Sitting on the street curb outside the Warwick Hotel in Cambridge in 1958, Nancy Toto felt alone. She’d just been kicked out of her apartment because her roommate was prone to "improper behavior" that the landlord didn’t approve of. It wouldn’t be proper for her to stay there alone. Now, Toto had nowhere to go. After watching the world go by for a while, she rose, dusted herself off and went looking for a new home.
That was the only time Toto ever felt lonely, which is surprising for someone who had already been a part of several homes by the time she was 17.
"When people ask me what my maiden name, I just laugh and ask which one" Toto said, dressed head to toe in pink. She’d arrived at the interview with hefty binders bursting with photographs and stories of her life. She had to make two trip to the car to bring them all in.
Elsie Joann VanNest, Nancy Whitlatch, Nancy Watson, and Nancy Toto are all the same woman. She’s been married once. Born Elsie Joann VanNest, Toto was placed in the Belmont County Children’s Home in 1945. She was adopted by her first family in 1946 at age 5, taking on the new name Nancy Whitlatch. In a twist of events, she ended up becoming friends with her biological aunt, who was the same age as her.
"I was always running around with one of the neighborhood kids, and she always called me Elsie Joe," Toto said.
She was confused by that, and also by the woman who would bring her gifts sometimes. One day, her curiosity got the best of her.
"I asked my father who this woman bringing me gifts was," Toto said. "He got mad, and yelled ‘Thats your mother!’ I wasn’t too fond of him after that."
This was the first time anyone had told her she was adopted. As time went on, she became aware of two biological brothers and two sisters, which would stick with her all her life. By then, Mrs. Whitlatch had died of cancer, and Mr. Whitlatch married a woman with nine kids.
"I wasn’t too happy," Toto recalled, traveling back in time while sipping her coffee. "Maybe that's why he sent me back."
It was the first time she returned to the Belmont children’s home, but it wouldn’t be the last. Before the age of 17, she’d become a foster child and a wage ward to different families as well. At one point, she was living with her biological brother, who was the first sibling she was able to meet. He never really felt like a brother though, and they didn’t get along.
"I seem to remember an incident with a pitch fork," Toto said vaguely. "Then I went back to the home."
She felt more at home at "the home" than any of "her homes" anyway.
"We didn’t have much. Maybe we didn’t have a family, or what most kids have, but we did have each other," Toto said. "I never got to have experiences with a family— never went to a zoo or on a vacation. I missed out on that."
The girls worked in the kitchen and made the beds. Everything they ate was off their farm. The kids in the home still keep in contact and have reunions. Toto would often host them.
"Everybody who ever came to my house, I had their name. At one time, we had 90 people," she said."Its dwindled down, but we still kept in touch."
Toto writes everything down, holding onto her memories more dearly than most. She has a timeline of her life and loves to show people her pictures. She always keeps a camera on her and tries to be involved with everything. Above all else, Toto treasures her experiences she’s got to have over the years. She admitted her hectic childhood affected how she lives, but there she sits with thick binders of happy memories on the table.
At 17, she married her husband and took a new name for the last time. Shortly after that, she met her real father, who’d given her up, and her other brother.
I went to nursing home once a month to see him, and I thanked him," Toto said. "I had a better life because of that. I had no ill feelings."
Her mother had died years ago. The only remaining relative she had yet to meet was a sister, Beverly, who’d been put up for adoption too. She never forgot about Beverly and tried to find her many times, enlisting the sheriffs, friends and the genealogical society that she was a part of.
Toto lived a good life. She loved her husband, had two children, and got to see Hawaii. Hard times came too— she buried a daughter and beat cancer twice. She took the latter opportunity to start a support group, where she was heavily involved as well. But she was never quite able to check off the last square of her bucket list. She wasn’t able to find Beverly.
Until she got a call one day in 2018, 73 years after being placed in a home, from a Rocco Hindman, who lived in Los Angeles. Hindman had seen a post in the genealogical society and had been investigating for Toto without telling her. He hadn’t wanted to get her hopes up, but he was eventually able to find Beverly— or rather, her death certificate.
"I become involved in research cases on a whim when a compelling story catches my eye that I think I can help with, as was the case with Nancy Toto," Hindman said. "Some discoveries can be simply entertaining or enlightening, while others can be surprising or life-changing."
It’s hard to decide which was the case with Toto. Beverly had died in Canton. Toto was able to set up a meeting with her children, but they had little interest in talking about their mother. The search that lasted most of her life had ended with a sort of shrug.
But really, what else could Toto have expected from a person— even if they were alive— she’d never really known? Beverly wouldn’t have been able give Toto those family trips to the zoo she never got. The binders wouldn’t be any fuller. But perhaps they were full enough— at 76, Toto has lived a life influenced by her childhood, but not governed by it. She found family everywhere she went.