Finding familia in the Pacific Northwest

So where were we? Oh yeah. Mom. Can you imagine being 63 years old and not knowing what your mother looked like?


That reminder smacked me upside the head last month when I got a message from a genealogist friend, asking me if I had found my mom yet. I told her I hadn’t really been looking lately and she popped back with “I found her yearbook picture.”


Holy crap. It wasn’t like I never thought this would happen, it just was unexpected THEN. It’s kind of like winning the lottery. Suddenly you have all these riches you always dreamed of, but you’re just not sure how to feel about it. You want to tell the world, but you know you need to tell your kids first. After all, this is their grandmother. Not Grandma Closeby or Grandma Faraway (as my husband’s and my adoptive mothers were referred to), but Mom’s mom.


It didn’t occur to me until then that they might have been searching for more people who looked like them too.


I asked her if I could see it and she sent it right over. It was Rusty, all right. And what resemblance I couldn’t see, my husband spotted right away. And my kids. And my Facebook family, when I posted side-by-side graduation pics.

There she was.

Rusty copy
Elizabeth “Rusty” Kilgore, aspiring journalist, Class of ’49 Miami Jackson High School.
Carol Kochalka, Class of’71, Washington High School, Fremont, CA

Her listing in the yearbook came with a quote from Shakespeare, “Be great in act as you have been in thought.” She was in GAA in grades 10 and 11, in the Glee Club in 10th grade, in the Dean’s Association in grades 11 and 12, was in the Future Homemakers in her junior and senior years and was on the Globe staff in her junior year.


Yep. She was an aspiring journalist. Check.

And a singer. Check.

And got good grades. Check.

And could whip up a frock and some killer cinnamon toast. Check.

I have no idea how it happened, but obviously the athletic gene mutated when it got to me.


Nature or nurture?


The initial message came in around 8 pm and the flurry of texts and posts between family and friends took up a good portion of the next few hours. It was 11 pm when another message came in from Liz, asking if I was awake. I confirmed that I was and she wrote “I found some more info. She passed away in 2015. I’ll send you the obit. I’m so sorry.”

I wasn’t sure how to feel. Three hours before, I was excited about the possibility of meeting and thanking the woman who gave me life and now those chances were dashed. She was my mother and I had suffered a loss, but it wasn’t hitting me straight on. To me, my mother died in an Oregon hospital in 1994 as I held her hand, waiting for the machines to stop and let her pass in peace. I remember feeling then that I really was an orphan, the parents who raised me were gone and the ones who made me were missing in action. Now, I was learning that for 21 years, she had been living in Florida, unaware of my existence in Southern California.


I think.


When you discover – or “find” – it’s not a simple thing. There is a boatload of questionable baggage that comes with it. Your facts are quickly overshadowed by the new questions you have, the unknowns that have been hiding behind the basics in your mind. Having birthed three children myself, I know I will always mark their birthdays, remember how they grew, what their little womb-tics were. Did I have any? Did she ever think of me? Was April 7 a special day for her? Did she observe it with secrecy? Or joy? Did she ever talk with my father, whose name is absent from every document? Was I just erased from her life – until another family member raised a question or two?


Liz felt bad that she hadn’t searched more. I met her online when a mutual friend, my detective buddy who was also an adoptee, passed my information on to her with my blessing. That happened in 2009. Liz did some looking early on, but we hadn’t touched base in a while. She told me that she regretted not looking more frequently (she found the yearbook when she added “Rusty” to the name she was submitting) because she might have found her before she passed. I told her that I never had expected to find my mom and if I had, all I wanted to do was thank her for doing what she did and that I hoped my life would have made her proud. And that I loved her because I knew she loved me.


Screen Shot 2017-07-16 at 11.23.00 PM
Elizabeth “Rusty” Kilgore Wright Howard. Photo from US Navy service in ’50s-’60s that ran with her obituary in 2015

She forwarded her obituary to me and it was like opening a treasure box. There were names and relations and occupations and all sorts of new leads for me to follow. Liz and I started anew on the searching, using Ancestry and other search engines. Mom had remarried (they were together 54 years, he is still alive and living in Florida) and I had a half-brother, and a sister in law, two nieces and a great-niece. Sadly, my brother died in 2006.


