Saturday, February 16, 2008

Finding My Family

(From March 2007)

I didn’t know my father. What I knew of him came from stories told by family members and by my mother who hated him intensely. As I grew, I had many questions that were either ignored or answered inaccurately, so by mistake or by design, I was misled about who my father really was and the role he played in my life.

I was born in 1962, three weeks to the day after my parents were married in a civil ceremony standing before a county judge. What a sight my mother must have been. A sight not so common let alone socially accepted in 1962. Within months, my parents had split with my mother filing for divorce shortly thereafter.I wish I could say that I had a happy childhood but by the time I was six weeks old, I had a broken leg due to a suspicious crib accident. This was only the first of many like incidents as my mother raised me on her own.

I was told many times that my father was rotten, worthless and no good. She also rarely missed the opportunity to tell me that I was sure to grow up and be just like him. At fifteen, I left home and never looked back.

Now that I’m older and hopefully wiser, I like to think that I’m open-minded. I’m a police officer trained to look at all perspectives and recognize that there are two sides to every story. However, hearing nothing but negative comments from my mother for all those years left me angry but happy that he wasn’t in my life. I’ve been asked many times if I ever wanted to find him and the answer has always been a quick and bitter “No!” If ignorance is truly bliss, I was blissfully satisfied to leave well enough alone, that is until one day when my, then girlfriend, now wife went digging. That’s when I discovered that nothing was as I was told.

My wife is as inquisitive as she is intelligent and beautiful. Having excellent computer skills combined with a working knowledge of genealogy, CSI Sarah, as she’s been dubbed, can find anything and anyone on-line. While doing some of her own family research, she checked the marriage records for the State of Pennsylvania for my mother and father and much to our surprise, she found it. Finding the record here in Pennsylvania truly was a revelation because much of my mother’s family believed that she and my father eloped to another state to wed. The legal age to marry in Pennsylvania was 18. Because my mother was only 17 at the time, she needed parental permission.

We located the county they were married in and obtained the marriage license. I soon learned what no one in the family ever knew… my grandmother signed off on the marriage giving permission for my mother to wed. This was a secret that my grandmother took to her grave. I also learned another fact I was misled about, the fact that my father was also 17 and not “a few years older” than my mother. Both were very young, probably very scared with my mother being very pregnant with me. The marriage license had a lot of information including my father’s date of birth and with this, I knew there was much more to discover.

It’s difficult to explain but what I once cared nothing about soon sparked my curiosity. Just the few new facts that contradicted what I was originally told pushed me further to want to know. I wondered how much more there was to learn that was either told to me incorrectly of just kept from me all these years. I soon realized though that Sarah, bless her inquisitive little heart, was going to find out more about my family whether I wanted to learn it or not.

The first stop in the hunt was the social security death index. It was there I found my father. He died in 1992 at the very young age of 48, just five years older than I am now. As surprising as the age he died was where he died. I remember being told that he had family in Ohio and perhaps Michigan but there was never any mention of Tennessee. Rhone County, Tennessee to be exact. So, the next step was to find the obituary. This would perhaps give some insight into some of his family, how he died and maybe even how he lived. I called the local newspaper that referred me to the local library that referred me to the local historical society. After being put on hold briefly, a very nice gentleman from the Rhone County Historical Commission pulled the obituary off of microfilm and read it to me over the phone as I took notes.

The obituary read that my father left behind two sisters, a brother, a wife and five children (not including me). I was stunned to say the least. Taking my notes from the telephone conversation, Sarah went to work looking for phone numbers based on the names and cities from the obituary. Before too long, we found a number that could have possibly been his sister Lois in Cleveland, Ohio.

Everything moved so fast. It was that morning that we went to the county courthouse for the marriage certificate, searched the social security index, made numerous calls to Tennessee and researched possible matches to the names in the obituary. Although it was late in the afternoon and I was emotionally exhausted, I knew in my heart that I had to call that number. I also knew that if I thought about it too long, I may never dial it. Even though through that entire day I was driven to know, a voice inside told me to leave well enough alone. Ignoring the voice, I picked up the phone and dialed the Cleveland number. It was a call that changed my life.

I asked the voice on the other end of the telephone, “Is this Lois Bennett, the sister of Daniel Burns?” She said yes. Not wanting to scare or shock her, I told her that I was doing some family research but when she insistently asked, “well, who are you?”, I told her that I was Dan, her brother’s son from Pittsburgh. She then replied, “Oh my, I remember you. We always wondered what happened to you.” We talked briefly and arranged for me to call back a few hours later. I hung up the phone after a five minute conversation and knew immediately that I had opened a door not knowing where it would lead.

Gathering myself mentally and emotionally, I called back a couple of hours later with a list of questions to ask about family history, heritage and medical issues. Having three children of my own, I knew it was important to learn all I can about my father’s medical history. The news wasn’t good. He died of a heart attack being overweight, a heavy drinker and a very heavy cigarette smoker. After talking with my aunt Lois for a while, I gained a whole new insight into what kind of man my father was and the things she told me left me flabbergasted. She told me of incidents pertaining to my mother that I previously got only her side of the story. One in particular was the episode where I was hidden by my father’s mother in a dresser drawer. The story told by my mother was that my grandmother was attempting to take me from her. My aunt Lois however, tells a different tale. My father and his mother were protecting me from one of my mother’s many violent tirades. After fifteen years with her, this is the story most believable.

Aunt Lois went on to tell me of a time that my father sat and cried about not being able to raise me himself after losing me to my mother. She and I talked for a while but when the conversation turned to family history, she referred me to my half-brother Jim. She had called him that afternoon after our first conversation and told him to expect my call later that evening. The interesting thing was that before that day, Jim had no idea I existed. Jim and I talked for hours and I learned that my father was a loving, caring man who maybe wasn’t perfect but did his best to be a good parent. He taught his children to do right by themselves and others without raising a hand in anger to any of them.

Shortly after making contact with my father’s side of the family, we traveled to Cleveland, stayed for a weekend and met just about everyone. I learned that Daniel Joseph Burns had in fact eight children, seven boys and a girl, of which I am the first. Although not all of us have been united, with regard to Jim’s two brothers, Bill and Jason, immediately we formed a bond with Jim and I especially becoming close. We aren’t half-brothers, we’re just brothers.

During the weekend in Ohio, I was welcomed with open arms not as a new friend but as family. It was overwhelming and emotional as only then did I realize that a very big part of my life had always been missing. Growing up, many people felt sorry for me because I never had a family, but now I do. I must admit though, when I made the initial phone calls, after forty-three years I expected to hear something like: “It was nice to hear from you, have a nice life, stay in touch, etc.” What I didn’t expect was the level of love and acceptance I received. The best surprise was the fact that the nicest people I ever met in my life would turn out to be my own family.

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