The Old Screen Door

         It happened the night that I attempted to pull the screen door open and unexpectedly found it locked. Locked? No one, not ever, locked the doors to the house. There was no need to. You could hear a car coming the moment it turned up the long quarter mile drive because of the crunching of tires on the gravel. I had been hearing that sound since I had moved there when I was seven or eight. I heard that crunching sound in my sleep, in fact. There was always someone home; my Mother, my father, Anna, the housekeeper who took the train from downtown Philadelphia, the other Anna, our Au Pair from Denmark, and Elwood, the farmer who lived in the apartment over the garage. By the time any car arrived at the top of the drive, day or night, there was somebody waiting at the door to see who had come.

Even though it is the back door, it is the first door you come to when you drive up the drive. Strange as it seems, everyone always entered the house “the back way in.” In through the shed, where the fridge, freezer, washer and dryer were; in through the kitchen, where the oven, stove, porcelain sink and the long gray Formica table, across the way and under the window, so you could look out on an ice cold morning, and watch a family of red cardinals dance in the pure white snow, while eating your oatmeal; then into the children’s living room, where the television was, into the dining room with its massive furniture and brightly polished candlesticks and urns and the dining room table I once stabbed three times with a carving knife in a temper; then into the tiny hall of windows where my mother grew pots and pots of violet violets. The big living room comes next, the long living room, the imposing, majestic, magnificent living room with Maasai spears, a Koboko cane whip, crossbows, a boar’s head, a rhino’s foot holding Briggs tobacco for my father’s pipe, an elephant’s foot containing spirits, a vast, red, oriental carpet, a wall, a very long wall, entirely covered floor to ceiling with books from four generations. There is an oversize stone fireplace at the far, far end of the room, the kind you can walk into and stand up in, if you are so inclined. Its mantelpiece is covered with ancient Hopi Kachina dolls, Maasai figures lovingly carved in Kenya, where my parents lived and worked for several years, and a framed painting of a majestic peregrine falcon hangs on the wall looking down over all that.

There are two overstuffed chairs on either side of the fireplace. My father’s shiny and dimpled brass lamp, that had been his father’s, sits on a table near his chair, and my mother’s standing lamp with its pockmarked shade, once her mother’s, looms over her chair. Each chair has a camel saddle from Cairo in front of it for outstretched feet. There is a massive, deep couch, my great Aunt Jule’s, with pillows, and a long table made from a trunk of an ancient tree. Lastly, but never finally in that room so full of things, at the far end is an entry hall full of other relics—the actual entry for the real front door, the front door that no one uses because it is in the back of the house. The wall here is coved with my grandfather’s naval medals and honors and three very large swords. Locked in the closet in the hallway, not to be seen, hidden behind coats and other hanging things, are the magic tricks my father inherited from many magicians passed on, which he had used in the circus when he was little more then a boy. That locked cabinet of magic tricks also contains all the swords he swallowed.

I stood dumbfounded staring at the old green chipped door that had been slamming behind me for decades. Then I reached for the rusty handle and pulled at it again. Still locked. It was night. The middle of the night when the sky is dark and every star in it is perfectly visible. My eyes cautiously searched around as I stood silently with my hand still frozen on the familiar handle. I heard the wind blowing through the giant maple that stood between the house and the barn behind me.

All of the lights in the old stone house were out, upstairs and down, to the left, to the right. That was not strange however. That was the way it was meant to be. I heard the familiar humming of the old fridge on the other side of the screen door and the wood door behind that. I heard the ticking of my parent’s clock coming from the open window of their bedroom across to the right where the house came around. I heard the pounding of my heart. Something wasn’t right. I knew this because of what I didn’t hear, which was anyone, not a single soul, on the other side of the old screen door.

         Everyone was gone. The door was locked because everyone was gone now. Over the years, each had died in their time. But then, I had lived in a house where death had been taught to me since childhood. Now I was here to gather and box the remnants of that childhood and take it away. Who had locked me out?

Mothers of Mine

This is how I remember it all… (But memories are mischievous things. The winds of time have a way of upsetting them, twisting and warping them, distorting and contorting them. And in some cases, changing them entirely. So, what I remember, may not, I
regret, be true.)

