Call it a hug more than 23 years in the making.
Late Thursday night, Brandy Chapman reunited with her mom, Shelly Suzanne Jennings, for the first time in nearly 24 years. Their moment took place in a Salida motel, ending a search and a chapter of a story that captivated people from Oklahoma to Oakdale and beyond over the past month.
“I’m still in shock,” Chapman said, tears of joy streaming down her cheeks Friday morning.
“Let’s just say that I love her,” Jennings said. “I overwhelmingly love her.”
Why the separation of more than two decades?
Jennings left Oklahoma with her two youngest daughters – Rachel and Julie Ford – in 1993 and came to Modesto, where a relative once lived. Chapman remained in Oklahoma with her father, who had custody. Jennings, whose family has a history of schizophrenia, began having some issues here.
Rachel and Julie attended Salida Elementary School. One day late in 1994, Rachel stayed after school for Girl Scouts. Julie, the youngest, was supposed to ride the bus home, but was scared to go alone and stayed at the school with her sister. When Jennings didn’t pick them up after the scouting session – and when it became apparent she would not – school officials called Child Protective Services. The girls were placed in foster care until their father could come out from Oklahoma to get them.
Jennings remembers only that she was in the hospital and was told that the girls’ father had taken them back to Oklahoma.
After being released, she said, she worked at the Sundial and hung out at the Tiki Lounge on McHenry Avenue. But her world had collapsed.
“(Life) grew complicated,” she said. “I let it go.”
On her 30th birthday, she went to the next-door neighbor’s home, knocked on the door, and told them they could have all of her possessions. Then she left.
“I went to Mexico,” she said. “With the girls gone, I was so depressed.”
And when she came back, she became a nomad, living in Nebraska, Missouri, Florida and other places. She said she once went to Oklahoma to look for them.
“I went to the grade school where they went, but I didn’t have the courage go to the desk and ask,” Jennings said.
It wouldn’t have mattered. The family had moved to another town about 35 miles away.
While Jennings lived on the streets most of these missing years, she always returned to California and frequently passed through Modesto, where she was born. That Modesto connection played a huge role in her reconnection with her family.
Chapman and her sisters for many years had been looking for their mom with no luck. Then, in early December, a friend of Chapman’s searched for Jennings online and discovered she had been arrested in Shasta County in November. Chapman immediately flew to Sacramento and drove to Redding to find her. But she’d already been released and, someone who knew her said, planned to go to Modesto.
So Chapman concentrated her search here, arriving Jan. 2 for a week to pass out fliers and talk to people on the streets and in the shelters who might know or recognize her. Dozens upon dozens said they did. But she wasn’t here.
“I was down south in Lancaster, in a shelter there,” Jennings said. A social worker there told her she needed to get a copy of her birth certificate. Sick with the flu, she stayed put for several days before boarding a bus headed north. It went to Sacramento.
Someone there had seen one of the fliers bearing her photograph – which Jennings herself had not seen because she hadn’t been in Modesto – and after Jennings boarded another bus destined for Modesto, called the Modesto police. Officer Jeff Harmon met her at the depot and took her to police headquarters downtown, where they called Chapman and broke the best news she’s ever received.
“ ‘She’s standing right here beside me,’ ” Chapman said the police official told her. “I was screaming.”
That same night, Chapman began her second 22-hour trip from McAlester, Okla., bringing along two friends to take shifts behind the wheel so they could make the drive nonstop. By 11:30 p.m. Thursday, Chapman and her mom stood in the same room, hugging, crying and reconnecting. They were scheduled to leave Friday evening, returning to Oklahoma, where Jennings will see her other daughters for the first time since 1994. And being of Choctaw Native American ancestry, she will receive free health care and mental health services.
They all have a lot of catching up to do, and face to face.
“I did not know my daughter was looking for me,” she said. “For me, to have this happen is a miracle. I thought I’d die with this (homelessness). I can’t make up for what’s happened.”
Said Chapman, “Yes, you can.”
You see, mom is going home.