Jack Quist remembers well the day he followed an elderly woman into a drugstore and asked her nosy questions.

He was convinced she was his biological grandmother. But as clearly as he remembers the occasion, he can't remember why he thought that.He sometimes wondered if his cousin or his aunt was his birth mother.

When he was 5, he learned he was adopted. It was a happy adoption with great parents, but he still became preoccupied with one question: Who is my birth mother?

"Whenever I would see a woman old enough to be my mother," said Quist, a country-music artist in Utah, "I would assume that would be her if maybe she had features that resembled mine: hazel eyes, brown wavy hair, a nose like mine."

He no longer dogs the steps of strangers; his biological mother is Jo Thompson. She's little and lovely and like him in a lot of ways. When he first met her he noticed she had two guitars by her bed; her family is peopled with musicians and songwriters, just like Quist.

Best of all, his mom - the woman who adopted him - supported his search before her death.

Not long before she died, he played her a song he wrote. "Dear Mom" told of his questions, his search, the hole in his life from not knowing how he was born. "It was hard for me to play it for her. I loved her. She cried, but she told me not to be afraid or feel bad. She wanted to support me in my search. She wanted my happiness."

As long as there have been adoptions, adoptees have searched for answers. And a lot of birth parents have wondered if a reunion, welcome or not, lies in their futures.

Everyone in the birth triangle - adopted child, birth parent, adoptive parent - has questions. Many of them are finding answers - and reunions.

Christina Carbone has come to see herself as a "gift to two women at different times in their lives."

She grew up knowing she was adopted. It didn't matter because she had a great family, she said, with four siblings, also adopted. But her happy life didn't prevent her from having questions. When she was old enough, she started looking for her birth mother. The hunger for answers only intensified when her son was born.

"My mother was very supportive," Carbone said. "She was always good about it. When they adopted me, she went home and wrote down all the information the social worker gave her. It helped some, later."

The information available was very nonspecific. Carbone's biological mother was petite and blonde. Her father was in the Air Force. She was in college and interested in fencing."

Adoption officials wouldn't help. She was told to forget it. "The state of Utah treats adult adoptees like they're little children," she said.

When Joan Looslie found her birth parents, they were shocked. They'd been told the infant was so sick she likely wouldn't survive.

Her birth mother lives in New Zealand. They haven't met but write and call. Her biological father, who lives in South Africa, spent six weeks with Looslie's family.

She wasn't looking for new parents. She had a set. She searched because she wanted medical information and because she was curious. "I wanted to know how much I weighed at birth, things like that. This has been a wonderful thing for me. It tied everything down. And my last two children were twins (no surprise in her birth father's family).

"In my case I was hoping my birth parents had been able to get on with their lives and make a success," said Looslie, who was raised in South Africa and emigrated to the United States.

"I never wanted to know how I came to be. People make mistakes. For all I knew, I could have been the result of an assault. How didn't matter to me."

Her adoptive mother died before she started looking, but her father supported the search, although they don't talk of it much. "I kept him up to date with my progress. But you have to be careful, too, that you don't overstep the boundaries and wind up hurting your parents."

Many people, like Looslie, search for their biological roots because they want medical information. But more than that, said Sharlene Lightfoot, director of Adoption Connection, "it's like a black hole follows adoptees around. They can have wonderful folks and a wonderful life but still wonder, `Who am I?' "

Back when most of today's seekers were born, adoptions were closed. Some today are closed, so nothing but very general, non-identifying information is available. Most modern adoptions are confidential.

Biological parents can send and receive letters through the adoption agency for up to a year. After that, until the child is 5, the birth parents can get an annual report and baby photo, said Richard Black, LDS Social Services.

And some adoptions are wide open; birth parents and adoptive parents set the boundaries.

The search for a child given up long ago or for birth parents one has never known can be arduous.

No one knows that better than Irene Davis. Her search could not have been replicated by the impatient or faint-hearted.

With the blessings of her mom and dad, she started looking for her birth parents when she was 18. The agency that handled her adoption told her that her birth mother and father were both 18 and high-school sweethearts when she was born. She learned her birth mother was Scandinavian.

It was precious little to go on, and veteran searchers warned her she'd have to learn more. She couldn't.

Davis decided to make some assumptions. First, she was going to trust that her biological parents were from Utah and it was likely someone had done genealogical research that included them, whoever they were.

Because her birth mother would have been born around 1946, she got help from her sister-in-law to go through all the births that year, using the LDS Church archives. Her biological mother was Scandinavian, so she ruled out people with names that suggested other backgrounds, including ethnic names. Her list narrowed to 250.

The non-identifying information also said that her birth mother had three sisters. She eliminated everyone with brothers. Then she started calling.

On her first call, she reached her biological grandmother, who said they had prayed for the day she would find them.

From there, the story takes on a dreamlike quality. Her birth parents had planned to marry but changed their minds. Her biological father went to war, her biological mother to college. Away from each other, they decided they had to be together. They married two years later.

While they dreamed of finding the baby they'd given up, they didn't know how. They were told to give up. They did.

When Davis went to meet her biological grandmother, she learned her birth mother had been visiting and decided to stay an extra day. She was there.

More odd, her adoptive and biological mothers knew each other. Irene Davis even had been invited to the wedding that brought her biological mother back to Utah - the wedding of the man who would turn out to be Davis' brother.

Her birth parents, Roger and Marie Mast, now live close by. They are friends with her folks, who compiled a slide show of Davis growing up for the reunion.

Most adoptees discover they have half-brothers and sisters. Davis has a full sister and two full brothers.

Not everyone welcomes a reunion. Some adoptees, including Quist's sister, have no urge to search. Some birth parents would go to great lengths to avoid being found.