We are playing on the great, green lawn in front of Grandmother Rose’s home. I am four and have no fear. We are running in circles, around and around. We are having so much fun. Out of breath, I want to stop for a moment. But before I have a chance, her claw, her dewclaw— an additional claw used to trip and catch fleeing prey, typically gazelles on the wide plains of Africa—inadvertently flies out and catches my arm. I hear the long rip as I fall, in slow motion, to the ground.
Japanese John—as he was called then—who is hanging the wash nearby, stops what he is doing. Scuffling over in his slippered feet—they had been badly burned during the First World War—he kneels beside me. Rani, our baby cheetah, owner of the dewclaw, begins to lick my wound, an instinctive response surely, as saliva promotes blood clotting and defends against infection. “Mmm,” old, wrinkled John whispers. “Mmm.” He nods. “You good. You okay.” John’s few words—John knows very little English even though he has been working for
my grandmother for decades—serve to keep me at peace. I don’t feel pain. I don’t feel frightened. It isn’t until Grandmother Rose comes rocketing out of the house, her long, red hair wild and streaming out from its usually-neat knot on top of her head, her blue eyes on fire, that any of these ideas begin to occur to me.

I, of course, still have the scar today, many years later. Therefore, I know this memory to be true. It begins above the inner fleshy part of the elbow of my left arm, and goes up a good five inches. It’s wide, white, and jagged.

As you can see, I had a lot of mothers growing up. I had, of course, our cheetah, who mothered me quite well, and possibly saved my life immediately after almost taking it. I had Japanese John, whose gentle composure contrived to keep me more reasonable than I might have been had I grown up without him. I had my Grandmother Rose, the first woman to receive a speeding ticket in the United States, on a ride through Fairmont Park—an inspiration that speaks for itself. I also had the nuns, called Mothers, at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, where I boarded for many years. They wrapped me securely in their black-habited arms when I needed to be contained, and sang hymns to me with sweet, angelic voices. My mother, Jule Junker Mannix, who actually gave birth to me, was possibly the most influential mother in my life because, due to work, she traveled around the world a lot. I, too, have a travel bug within me that takes me far and wide as often as I can get away with it.

I know what I remember may not be true. But, truth be told, my life is a magnificent, crazy and wild ride. So anything I remember that makes me feel a burst of ecstasy has to be seized and cherished. For I am, after all, the product of some very brilliant, if unorthodox, mothers.

 -Julie

Right Before His Eyes

It’s my husband’s birthday today. November 3rd. Our family— minus the Florida part, unfortunately—  is gathering at his favorite restaurant, Il Piccolino, in West Hollywood, for the celebration. Tomorrow, he will board a train at Union Station in VSOEinstationdowntown LA, and head to New York City— a trip that will take three days. He is a very happy man.

It’s a simple train. Nothing fancy at all. Just the necessities really, and he will have his magazines, newspapers, books, and his music (always LauraPausini). He has loved trains his entire life, and he’s been on many trips around the world. Canada, India, and Australia, to name a few. But his favorite train trip, I think, was on the 734923_319646971470521_1252637956_nOrient Express, which started in London and ended in Venice two days later. A short trip, yes, but one that took his and my breath away. (So much so, in fact, that he conceived of and filmed Romance on the Orient Express, inspired by it. It starred Cheryl Ladd, Julian Sands and John Gielgud.)

The Venice Simplon-Orient Express is the world’s most authentic, timeless train. Its 1920s Art Deco cars each glisten with luxury and come at a price of $3,120 a person. But, thank God, this includes the best of champagne, drinks and meals. The day Frank and I boarded the gleaming train that departed from London Victoria station on platform 2, the weather was crisp lonvenmand clear. We had seen so many photographs and read so many articles about the Orient Express, that the prospect of having a very unique experience was swelling large in our souls. We held our breaths as we were helped up the stairs of our first-of-two trains, the one that would take us to the English coast. Our seats on this train were royal-blue velvet, headrests covered in linen towels. We had hardly gotten adjusted to our splendid surroundings and were flying through Kent, when we were invited into the dining room for a lovely brunch on the way to the White Cliffs of Dover and the English Channel.

