Family Secrets

It’s 1961, and my wife Cathy, nearly four years old at the time, is sitting with her great-aunt Tom on a stone bench alongside a brick building on Fulton Avenue in Evansville, Indiana. They’re sitting in the shade watching a rabbit hop about and nibble at grass blades. Her grandfather and grandmother have told her that she can’t go inside the building with them and her mother. Years later, she’ll remember the building, Aunt Tom, the stone bench, and the rabbit. She’ll remember her grandparents coming out of the building without her mother. “We left Mother there,” she’ll tell me. She’ll remember that and a feeling she won’t be able to put words to until much later. Somehow, by a child’s instinct, she knows, as she watches the rabbit, as she sits with Aunt Tom, this is a place where women come to give up their babies.

All her life, Cathy has wondered about the baby she feels certain her mother gave up for adoption via the Vanderburgh County Christian Home just as she’s wondered about her birth father. Once, when Cathy was fifty years old, she told her mother she thought it was high time she knew her father’s identity. Her mother gave her a name that turned out to be a lie, a lie her mother told to protect the secret she thought she’d buried for good. She’d had an affair with a married man, an interracial relationship, no less. I can only imagine how taboo that must have been in our small-town in southeastern Illinois in the 1950s. But the heart wants what it wants. And Cathy, trusting her mother had told her the truth about her birth father, still wanted to know about that place on Fulton Avenue and her nagging belief that her mother had given up a baby. “Am I your only child?” Cathy asked, and her mother assured her she was.

Those of us who write memoir are well aware of the secrets families try to keep. We know the subjects rarely discussed. We know the cryptic references to stories we aren’t meant to tell. We know the feeling of shame even if we don’t fully know why that feeling creeps over us from time to time. We know the family photographs, posed and composed, and the stories they aren’t telling. We know, finally, the power the written word has over the attempt to silence us.

It wasn’t until recently that Cathy came to know that her mother was lying when she gave her the name of a man she claimed to be Cathy’s birth father. Thanks to DNA matches on Ancestry.com and 23andMe, Cathy now knows the truth about her birth father, and she knows her instincts were correct in 1961. She knows her mother gave up three daughters, two of which are Cathy’s full sisters in addition to one half-sister who lives in California. Cathy, the oldest, was the daughter her mother kept.

Cathy also found out her birth father had five children with his wife. But this isn’t a story about sins and compromises and whatever demons those involved had to confront. No, this is a story about three sisters who for so long didn’t know the others existed. First, eleven years ago, a woman in Chicago sent Cathy a message: “I think you may be my sister.” Then last November, a DNA match led Cathy to send the same message to a woman in Evansville. This is a story of three babies and how those who conspired to keep them from knowing one another failed to keep them apart.

Through all the years, Cathy could never forget the child she felt sure her mother gave up for adoption in Evansville. “She was just a baby,” she said, “and we left her behind.”

This past weekend, Cathy’s sister from Chicago came down to southeastern Illinois, where Cathy still maintains her mother’s home, and on a brutally hot Saturday, I waited with them outside a restaurant, for their other sister to arrive. It would be the first time they’d all be together in the same place.

“I just want to hug her,” Cathy said of the newly found sister. “I just want to know she’s real.”

It brings tears to my eyes to type that sentence because I know how long Cathy has waited for this day. And then there she is, the sister she somehow knew her mother left behind at that building on Fulton Avenue, and the three sisters are embracing, and the tears are flowing. I’m videoing the moment, and I have a lump in my throat and tears in my own eyes. I’m thinking about how long they’ve been apart and the incredible odds they’ve beaten to finally be together.

I’m thinking about their mother and father and how they must have had to keep their feelings for each other hidden until the strain became too much and they finally went their separate ways. I’m thinking about how the love they must have felt is now on display in the sight of these three women, now in their sixties, holding onto one another.

“I’ve spent over sixty years waiting for this day,” Cathy says.

Later that afternoon, Cathy’s half brother and his lovely wife join the group, as does Cathy’s daughter and her husband. The newly found sister’s partner is on hand, and I am, too, and it’s a wonder to behold, the way people can come together, as we do at the end of the afternoon, all of us holding hands as the half-brother gives thanks for this new beginning. “Life is short,” he says, “but family is strong.”

Secrets don’t last forever. Those of us who write memoir can tell you that. We resist the lies. We write our way to the truth because we know that truth frees us. In the case of Cathy and her sisters and her half-brother, they all refused to be controlled by the past and the choices of others to find their way to this glorious day where they stand, hand in hand, and they invite us all into their circle, this circle of love.

