When I was a child and learned that some kids were adopted, I did not understand why anyone would want to find their biological parents.
My world was one of fantasy and the happily-ever-after dramas of children’s literature. I’d never heard of genes or DNA. I thought family members were melded together into immutable happy relationships by love — in a way similar to the way a rolling pin flattens and merges cookie dough.
When I was 17, my dad popped into my bedroom one morning an hour before I had to get up for school and asked me if I’d like to go jogging with him. I mumbled the equivalent of, “No way,” and burrowed into my pillow.
Dad bent over, ruffled my short hair and said “You look more and more like Sophia Loren every day.”
Then Jack O’Keefe, 44, went jogging, had a massive heart attack and died.
He left a hole in my spirit and nothing to fill it. My mother, brother and two sisters were devastated.
I did not feel I really knew my father, or maybe missing him was the problem, but for the 39 years since, I have felt a need to learn about my dad’s family.
This summer, I went to the Lake George region in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State and met Frank, my father’s youngest sibling. Except for a hazy memory of him at my father’s funeral 39 years ago, I had never met him.
My dad’s other two brothers and his two sisters were at Dad’s funeral, too — and they are also blurred images I can’t retrieve. They are now dead.
My dad and his siblings were not close. Their mother died when they were young; their father had problems, it was the Great Depression and the siblings were separated and sent to live with relatives when my dad was a child. I grew up thinking that my grandfather’s brother was my grandfather, “Popsi”; his wife, my Nana; and their two children — my father’s two cousins — I believed were my aunt and uncle.
When I was old enough to understand that they were not my grandparents, I still loved them all, but I started to feel a different, guilty, kind of yearning.
Who was my dad and where did he come from?
After 39 years, I got online and found my Uncle Frank
My husband and I made plans to visit my mom on Cape Cod as we do almost every summer, but I looked at the maps and realized we could first drive to New York to meet my uncle if he was willing, spend the night in the area and drive to the Cape the following day.
I waited almost to the last minute to call my uncle. I was so scared. Imagine that — a grown 56-year-old woman scared to make a little phone call to her own uncle. I’d only been thinking about it for decades.
He’s 79 and still working. I called their home, and my Aunt Sandy gave me his office number.
He answered, “Frank O’Keefe.” I told him my name was Karen O’Keefe.
Jokingly (he told me later, since there are many O’Keefe’s in the area), he asked if I was a relative of his.
“Yes,” I said. “I am your niece, the oldest child of your brother Jack.”
I waited, thinking my heart would pound out of my chest.
“What if he did not want to talk to me?” I thought. But what I was feeling was, “What if he doesn’t want me?”
He did want me. He invited us to visit, arranged a hotel room on Lake George for us, entertained us in his house where I met my wonderful Aunt Sandy and my wonderful “real” cousin, Kim, her wonderful husband and their wonderful children.
“My Uncle Frank and Aunt Sandy” — words I had never before spoken — treated us all to a great dinner at a superb restaurant, gave me some family pictures they had copied for me and told me everything he could think of about my other uncles and aunts — as well as the names of all 15 of my cousins.
The whole time I was on the verge of tears. I felt like I was being treated like a long-lost daughter and could not understand why.
Doesn’t matter. My Uncle Frank extended his hand and now there is more peace in me.
Heck, maybe he felt it too. Maybe one day I’ll ask him.
I told him he hadn’t seen the last of me and to expect one day to meet his brother Jack’s other kids too.
In a family where there has been disconnection, miracles of the heart can happen even after 39 years.