Memoir

The Day I Discovered I Had a Secret Sister

I was seventeen when I first saw her photo and I immediately knew: my family was not quite what it seemed, and we would never be the same again.

The Day I Discovered I Had a Secret Sister

I took the train up from Philly, where I lived with my mom and her second family, to visit my father in Boston. The Northeast whipped past, the coastline folding into a ruddy, autumnal New England. Prior to my sixteenth year and the end of my fathers tumultuous second marriage, it had always been the reverse: I would leave my fathers home to visit my mother. After I moved in with my mom, amidst the madness of divorce and hurt feelings between my dad, my stepmom and me, Id gone home one last time to pack my room, but instead my things were piled up on the sidewalk outside. I barely wanted any of it after that. From then on, I vowed to travel light. Now at seventeen, in my West German army jacket, with blue in my hair and Doc Martens on my feet, traveling alone, I didnt know where I belonged. I often felt that my true self was she who was in transit, she who was between parents, between conflicting expectations. As long as I stayed in transit I accepted no authority but Amtraks timetables. 

I arrived at South Station and made my way to my father’s office, waiting for him to finish up a meeting down the hall. I sat on the client side, looked across at the desk to the shelves behind. A photo caught my eye. It was a beautiful young girl, blonde hair blowing back in a gentle breeze, the sun glinting off her soft, wavy curls and pink complexion, her purple shirt offsetting the lush greenery behind her, a smile on her face. I already knew what I didn’t know. I felt pushed aside. My father had been the parent who was a constant, part of daily life, and now that I’d left, I thought, he’d found someone else. His secretary came into the office. I asked her who the girl was in the framed photos. She said, “You’d better ask your dad.” I sat and waited in the leather-backed chair. I tried to read. I stared at the photo.

Photo courtesy Libby Emmons
The photo of the author’s long-lost sister that sat in a frame in her father’s office. (Photo courtesy Libby Emmons)

In the car, on the way back to my father’s first-ever bachelor flat, I asked him who she was.

“Do you remember Debbie?” He stole a glance at me and went back to watching the road.

I asked: “Do I have a sister?”

He laughed. He was surprised I had guessed. I didn’t tell him that it wasn’t a guess, that I had known upon seeing her picture that we were connected. My Dad explained how he had come to discover his now twelve-year-old daughter. He’d reconnected with God while living alone for the first time in his life, and it was faith that made him seek. I was aiming to renounce God, and I admit this did sound a bit hollow to me. What was clear was that Dad had found a new child, and I felt discarded. I was angry. She’d been searched out, she’d been found, but I’d been here all along, and where did that leave me? In transit. My dad had been a shell of a man for years, barely available for a word, never mind any real communication or kindness. Where had he been? And how dare he stage a comeback as soon as I was gone?

Prior to the split – and during – life in our family home had been tense. I would get off the bus after school and pray to God that no one would be home, so that I couldn’t get in trouble. If no one was home, no one could tell me how horrible I was, how badly I was failing their expectations, expectations that seemed to shift based on what mood my dad and stepmom were in at the time. My stepmom would scream at me, her face inches from mine, while I wrote “cry and die” with my tongue on the roof of my mouth, her fingernails digging welts into my arm. My father looked at me with a permanent expression of disgust. I was hit with a broom, I was pushed down the stairs, I was punched in the face. We talked a lot about what I was doing wrong, and I felt certain that I would never be able to live up to who they wanted me to be.

Where was my sister during all this? I wondered, why wasn’t she here with me? Couldn’t we each have taken half the blows instead of me taking it all? I knew it was the wrong thing to think but I thought it anyway. It was years before I learned that her fate had been to suffer in ways I could never have imagined.

I wanted to meet her immediately. My father arranged it. My memory of that weekend is like watching a silent film. Driving north with our dad I remember snow but not cold. I can see myself in the oaky kitchen of her family’s home, the long countertop. Her oldest sister sat on a stool and looked at me, a long row of gold studs in her ears. Once I saw my sister I didn’t see anyone else, but I heard my heart beating as it stretched and reached out for her. She came with us back to the motel where we were staying. She jumped on the bed. In my memory I watch her go up and down, her blonde hair bounces, she laughs. She doesn’t know what to do with me; I don’t know what to do with her. I love her. I watch her bounce.

She doesn’t remember this part. And she barely remembers her mother, Debbie, who played guitar and sang with my father, dark hair falling into her eyes, a smile as she shook it back. My sister doesn’t share these memories of her mother and father together, and for those first twelve years she didn’t even know about our father at all. A question we’ve shared, and asked aloud once or twice, is if our father knew, and if he had the opportunity to know.

