The two women met in a lawyer’s office on Valentine’s Day in 1991. Some of their differences were obvious the moment they saw each other; others they already knew. One thing was understood: they needed each other.

Image: Ryan Dearth

Tina Zimmermann was a 25-year-old barber, blond and pretty—and rounder than a yoga ball at seven months pregnant. Marlene Wagener was 45, a mother of three teenagers and a full-time teacher, the picture of middle-age success and class.

Zimmermann was born in Giessen, Germany, to an American father and German mother. Her dad, a soldier, was shot to death in Vietnam when she was 3. Her mother raised her and her four siblings in North Carolina but died when Zimmermann was 18. After that, Zimmermann set out alone for the West Coast.

Wagener desperately wanted what Zimmermann was giving away: her baby. Secretly, Zimmermann wished Wagener would adopt her instead, allowing her to keep the baby. But she had decided she could not support a child without struggling to the point of poverty. So she wrote a letter to her unborn child and made a promise: I will go out and find the right family to raise you…. When you look into your mother’s face, it will not be mine, but a woman’s who will love you as much as I love you now.

The women talked nervously about the arrangement as Wagener’s husband listened. Wagener and her husband had married two years earlier, and he yearned to be a father. But she could no longer have children, so they’d applied to adopt and hoped that someone might deem them worthy. Two weeks after they bought a crib, Zimmermann read their profile and agreed to meet them.

Often, meetings of birth and adoptive parents end without resolution. But three minutes into their conversation, Zimmermann exclaimed, “You are the parents of my baby!”

Open adoption, in which both sides know the other’s identity and have an option of contact, was gaining traction in the early 1990s, but it was hardly as common then as it is now. There was no written contract between Zimmermann and the adoptive parents as far as how much access Zimmermann would have to her daughter.

When she gave birth, she named her daughter Emily. Her maternal instincts took over. “I paced the room like a wild animal, carrying the baby with me, not letting anyone near her,” she recalled in a journal. She breastfed her daughter for the first time and felt an avalanche of reservation. Then a woman walked in and handed her the adoption papers to sign. Her hand quaked as she scribbled her name.

“Leaving the hospital after giving birth with nothing in your arms is the most painful, horrible feeling one can experience,” she journaled. Before walking out to her car, she bent down and kissed her daughter’s forehead. “I made a promise to you that I would give you the best, and I am keeping my promise.”

Wagener and her husband, meanwhile, were overjoyed that their wish had been fulfilled. They met their new daughter when she was five hours old and named her Mollie. Wagener picked Mollie up, took her blanket off, and counted her toes. She felt the same unconditional love she’d felt when she saw her biological children for the first time.

Wagener wrote Zimmermann a card, thanking her for the gift of Mollie. Zimmermann was too despondent to care. As she put it in her memoir, “My soul died a little that day.”

Nearly three decades later, Zimmermann, now 53, sits in a sun-drenched room at her home in Blue River. It is early April, a couple of weeks before the 27th birthday of the daughter she gave up for adoption. She has long blond hair and a youthful smile.

A spiritual person who owns two local barbershops, Zimmermann still thinks about that fateful day in the hospital and everything that happened afterward. She went on to raise two biological daughters of her own and found peace, but in many ways, her adoption experience defined her life. In May 2017, she and Wagener published a book about their journey, with a final chapter written by their daughter, Mollie Mish. The book, Open: An Adoption Story in Three Voices, has become a surprise hit on the indie circuit, having been picked up by Barnes & Noble as well as Target, and Amazon’s Kindle store. Its sales were approaching 5,000 copies at press time, and a New York producer acquired the rights to turn it into a musical.

Mollie Mish and Marlene Wagener at their home in Medford, Oregon

The book draws from journals kept by Zimmermann and Wagener during the first eight years of Mollie’s life, as well as letters they exchanged. They wrote the book under pseudonyms and changed everyone’s names to protect the identities of some who were involved with the adoption. Zimmermann broke up with Mollie’s birth father a year after Mollie was born, and Wagener and Mollie’s adoptive father divorced four years ago. Neither man was involved with Open.

Though you could argue any adoption involves elements of an epic story, a few circumstances made Zimmermann and Wagener’s tale unique. First, each brought Mollie into her life to protect herself from losing a man. Zimmermann was afraid of being left alone when her boyfriend went back to school, she says, so she got pregnant on purpose without telling him. Wagener worried her younger husband might leave her for a younger woman who could bear him a child. Ironically, neither relationship survived, but the friendship between the two mothers did.

