The cousin I didn’t know I had

Leslie & family

Leslie & family

One day about two months ago, my mother called me at 9:30 am, a full half-hour before the usual time. “I have something to tell you,” she said. Normally, my mother doesn’t announce that she has something to say. She just says it.

“In 1965, my sister went to California and had a baby,” she said.

“Your sister,” I responded. “Your sister had a baby.” This was a foreign language. I was trying hard to learn it.


“Your sister is Aunt Sue,” I reminded her. Aunt Sue had been married once, for nine years, but had never had a child.

“Susan was 22,” Mom said. “She got pregnant, moved to California, and got a Kelly Girl job.”

“Aunt Sue had a baby?”

“Our mother went out to help her for about a month. Gam was even in the delivery room with her.”

“What?” I said. My grandmother hadn’t been a fan of physical intimacy in general, so to think of her helping to birth a baby was surprising. And dear.

“They kept the secret for 44 years. My mother, my father, and my sister. Apparently they never discussed it again.”

“I don’t understand.”

Mom pressed on. “Leslie is her name,” she said. “She got in touch through the adoption agency.”

“Leslie,” I said, beginning to realize the baby was quite possibly a 44-year-old woman by now. Even though I couldn’t get the image of Aunt Sue in a delivery room out of my mind.

“Leslie is coming to visit,” Mom said. “She wants to meet us.”

And so it happened. My twin nieces and I were got ready to meet them with the anxiety of women getting ready for a fancy dinner, or a wedding. We bustled. We primped. We looked each other over as we rushed from bedroom to bedroom. We stopped for a moment in the foyer before we left. “I’m nervous,” said Silvana. We all were. I realized we all wanted to make a good impression.

We met my (childless, or so I had thought) Aunt Sue and her daughter Leslie at the Williamsburg train station June 24th. Leslie had bravely flown away from San Francisco, and her family, for a full week. She stayed with Aunt Sue a few days in Washington, then they both took a train to meet more of her new family in Virginia. We all drove to Yorktown, so that my mother could meet her niece.

The evenings we spent together were incredible. Leslie was so interested in our family. She wanted to know everything. And we have a large family. She listened patiently about each one. And she brought photographs from home and told us about her life, and about each of her children. She laughed a lot, and is charming and warm.

What I’ve learned since that first phone call about Leslie is that my Aunt Sue has never regretted giving up her child. She had what even then must have been called a one-night stand and never saw the boy again. Maybe there was regret there, but not about raising a baby alone, with so many career goals in mind.

As soon as she was born, Leslie was adopted by a couple who had had one child, then were told they couldn’t have any more. After Leslie, they adopted a third child, and then the wife got pregnant again. Leslie, from what I can tell, has had a good life, and is now the mother of three. Leslie’s family told her from the very beginning about her heritage, always the right thing to do, and she appears to have no bitterness, only gratefulness. Leslie is coming back to visit in October, with her entire family.

Meanwhile, Aunt Sue went on with her distinguished career as a museum curator and director, not to mention author, all of which would have been challenging for her as a single mother in the 60s and 70s. For one thing, we probably would have spent a lot less time with her. And we adored Aunt Sue! Aunt Sue has just retired and discovered a new family.

I don’t think I’ve assessed all my feelings about this. Except that the world isn’t what you think it is sometimes, and that even people you know well have secrets. I’ve also learned – once again – that the world is more fascinating each day.

Oh, there’s also the matter of a half-brother I didn’t know I had, which I discovered about 10 years ago. But that’s another story.


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