Once in France, (after, I must say, a horrendous trip on a ferry, not recommended after a meal) we boarded an exquisite royal-blue train at the Gare de l’Est in Paris. Assisted by uniformed and white-gloved attendants, we were shown to our Lalique Beynac-Upper-Villageglass- and wood-paneled room, where a rose-colored velvet couch, chairs, draperies to match, and a vase of blossoms welcomed us into its luxurious arms. As we traveled through overwhelming, picturesque stretches of France, we rested a bit, and then washed up in our small, but well-appointed salle de bain. After a visit from our butler to ask if we needed anything and to remind us that dinner was soon to be served, Frank donned his black tie and dinner jacket and I, my black lace floor-length dress. Soon, we were rocking and rolling—gracefully of course—down the carpeted corridors into the bar car.

NOT the actual Lady in Red...
NOT the actual Lady in Red…

In its wall-chandelier-splendor, it was one of the most magnificent rooms I was ever to behold, complete with a pianist playing music from years ago. Sipping champagne served to us in gleaming cut-glass crystal glasses, we reservedly chatted with other guests nearby. There was a duchess and duke; another couple, royalty from Scandinavia they suggested; and a Lady in Red— that’s what we call her even today. And there were three eighty-some-year-old gentleman train enthusiasts from Texas, who had ridden on every train in the world. After another glass of Dom Perignon, we all timidly brought out our cameras and took pictures for each other. After that we became old friends. Some time later, in a lavishly decorated dining room, we were served a feast, each of the four courses exhibiting culinary skill of great proportions, summoned up in a minuscule galley kitchen.

29E681E100000578-0-image-a-27_1435328416088That night we hardly slept at all, not wanting to miss a thing. Raising the blinds every so often to reveal towns and villages, mountains and lakes and fields of growing things, all lit by dazzling stars and the moon, we finally just left it up and stared out, spellbound.

italy-29634609-1366363719-ImageGalleryLightboxBreakfast, with two of the three men from Texas, found us weaving along contours of stone castles and church towers, finally reaching Vorarlberg, which divided Tyrol by the six-mile Arlberg Road Tunnel. Lunch (with the duchess and duke) was served as the train draped down from a highpoint on the border with Italy, and through clusters of villages abundant with orchards and vineyards. Afternoon tea, (the lady in red was nowhere to be seen, and a lovely gray-haired couple from Jaipur, India asked to join us) was offered, as the train passed by the last major city we would see, Padua,the oldest city in northern Italy, and where my favorite saint, St. Anthony was born.

Venice Grand Canal from Hotel Ca' Sagredo

When the train arrived in Venice we walked out of Santa Lucia terminal, and suddenly found ourselves on the exquisite banks of the Grand Canal. Our feet on solid, firm, motionless ground once again, the past two days seemed dreamlike, pretend, and 10930864_10205521118498060_4253128777442041264_nunreal… until the lady in red whisked by us, trailed by a man with a cart of suitcases, and disappeared out of sight.

As I said, it is my husband’s birthday today. He has traveled many places in this world, by ship, by car and by plane. Sometimes he travels with me and sometimes he travels alone. But his very favorite way to get from one place to another is by train. It’s that sense of being somewhere one minute and somewhere else a moment later that excites him. Seeing it all laid out right before his eyes. He likes to slow down and reflect now and then. And glimpse the view unhurriedly as it goes by.

Again and Again

We’re working on a second book — about which we can’t reveal too much yet — except to say we’ve been conducting many, many interviews for it. We interview adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents alike, and are constantly stunned and deeply touched by the stories people choose to share with us.

One of the themes that has emerged is that many young adoptees who felt rejected by their birth families harbored a great fear of being rejected by the adoptive family, as well, no matter how loved they may have been.

One adoptee in particular, James, told us about one of his birthdays when he was a young boy growing up in a house of four other adopted children. His account so moved us, we asked for his permission to share it with you all.