When most search-age adoptees were born, giving a child up was an act of secrecy. Those adopting them didn't always tell children they were adopted.

Biological parents often have never told those close to them - including subsequent husbands and children - that they had another child. For those reasons and more, a "reunion" can be a terrible disruption to everyone.

Most adopting parents and birth parents entered into adoption with the understanding the child and birth parent would be forever apart - and everyone's privacy would be protected.

As Quist said, "Part of the reason I was scared is she had a right to be left alone."

The most successful reunions seem to be those where everyone knows what they're after. Few adoptees are looking for people to be another set of parents. They just have questions. If the birth parent is willing to be a friend, without trying to usurp a position given away long ago, it usually works out.

"You can't have too many caring people in your life," Lightfoot said.

Even as the rules of adoption have evolved, so has the world into which adoptive parents step.

Parents no longer can keep adoption secret, said Lenny Richardson, the woman who adopted Carbone. She wonders what good it would do to try.

"I was as interested in Christina's natural mother as she was, I think. Christina had so many genetic traits that are very different from anyone in our family. She was always bubbly and outgoing, a social butterfly. I was always interested in being able to meet her (birth mother)."

The meeting wasn't awkward. Richardson went out of her way to be welcoming, and Carbone's birth mother, Cathie Fields, didn't try to step in as a mother.

But it was a reunion that almost didn't happen.

When Carbone tracked down her birth mother, she already had decided that she didn't want any rejection. She wanted to know more about her family. But if her birth mother didn't want to talk, she was going to walk away.

She placed the call but forgot Lightfoot's No. 1 rule. She didn't ask her birth mother to take her name and phone number in case they were disconnected before explaining why she was calling. She didn't see the need.

When Fields answered the phone, a flustered, anxious Carbone couldn't recall her prepared speech. Instead, she said she wasn't selling anything, but she thought they had something in common. Her birth date.

Almost immediately, she heard her birth mother hang up.

"I was panicked, just sick," she said. But she'd promised herself and her family that if she wasn't wanted she'd let it go.

She told her husband, Tom, tearfully, that her birth mother had hung up. Then she walked out of the house to be alone.

Carbone's husband, fortunately, hadn't lost his wits in the tension-charged atmosphere. He called Fields back and gave her the phone number and name. He was stunned when Fields asked, "Why did she hang up on me?"

It turned out that Fields' teenage son had picked up an extension the same time she answered the phone. And when he realized the call wasn't for him, he hung up. That's the click Carbone heard.

Disaster, laughed Carbone later, was narrowly averted.

When Cathie Fields got Carbone's call, "I thought I was having a heart attack. I knew instantly who she was," she said.

Over the years, she'd thought of looking. And with Carbone's 25th birthday days away at the time of the call, she had decided she couldn't wait.

"I just wanted to know she was alive. I didn't plan to call and walk into her life. I didn't know what she'd been told. But I wanted to know that she was alive and loved. She hadn't had any say in my decision (to give her up).

Fields' pregnancy was a secret, and she kept it that way. In those days, she said, she didn't have any choices. Her father didn't even want to know the sex of the baby.

"We just acted like none of it ever happened. He thought that was what I had to do. He didn't do it to be mean. If I kept her, what chance would she or I have had? She was raised by wonderful people."

Still, the parting was sorrowful. Fields and her mother persuaded the social worker to bring the baby to a hotel, where they spent a few hours playing with her before she was taken to foster care to await adoption.

"It made it easier," said Fields, who now lives in Idaho. "I had made my decision. I was just checking on her one more time. And she was going to people who really wanted and were ready for a baby."

Fields kept souvenirs. A hospital photographer gave her two tiny pictures of the baby, although babies slated for adoption weren't supposed to be photographed.

After they met by phone, Fields sent Carbone one of the photos. She also sent her most sentimental souvenir, the plastic cellophane wrapper from the bottle she'd used to feed Carbone in the hospital. For years, it was tucked in the Bible Fields read each week.

"I could always pull it out and look at it. It made her real. I was afraid that after years passed I would wonder if she really happened. It was secret and shameful at that time. We didn't talk about it, ever."

Fields went to college, married, had two sons. She got married again just days after meeting her daughter, who served as her maid of honor.

She gives Richardson, her daughter's adoptive mother, credit for making things so easy. "Lenny's so supportive. I go there and she hugs me. It could have been really strange. But nobody's been hurt by this."

Carbone's biological father, Joe Mundy, is also now very much a part of Carbone's life. So are his children. And when they saw each other for the first time in 28 years, it was natural, Fields said.

They just all have bigger families now.

And one of the dearest people in Christina Carbone's life is her biological grandfather, the man who forced the adoption.

They've made their peace with the past. And found love.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

DEAR MOM,

After 40 years I think it's time we met.

I'm your son.

Please don't tell me that you're just not ready yet.

When you gave me up, you made a wise decision.

Hey, but I know you must have gone through living hell.

Heaven knows how far I'd go to reassure you

That your little boy's alive and doing well.

Dear Mom,

Even though I've seemed to manage without you,

There's a hole that I can't seem to fill

No matter what I do.

And it breaks my heart to meet an older woman

Whose smile or hazel eyes resemble mine.

I've even asked a few to tell me their life stories

In my endless searchin' for the ties that bind.

I'll always love the one who raised me,

And no one will ever take her place.

She gave me love,

You gave me life.

Should you wonder why I long to see your face.

Dear Mom,

Could you find it in your heart to search for me?

I was born back in '54 on April 17.

And they tell me that your sister's written music

And that my grandma was a songwriter, too.

Gee, if they're still alive I sure would like to meet 'em.

I'm still in Salt Lake City, Utah;

How 'bout you?

Dear Mom.

Copyright by Jack Quist

Used with permission.