In 1999, Monitor readers met Hannah, a 3-year-old Russian girl adopted by American parents. A Monitor team – Marjorie Kehe and Melanie Stetson Freeman – chronicled Hannah’s journey from a stark orphanage near Moscow to a new life in Massachusetts. In 2003, they updated her story, finding the 6-year-old negotiating the traumas of adjustment as a “giver” and “a ray of sunshine.” They return now to see the 13-year-old Hannah.
Right from the start, her caretakers called Hannah a “miracle child.” The little girl who once had so many odds stacked against her has come so far. So it should surprise no one that she has weathered the latest changes in her life – economic struggles, divorce, major family changes – with gentle poise.
Hannah Rocklein today, at 13, is surrounded by a caring family: her parents, brother, sister, three half siblings, and – recently – a stepfather and two stepbrothers. It’s hard to imagine a child more closely ringed by love.
But that’s not the way that Hannah began her life. She was once Anna Sinyaeva, a Russian born to an unknown father and a mother incapacitated by alcoholism. After visiting her daughter twice – drunk both times – Anna’s mother never returned. Anna settled into life as the occupant of bed No. 15 in a state-run orphanage outside Moscow.
A doctor, fearing fetal alcohol syndrome, labeled Anna developmentally impaired – a diagnosis that might have made her unadoptable.
And yet, far off in America, Mary and Bob Rocklein saw Anna’s picture in an adoption brochure and felt that this little girl was meant to be theirs. Mary – herself adopted – had a particularly fierce drive to give Anna a second chance. Against the advice of doctors in Russia and the United States, the Rockleins decided to adopt her.
In the summer of 1999, Anna – then 3 and renamed Hannah – stepped into a new life in affluent Groveland, Mass. She moved into the perfectly appointed pink bedroom of her adoptive sister, Abby, 18 months her senior. The two fought fiercely at first, but quickly developed a tight bond and learned to share a mountain of toys and pretty dresses.
There were challenges. Although the diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome was reversed, Hannah had difficulties with language and school. But home was her bedrock. Mary became pregnant again and Hannah doted on Noah, her new little brother. Backed by Bob’s comfortable income as a mortgage broker; a rich school system; and a solid, loving family; Hannah seemed well equipped to weather whatever storms would come her way.
Then, suddenly, Hannah’s life destabilized: Bob and Mary separated and divorced. Bob’s business collapsed when the subprime mortgage crisis hit the US, and the family’s home was lost to foreclosure. Hannah watched uncomfortably as a schoolmate moved into the house – and the pink bedroom that once was hers.
Eventually, Bob went back to work. Mary, meanwhile, had fallen in love with Dave, a dry cleaner, musician, and divorced father of two. They married, and Mary, Hannah, Abby, and Noah squeezed into Dave’s tiny home in this working-class suburb.
Somehow Hannah seemed to glide smoothly through the transition. She and Abby quickly became comfortable with their gentle stepfather. Bob, meanwhile, remained an active part of their lives. Both Hannah and Abby embraced Methuen. It is considerably less affluent, but there are more playmates closer at hand and a mall is easily accessible.
That’s not to say that Hannah faces no hurdles. The seventh-grader – who hopes to become a cook, and adopt her own child – takes special classes to help navigate ongoing language challenges. Her parents have been informed that vocational school will probably be Hannah’s best high school choice.
The child who once made friends with every stranger in sight is today quieter. That’s not a bad thing, insists Mary. Hannah has learned some boundaries she didn’t have in the orphanage. In school, though, Mary allows, Hannah doesn’t have “as many friends as I would like.”
But in her new home, Hannah seems as effortlessly at ease as she was in the more spacious Groveland house. Abby – once the shyer of the two – has become a poised 15-year-old and is now the extrovert. Yet Hannah is still more physically adventurous. She loves to swim, sled, and climb trees. Science is her favorite subject, because, she explains, “I love learning about how the world is.”
Mary says Hannah has a natural gift for music – piano, guitar, and voice – although she doesn’t focus too hard on any one of them.
Hannah is small for her age. She speaks softly and deliberately and must sometimes search to find her words. Her enthusiasms are typical American teen – Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and “American Idol.” But while Abby was once her closest family ally, Hannah now seems most drawn to 8-year-old Noah. The two play for hours creating dialogues for stuffed animals and making up games with Noah’s trains.
Hannah has few memories of her first three years. “I can kind of remember a hallway,” she says of the orphanage. “It was kind of dark and there were shadows.” She neither speaks nor understands Russian.
But that doesn’t mean that she feels no connection to Russia: “When I’m older I want to go there.” Mary promised they would make the trip when Hannah is a teen. Hannah’s main concern: to see if any of her former caretakers are still at the orphanage. She can’t remember them, but has seen pictures of them waving goodbye to her. “They might want to see me,” she says. “They might want to know that I’m OK.”