I can still remember the night before I turned ten. I was restless and my legs wouldn’t stay still. My mind was running in circles, too, and I couldn’t sleep so I turned on the light next to my bed, reached for my sketchbook and pencil, and began to draw. I still have the drawing I did that night. It’s somewhere in a box of things my mother saved. Anyway, it was a picture of me, my two sisters and two brothers. I was standing in the middle, wearing a birthday crown. Around my neck was a string from which hung a sign. FOR SALE TO ANYONE WHO WANTS ME, it read.

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When I was finished, I turned off my lamp. I remember that for some reason I felt better and was able to go to sleep after that. The next morning when I woke up, I noticed  wet streaks across the drawing. And I couldn’t remember crying. That’s when I saw the note next to the picture. In my mother’s careful handwriting, this is what it said:

IF YOU ARE FOR SALE, I’LL BUY YOU. AND EACH TIME YOU ARE FOR SALE, I’LL BUY YOU AGAIN AND AGAIN. 

For My Mother

Mother and Daughter
Mother and Daughter

It is late morning

We sit together

At the white marbled table

In your chic NYC 17th floor apartment

*

We discuss our manuscript

*

The subject changes

To the occasion of our dinner

The night before

The dinner at Trattoria Dell’arte

Where you met

for the very first time

“My Family”

*

We laugh

We smile

We are glad for the experience

*

“It’s time for me to leave,” I say

Go home

Home to Florida

*

You take my hand

Your countenance changes

Your eyes reshape

A seriousness

A tear

Which you hold back

*

“I have thought of you as mine,” you say

“After meeting them,” you pause

“I realize you’re not”

*

Silence

*

Irony

*

In your pain

I feel

loved

wanted

needed

treasured

*

And then I realize

This is the bond

Between

us

This is the bond

Between

Every mother and child

*

A bond formed

by

Sacrificing

So

That child may feel

*

Loved

Wanted

Needed

Treasured

*

In this moment

I see it

I feel it

I live it

*

In this moment

I know

*

I am yours

I’ve always been yours

I will always be yours

All my love,

Kathy

Motherhood and Miracles

I always wanted to be a mother. Ever since my first doll was put into my arms, I never played dolls for some strange reason. I played mother instead. I changed diapers on a small wooden dresser, gave all my babies baths in the sink, standing on an old wooden stool, and put them to sleep all around my room under blankets my grandmother crocheted for me. I set a small table with linen from my grandmother’s cabinet, put leaves and flowers into tiny vases and set out a real miniature blue and white china tea set. My babies sat around it on pillows collected from all over the house.  Every day, I took my babies for a stroll up and down the sidewalk in a navy-blue carriage, making certain they were all tucked in safely. Most times, there were at least half a dozen of them, each sent to me by my parents from a different country on my birthday or Christmas or other holidays. I had lots of baby clothes made by my grandmother, that I kept in a box under my bed. Since all my dolls were about the same 14782844084_c299a5c302_osize, what one wore on a certain day could easily be put on another, the day after.

I was a very busy mother. There was always something to do. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. As a mother, my days were long and full.  At age five, when I went off to a convent boarding school, I packed all my babies to take with me. “Girls big enough to go to school don’t need dolls,” the Mother Superior told me, as she reached to take my basket of babies away. I looked at her, astonished “You can’t do that!” I told her in no uncertain terms. “I am their mother. They need me. Who will take care of them if I don’t?” Without a word, the white-faced woman in the long black habit snatched my basket of babies away. When I tried to grab them back she held them high over my head. I tried to jump up to get them, but my attempts to regain my status as Mother was thwarted when she turned her rigid back on me and walked away.

I will always remember the sound of the long rosary beads at her waist swinging briskly as she disappeared out of sight. I would never see my babies again. Since I was the youngest of the boarders it was arranged that I would go to bed ahead of the others. “Your dolls will be sent to starving-orphans-in-China,” I was told that night by one of the younger nuns, as I cried myself to sleep in the unfamiliar white metal bed, one of twenty in a long, narrow hallway-room. I ached for my babies and I knew that they ached for me. Never, I promised, would such a thing ever happen to me again. As long as I lived no one would ever take my motherhood away from me again.

