My father wasn’t the one who told me I had a secret sister.
On a summer day in 2000, when I was 24 years old, I was out buying pillows for the apartment I had just moved to with my fiancé. My mom called me on my cell, and I heard a strange, nervous excitement in her voice. I stopped on the sidewalk with my shopping bags to listen.
“I’m not sure how to say this,” she said. “Your dad has been keeping something from you.”
I wondered what she could be talking about. She and my father had been divorced almost 20 years and barely spoke.
“You have a sister. She was placed for adoption after your dad impregnated his girlfriend, long before he met me,” she said. “She is moving to New York and planning to stop here in Chicago in a few days. Your brother and I thought you might like to meet her.”
My brother knew? I asked if my father had told him, but she said no. “Your brother was going through your dad’s briefcase seven years ago and discovered letters from your sister,” she told me. “Then your brother started corresponding with her secretly. Once I saw an email on his computer and asked who it was from, and he swore me to secrecy.”
“So, Dad doesn’t know you two know?” I asked.
“No, I doubt he even knows your sister is coming to town,” she said. “Do you want to meet her?”
“I’ll call you back later,” I told her before hanging up.
I only noticed that I was crying when people passing me on the street gave me sympathetic looks. I sat down on the curb, shaking. I was in shock, but another part of me was relieved. Intuitively, I’d always felt that my father was hiding something from me. Hearing the news validated the fear I’d buried inside for years.
I was confused as to why he had kept this secret. My parents had divorced and married other partners when I was young, and I’d already had every kind of sibling imaginable ― my brother, a stepsister from my mother’s next marriage, and three half siblings from my father’s second marriage. Why would he keep quiet about this one? I didn’t know why my brother had never confronted my father, or shared the news with me. It was betrayal after betrayal.
When my fiancé heard how upset I was, he came to pick me up. As I unpacked the new items I’d purchased for the home we were building together, the shock about my past hit me in waves. It dawned on me that I was no longer who I believed myself to be ― my father’s firstborn child.
One of my earliest memories of my father is sitting on his lap and hearing him say that his father never told him that he loved him, and he was going to make a point of telling me that he loved me. He took me to fun restaurants and musicals, like ”Annie” and ”A Chorus Line.” I took comfort in being his first born even when he got remarried and had more children, and our dates ― our special father-daughter time ― fell away.
Despite an unstable childhood split between two different households, I thought I knew my place. Now I didn’t know anything at all. I didn’t want to meet my father’s hidden daughter behind his back, or hide it from him, as he had from me.
“My parents had divorced and married other partners when I was young, and I’d already had every kind of sibling imaginable ― my brother, a stepsister from my mother’s next marriage, and three half siblings from my father’s second marriage. Why would he keep quiet about this one?”
I called my brother and told him, “Call Dad now, and tell him what you know, or I will.”
The next day, my father asked my brother and me to meet him at a deli I’d never heard of. I suspect he thought I wouldn’t make a scene in an unfamiliar public setting, but I upset his plan. Tears flowed down my face as I ignored inquisitive looks from people trying to enjoy their matzo ball soup.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” I sobbed.
“Because I knew you would react like this,” he responded.
My brother nodded. “That’s why I didn’t tell you earlier. I was afraid to upset you, and besides, I knew Dad would be mad if he knew I had gone through his things.”
Hearing this made me angry and defensive. I was often referred to as the sensitive one in my family and made to feel as though feelings were not OK to have. So it was my fault that they had lied to me?
“It’s OK,” I finally told my brother. “I shouldn’t be upset with you. It wasn’t your responsibility to tell me, it was Dad’s. And perhaps if he had told me earlier, I wouldn’t have reacted like this.”
My father told us that when his girlfriend discovered that she was pregnant, she told him that she was moving to another state and planned to place the baby for adoption. Two decades later, my sister gained access to her adoption papers and reached out to both her birth parents. My father had then started corresponding with her and even met with her several times over the years.
“When were you planning to tell us?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Probably never. She’s a wonderful person though, and oddly enough, she looks just like you, Sarah. If you want to meet her, you don’t need my permission.”
