It is early morning. A mother wakes her 7-year-old daughter. They leave the house and begin walking. The child doesn’t know where they are headed. They come to a stop. The mother kneels down and tells her young daughter she is going to try to get her back as soon as she can. The child doesn’t understand what she’s talking about. Suddenly, a car pulls up and a woman emerges. She takes the child, who is now screaming and crying, from the mother. They drive away. It is the last time the little girl will ever see her mother again.
The little girl is now 19 years old, but really, she has lived so much longer than that. She was born in Smolensk, Russia, to Tatiana Karovna, a woman who loved her child but couldn’t care for her properly. She and her husband were alcoholics and had a violent relationship.
Tatiana named her daughter Anastasia. Today, she is called Ana – Ana Ripley, of Denmark, Maine, only child of Deb and Chip Ripley, who legally adopted her when she was 14. Not an easy age for a mother and daughter, but especially so when deep wounds must be healed. Their complicated story is a poignant and powerful example of how, through unwavering love and patience, a mother-daughter bond can form.
The car ride with the unknown woman so many years ago in Russia ended at an orphanage. Ana remembers crying the entire way.
“The first day I was there, it was awful,” she says. “I really wanted to go back home and be with my mom again. I only got one phone call when I was in the orphanage. My mom was telling me she’s going to come and get me, and that she was going to get a job and stop drinking. I was really excited, but after that, she never called me.”
A few years later Ana got the news that her mother had committed suicide. She never heard from her father.
When she was 8, Ana flew to the United States to meet a family that was considering adopting her.
“I went to California for a week,” says Ana, “for the parents to try me on, I guess, to see if they liked me.”
They decided it wasn’t a good fit. Instead of sending Ana back to Russia, the adoption agency contacted Deb Ripley’s sister in Texas, who was also interested in adopting a little girl. So off Ana went to get “tried on” again. This time, she was accepted.
She had to return to the orphanage until the adoption was final – an ordeal that took one year and about $30,000. During that time, Ana became close with a Russian family. Leaving them behind was extremely painful.
“It never really clicked that I was going to end up leaving them,” she explains. “I really got used to them and I did not want to leave them. It was really awful.”
The arrangements had been made and so, when Ana was 10, she arrived in Texas to begin her new life with a family that included a mother and father and two brothers. But, once again, it would not be happily ever after.
Four years after adopting Ana, Deb’s sister confided in her that things weren’t working out. Ana was no stranger to Deb and her husband. She had visited them for two weeks every summer, and Deb says they fell in love with her the first time they met her soon after she arrived in the States.
“She just came running up with this big smile and wrapped her arms around me and gave me this great huge hug,” recalls Deb. “Chip called her name and she looked up said ‘Cheep, Cheep’ in this Russian accent. The boys had told her about Uncle Chip. She ran up to him and wrapped her arms around him and his heart just melted. From that point on they’ve been like best buds. Even to this day, if there is a favorite, I’d say Chip is her favorite. He’s just great with her, just great.”
Deb and Chip had no children of their own and had talked about adopting an older child. When she found out about her sister’s dilemma, Deb’s response was quick and definite: “I said we’ll adopt her, we’ll take her and see how she does up here in Maine. And, she just flourished.”
But it didn’t happen easily, or quickly. Ana is candid about her life story and her difficulty trusting people, even Deb and Chip. She may have wrapped her arms around them as a 10-year-old, but when she came to live with them, she wouldn’t even let them touch her hair. She put them both to the test, but especially her new mother.
“It’s hard to explain,” says Ana, “but like testing to see if she was still going to stick around, no matter what. I might act out in a certain way and see what she was going to do.”
“Oh, yeah,” Deb responds. “It was kind of like a push-pull. A lot of teenagers do that naturally anyway, but with Ana it was a lot of pushing. When she would push me away, I just kept saying, ‘It’s going to be OK, it’s going to be OK.’ She’s just pushing me away because she’s hurt and she doesn’t want to trust.”
Deb owns a business called Women in Balance. She is a life coach, wellness consultant and program planner for individuals, businesses, and communities. She is especially skilled at helping women set goals and work on issues like self-esteem.
“Thank God I knew all about women’s issues. It really served me in raising Ana,” she says. “I was more of a coach for her than a mother in some ways – a friend and mother and mentor.”
It finally paid off. Deb was beyond joyful when, after two years of closing the door, Ana invited her into her bedroom – her sacred space.
“They kept telling me over and over again that I’m staying here and I don’t have to worry about leaving,” says Ana. “I’m their daughter. After a while, I started believing it.”
In May, Ana graduates from Fryeburg Academy, where she has been a consistent honor student.
“She never had any problems in school,” says Deb, “though her language was always a barrier. She was held back in second grade to learn English and catch up. She never had any other help with English except for my sister teaching her.”
She plans to attend Saint Joseph’s College in Standish and get a nursing degree. She then wants to join the military and become a psychiatric nurse practitioner and work with soldiers because, “I hear a lot of soldiers are having trouble with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). I have that and it’s pretty tough. I guess I just really want to help somebody who is really struggling.”
Ana’s PTSD can kick in with little to no warning.
“Like if somebody is yelling, I kind of have this little flashback,” she explains. “I feel like I did as a little child again – who was in the middle of my parents fighting. My dad would beat my mom in front of me. I feel like a small child who can’t do anything.”
It may be a scary feeling, but Ana has learned that not only can she count on her family to help her through it, she can also count on herself. It took abundant patience, professional counseling and love, but today, Ana Ripley is a confident, intelligent, creative, beautiful and gracious young woman.
The bond that she and Deb have developed is deep-rooted, as are the lessons they have taught each other. From Deb, Ana learned about good mothering. “It means being very supportive – through anything – being really nice and being there for me when I need her.”
“And Ana taught me grace,” says Deb. “Grace in the sense that I saw her moving through some of the most painful stuff that anybody could move through and come out the other side and not be bitter or angry or hate people. She’s the exact opposite of that. She loves and she gives.”
“I am grateful,” says Ana. “When I look back at what I used to have and look at what I have now, I see so many things to be grateful for. I have everything I ever wanted and even more.”