But they did. When I was eighteen the same thing did happen again. But it was one baby. A daughter. And she was real. She would not be sent to starving-orphans-in-China, however. Instead, she would be adopted by a family who would nourish and love her very much. Unbeknownst to her, as she grew up, she would have two mothers: the mother who would kiss her sweet, pink baby cheeks and sing her to sleep at night; and the other mother, me, her birth mother, who would yearn for her and love her, too.

Today, fifty years later, I am happy to share my daughter’s love with another mother. And happier still that she grew up so treasured. It is a miracle that she found me, that we have come to love one another and that we were able to write Secret Storms together. My cup truly does runneth over.

To all of you mothers out there in the world, I send you my deepest congratulations on this Mother’s Day. Creating life is a miracle. Nurturing life is a miracle. Love is a miracle. I believe that tomorrow is a miracle, too.

-Julie

The Best Review We’ve Ever Received!

Good morning, Kathy,
As a junior reading block teacher, I constantly search for books to appeal to the demographics of my classes.  One boy, Tyron, has told me for two years that he doesn’t like to read. At first, he read the Bluford series for his daily independent reading, but as a junior I wanted him to broaden his horizons.
He saw one of my copies of your book, Secret Storms, and I gave him a brief synopsis of your fascinating story. In three days, he has read nearly half the book, and he reads during any spare moment he has in the class!
Thank you, for writing such an engaging, informative book. Thank you, for providing a wonderful catalyst to engage this student with a higher quality of reading material.

Michele Parent

English/Reader Teacher
Brevard Public Schools

…the invisible line pulled taut…

287759_3732717509143_1043569453_o_FotorMy husband, Bryan, is the president of the Backcountry Fly Fishing Association of Brevard. He writes a “President’s Message” for their monthly newsletter, The Backcast. Below is this month’s message. I simply had to share it with you.

-Kathy

Presidents Message (by Bryan Hatfield)

Last week, my wife and I booked a fishing trip to Pine Point Lodge, a remote fishing resort on the Minnesota/Canadian border. No roads, no cell phones, no emails to return– just a week of Smallmouth Bass on a popper, and if I’m lucky a tango with a 40” Pike or even a 50” Muskie. July can’t come soon enough!

Yesterday, my youngest daughter Kathryn called; she’s a Writing, Editing, and Media major at Florida State University.

“Dad, I’ve decided to take the summer semester off, so I’ll be home for the months of June and July,” she said.

“Perfect,” I responded, “you can join your mother and me in Minnesota! I’ll get your rods ready.”

Her response: crickets– and I’m not talking bait; her silence said she wasn’t interested, but her good manners said, “Okay, Dad, thanks.”

An hour ago, I received this email from Kathryn:

“Dear Dad,

I came across this poem about a year ago. Just wanted to share.

Love, Kathryn”

Fishing
by
A. E. Stallings

The two of them stood in the middle water,
The current slipping away, quick and cold,
The sun slow at his zenith, sweating gold,
Once, in some sullen summer of father and daughter. Maybe he regretted he had brought her—

She’d rather have been elsewhere, her look told— Perhaps a year ago, but now too old.
Still, she remembered lessons he had taught her: To cast towards shadows, where the sunlight fails And fishes shelter in the undergrowth.

And when the unseen strikes, how all else pales Beside the bright-dark struggle, the rainbow wroth, Life and death weighed in the shining scales,
The invisible line pulled taut that links them both.

Source: Poetry (July 1998) 

Finding My Place in My Family: Part III

Read Part I, Part II

Yes, there was a shadow between us, between my husband and me.  It separated us for many years. It was not a shadow that could be lain down upon or even reached for, although we did try. The shadow was that of a baby, our baby. The baby I was forced to give up for adoption before we were married. Her birth date is engraved in my gold and emerald wedding ring. An emerald, they say, is divine. It is thought to possess phenomenal powers of healing, luck and love. I’d named her Aimee. I only saw her once. She was perfect in every way, ten perfect fingers and ten perfect toes. She looked at me from five feet away when I told her I loved her and wished her a good life. When I turned and left, there was a tear in my heart that I knew would never mend. 