I was jealous of this phantom look-alike sister, and my feelings puzzled me. I had never felt that way about any of my other siblings.
I was debating whether I should meet her when a friend, an only child, changed my perspective.
“Do you know how happy I would be to learn that I had a sibling?” she said, “What an incredible gift you’ve been given.”
Her comments gave me pause. Eleven years earlier, I’d lost a younger sister to a rare genetic disease. How could I turn down the opportunity to meet someone who shared the same connection to me?
My fiancé and I met my new sister at a restaurant the following evening. My father was right ― she was lovely, kind and unassuming. I noticed that we both had inherited my father’s dark eyes and curly hair. She seemed a bit nervous and just as intent on making a good impression as I was. In her warm presence, all my envy disappeared.
In the years since, we have bonded over our mutual interests in music and meditation, both on the phone and in person. I am very fond of her, but it’s so much more than that. I admire her political activism and ideals. She is a health care worker, and I’ve never heard her blame anyone for the difficulties she has endured. She lives with an easy, open acceptance that is challenging for me.
Twenty years after meeting my sister, my world was rocked again when I received a similar phone call from my mother. This time, it was her turn to be surprised by the discovery of a new family member. She was notified by Ancestry.com that she was a close genetic match to a woman she didn’t recognize.
My grandparents had passed away years before, so there wasn’t anyone to confirm this biological connection. When Mom showed me the woman’s photo on Facebook, my breath caught in my throat. She had red hair and a dreamy, far-off look on her face that I recognized all too well ― she was a dead ringer for my mother. Geneticists confirmed our suspicions days later on a conference call. They are half-sisters.
Unlike my father, who had impregnated a girlfriend as a young man, my grandfather had an affair during his marriage to my grandmother. My mother and her sister were born only a few months apart, but on opposite sides of the country. When asked if her father had ever traveled to the East Coast, my mother explained that he was a traveling salesman. “We hear that a lot,” the geneticist told her.
I was taken aback by how upset I was by this revelation. I had always adored my grandfather, a World War II veteran who devoted himself to volunteer work. Though I knew his marriage to my grandmother was troubled, I didn’t know the extent of it. His betrayal tarnished the memories I had dancing with him at my wedding a few months before he died. It made me regret that I had named my son after him. I was angry at my grandfather for deceiving my mother, as I had been at my father for withholding a sister from me. It was frustrating that we couldn’t get answers from him, as I had been able to with my father.
“Once I saw how overjoyed my mother was to have discovered a sister so late in her life, I forgave him. I came to understand that his past, similar to my father’s, had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t their actions that were reprehensible, but their decisions to hide what happened, that had caused my pain.”
However, once I saw how overjoyed my mother was to have discovered a sister so late in her life, I forgave him. I came to understand that his past, similar to my father’s, had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t their actions that were reprehensible, but their decisions to hide what happened, that had caused my pain.
I’ve learned an important lesson from the hurt caused by family secrets. My husband and I are as open as we can be with our sons about our personal history. I tell them the truth when they ask me questions about my past. I empathize with my father when I am uncomfortable disclosing previous mistakes. Because of my history, I push past my discomfort and tell them anyway. I’d rather they hear it from me than someone else. As a result, we’re closer. At times I worry that they will judge me, or use the knowledge to justify their own mistakes, but so far that hasn’t happened. Although I think my father made a mistake in hiding his past, I view my relationship with my sister as a blessing, and I know that he feels the same way. The world is a richer place for knowing her, and we’re both grateful.
Likewise, my mother and her sister have become quite close and speak often. She has traveled to see her sister and attended her niece’s wedding. Last year, due to COVID, I attended a Zoom baby shower for my cousin instead of in person. It was still fun to be a part of the festivities and watch her open gifts. We continue to be in touch on social media, but it’s not enough. I hope to have the opportunity to travel to meet my new family and create more connections later this year. Enough time has been stolen from me and now its my responsibility to recover what has been lost.
Sarah Leibov is a writer and Feldenkrais practitioner in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and teenage sons. She is at work on a memoir about surviving her own teen years. You can find her on Twitter @LeibovSarah.