A weekend in NiceToMeetYaLand

The Portland Familia – Ana, Susan and yours truly. Just before we said goodbye.

So, the question of the week has been “How did it go?”


And the answer is “We had a great time.”


While it was a wonderful adventure meeting my new-found sister-in-law Susan and niece Ana (my only surviving biological relative – that I know about), it was a tiny bit strange for both of us. Not bad strange, but OK strange. Like being on a blind date with a cheat sheet, trying to get more details as the night progressed and laughing as we walked to the car, giving each other a final hug.


It was also a bit amazing. And heart-warming. And weird. And mind-blowing.


And good. Definitely good.


I’m not sure what anyone’s expectations were for this face-to-face meet. Did I want a warm embrace? Got several. Did I expect more questions? Of course. Did I hope for a spilling of the emotions, a “we’ve been looking for you forever, etc.” kind of response? Not really. I already got my treat with Susan’s enthusiastic “I knew it!” when I initially contacted her.

Susan and I on the waterfront in Lake Oswego. We were not drunk, I just hold a camera funny. Trying to be artsy.

What I wanted to prevent more than anything else was ‘the click’ that every adoptee fears. The “OK, we’ve seen enough of you, now go away again. Forever.”


Thankfully, that didn’t happen. There were lots of hugs and smiles. Lots of looking into each others’ eyes – for what, the answers known only to the looker – and comparing or pondering each other’s unique features.


Like my eyes. They’re big and really, really green. My mom had hazel eyes and according to what she told the state of California, my dad’s were blue. Nobody in the family that came before me had green eyes, but I definitely handed that gene down to my girls.


My niece and my daughters look slightly similar, except for their noses. My son looks the most like my mom. My niece has her father’s nose, slightly larger than my kids’, but the smile – that big face-brightening smile, and even the knowing smirk – is definitely something she and I share.


And the big, bright eyes. Even though hers are brown.


If there was one word to describe the events of the last month or so, it would be “overwhelming” and my weekend in the Pacific Northwest would have been impossible without the love and support of my extended family members from the theater, my in-laws and everyone Rock-related who fed, housed and entertained me while my head swam with new information and emotions. To them, I offer immense thanks for making sure I made this journey safely, both emotionally and physically.


Just when you think you have everything figured out in life, somebody pitches a wrench at you causing a change in your direction and angle and quite possibly making you pull a muscle. I was content with my little family of kids in three cities, my granddaughter becoming a fierce little heart-tugger, my sweetheart and I planning on things to do now that it’s just the two of us (well, plus our furbabies). I cook a lot, bake some, walk regularly, drink a lot of coffee, enjoy social media, play fantasy football, dabble in theater, advocate for the arts and am fighting my damned procrastination gene by seriously trying to write the books within me.


Then that yearbook picture surfaced.


And the whirlwind investigation began. And the finding … oh, the finding!


No clicks on the first round of calls. And an encouraging response to my proposed visit, which became an immediate priority. The Grim Reaper had already taken away my mother and brother and I wasn’t willing to let the rest of them slip away.


When I pushed open the door to Manzana Grill on the waterfront Friday night, I recognized Susan right away. We hugged a couple of times and settled on a table outside. There was some sizing up, and some heavy sighs, but I think at our ages (I’m 63, she’s a few years younger), we’re already comfortable with each other – new-found friends who happen to be not-so-distantly related.


We quickly launched into more questions about my brother; what was he like, did she see a resemblance, how was their marriage, was he a good father … you know, the normal grilling. I learned more about his reality, his strengths and shortcomings, his interests and his faults, causing me to pause and wonder how someone would describe me if the situations were reversed.


She told me that Amber would not be coming down from Seattle, that Amber was her impulsive one, contrasting Ana’s fondness for planning. I was a bit sad that she wasn’t there, but decided that it just meant a trip to Seattle might be in my future. And there’s always email and social media. I chose to focus on the positive.


We talked about our children, their growing up experiences and how grandparents (mostly my mom) played into the picture. We talked about work and the military and where we lived and traveled. I told her about my adoptive parents, how they were wonderful people and always supportive of my search. Talking to her, I probably unconsciously slipped into reporter mode, probing for details, trying to coax out enough to flesh out the two-dimensional people in my special adoption notebook that holds 8×10 prints of every photo and documents in plastic sleeves. It’s all I’ve got of them.


Even though Amber offered to contact my mother’s husband for me when we spoke last month, Susan encouraged me to make that call. She opined that he might welcome contact from a part of the wife he loved for so long, even if I might have been She Who Will Not Be Mentioned.