I’ve always said that Facebook is one of my best friends and was one of my most important reporter tools – those instincts kicked into high gear and I started some serious stalking. I found my nieces’ pages and sent them messages and friend requests – hoping beyond hope that they might take a chance and look at my page, accept the request and read the message, but two days later, I still had no answer. I tried LinkedIn, which frustrated me in the past, but on this day helped me find a gold mine. Using information that Liz and I had been able to procure from Ancestry, I was able to track back my sister-in-law’s residences and service records, finding her on that site. I leveled up so I could send a personal message and wrote an abbreviated plea to connect and asked her if we could talk.


That night, as my husband and I were dining with friends, my phone blew up with her response.


“I knew it! I knew it!” my sister-in-law wrote. “I knew he had a sister!”


I couldn’t write back fast enough to tell her I’d be home in an hour and that we could talk on the phone. It seemed like the longest hour of my life, but that night, I got to hear Susan’s voice and we talked about her husband, her mother-in-law, her daughters and granddaughter. Over the next two days, I got to talk with both my biological niece and my “step”niece who my brother raised as his own (she has a wife and an adorable daughter, whose birthday is the same as my granddaughter’s – cue spooky coincidence music here).


Susan’s suspicions began when she saw a telltale line on my brother’s birth certificate that asked “How many other children are now living?” followed by the number 1. She told me she asked my mother about it and she was evasive and defensive. It proved to be a sore subject, but as time wore on, mom revealed bits and pieces of information that simultaneously matched and conflicted with facts found on other documents, such as…..


Mom was not a Catholic, my father was (so I’m not sure who was Protestant) and his family insisted that they wanted nothing to do with me, which could explain why my adoption was so quick and smooth (my Catholic father was an usher at our local parish and the cheek-pinching priest was the one who arranged it). Because of that, sis said she had a lifelong disdain for the Catholic church. Ironically, part of the adoption “deal” was that I would be baptized and raised as a Catholic. When my dad died, I let that one lapse.


My brother, Jed Albert Howard


The health history on mom’s side was not as clean as California was told; heart disease and high blood pressure was evident in her parents and she and my brother both had blood pressure and heart issues. It was a brain aneurism that took him at the age of 42; her cause of death is unclear and currently, the state of Florida is telling me that I am not entitled to a certificate listing her cause of death (I’ve taken up this heated discussion with the Surgeon General of Florida). Later in life, mom had breast cancer and skin cancer issues and mobility problems; information that I immediately shared with my kids. And my doctor.


In talking with my new family members, I also discovered that, much like my adoptive family, some relations are better than the others; at times they were strained, but as we all agreed, “they did the best they could with the situation they had.”  In other words, both my nature and nurture environments were dysfunctionally normal. Funny thing, that’s exactly why one of my nieces is pursuing her master’s degree in genetics and neuroscience, to try and figure out why people are the way they are.


Although mom’s husband is still living and I have contact information for him, I have chosen not to disturb him personally. One of my nieces who is in contact with him regularly is going to assess the situation and see if he would be receptive to meeting or talking with me. I’m not sure if or how much he knows about me and I surely don’t want to shock him with that information. On the other hand, there might have been more communication than I know about and he might appreciate a connection to his late wife. Time will tell. I’m giving my niece as much time as she needs for this one. She did warn me that he and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.


