Reconnect my scattered family
East and West bridge peacefully as father and daughter finally met for the first time
By Mary Hartmann
We often discuss the many challenges families face and how Pope Francis has urged us to “heal wounds.” His words cause me to think deeply about my own experience.
My father was an American soldier stationed in the Philippines at the end of World War II. He was just 22 when he met my mom; she was 20.
He went back to the U.S. afterwards without knowing that I would be born some months later. He wrote to mom, but she did not respond. She did, however, keep a photograph with his address written on the back.
My family was poor. Mom had to work, and I was placed in the care of her aunt, Mama Mary, who raised me. She and I lived mostly in my Aunt Nena’s home with her husband and my four cousins. I wanted so much to have a family like theirs.
I grew up knowing my dad only through that photograph, and Mama Mary would often assure me that I would meet him one day. I suffered because most of my friends knew their father; I did not!
Eventually, my mother got married and had four more children. The two oldest were raised by their dad’s parents, so I saw them only occasionally. The two youngest were with Mom so I knew them better.
My family seemed so scattered. I wished I could be a bridge to connect them all together.
The idea of meeting my father one day was always on my mind. A chance opened up when I was around 10 years old, through a relative who went to live in New York. She sent a letter to the address on the back of my father’s picture. I can only imagine how surprised he must have been to receive that letter.
He responded. He had a family. I had a stepmom and a brother and a sister. His response was very warm. He sent me a gift — my first camera. I loved it! We wrote to each other.
After about a year, though, his last letter arrived, explaining that his lawyer counseled him to stop writing because of the financial burden of supporting another child. My father followed the lawyer’s advice.
I was devastated. It was like losing my father a second time.
I still prayed continually for a chance to meet him in person. As the years passed, I understood that I had to wait for the right moment. A year after graduating from high school, at the age of 15, through the generosity of relatives in New York, I came to the U.S. to study nursing.
After graduating from college, getting married and having three children, I still wasn’t at peace. I yearned to meet my father and to bring my family together. My husband Tom and I felt that it was perhaps the moment to write to my father again. This time I could assure him I would not be a burden and that I wanted to simply meet him in person.
One evening, a phone call came from Dad. I was too nervous and excited, so I asked Tom to speak with him. They arranged for us to meet near his home in Florida. We went with our three children and met in our hotel room. When he came into the room with his wife, our eyes met and with much joy he said, “You even have this bump on my nose!” as he gave me a big, long hug.
It was as if all the years without him didn’t exist. In an instant, we were a family that always was! I was with Dad and my other mom; they were immediately the grandparents of three children that they seemed to have always known and loved.
I met my brother and sister the day after. I was introduced as a friend from New York. They wondered why they never heard of this friend before. Dad assured me that he would tell them the truth at the right moment. A couple of months later, I received a call from him.
“There’s someone here who wants to talk to you,” he said.
First my brother, then my sister came to the phone. They both sounded excited to have an older sister, and I was so grateful. I was amazed by their openness.
Shortly after this introduction, my dad called to ask if his other daughter, my sister Holley, could come and visit for a little while. She was so excited about having a big sister that she wanted to spend some time with me. This providential gift was the beginning of what grew to be a beautiful relationship with Holley that’s even more special today.
A few more years passed. Tom and I were able to bring my mom from the Philippines to live with us. Shortly after, my two brothers and two sisters also came. We grew up knowing that we were a family, but we had never experienced being a family under one roof! What a joy it was to know that both my parents and all my brothers and sisters were now in the same country. East and the West were finally bridged.
Dad and my stepmom came to New York from Florida for the baptism of one of our sons. The moment came for mom and dad to meet again after 30 years of not seeing each other.
It was awkward at first. My mom was much more reserved and easily embarrassed. My American dad was more forward. My stepmom was concerned about getting in the way. They eventually got beyond themselves and found ways to connect.
Thanksgiving and family events — baptisms, graduations, weddings — brought us together every year after that first meeting. Summer vacations were at Gramp’s blueberry farm and lots of time spent in Grandma’s kitchen. We had become a family who loved one another deeply. The three grandparents were a tremendous gift, and our children loved them.
Two years ago, my dad left for heaven at almost 90. My mom and stepmom had died before him. When it came time to settle his estate, I was a little concerned. I’ve seen even the best relationships strained and broken when assets have to be distributed to heirs. I reminded myself that what matters most is my relationship with my brother and sister. The other things, although they may be useful, mean nothing. But none of my fears ever materialized. Instead, we really tried to love each other as we navigated through the legal process for the closing of the estate. It was a peaceful and joyful time.
We celebrated our family as we sifted through dad’s papers and belongings. There were many surprises, such as discovering the shoebox full of my letters to dad when I was 10. He had saved them all. We found a picture of my mother when she was 20 and dad’s army uniform when he was 22 — the treasures of his time in the Philippines. They were dad’s farewell gifts to me.
When I was younger, there were moments when I felt that perhaps my being born was a mistake. After all, my parents were never married.
But I’ve come to understand that God does not make mistakes. I am not a mistake. God chose that I be born. Because of God’s love, I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, a grandmother and one who has been called by him to live for unity, for Jesus’ last prayer, “that they may all be one.”
This chapter of God’s unique plan for me is complete. But there are more bridges to build!