK.”
Mother and daughter began talking and texting, and then planning to meet. Rich was to be in western New York, not far from Erie, for a college graduation in May and a wedding in June.
“All of that was taken off the table because of the coronavirus, and in a way that ended up being kind of a good thing,” Rich said. “We spent a lot of time talking and texting and getting to know each other.
“My parents were about the same age as hers. Her family was Irish and German; ours was Italian. But there was a similar kind of cultural shorthand of being middle-class Catholic at that time. A lot of things she shared about her family feels really familiar to me,” Rich said.
Rich drove to Erie to meet her birth mother and family just before her 50th birthday in August.
“Because of the virus, I hadn’t been around people in a very long time. I felt kind of feral,” she said.
“Mary Beth already felt familiar. But I still had this fear,” she said. “What if it didn’t work out? What if the rest of the family didn’t like me?
“But they’re awesome. They’re so nice and so welcoming and so open,” Rich said.
And afterward, in a birthday card, one of DeSanto’s sisters wrote, “This is the first Aug. 20 that I don’t have to feel bad for Mary Beth and don’t have to worry about what happened to you.”
It was good to learn how close and supportive DeSanto’s family has been.
“I think it would have been a lot harder for her if she didn’t have that family,” Rich said.
Victoria and Mary Beth continue to talk and text and get to know each other.
“If I had seen this in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it and would roll my eyes. It’s too corny. It wouldn’t happen. But it did happen,” Rich said.
The PBS episode about their meeting can be seen on the network’s YouTube channel, PBS Voices, on the PBS Facebook page, at PBS.org and on the PBS Video app.