Speaking of science, I did do the DNA “spit test” with Ancestry and I kind of feel like the lederhosen/kilt guy on the commercial. On mom’s side, her mother was from Scotland (the Dewars of Clan Buchanan) and her father was full Irish (Kilgore, a sept of Clan Douglas). She told the state my father was “possibly English or Scotch” – but Ancestry says I’m 28% Western European, 25% Scandinavian, 19% Irish, 11 % British and 10% Iberian Peninsula, with genetic communities of Germans in the Midwest, Scots and settlers of Colonial New England. I’m thinking dad – with those blue eyes, medium skin and dark brown hair – might actually be German/Scandinavian. The worst part, though, is that I found no genetic matches. I was holding out a tiny hope that I might find my father with that test.

Tartan of the Clan Buchanan, which claimed the Dewars


Tartan of the Clan Douglas, which claimed the Kilgores. Thanks to OffKilterKilts for research and findings!

So with the magic comes residual mystery. I have been sent pictures of my mom and brother and nieces, and I think my bio niece really does look like me a little. There are dimples and this full-on ear-to-ear grin that I am claiming. Susan said after our conversation that my personality over the phone reminded her of her husband, so there’s some nature there. But that little black cloud of “Where’s Papa?” remains.


My mother and Jed on a long-ago birthday.


This has been an overwhelming time, I like structure and planning in my life and this has totally been a wrecking ball to that. I have responded with a lot of thoughtful pondering, sometimes scaring my husband who fears that I’m depressed because I’m so quiet. No worries there, just a little befuddled. It is a LOT to wrap my head around and sometimes the words to explain how I feel just don’t make themselves available. But there is absolutely nothing bad coming from this – I know that because I am of the age and attitude of “What’s the worst that can happen?” – coupled with the confidence that whatever happens, it can only enhance my life experience.


There is enough love to share with my new family and I am excited to embrace them. I hope they are ready to embrace me (again, that “click” possibility). I love having crowds in my life, evidenced by our annual spaghetti gatherings and being the “party house” for birthdays and showers and reunions and goodbye parties and celebrating togetherhood. I earned the nickname MamaRock from my theater kids and my news colleagues. I like to take care of people and point the spotlight at them. I’m used to being the storyteller, not the story. This has been weird, to say the least. But bring it on.


Part of the cosmic magic that brought this information into my life is that my new family members are conveniently located in the Pacific Northwest, so Thursday morning, I am boarding a plane for Portland (I know. The weekend of the eclipse. Have I mentioned that good timing is not always my strong suit?) and Friday night, I get to meet Susan and niece Ana. I’m hoping the rest of the girls will come down from Seattle so we can have a family day on Saturday. Lucky for me, most of my hubby’s family lives in the Portland area, so I get to see them too. Should be a very interesting weekend.


Wish me luck.


Carol Rock is a writer based in the Los Angeles area. She is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience covering all areas of news and features. She works as a freelance public relations and media consultant, with writing remaining her strong suit. Her tattoo, if it were real, would read “Don’t Die Wondering.”

Your comments are welcome and always appreciated. Please share this on social media!

Years, months, miles and mysteries

So I found my mom last month.


Not like in the “did she go to the store? Is she doing laundry? Is it Ladies Night again and we forgot?” kind of locating my mother, but a discovery that was a long time coming.


It was a little more than 63 years ago that my parents met a tearful woman at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital and learned that they, not she, would be taking home her little bundle of joy.


Anne and Joe Kochalka holding the future blogger at their Fremont home in April 1954. From the empty bottle, apparently I have always been a good eater.

I spent the next 18 years in their home, raised with love and rules and experiences and responsibilities. Was a good student, became active in my community as soon as I could drive and got into a four-year college with a scholarship right out of graduation. There was a lot of love and laughter in our house and I have aunts and uncles and cousins that wove a crazy quilt of love around me.


And through it all, I always knew I was “special” – from the moment I could understand, my parents told me that they got to pick me, which they thought made me better than any other baby at the hospital. Ironically, I understood adoption better than I did sex, because for them, it was much easier to have the first talk than the second.


