Joan Bridge became a grandma - twice over - in December.
But the South Hill resident didn’t do it the easy way. Bridge went all the way to Siberia for her granddaughters.
When daughter Sharon Bridge decided to adopt two children from Russia, there was never any question about who would accompany her.
“I never thought twice about going,” said Joan. “I knew Sharon would need my help.”
Sharon Bridge grew up in Spokane and attended Ferris High School. Now the medical director of a Portland plasma center, her support system remains in this city, where parents Paul and Joan Bridge live.
“I obviously couldn’t have done this alone,” she said with a smile. “I needed my mom.”
Sharon Bridge had been trying to adopt for years. But her marital status haunted her.
“Singles don’t stand a chance in the U.S.,” she said. “There are just too many couples on the waiting lists.”
Her best hope, she decided, was to go international. She wanted two babies, and everyone knew there were plenty in Romania.
She spent months jumping through a thousand hoops while Joan bought baby clothes and packed their bags.
“Then Romania shut down,” Sharon said.
United States families adopted thousands of Romanian children in the first years of this decade, after the country’s 1989 revolution gave way to a flurry of adoptions.
The government put a halt to international adoptions until a committee could be organized to monitor the process.
It was a decision made in a faraway place but one that reached its cold fingers all the way to the Bridge family.
It was like starting from square one.
One by one, Sharon went through four more agencies.
They told her, politely, that she was dreaming; no Russian judge would ever give two babies to a single woman.
“It was hard to watch this,” said Paul Bridge. “But we chatted it over with the Lord and decided he’d know what was best.”
After years, that hope paid off.
In early 1997, Sharon hooked up with All God’s Children, an international adoption agency based in Portland.
Within six weeks, the Bridges were watching a video of Elena, now 1, and Anna, now 9 months, staring at the camera with their wide brown eyes.
“They were adorable,” said Joan.
But the intricacies of international adoptions meant months of wading through red tape before they could meet the girls.
FBI crime checks, medical reports, financial statements, visas. Fifteen documents later, the trip was finally set.
In Russia, all orphans are listed on a central adoption registry, where they stay for three months.
When Anna came off the list Nov. 28, Sharon and Joan were ready. They left Dec. 7.
The trip took 34 hours and four planes.
They flew from Portland to San Francisco, then to Seattle, and then to Anchorage, where they finally boarded the plane that would take them west to Khabarovsk.
From there, mother and daughter took a train to Birobidzhan, a small town in southeast Siberia.
A translator met them as they stepped, exhausted, off the train.
Joan Bridge thought she knew what to expect. She and Sharon had traveled all over Europe together. They’d even visited Moscow and St. Petersburg.
But Western Russia didn’t prepare them for the tiny town of Birobidzhan.
“Drab, barren, gray and cold,” said Joan. “That’s what comes to mind.”
The Children’s Hospital fit that description, too. Although the babies were well-cared-for, they were surrounded by stark gray.
Two wings of the building were filled with rows of cribs holding sick or abandoned children.
Some babies had their own toy. Others shared one plaything hung between two cribs.
None wore diapers - an out-of-the-question expense.
When nurses handed Anna to Sharon, the baby whimpered. Only for about 10 seconds - but long enough for the nurse to explain that Anna was scared.
She’d never seen an adult who wasn’t wearing a white nurse’s uniform.
After just 20 minutes with the girls, the two had to leave for court. There, a stern judge asked an hour’s worth of questions before reading a four-page decision, at the very end of which sat the only sentence that mattered.
The babies were semiofficial Bridges.
The four flew to Moscow for the final step, a 15-minute interview at the American Embassy.
In the airport and on the plane, the new family was well-received.
“Everyone who could speak any English thanked us for adopting them,” said Joan.
The family returned to the United States the week before Christmas, two members richer and very tired.
Very little is known about the girls’ pasts.
Anna’s unwed mother left her at the hospital. Elena was the fourth child of a financially strapped married couple. Born at home, her mother dropped her off at the hospital Christmas morning of 1996, when she was just 5 days old.
While that’s all the Bridges can offer about the girls’ biological roots, it’ll be no secret to Elena and Anna where they came from.
A map of Russia is already on the wall in Sharon’s Portland home so the girls can retrace their trip across the globe. The girls will make regular visits to Spokane, where Grandma can relate the trip.
And every Dec. 9, the anniversary of their adoption, will be a celebration of their heritage.
But the girls are already comfortable in their new home.
“They’ve adjusted so well,” said Joan. “They immediately began sleeping through the night.”
It’s 11 a.m. at the Bridges’ South Hill home, and the babies are starting to get fidgety.
Nine-month-old Anna, fascinated with a black comb from Mom’s purse just two minutes ago, is now trying to wriggle her way out of her velvety holiday dress.
Older sister Elena is on perhaps her 12th lap around Grandma and Grandpa’s home. Kitchen, living room, kitchen. Down the hall and back.
They are making themselves right at home.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)