Saturday, November 10, 2007

Secret sister

I got nuthin' today, so I am going to tell you how I met my sister Karen.

Once upon a time, a little over 50 years ago, my parents met. It was at Highland Park Hospital in Detroit. My mom was a ward nurse and my dad was the new orthopedic intern from Texas. My mom told me that, for some reason, she pictured a cowboy in a lab coat and Stetson, with a big Western drawl; she was disappointed to discover that the new doctor was a soft-spoken, bespectacled fellow who had merely studied medicine in Texas; he'd grown up in North Dakota and sounded as if he was from Canada. Nevertheless, the two of them hit it off and started dating.

They were engaged to be married when they split up in 1955. There were two versions of why they parted ways: Dad said he didn't want to get married in the Catholic church because he was an agnostic, and Mom said they just weren't ready to get married and used the church thing as an excuse. I think they were both telling versions of the same truth. Anyway, they broke up, and soon thereafter, Mom and her best friend Donnie (also a nurse) moved out to Santa Monica, California and began work at the UCLA Medical Center.

A few months later, Dad moved to Los Angeles himself and started his new job at Orthopedic Hospital in downtown. He was a resident and wasn't making good money, so he did a lot of moonlighting at places like ski resorts, waiting for unlucky skiers to fall and break a leg so he could help and earn a few extra bucks. He contacted my mom and tried to get together, but she didn't want to see him. After about a year she and Donnie moved back to Detroit while Dad stayed in Los Angeles, eventually getting hired full-time at St. Luke Hospital in Pasadena and joining an orthopedic specialty group. Mom and Dad had nothing to do with each other for about seven years. A mutual friend of theirs who traveled on business between L.A. and Detroit kind of kept each of them apprised of the other's doings.

Finally, after one of these trips, this friend said to Mom, "You know, Janet, Bob is still single. You really should call him." I don't know the exact date he told her this, but I do know that on July 4, 1962, my mom was at a party, got a little drunk, told some friends about this other friend's suggestion, and decided to call Dad in L.A. Dad was delighted to hear from her and a couple of weeks later, he flew back to Detroit to see her. He arrived on a Friday, and they got re-engaged the next day. Two months later they got married, had me and my brother and sisters (and another baby boy who died), and were married for nearly 35 years until Mom died. Dad died a few years later, as much as from loneliness and a broken heart as anything else. I think -- no, I know they were very happily married, and they gave me and my siblings an imperfect but definitely happy, solid, loving home to grow up in. I miss both of them every day.


I guess it was nearly four years ago that my sister Susan received a large envelope in the mail. She didn't recognize the return address, which was in Orange County, just south of L.A. When she opened the envelope, the papers that fell out were copies of some adoption forms. Susan didn't look at them too closely because she thought they might relate to the baby she had put up for adoption when she was 17; instead, she snatched up the personal letter that accompanied the forms. It was from a woman named Karen, who said she was our sister. Not a half sister, but a full-blooded sister born in 1956.

Seems my mom was pregnant when she and my dad broke up, and she moved out to California to have her baby in secrecy. Karen was adopted by an Irish Catholic family and grew up in the Valley, always knowing she was adopted; when she turned 21, her parents gave her copies of her adoption papers and told her if she wanted to search for her birth parents, that was her choice. The adoption papers revealed that Mom alone had been responsible for putting Karen up for adoption; they also revealed both my dad's name and my mom's maiden name, and the fact that Dad was a surgeon. Karen later worked in medical billing and kept tabs on my dad a little bit that way; she knew where he worked, anyway. She didn't want to intrude on his life, figuring he was married and probably had a family of his own. She didn't know how to track down her birth mother, figuring Mom had married someone else and had changed her name.

Shortly before Susan received the letter with Karen's story, Karen had looked Dad up online to see if there was any information on him, and she found his obituary (probably the one I wrote for his local newspaper -- writing that was one of the hardest things I've ever done). She saw that he had been predeceased by his wife Janet and thought how unusual it was that he had married someone with the same first name as her birth mother. She kept reading and saw all the names of his children, her half-siblings, she thought. Then she read that he was also survived by his mother-in-law, Florence F___, and she couldn't believe it. Her birth mother's name was Janet F___! Her birth parents had married and those four half-siblings were actually full siblings! She tracked down Susan's and my brother John's addresses and sent the same letter to each of them. Fortunately, Susan received hers first, because if my weirdo brother John had, who knows what might have happened. Susan's response, however, was "Welcome to the family! Let's meet and get to know one another!" Susan, unbeknownst to Karen, was the perfect family member to contact.

Susan, Mary and I all met Karen in a coffee shop in Monrovia in February of 2004; John, who lives in San Diego, either couldn't or wouldn't make the trip up for the meeting. We hadn't exchanged pictures, but the three of us knew the moment we saw her that she was our sister -- she looks so much like Susan, who looks a lot like our mom. We all hit it off and we've become great friends. Karen has become even better friends with our favorite cousin Alice, who's her same age and, fortunately for Karen, is into genealogy in a big way; she has all kinds of family history and stories, at least on my dad's side.

There are so many questions that can never be answered because Mom and Dad are both gone; Donnie, Mom's best friend and the one person besides Mom who probably knew the whole story, died a year or so before Karen contacted us, so we can't ask her anything, either. Gram, our mom's mother, and Mom's sister-in-law Fran knew nothing of the secret pregnancy and birth; neither did Dad's brother and his wife. One of the big questions we have is if our father knew about Karen's birth. We tend to think not for two reasons. One, we think he absolutely would have married Mom if he'd known she was pregnant -- at the very least, he would not have left her to go it alone on the other side of the country. And two, if he had left her in the lurch, we seriously doubt Mom would have been so quick to marry him when he proposed again seven years later. We think this was Mom's secret alone and that it accounted for her lifelong depression.

We don't see Karen all the time, but we've become quite close. Tomorrow, in fact, Mary and I are meeting her for lunch and an afternoon of visiting quilting stores. If you can't do that sort of thing with a sister, who can you do it with?


~ Lucy said...

I still LOVE that story. I'll never forget when you called and said "I have big news. I have a new sister." I thought your brother had a sex change but the real story was SO much better.

I always say, you only have to scratch the surface to find a remarkable story in every family out there.

Thanks for retilling this one.

kb said...

I remember you telling this story the first time around and it still makes me teary and happy all at the same time to hear it again. Thanks for sharing!

Trooperdog said...

Wow! Now, this is the first time I have heard this story and I'm blown away. What an incredible story! That must have been so strange to find out at in mid-life that you have a long-lost sister. I'm so glad that you have hit it off with her and are close. That is incredibly cool!