In school, it didn’t seem to make much difference that I was adopted, but that all changed when I reached adulthood and had no idea what my ethnic background was, even though my parents spoke Czechoslovakian when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying and our dinners often featured fine Slavic cuisine (kielbasa and cabbage is a guilty pleasure and Buttermaid Bakery has my regular Christmas order for kolachi nut rolls ).
These are kolachi nut rolls. They are the most delicious bits of heaven one can consume and a Czechoslovakian holiday tradition. My mother used to make them by hand. I order them online from


I had all these relatives who didn’t look much like me. And I hated not having the answer to questions like “do you have a history of heart problems? Any cancer in the family? Are you predisposed to (fill in the disease)?”


And the dimples. Other than the parish priest pinching me until I winced every Sunday, where did they come from?


While my parents never kept secret the fact that I was adopted, the names of those involved were revealed only when my adoptive father died. I was 20 years old. Suddenly, I had two names that might hold the key to the Book of Answers. Luckily, at the time, I worked for a law enforcement agency that had access to DMV records and I found my “father’s” addresses and phone numbers immediately.


I could go home from work and call him. That night.


But for reasons that only fellow adoptees will understand, it took me five years to make that call. It’s not that I didn’t want to know. It’s not that I hadn’t fantasized in great detail the glorious reunion, the open arms, the rainbows and sunshine that would certainly appear when I was reunited with those who brought me into this world.


It’s because I could imagine what might be more realistic. A lot of murky water might have gone under the bridge in the last 25 years. I might be the family secret, not the “where is she now?” girl. I could be the She Who Will Not Be Mentioned, a scenario that many adoptees fear. That included me.


But the call had to be made, despite the possibility of a “click” once I asked that loaded question. I have a button in my office that says “Don’t Die Wondering” which applied to women’s rights, but now, I felt, was written for me personally.


I dialed the phone. My husband, who is my most ardent supporter and loves this little bastard no matter what, (I dig getting to use that word in its real context), was standing nearby. A male voice greeted me and I tentatively asked, “May I speak with Elizabeth?”


A short silence. “She’s not here. May I ask who is calling?”


This was it. The moment before the deafening click.


“This is Carol Rock. I think she may be my mother.”


Feeling brave and feeling that I had but nanoseconds to make my case, I added, “Are you my father?”


Another silence. But no click.


I heard him take a deep breath. “I am not,” he said. “But I would like to hear about you.”


A wave of cautious gratitude swept over me. I told him who I was, how I got his name, how I was raised in a loving, safe environment and why I was looking for the woman whose name was on my adoption decree. He listened and we agreed that a face-to-face meeting was in order. After a cordial goodbye, I made reservations to fly up to the Bay Area to meet him at his office.


He wanted a letter from me giving him a little background. I feverishly wrote a chronicle of everything I could remember, sharing highlights and pitfalls of the last 25 years. Emotionally, I felt like everything was going at a fever pitch, that I might be getting close to meeting the woman who I simply wanted to tell that I had been raised by good people and that I knew she did the right thing out of love.


And that I thought I turned out pretty good. That was important. I wasn’t letting adoption define me. I wasn’t angry, or looking for money or crazy. I was just an ambitious young woman with a lot of questions.

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 9.53.08 PM

I can’t remember the flight or driving to his office or the restaurant we went to for lunch. I remember seeing him, his smiling face and outstretched hand. And I remember the gasp.

“You look just like her,” he said, apologizing for his reaction. “Except she had red hair. In fact, her nickname was Rusty.”


At the time, my hair color was my natural, lovely dishwater blonde. I had colored my hair before, but never more than an auburn brown. Never red. Didn’t think it would look good on me. It would be 20 more years before I colored it for a role in “Bus Stop” and decided that from there on out, red should be my natural color every four weeks.


We moved on to other topics. He explained that he and my mother were married in 1952 and that he was a pilot and she worked with the base photographer, both in the Navy and stationed at Alameda Naval Air Station. He was flying missions over Korea from late summer 1953 until he came home in January 1954 and much to his surprise, she was five months pregnant. When she went into labor in April, he did what he felt was his duty and drove her to the hospital. After checking her in, he told me that he left, chased to his car by a nurse who told him he should stay. He excused himself and the next morning, my mother called to say she’d given birth to a baby girl.


