BREMERTON, Wash. (AP) - Keri Grimmage, 35, can only remember bits and pieces of her mother. She recalled finding a collection of wigs in the closet and catching glimpses of her mother’s colostomy bag, hints of a condition that were beyond comprehension at 6 years old.
So Grimmage was surprised to discover, almost 30 years after her mother’s death, a name she recognized on a report card in an old box of photos.
The name on the card was Connie Wheeler, a first-grade teacher at West Hills STEM Academy in Bremerton. Wheeler had taught both of Grimmage’s brothers when they attended West Hills in the mid-1980s.
But Grimmage recognized Wheeler’s name for another reason: She is her son’s first-grade teacher.
“I was just thinking, ‘Is this her?’ Then I called my brother and asked if he remembered Mrs. Wheeler,” Grimmage said. “Then it clicked, ‘It’s got to be her.’”
Spurred by the hope that there was someone who might have information about her mother, Grimmage took the card when she went to volunteer at West Hills on a Friday in December. One glimpse at the old report card and all the pieces started to fall into place.
“It was kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I said, ‘You’re Wanda’s little girl,’” Wheeler said. “And (Keri) said, ‘Oh my goodness, you remember my mother.’”
“We cried for 15 or 20 minutes in that class,” Grimmage said.
Portrait of a working mother
Wheeler remembers Grimmage’s mother, Wanda Haskins, as a hard-working mother of three, a woman who did everything she could to ensure her children would have the best life. Both of Grimmage’s parents worked at the shipyard, but Haskins would work the night shift and come straight home in time to take Grimmage and her two older brothers to school. She volunteered at school events and rarely missed PTA meetings, reported the Kitsap Sun (https://bit.ly/2iIhORL).
“I remember thinking, ‘She must be exhausted,’” Wheeler said. “But she never complained, she never said, ‘I’m tired.’ It was never a burden for her to do something for her kids.”
While she was pregnant with their fourth child, Haskins began to experience pain and bleeding, which her doctors wrote off as normal. After giving birth to Grimmage’s little sister, Haskins’ condition took a turn for the worse. A family friend, Charlotte Haworth, persuaded her to see another doctor. Haskins received a damning second opinion: advanced cervical cancer.
While she was given only a few months to live, Haskins lived for over a year after the diagnosis. She died in October 1987 at the age of 37. Shortly after, Grimmage’s father packed up their family and moved to Florida. Grimmage was 6.
“Wanda was a devoted mom with a new baby and refused to just give up and die,” Haworth said in an email. “She would fight for her family!”
An unlikely reunion
Grimmage’s memories of her mother are fragmented. She recalls Haskins being around often during her childhood and a broad feeling of love and safety. But most of what she knows about her mother has come from old photos, journals and what little her father has told her.
As she grew up in Florida, Grimmage kept in touch with a friend in Kitsap County. When she turned 20, Grimmage and her then-boyfriend took a trip to Bremerton to see the friend and visit her mother’s grave. It was then, she said, that she knew she had to move back.
Two months later, in 2001, she did. Since then, questions about her mother have been in the back of her mind, but she never found anyone who could fill in the gaps.
“I’ve been curious about background and her and stuff, but I think really when I started to grow up and definitely once I had (my son), it kind of really was starting to hit me, like the impact,” Grimmage said.
Meanwhile, Wheeler couldn’t get the image of Haskins helping her kids at school - at that point less than a week from her death - out of her mind. The family’s story stuck with her, she said, because of how devastating it was to the tight-knight school community.
“I hadn’t thought about children losing their parents that young, it wasn’t really in my experience,” Wheeler said. “But I always wondered, because I knew how much (Wanda) loved her kids, and I always wondered if her kids knew that.”
So when Grimmage approached Wheeler a week before Christmas with the report card, both women said they were blown away. Almost 30 years since Haskins’ death, and with Grimmage now bearing a married name, the odds of the reunion were incredibly small.
“It just was magical,” Grimmage said. “It was meant to be.”
Filling in the gaps
Since the meeting, Wheeler has been able to tell Grimmage what she remembers about her mother and also connected her with Haworth. But for Grimmage, there still are pieces of the puzzle to put together.
“For me it’s not, I wouldn’t say closure yet or anything, but it’s a big piece that’s been missing that I’ve not known has been missing,” Grimmage said. “So for me the impact has been … it’s been overwhelming, it’s been happy.”
For Wheeler, who is retiring at the end of this school year, the meeting has brought peace of mind.
“I got to say to (Grimmage), ‘Your mother loved you, so much,’” Wheeler said. “I got to say that to her, and I wanted to say that to her.”
As the shock of the improbability of the meeting and the rush of the holidays wears off, the pair plans to keep in touch. They want to visit Haskins’ grave in Bremerton and keep trying to piece together her life. Wheeler said she could even be a “good grandma” for Grimmage’s kids.
As for how the improbable reconnection happened? Grimmage and Wheeler both agree it was meant to be.
“You have to believe in some kind of divine intervention, because how else did this happen?” Wheeler said. “How else did all the pieces fall into place?”
“I don’t think there’s an answer on why this happened,” Grimmage said.
Information from: Kitsap Sun, https://www.kitsapsun.com/
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