Diane Bay was adopted in 1959 from Chicago, Illinois, and her recent journey to find her birth mother led her to 1960’s-1970’s movie star Karen Black.
Bay has written a memoir about her experience ‘Finding Karen Black: Roots Become Wings,’ publishing on August 8 and available on Amazon. She is also hosting a book-signing at the Marshall County Children’s Arts Center, where she is August’s featured artist, on August 13 from 2-5 p.m.
At four-years-old, Bay’s adoptive father, Don Koehnemann, explained she was adopted, and though she did not fully understand the implications at the time, the idea that she had another mother somewhere was important to her. Bay adored her adoptive father, but had a difficult relationship with her adoptive mother, Jodie Koehnemann.
After that moment, Bay dreamed of meeting her birth mother, but Illinois’ closed adoption records were sealed and the dream of ever finding her birth family seemed unattainable.
Bay continued to grow up in Westchester, Illinois and married Rich Bay in 1978, beginning their own family and raising three sons. In 2008, they moved to Marshall County so Rich Bay could pursue his dream of being a local fishing guide, and he is now the owner of Kick’n’ Bass guide services on Kentucky Lake.
In 2011, Illinois opened their sealed adoption records and Bay saw that her childhood dream might somehow come true. She was 53 years old and thrilled at the prospect of finding her birth parents, immediately sending for her original birth certificate. There was also, however, a healthy sense of trepidation surrounding the forms that would reveal her birth parents to her, and she was nervous opening that envelope and seeing the name “Karen Black” staring back up at her.
Usually, noted Bay, it takes adoptees years to find their birth families, but as soon as she typed it into her search bar Black’s Wikipedia page popped up. Bay noted the timeline added up, even noticing their physical similarities. She sent Black a message through her Facebook fan page, and Black responded on Aug. 8, 2012 confirming what she knew to be true, Black was indeed her mother. And the pair wasted no time in catching up, chatting every day on the phone and making plans to visit one another.
But the bliss Bay felt after finding her family was quickly tinged with sadness, after Black revealed she had cancer for the second time. Black did not believe her chances of survival were good after receiving a poor prognosis from her doctor.
Bay wasted no time, expediting her plans to meet Black by adding a flight to Los Angeles, California to a pre-existing trip to Seattle, Washington. She flew out to Seattle, meeting half-sister, Nina Benedetti, on her dad’s side, and then to Los Angeles, California to meet Black and her husband, Stephen Eckelbery, half-brother, Ben Benedetti, on her dad’s side, along with half-brother, Hunter Carson and adopted sister, Celine Eckleberry, on her mom’s side.
“I have all this new family now,” said Bay. “I got to meet three of four biological siblings within that week. It all just fell into place.” And her first meeting with Black was a joy-filled reunion, and jump started a journey to healing, for the both of them. “It was very healing for her (Black) too because she told me it was the hardest thing she ever did to give me up,” said Bay.
Meeting Black fulfilled Bay’s lifelong dream of knowing her mother and finding her biological family. “I feel whole and complete now that I know my genetic relatives,” said Bay. The subtitle (Roots Become Wings) reflects a similar idea about finding my birth families making me whole, including the difference knowing my ancestry made to me. Just to see the faces of people who shared my genes helped me know what I looked like.”
Black died in 2013, exactly one calendar year since their first point of contact. When it was time to write about Black’s passing in her memoir, Bay almost gave up. “Around 2015, I got to the part about losing her, being in the hospital and the nursing home, and I could not do it. I had to stop for about a year,” said Bay. “I was about halfway through and I struggled with that and then I said what am I going to do, just quit and dump it in the garbage somewhere? Or do I struggle along with it? And I chose to.”
“There were so many synchronicities. It just felt like a story that needed to be told. First of all, finding someone famous just did not happen,” said Bay. “I also wanted to help others understand what it is like to be an adoptee. Many of us feel or have felt alone, like we are an island off the mainland of humanity. We know, deep down, we are not connected to the people who have raised us, and we don’t know where we do belong until we find our birth families.”
This is an emotional story of hope and resilience through the eyes of someone looking back on their life, all while choosing and maintaining an attitude of optimism, which is infectious upon reading. It is a testament to the mother-daughter bond and the proof that love overcomes all obstacles.
Bay has maintained contact with her new family, visiting Carson and his family in Texas and keeping in constant contact with the Bendetti’s, “They (the Bendetti’s) all live out west. I do not see them very often, but every two weeks, every Sunday we have a family Zoom,” said Bay.
All of her new family has been incredibly supportive and welcoming during this journey including her father Robert Bendetti and stepmother Joan Bendetti, who she notes have been especially encouraging.