Julie, Frank, and the emerald ring.
Julie, Frank, and the emerald ring.

It’s said that it is not until a mother actually gives up her child for adoption that she experiences the five stages of grief. According to Wikipedia:

Denial: The overwhelming nature of the mother’s emotions allow her to feel numb to the situation. Essentially, reality has not set in.

Anger: This emotion is a manifestation of reality, the understanding of how devastating an impact the mother’s decision has made on her and her understandable vulnerability. This may cause the mother to lash out to those closest to her or on herself.

Bargaining: The mother begins to rethink the decision she has made. She feels the need to regain control of her emotional state by attempting to bargain with a religious or psychological figure to rid her of her sense of guilt.

Depression: This is a more secretive emotional state, where the mother feels alone. She feels that she is the only one who knows what she is going through, and feels it is best to vent and reflect by herself.

Acceptance: There is no real timetable as to when or if a mother will ever be able to accept her decision, but at this stage she begins to feel at peace with her decision…The eventual acceptance of the loss of her child does not mean that a birth mother has forgotten the child, but instead means that she has integrated the loss into her life.

Although I did eventually begin to integrate the loss of my little Aimee into my life, I did struggle with great depression and guilt. Eventually I went to a therapist with whom I shared my extreme melancholy. But because my growing-up years had been so complicated and unstable, I came to think that my depression and despair were a result of the instability, and not about giving up Aimee. I had, I thought, dealt with her loss in my life.

For many years I was very, very happy and very, very sad. When I rose each morning, I never knew which I would be. I was IMG_8244afraid to open my eyes when the sun came up. Under the covers of my bed, my eyes still closed, I would listen to the sounds around me. The stirring of my husband as he got up and went to shower and shave; the movements of my two other children, a daughter and a son, whom I had given birth to after Aimee, and who gave me such joy. “Dear God,” I would pray, “let this day be free of despair so I can be a good wife and mother. Let me be a part of the light in their life.” But the decision of how I would be when I opened my eyes never seemed to be mine. It never appeared to be a choice I was able to make, no matter how hard I tried. It felt that the verdict of how I would feel that day was solely a throw of the dice. It was never anything I had control over.

I could sense immediately, if the day would be up or down for me, the second my feet hit the floor. Sometimes there would be a surge of such bliss that I would have to hold onto the bed to keep steady. My body would, it felt, take on a radiance and glow. My brain would whiz with delight and my heart would overflow with passion and the desire to be the best I could be that day. Other times though, I would rise with a gush of agony pouring through me that was so sharp and intense that I would have to catch my breath hard and hold it for as long as I could. I dreaded these days. I was so afraid of these days that some nights I didn’t sleep. I was so fearful of these days that I prayed sometimes never to wake up at all. When those days came, the first thing I would do was to step into the shower my husband had vacated, let the ice-cold water run over me until the pain was anesthetized out of me, and, for a while, was hidden.

No one knew. If you asked my husband, my children now, today, to look back at those days, far, far ago, they would most probably—at least I hope that they would— say that they never really knew. They had lives that they were living and I got so skilled at hiding my ecstasies, my suffering, that sometimes even I didn’t recognize them after a while. 

As years passed and life went on, I learned to wrap myself in a protective shadow, but I always turned my face to the sun. I knew someday—maybe it was a fantasy, maybe an instinct, I don’t know— that a time would come, when the daughter that I had been forced to give up, would somehow be mine to see again. I never gave up hope. I always knew.

IMG_8243
Kathy, who was once Aimee.

And I was right.

-Julie

Adoption Reunions: Another Perspective

We’re so pleased to have Tom Bateman as our guest blogger today. Tom, besides being Kathy’s cousin, is a 1983 graduate of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, the Choral Director of New Hope-Solebury High School and Middle School and the Organist and Choir Director of Saint Martin of Tours in New Hope, PA. Here’s his experience of our reunion. 

