Last July we took a journey, an adventure into the unknown to find my husband’s birth parents. At Thanksgiving we found his mom, a story you can read on my blog, “Is my Mama a Llama?”
This year, it was time to meet dad. I have one sister and a husband who grew up an only child. So, I had settled into the fact that I would never have sister-in-laws. It was on my wish list of things that included, being skinny and buying a vacation home in the Bahamas, but hey, you can’t have everything, right?
So you can imagine how I felt when I found out I had 6 sister-in-laws in the MidWest: A part of the country we had never visited, only seen on TV. There names are: Jenny, Katie, Tamara, Carolyn, Jenny and Katie. And while it looks as though I’ve repeated myself, it’s true, I have 6 sister-in-laws, of which 4 are Jenny and Katie.
If that’s not a enough to peak your interest . . .
While this story is not about me, all I can say, is that I’m glad I’m on this wild ride.
My husband is one of those guys who people say: whatever he touches turns to gold. Things just seem to work out for him. We’ve been blessed with good business pursuits, great family and fun adventures. So last year, we began a different sort of journey, to go out and find his birth dad. While he grew up in a great home and had a wonderful childhood with no regrets, after the arrival of our 4th child Ava, John quietly decided he wanted to see who he looked like in this world; perhaps the grandkids would like to know their grandfather, one day.
The journey began with a phone call to Catholic Charities in Arizona, where the adoption took place. Once the nuns got a hold of John’s case, they treated him like their own child, calling him everyday with new information, sending him emails and writing letters. They took on this project, as if he was one of their own, and for a time, many years ago, he was. He lived with them for several months while the adoption process took place and they just ate him up.
Now it was their turn to give back and they were on a mission to help find his dad. With the help of a private investigator, the entire team worked day and night, and just like lyrics being written for a song and the notes being fine tuned by a symphony, both the investigator and the nuns came together within a day of each other to announce: They had found his parents.
Heart palpitations didn’t begin to describe the excitement, the nervous energy in the room. So, a few weeks before Christmas, we sent his dad one of those “Christmas Card Pictures” of the Family, very non-chaulant, in case his family didn’t know about him. And it turns out . . . they didn’t.
It said: “Hi Jeff, Merry Christmas! This is Terry’s son. Not sure if you remember me, but I’d love to get together with you sometime, when we’re in town. Love, John. We were sure that would peek his interest, and keep the secret a secret, if he chose not to pursue the offer.
We waited to hear back and of course, one day felt like a week and week felt like a month. Wait, it was a month! Then, a few days after Christmas, we got the Big Phone Call. I saw his name on Caller ID, took a deep breath and in my Good Ole Southern Accent, I answered: “Hi Jeff, we were waiting for your call.” A jolly laugh came across the phone, and from that moment on, I knew our life would change for the better. ‘Im sure he was just as nervous as we were. John was out of town, so I was lucky enough to receive the first call. We talked for an hour. I assured him immediately, that John did not have a Southern accent like me. Which was probably a relief for everyone. He was a teddy bear on the phone, a laid back, humble guy with a good heart and even greater zest for life.
He called John in NY, later that evening: Reasons for the adoption were discussed, but John didn’t care. He never really cared about any of that. From the day his dad began calling, they were inseparable. His dad called him every evening for weeks, asking questions, getting to know John. They exchanged stories, letters, pictures and anticipated each other’s phone calls nightly. He asked John every question in the book, wanting to make up for lost time.
What sports did you play in school? What was it like growing up in an adopted home? Were you happy . . . Who were your friends . . . Where did you go to college . . . and the list continued on. Every night, the phone would ring and the two would talk for hours, getting to know each other. I don’t think I’ve ever heard John say that many words in his whole life, yet it flowed like a river when talking to his dad.
They became fast buddies. I noticed a change in him. There was a smile that slowly moved across John’s face and found a permanent home. Not that he wasn’t happy before, but it was a smile that came from a deep place. He played the violin throughout high school, yet in our 14 years of marriage, I had never heard him play, until now. He picked up his violin and began to play and that was a gift to me.