It did not start well, however. Zimmermann threatened to take Mollie back within a month of her birth—a right she retained—unless she was granted visits for the first year. They brokered an informal agreement in a therapist’s office. When the first-year visits expired, Wagener was under no further obligation. But she knew that Zimmermann remained vulnerable and pined for news about Mollie. As a mother, she empathized. So she promised to update Zimmermann indefinitely without telling her husband, who wanted Zimmermann out of their life.

Over time, the women came to trust each other with their deepest secrets, writing letters and periodically speaking on the phone. Some of their correspondence is reprinted in the book, along with the blunt emotions that accompanied it. Their book details the day Wagener told Mollie that Zimmermann was her birth mother. It was Mollie’s eighth birthday, and she was used to Zimmermann phoning to wish her well but had never known who she was. All she knew was that Wagener was her mother and a different woman had been her “tummy mommy.”

When Mollie and Zimmermann spoke that day, Mollie asked, “Why did you give me up?” Zimmermann replied, “Because I had no money and no good home to take you to. I was all alone and scared.”

With Wagener’s permission, Zimmermann visited Mollie at her California home when she was 4, then again in Oregon when she was 11. Mollie even invited Zimmermann to attend her high school graduation.

Zimmermann eventually concluded that her role in Mollie’s life wasn’t to be her mother: “I was just a soul to carry her here.”

Marlene and Mollie

The most impactful of their reunions occurred in 2014, shortly after Mollie’s parents divorced. She asked Zimmermann if she could visit her in Summit County. Zimmermann was overjoyed. They went skiing, and 23-year-old Mollie met her biological sisters, Hannah and Emily, who were teenagers. Zimmermann took her daughters to Buena Vista to soak in the hot springs. During the drive, she noticed Mollie was wearing a necklace that looked like one she had given her when she was a baby.

At the hot springs, Zimmermann asked about the necklace, and Mollie opened the pendant to reveal a photo of Zimmermann, who started crying.

“Mollie,” she said, “you’re so beautiful, you’re so kind, and I’m so proud of the woman you are.”

Mollie looked at her birth mother and said, “Because I’m a lot like you.”

They hugged. The other 20 people in the hot tub started to clap.

“What’s this all about?” someone asked.

Zimmermann had once feared being stigmatized if anyone found out that she gave her baby away. But that day in the hot tub, she felt only joy.

“This is my daughter that I’ve given up,” she replied, “and she’s found me again.”

Not every adoption story ends happily. This one has, for the most part. Wagener refers to herself and Zimmermann as “Mollie’s mothers,” even if Mollie still calls Wagener “Mom” and Zimmermann “Tina.”

Wagener and Mollie live in Medford, Oregon, and remain exceptionally close. After the book came out a year ago, the trio hosted some signings together. “We’re a little family,” Wagener says.

Birth mother and daughter at Mollie's high school graduation party in Medford, Oregon

Zimmermann, for her part, says she met her soulmate in 2011 and continues to work as a barber, which she has done for 33 years—the last 26 in Summit. She changed the deed on her land so that Mollie’s name is on it, along with her two other daughters. Even though she found peace, the pain from her midtwenties shaped her in a way that lingers today.

“Almost 28 years have gone by, and I’ll always remember my babies I brought home, but I’ll never forget that baby I didn’t,” she says. “I’m healed. But that loss, it’s still there.”

She and Wagener still talk regularly. Wagener, in fact, refers to Zimmermann as “my daughter” late in the book, a characterization that Zimmermann does not dispute. “I suffered greatly,” she says, reflecting on her journey. “But I’m so blessed that everything happened.”

Wagener, meanwhile, dealt with criticism from her family for being so blunt in the book. But she says her adoption experience taught her to live openly, and she stands by her decision to tell all. 

“I wanted to write a story about this great love between my husband and me, and us wanting a child,” Wagener says. “But the book ended up being a love story about Mollie’s birth mother and me, and how we had to learn to be bigger people if we wanted to do the best thing for her.”

One night in 2017, Wagener, worried about her mortality at age 71, woke up after having a bad dream. She texted Zimmermann. “Please promise me that when I am gone, you will be Mollie’s mother again.”

Zimmermann responded without pause: “I promise you as you once promised me.”

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