I eventually learned that my sister spent her childhood in foster care. Debbie’s mental illness had left her unable to care for of her daughter. When my sister was seven, she was adopted by her aunt and uncle, who became mom and dad, and brought into a family with two brothers and two sisters. I knew these facts, but only now, 23 years later, when I decided to write about this experience did I ask her about it directly. She said she didn’t think she could talk about it, but would write it down.

Everything changed around me while I stayed exactly the same,my sister writes, stuck in time while everything evolved at hyper-speed. On her twelfth birthday, while she was visiting her foster mom, her youngest brother was struck by a car and killed outside the family home. Again, her world heaved.

She writes that a few months later her grieving parents took her alone for ice cream, and handed her a letter from our father. The first thing she felt was that her position in the world she knew was shifting, just like mine would a few months later in my father’s office. She wondered:“Would he come take me from my parents? Would my parents resent me? Would they send me to be with this strange man who said I was his daughter? They explained that it was my choice if I wanted to speak to him. I didnt know what to choose.

So much had been asked of her already: that she grow up without a healthy mother, without knowing her father, that she find comfort and security with adopted strangers, that she keep quiet about abuse suffered in their home or risk the security she’d found, that she endure grief, accept the embrace of a new family with an open heart. Now my father was asking her one thing more. She made the choice to see him, and she wasn’t sure if it was the right one.

I could sense her insecurity, standing in her family’s kitchen, the thick snowflakes accumulating outside. I wanted to tell her I understood about disloyalty: she had a family, she didn’t want to betray their love by caring for us, she didn’t want to make them feel lesser by accepting whatever sisterhood I was in a position to offer. I wanted to be my actual self with her, and even though I didn’t know who that was, I desperately wanted to offer.

We wrote letters to each other, and in one I must have asked many questions, because she responded:

Ill answer your big paragraph of questionsmy life hasnt been the best but is looking up and yes I believe in Heaven and Hell and I feel lonely sometimes and I look like whats in the picture and I think our father is nice and Id love to be your sister and when I was little I was afraid of the dark and I like to write poetry… 

She came to visit me in Philadelphia, and once I was in college, in New York. I tried to make clear to her that wherever I was, whatever I was doing, my door was open to her at all times. But when she ran away from home, she went to stay with a friend. I wish I’d asked her to come stay with me.

In the years since, as I’ve come to terms with my own belief in a non-interventionist but loving God, I’ve often wondered at my father’s faith-driven search for his long-lost daughter. Did faith drive him out into the world or deeper into himself? Was the secret of my sister being kept from him or was he keeping it? I had always looked at my dad as something of a super human, a larger-than-life force who knew, implicitly, right from wrong, good from bad, and could levy those pronouncements down to us mere mortals. Which is why it was so crushing to realize that he was a simple human, like me. I was angry at him for what he had put me and my sister through. I’d expected better of him. It forever changed how I thought about my dad. It took me years to understand that my father had fallen short of his own expectations, more than he had anyone else’s.

My thinking now is that my Dad didn’t mean to keep her a secret. I think that if there were clues to the existence of my sister he let them be only clues. He let his already vague awareness of these clues slip from the front of his mind; he shuffled them like so many bits of paper until it was buried. He didn’t keep my sister a secret from me, or from my new stepmother – he kept his daughter a secret from himself. When he came to faith, he found himself cracking open, and had to fall to pieces, then rebuild entirely in order to become a better man.

In the summer of 2015 we all gather at my auntie’s on an idyllic, rambling, gentleman’s farm in New Hampshire. My sister’s husband can’t make it, neither can mine, but we both venture forth with our kids, her two boys, and my one. My sister is tall and pretty, with blonde hair that she’s straightened for the occasion, and a strapless summer dress that shows off her shoulders, broad and proud, like mine. My son scrambles after his older cousins, in awe, wanting to be included. The boys are annoyed the way older kids are when a little one wants to tag along, but they relent, in that way that big kids do when they remember how it felt to always chase after. I hear her laugh off across the grass, talking to our aunties, our cousins, our brother and younger sisters. I want her all to myself. I watch our sons splashing in the pool. I want to run to her and hold on to her the way I imagine I would have, in our youth, when things were too rough for both of us to handle alone. I hear her laugh, I want to capture it and pour it into that place in my heart that still hurts. She appears poolside and reclines in the lawn chair beside me. She breathes out, a relaxed sound; the sun warms our skin. I can feel her peace, and I believe fully that she can feel mine.