After talking for months and feeling like we were already family, we planned a day to meet. It would be 4th of July weekend. We packed everything we owned, got all 6 of us on a plane and headed to FARGO, ND – a place none of us had ever been, but had only seen in the movies. We were visualizing people saying: Okie Dokie Artichokie, but no one says that here. The movie is a total myth. (for the most part). What would we discuss? What would we have in common?
As we de-boarded the plane, our plan was to rush to the restrooms before meeting them at baggage claim, to freshen up a bit, and be presentable before the big “meet and greet.” But murphy’s law kicked in . . . and if something could happen it would and of course, it did. As we walked off the tarmac into the area where people are lined up, ready to board the plane, John realized the airport was so small, baggage claim was only 30 feet away. He looked over and like a ventriloquist, tells me, without moving his lips: “They could be watching us.”
I quickly tried to wipe off the mushed cookie embedded in his white shirt, thanks to our 2 year old using him as a jungle gym on the plane. The 4 year old immediately stopped traffic by sitting in the floor, crying that his feet had blisters from his new crocs. He pulled his foot out of his shoe and his little feet looked like they had been running through mud puddles.
Oh God, he can’t walk up to his new Grandparents with those feet. John and I get into a slight disagreement, all the while he’s still talking without moving his lips, “Hurry up, they could be right there.” Two kids are crying, I’m trying to de-cookie John’s shirt and wipe mud off the little’s ones feet with a baby wipe. And then, just like that, everyone was ok and with a big smile we walked across the security line and said: Hello. And sure enough, they had been watching us the entire time.
There they were: His dad had brought along his wife Barb, (a school teacher) and his girls, Jenny II & Katie II. Ok, so it’s a little confusing for the kids, but we’re not complaining.
When John & his dad first saw each other, there was nothing strange about it. It was as if they had known each other for years. They hugged, smiled and immediately the kids began calling him Grandpa Jeff. His wife, Grandma Barb had snacks and toys for the kids. She was talk’in my language. She had a baby doll for Ava, race cars for the boys, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and juice boxes for everyone. The kids didn’t miss a beat. To them, there was nothing strange or odd about this meeting. They were on an adventure to see cows, horses, ride go carts and shoot guns. Ah, to see life through the eyes of a child.
Most guys are farmers in North Dakota, but his dad owned an outdoor shooting range, where parties and large groups grill out and shoot clay pigeons catapulted from towers spread across 18 acres. His girls, Katie & Jenny grew up in the family business and can outshoot any guy from here to Minnesota.
After spending a week with his family, sitting up telling late night stories, going to bed with 15 family members in the house – filling every room to capacity and waking up to the sound of Grandma Barb fixing breakfast upstairs. . . I just wanted to pinch myself, so I pinched John instead. Is this really real? Can you believe we’re here?
Like John, his dad played musical instruments, both went to school for Engineering and both owned their own businesses over the years. Even without knowing each other, there were so many “connect the dot” moments of how each of their lives paralleled the other.
What an incredible experience to fly across country to meet people you’ve never seen before, visit a part of the country you’ve never been to before and live in their house. “Hi, we’re the Pletka’s, nice to meet you . . . now which room is ours?” But in a weird way, it wasn’t strange. We may have met as strangers, but left as family.
It was emotional, but not in the way you would expect. There was no drama or tons of tears, but silent smiles that took their place on the faces of those two guys . . . a smile that said everything was right in the world. Smiles that had been mis-placed for years and had found their home.
After a week of touring all the uncle’s farms and visiting with over 50 family members, riding horses, swimming in the pool, water skiing, treasure hunting, flash light tag with the cousins, competing in go-cart races with his new brother-in-laws and shooting 100’s of clay pigeons at the shooting range, it was time to go home.
The hugs, the laughter, the bonds that were made, will never be forgotten. We flew to North Dakota with a dream of what could be, and left with a reality of what was. Love is vast and endless; it knows no boundaries and now that love has expanded from The South, to the MidWest and beyond. Celebrate your family, no matter how they come, or how many sisters you have, named Katie and Jenny.