This story beats love at first sight. Two people longed for each other, though they may have never met. They felt connected, though they may have never touched. They’d even been given the same first names, though their families were strangers.
By the time Meredith Grace Rittenhouse and Meredith Ellen Harrington were finally introduced, love was almost beside the point. Their bond was more mysterious; more fundamental. The Merediths are Chinese fraternal twins who were adopted by two different American families. The girls found each other six years ago, when they were four, and haven’t let go since.
It was on an early December day in Jiangmen, China, that Meredith Grace’s birth mother said goodbye to her newborn baby girl. In China, children who are abandoned by their parents are often left in public places to ensure they are found quickly.
Meredith Grace’s mother left her in a busy part of town, the entrance to Holiday Park, across the street from an orphanage. If anyone knew how long Meredith Grace lay on that footpath or heard how loudly the baby cried, it might have been her own mother – parents who abandon their babies have been known to wait nearby, watching over their children, unable to do more than see who comes along to rescue them.
Meredith Grace was taken in by the Jiangmen City Social Welfare Institute on December 8, 1999. In the single typed page of history the orphanage supplied to her adoptive family, she was described as weak upon arrival. The administrators estimated she was one week old and born on December 1. A few weeks later, another baby girl was also found nearby. Her date of birth was calculated as December 16.
For nine months, the two girls lived at the orphanage. As far as their adoptive families know, there was no reason for the institute to suspect that the abandoned babies were twins.
They slept in stainless-steel cribs lined up end to end and played on bamboo mats placed on the pink tile floor, but they would have been too young to interact. The girls’ adoptive parents believe, however, that they were cared for by the same two nannies. At four years old, both girls were able to remember which nanny was the “nice” one and which nanny was the “mean” one when they were shown a picture of the women (even though the “mean” one was smiling).
Such is the detective work of families hoping to determine whether their daughters knew each other from the beginning.
When she was ten months old, Meredith Grace moved into her new home in suburban Chicago with Jim and Susan Rittenhouse, both federal employees – a science-fiction buff and a dog lover, respectively, and now parents. Meredith Grace was an early talker and, like her father, an enthusiastic one. Bubbly and smart, she developed a passion for geography and was soon drawing maps of the continents and begging for a globe. She adjusted well to life in America, but she was obsessed with the idea of sisters. She used to tell her preschool teacher about the one she had in China; her parents took this to mean that she wanted one. Asked to complete the sentence: “When I grow up, I want to be a…” three-year-old Meredith answered, “Sister.”
One month before the Rittenhouses adopted Meredith Grace, Leigh Anne and Mike Harrington had named their little girl Meredith Ellen and taken her home to Birmingham, Alabama. Soon after, Meredith Ellen spoke her first words. When she was two, she asked for a globe and started studying the continents. Meredith Ellen was quieter than the sister she didn’t yet know about in Chicago. And she went through periods of melancholy, telling her parents, “I’m so lonely. I wish I had a sister.”
When Meredith was three, Leigh Anne and Mike decided to give her one – they adopted Ally, also from China but a different city. In Chicago, the Rittenhouses were considering adopting a sister for their Meredith when a Yahoo! group posting caught Jim’s eye.
He was skimming over a message board, started by his wife, connecting parents who’d adopted children from the Jiangmen City Social Welfare Institute around the same time. He rarely bothered to read messages any more, now that Meredith’s adoption was almost four years on, but one posting was from a family he and Susan had once exchanged a few friendly messages with during the lead-up to their respective adoptions.
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