Finding a Sister by Judy F. Kugel
On my half-sister Florence’s hundredth birthday, not even a Boston nor’easter with frigid temperatures could keep her from coming to our home to celebrate. Fifteen people who love her were there. The youngest, her two great-grandsons, aged three and six, the oldest my husband Peter, aged eighty-six.
Florence wore a jeweled crown made for her by our seven-year-old neighbor, Sonja, who also provided a cape and boa to help make our queen-for-a-day look the part. Cards and calls came from all over.
She loved it.
Hundredth birthdays are not so rare these days. But celebrating the hundredth birthday of a half-sister that you first met when she was eighty-two, is a bit unusual.
Eighteen years earlier my brother Don received a letter from an eighty-two-year-old woman who wrote to tell him that she might be his half-sister. She said that my father had been married to her mother before he met my mother, and that she was one of their two children. According to Florence, after my dad left, her mother put both children in an orphanage because she was unable to care for them.
Don read the letter to me and said that he was going to ignore it. He was sure that our mother was our father’s first and only wife and that the woman who wrote it was a fraud.
I asked him to send me the letter.
And that’s how I got a twenty-one-years-older-than-I-am half-sister. I found her phone number and called. Florence had known about my brother, but not about me because she had lost touch with our father when she entered nursing school before I was born.
It was a bitterly cold and windy March day three months later when my husband Peter, our son Seth and I met Florence for brunch in New York City. I learned that she was a widow with two adult children and two grandsons. She had been a nurse and then had become a teacher of nurses.
The previous fall, at Thanksgiving dinner with her daughter Amy, her son-in-law Ken and her grandchildren, the talk turned to how their small family had gotten even smaller with the recent death of Florence’s brother. Florence suggested that maybe the family wasn’t quite as small as they thought, that she had a half-brother who didn’t know she existed. Ken decided to try to find my brother Don. And, with the help of Google, he did.
Until recently, I had seen Florence only a dozen or so times. I would see her on my business trips to New York City, and one summer we visited her at a camp for the elderly in the Berkshires. We had dinner together when she visited a grandson in graduate school nearby. And we attended another grandson’s wedding in 2008.
Two years ago, Florence’s daughter Amy and her husband moved to Boston from Minneapolis to be with their son Jonathan while he was treated for the colon cancer that took his life last fall. A year later, at ninety-nine, Florence decided she probably shouldn’t be living on her own any longer, so she too moved to Boston.
Suddenly, I had a whole new family nearby.
Florence is rather fragile now. She doesn’t hear very well, even with the help of her hearing aids, and she uses a walker. But she still has her great sense of humor.
I will always regret that I didn’t get to know her sooner.
By Judy F. Kugel
Judy Kugel retired as Associate Dean of Students at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2013. She has counseled people making career and life choices since 1970 when she co-founded the Boston Project for Careers, a nonprofit organization that developed opportunities for men and women who were seeking part-time jobs, often after being at home with young children. The Boston Project for Careers was one of the first organizations to promote job-sharing for professionals.
Her personal essays and travel articles have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. She has explored life transitions throughout her career and led several workshops on that subject. An avid writer of journals, she went public in 2008, when she started her twice-weekly blog at www.70-something.com
She is the author of the just-published book 70-Something: Life, Love and Limits in the Bonus Years