 

 

28 Comments

  1. Denyse on July 25, 2022 at 9:59 am

    And there is no one better than to relay the story than you Lee. I sit here with a lump in my throat just reading this!
    Denyse

  2. Vicky Young on July 25, 2022 at 10:51 am

    There are many stories like this. Thank you for sharing. In 2019, we found/were found through DNA by cousins. One man in his 70s tracked us down and we tried piecing together the tale. He found multiple half-siblings from his father’s side. One tragedically died, hit by a truck, a few days after the sib meeting. Like Cathy, another newly found cousin, was kept by his mother, while a sister was given up for adoption. Five sibs on the father’s side met each other. But they don’t tell the rest of the first cousins (28 of us – I’m the oldest). Shame? Confusion? Disappointment? Some of the hard feelings of the “whys” are rooted in the bone marrow. So a small circle of us, extended but excluding family, including my 91 year old mother, talk, visit, share photos, and try to understand those difficult decisions. May we find peace.

    • Lee Martin on July 26, 2022 at 9:59 am

      Thank you for sharing your story, Vicky.

  3. Tina DeMarco on July 25, 2022 at 12:12 pm

    Such a wonderful story. I’m so happy for Cathy and her now complete family.

  4. Pam lynn on July 25, 2022 at 12:28 pm

    Lee your ability to convey these events are compelling. My best to your lovely wife.

  5. Kathleen Cadmus on July 25, 2022 at 1:13 pm

    “Secrets don’t last forever.” This is so beautiful. I see courage mixed in with all that love. Thanks, Cathy, for sharing your story. Lee tells it best.

    • Lee Martin on July 26, 2022 at 9:58 am

      Thanks, Kathy. I’ll pass your kind words along to my Cathy.

  6. Carolyn Franks on July 25, 2022 at 2:31 pm

    So happy you all found one another! ♥️♥️♥️♥️

  7. Evelyn C Krieger on July 25, 2022 at 2:35 pm

    Complicated situations lead to complicated decisions–each player a product of their time and circumstance. Thank you for sharing this happy-ending.

    • Lee Martin on July 26, 2022 at 9:57 am

      Evelyn, you’re so right about the fact that we’re all products of our times and circumstances and our own choices.

      • Carol on July 28, 2022 at 12:07 pm

        Made my heart ache. So much pain for her mother. To love another for so long. Love that can never be acknowledged. Never to walk the boulevard.

        Secrets sting.

        Brave Cathy. Wonderful reunion.

        • Lee Martin on July 28, 2022 at 12:15 pm

          Carol, more details emerge day by day. Cathy just heard from a woman whose mother worked with Cathy’s birth father. She said he carried a picture of Cathy’s mother in his wallet. Obviously this was much more than a fling, and yet, circumstances as they were, they were never able to have a life forever. Thanks so much for your comment.

  8. George Singleton on July 25, 2022 at 5:06 pm

    Wow. Thanks, Lee, and congratulations, CAthy.

    • Lee Martin on July 26, 2022 at 9:56 am

      Thanks for taking the time to read this post, George. I’ll pass your congratulations on to Cathy.

  9. Donna Moan on July 25, 2022 at 9:34 pm

    Oh Cathy I’m so happy for you that you’ve finally got to meet your siblings. Thank you Lee for sharing.

    • Lee Martin on July 26, 2022 at 9:56 am

      Thank you for your good wishes, Donna!

  10. Debbie Hagan on July 28, 2022 at 7:46 am

    In your kind and gentle way, you really know how to turn on the waterworks. What a lovely story, and I’m so happy that Cathy has been reunited with her family. There’s nothing like siblings. “Life is short, but family is strong.” So true.

    • Lee Martin on July 28, 2022 at 11:28 am

      It was a very emotional day and one Cathy had hoped would come ever since she was five years old. Thanks so much for your comment.

  11. Sue Ellen Tillmann on July 31, 2022 at 1:54 pm

    I am so glad that Cathy got a chance to find her family and I am even more glad that she got to share it with both you and her daughter. I can’t imagine how tough it would be to not know who and where your siblings might be. Here’s hoping she has many years of shared love and catchup time with her new found family. God bless all of you!!!

    • Lee Martin on August 1, 2022 at 11:04 am

      Thank you, Sue. It was a day filled with many emotions.

  12. Julie Mieure Astrike on July 31, 2022 at 2:31 pm

    I’m so glad Cathy was able to connect with her family.

    • Lee Martin on August 1, 2022 at 11:04 am

      It’s a very complicated thing to discover family. It’s full of joy and also sadness over all the missed years. Thanks for your comment, Julie.

  13. Carol Nestleroad Arnold on August 3, 2022 at 8:12 am

    Having known Cathy most of my life, I was flabbergasted to read this. I am so happy that the sisters have found each other. What a beautiful ending to this story!

    • Lee Martin on August 3, 2022 at 11:02 am

      It’s quite the story, Carol. Thanks for taking the time to leave this comment.

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