-Julie and Kathy

Wisler gathering 1979
Wisler Family gathering, 1979

From the time I was a little boy, I knew I had a very large extended family.  My grandparents had five of six children survive to adulthood, and they were all prolific when it came to increasing the family numbers. When all was said and done there were 28 grandchildren, and for a spell there were 30.  Each of the five families had as few as three and as many as seven children.  As a result, I had 21 first cousins on my mother’s side. 

All of my cousins were fantastic, but Kathy and her two brothers were extra special because they lived 1,000 miles away in Florida. Each summer they would head north to Philadelphia for a lengthy visit, and we were beyond thrilled. In fact, our summers together top some of my fondest childhood memories. 

When we eventually learned Kathy and her brothers were adopted, it meant little to us;  they were our cousins, tried and tested through years of camaraderie and closeness.  Although the news intrigued my siblings and me, it didn’t change the way we felt about them.  They were family, and nothing could change that — not even genetics (or lack thereof). 

IMG_6658
Tom’s siblings and Kathy’s siblings. (Kathy all in white.)

Over the years, we not only celebrated the big events, such as weddings, birthdays, graduations, and reunions, but we also relished in the more commonplace exchanges, such as letters, phone calls, and shared spring breaks. We were cousins, yes – but on many occasions, our relationship has felt like that of siblings. And like any other family, our lives were not just filled with joyous events; we also experienced great loss.  Ours seemed to happen all in the span of one decade.

The 1990s took away our Wisler grandparents, two aunts, and three uncles (one of which was my father, and another was Kathy’s father). In addition, we lost many great aunts and uncles with whom we were equally close. It was a painful time, and often there was no time to grieve one family member passing before we faced the news of another loved one’s terminal diagnosis. We were beaten down, but we faced life and death together, as a family, and knew that the ones who had left us would have encouraged us to go on with the same spirit and zest for life that they bestowed upon us when we were children.

In 2008, when Kathy first shared with me the news of her possible connection to her birth family, I was thrilled for her.  I encouraged her to follow her heart and to not be afraid— no matter the outcome.  My deep fondness for her and desire for her happiness was key in the way I advised her, but I admit that I had tremendous fear that in some way a reunion could diminish the closeness we shared all our lives.  However, in this case, I knew I had to put my fears aside and encourage her to move forward with her quest.

The night Kathy first spoke to Julie and Frank on the phone, she called me to share her news. And I– her impulsive and protective cousin– decided to send a letter to her mother exalting Kathy’s qualities and expressing my joy that they had found each other. I emphasize impulsive because it mortified Kathy and probably scared Julie to death!  Here they were, after decades of wondering, trying to decide how to proceed, and this dolt (me) intercedes to throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings!

IMG_6657
Kathy and her daughters, Kathryn and Amanda, with their uncle Tom.

However, in the long run, I believe that all parties involved realized what I had were all good intentions. 

As for my fears– they were unwarranted.  I have met most of Kathy’s birth family and adore them. I admire what they do for their existence, for I, too, am in the fine arts.  I fondly remember her sister Danielle and I coaching my niece on a paper she had to do on Benjamin Britten. I cherished when Kathy’s parents not only came to my hometown where they had rekindled their forbidden love, but also stopped to have dinner with my family and to visit my home. 

When I met Kathy’s birth family, the von Zernecks, what I discovered was a family, much like my own, that loved one another unconditionally and that there was nothing more important in life than that. If Kathy and the Von Zernecks are living happily ever after, so too, are the Wislers. I look forward to when I will see the von Zernecks again, and I know that there are still many Wisler relatives who look forward to meeting Kathy’s family.  Throughout this whole reunion process, all of our lives have been enriched– and blessed.  For this I am most grateful. 

I think the big questions have been answered: 

Was Kathy loved and cared for?  – Yes! 

Do the von Zernecks care for Kathy as much as we? – Yes!   

Divine intervention, in my opinion, is the catalyst for this newfound family relationship.  I think this whole reunion took place because those we have lost, including the Mannix family and Wisler family, have sent their blessings from their resting places.  I cannot ask for more.

-Tom Bateman