Susan Penwarden


Easter weekend, 1967 while my father’s great aunt we received a call to say that my maternal grandmother had died. I was the oldest of four, my brothers were eight and six, and my little sister was four. Since I was the oldest and for some reason often butted heads with my paternal grandmother, I was chosen to go to the wake and funeral for my maternal grandmother in the city, this was about two hours away.

While there, like any nine-year-old, I played with my cousins and got to know my maternal extended family. Due to the distance, I had not had a chance to get to know my aunts, uncles, and cousins very well.

We stayed with my aunt in an old Victorian style house. The house had air vents in the floors to allow heat to rise from the main floor into the upper floor. While sitting in the bathroom, which was right over the kitchen, I overheard through the vent two of my aunts talking. My oldest aunt Mary was telling my younger aunt Lillian that she had no idea why I had been allowed to come to the funeral. She continued to give her reasons, one of which was that I was not even a legitimate child of my mother’s and that I had been conceived before my parents were married. I was not my father’s daughter.

She thought she knew who my father was. When my mother was young, she babysat for my aunt, and had been caught in bed with my aunt Mary’s ex-husband. This led my aunt to believe that I was actually my ex-uncle’s child. Shortly after my aunt caught them in bed, she left her husband and her young children aged 3 and 5.

Fast forward about four years. After trying to process this information and being unable to comprehend the impact of my aunts’ conversation, I finally got the nerve to ask my mother what my aunt had been talking about. I asked her if my dad was my dad or if my uncle was actually my father. Of course she denied that anything like that had ever happened.

Over the next few years, the subject came up a few times, and my mother denied the facts every time.

I must admit, she gave me many reasons to doubt her. I remember from the time I was five years old being told to not tell my dad that different men had come to visit her through the day while he was at work. These men included my paternal aunt’s husband (her brother-in-law), my dad’s cousin, neighbors, and others in the community.

When I was about eleven years old, I remember my brothers and my little sister and I kneeling on the couch looking out the front window and praying mom would make it home before dad so there wouldn’t be an argument that night.

The week before I was married, my future husband and I both approached her with the question yet again. She denied, denied, denied and again told me not to mention this to my dad.

Throughout the years the infidelity continued. Always covering her tracks by saying she was at a baby shower, Tupperware party, or nursing a sick friend. As time went on she stayed out longer and longer and my dad sat at home playing old country music songs repeatedly. One song I remember was by Charlie Pride The Snakes Crawl at Night. I still cry if it happens to be playing somewhere.

My father had a really bad heart. The doctor kept telling him the stress was too much for him. My mother didn’t seem to care. Then on Feb 13, 1986, she came home and found him dead. He had taken my sister to work at 11:00 pm, came home and got ready for bed, and fell headfirst into the closet and died there alone of a heart attack. I never forgave her.

Within two weeks she had moved her young boyfriend into the house. He was four years younger than me. Okay, enough about her. But when she died in 2016, she was not alone.

For Christmas 2022 my daughter gave me an Ancestry kit. I turned 65 the day I sent the kit in before the New Year. By the end of February, I had my results. Well my father’s side of the family was not on my matches. He was not bio-dad. And, I didn’t see my aunt’s ex-husband’s family on my matches either. I had no idea who the names were on my paternal side.

 Luckily I had first cousin paternal match that contacted me within a week. Between us, we figured out who my bio-dad was. He helped me get in touch with my new half-brother Chris. We met in person on March 19, 2023. I held out my hand for a handshake and he pulled me close and gave me the sweetest hug. He told me “we hug in this family”. It was one of the best moments of my life.

Chris lives 25 minutes away. I had passed his house so many times on my way to appointments in his town. We talk at least three times a week now. We have Sunday suppers together and we are very much alike.

Chris filled me in our family history. My bio-dad had passed on in 1987, six years after I was married. I had also had a half sister who passed in 2004. Her daughter and I have become very close even though we are 1000 miles apart. I also have an older half-brother. He is just four months older than me. Yep you do the math on that one. My oldest brother and I have met a few times. It went really well.

But, there is another twist in my family roots. In January 2024 I was contacted by another young lady who I did not know. Her dad was an adoptee. Yep, you guessed it. He is actually the oldest of my mother’s children. She would have been 15 when he was born. She never said a word to anyone that I know of about his birth. He was born in a large city 100 miles South of where I was born.

My newest niece has told me he does not want to know about his biological mother or any siblings he may have. I have left that door open and if he should ever choose to know me, he is very welcome.

By the way, both of my two older brothers have the same name—Michael. I think this is the end of finding siblings. Fingers crossed. I went from being the oldest of four siblings to the second oldest of seven siblings, to being the third oldest of eight. In my childhood, I had two brothers and a sister and now I have five brothers and two sisters.

Never give up seeking truth. The day will come when the truth will be known. For me it has definitely been worth the wait. I am in therapy now. I cannot and do not want to forgive my mother. Maybe therapy will help me deal with the grief of never knowing my bio-dad and my little sister who passed away.