They tried to reconcile, but to no avail. He told me that they traveled back to Florida, where she was from, and he left her in Pensacola. He said what little he remembered of her family, that her maiden name of Kilgore was one that was as common as Smith in the South, and that there might be some family in Texas. He also said that Life magazine had done a feature on the base while she worked there and that she might have been photographed for that.


We parted as friends, I was thankful that he shared what information he remembered. Perhaps he was thankful that a day he anxiously anticipated for the last decade or so had gone smoothly. I decided to be respectful and keep my distance. He owed me nothing more and my debt to him was one of gratitude.


I flew home with a little more information than I had before. Although I was told I looked just like my mother, I still had nothing to show, other than re-living my presumptive father’s reaction over and over again.


Back at home, I started looking for old copies of Life magazine in the library, but could not find anything about the base or pictures of this woman who I resembled. Looking for your own face in a magazine isn’t easy, at least it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for. Dimples? A certain smile? Red hair didn’t show up in black and white pictures. (Remember, this was before the internet and searchable archives online. I have since begun to comb through the pages of the 1953-54 issues, but still no luck).

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 9.56.57 PM

I wrote to the State of California, where the laws still redact data (such as birth parents’ identities), asking for anything they might be able to give me. I got a one-sheet of non-identifying information that was obtained from a cursory interview with my mother. From that, I learned that she was full Irish, Catholic, 23, from Florida, 5’ 9 ½”, 155 lbs., fair skin, freckled, red hair, and described as “attractive and intelligent appearance.” She was a high school graduate who worked as a grocery cashier and was interested in photography and art; she had no prenatal care and told the state she was always in good health and that there was no history of serious illness in any member of her family.


My father was listed as Possibly English or Scotch, Protestant, age 23, and described as “6’ 1”, 185 lbs., blue eyes, dark brown hair, medium skin.” He was a high school graduate and a photographer for the US Navy. He lived in the District of Columbia and his health was “good,” but family history was unknown.


So I was the product of a wartime affair.


Another document obtained from the state listed that my mother was a Photographer’s Mate (really…) in the US Navy from 1951-1953 and had no history of hereditary disease. My grandparents on my mother’s side were listed as “grandmother, 53, high school graduate, housewife; grandfather, 54, 8th grade education, construction engineer.”


When this information came in, I was in my third year of college at Cal State LA and I found the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association, or ALMA, a group of searching adults. For a year, I remember being active and learning how to become an advocate for myself and others, but then life stepped in and provided an interesting diversion. I became pregnant with my first child.


Suddenly, I had too much else on my plate to search. I was focused on becoming a mother, holding down a job, making a home and trying to finish my degree. But there was one moment when my inner searcher came out. When I saw my beautiful little girl for the first time, I looked in vain for the dimples. I remember being disappointed, thinking that I couldn’t even produce a kid who looked like me.


In June 1981, still 10 units short of my degree (but close enough to walk), I marched from the podium to the grandstand to hold my 1-year old daughter. A year later, she got a baby brother and five years later, our family was complete with the addition of another daughter – who had dimples. Finally, the ringer had arrived.


My family/work/home/life kept me busy and those last 10 units became less of a “let’s finish” and more of an “I’ll get around to it sometime.” I just didn’t sense the urgency anymore.


Kind of like my adoption search.


Until I met a detective friend who shared a contact with me that has since knocked me on my ass. Stay tuned. There’s more coming. Did I mention I found my mom? I’m getting on a plane in a couple of days to learn more about her… but there’s more in Part Two of this blog…..

Carol Rock is a writer based in the Los Angeles area. She is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience covering all areas of news and features. She works as a freelance public relations and media consultant, with writing remaining her strong suit. Her tattoo, if it were real, would read “Don’t Die Wondering.”

Your comments are welcome and always appreciated. Please share this on social media!