A potential click. Why the hell not? We’d talk about it later, Saturday afternoon, when she thought that Frank and I flying out for a meet and greet might be better. Our bank account has something to say about that. A phone call will have to do.


After a few hours, we ran out of words. We talked about where to meet the next day and where to park. Ana was joining us and it would be the first time I got to see her. I was excited all over again.


Then we got in our cars and drove away. Nobody was expecting me home and the sun was still up in a twilight kind of way. Both Starbucks I stopped at were closed and Siri was no help at all in finding a play or a movie nearby. I drove past a funky looking bar and restaurant and thought I’d stop in for some fish and chips. I posted a message on Facebook for my Oregon friends, telling them where I was in case they were wandering and wanted to join me.


I ate alone, then went back to my nephew’s house. His wife was home and we had a chance to chat. She was eager to hear how my night had gone, but I was still in the processing mode, so we talked about lots of other family stories, about their daughter and roommates and coworkers and the house and life.


The best this wordsmith could muster up in assessing the evening was “Good. It was very, very good.” And it was sincere.


You know me. If I can patronize a historic building, I’m there!


The next morning, I arrived at Kell’s Irish Pub a good 15 minutes before the agreed-upon time and while I was sitting out front, heard laughter and turned to see Ana and Susan walking toward me. And it wasn’t weird, it was more like a normal Saturday where three women met to go to Saturday Market in Portland. Those kinds of events are always more fun with a group, so you can ooh and ahh over things or snicker when it’s appropriate. It’s also a good way to learn about each other’s likes and dislikes. I learned that Susan loves candles (would you believe that we only found ONE candle vendor in the whole market?) and that Ana loves her cat (both Susan and I bought toys for the kitty).


Susan wanted to either get a henna tattoo or a caricature, but I hesitated, because a friend once had an allergic reaction to the henna and ended up with a permanent scar and I’m not too keen on the work of caricaturists. Visually, she dresses more like the free spirit, while I’m a little more reserved – the Grace to her Frankie. We briefly considered getting our faces on garden gnomes, but quickly kiboshed that idea. I bought a couple of toys for Sadie, some hot sauce (Ana loves hot sauce and the vendor got excited when I told him my son grew his own hot peppers) and we walked past booth after booth of eclipse t-shirts and jewelry (one vendor got very upset when Susan and I thought her eclipse earrings were sunflowers, show us that she had her husband make partial eclipse pairs with the black circle off-center). At the end of the market, we decided to go back to Kell’s and enjoy a good Irish repast and a cold beer, as the Southern California heat I thought I’d left behind had made its way north.


In the booth, we talked about Disneyland, Portland, grandma and grandpa, work, school (Ana’s upcoming doctoral studies and me finally graduating with my bachelor’s at age 60), my kids and when Susan and Ana could come down to Southern California to be tourists. I tried to explain where places they’d heard of were in relation to our house and promised to take them wherever they wanted to go. I learned more about Ana’s work on a clinical study and how she is on call even when she’s off work because of her subjects. I shared some of my career highs and lows, we talked a little politics and Susan and I talked about how much we loved being grandmothers.


Eclipse – chocolate, vanilla and orange filling

VoodooLayerOneAfter buying sweatshirts to commemorate our visit, the three of us headed out to a Portland landmark, Voodoo Donuts. I hadn’t eaten a donut for months (I allow myself two every January) and now they were taking me to the mecca of glazed creativity (there is one x-rated donut that is never listed on the menu board outside).



During our 45-minute wait (which I heard was short), I discovered a few things: they should sell sunscreen to the people waiting in line; L.A. does not have a lock on bad singers, as the Voodoo Elvis karaoke singer proved and they really are dedicated to Keeping Portland Weird. It says so on the building across the street.


The walk back to the car was short and we were tired from the heat. We knew the visit was almost over and they lingered at the car to look at my collected pictures and documents, posing for some quick selfies (Susan shot a couple of Ana and me, then I turned the camera on all three of us) before they walked away. I put my book away, stashed the donuts and hot sauce and toys and carefully tucked away the memory of our moments together.

Niece Ana and Crazy Aunt Me


My niece, in whom I saw my history. My sister-in-law – hell, my SISTER – who met me 11 years after losing her husband. Those who knew about me before they knew of me.


My family.


I’m still mulling over the memories and the joy in getting to know them. I hope they are feeling the same. I hope they know there is much warmth in my heart because of them.


And I hope we see each other again soon. After all, we’ve got a lot of time to make up for.



Liquid refreshment, the new PDX carpet and a great read. Highly recommend this author!

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!

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!