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A Piece of the Family Cake

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

I'm sitting here trying to decipher an old recipe for chocolate cake. It's actually a picture of a recipe written on a stained piece of scrap paper by a woman I never met, but feel weirdly close to. Her name is Lillian. She is my grandmother.

You see, I am a family secret. A walking, talking, living, breathing example of what happens when you think it can't happen to you. I am the result of that feeling of oh-so-good when it's oh-so-wrong.

My mother, separated from her husband, had an affair with a married man.

I am the product of that affair.

I grew up in a family that, like all families, has it's flaws but I knew I was loved. I also knew that I didn't fit in. I didn't know why or how. But I knew I was different from the rest.

You see, my mother's ex-husband claimed me as his. Until I was about 19, I thought that man was my biological father as well. I wondered if I was a midlife crisis. I sometimes wondered if one of my siblings had gotten pregnant and my parents raised that child as their own. It was, after all, the late 60s in rural Idaho. A birth to an unwed mother or the product of an affair would have been something you'd have to hide -- social pressure being what it was at the time.

Just before my 19th birthday, my mother sat down and explained to me that my biological father was a man she'd met and loved while living in Elko, NV. He had told her that leaving his wife would kill her and he was not willing to take that risk. My mom came back to Idaho suicidal and ashamed. She raised me when she could. My "dad" (the man who claimed me) would take over as needed. I always had two families; hers and his. That is my normal.

As for the biological family, I knew about them and I suspected they knew nothing of me. Not only was this man married, he was Mormon. I know Mormon families. This would either been a devastating issue or no big deal. I knew there would be no middle ground here.

For a while I tried to find the man. I spent hours creating scenarios of what that might be like. What I might want from him. What he might want from me. My mom maintained that he'd tried to reach out to her over the years. I maintained if he couldn't be bothered to send a fucking postcard, I wasn't sure how much I needed to do with him. I was curious. Yes. Mad? Abso-fucking-lutley. About 20 years ago, I hired a private detective who confirmed what I already knew; my biological father was gone. He had died two years after I found out he existed.

Fast forward to November of 2016 when I got a text message from another private detective. She's found my public DNA profile on and was trying to find information about my "grandfather". My DNA results showed me as a close relative of her client. After a few questions, she gave me the name. It wasn't my grandfather she was looking for, it was him: my biological father.

My DNA had been public on Ancestry for a few years. I'd met a long lost cousin from my mom's side, but knew that most of the names that matched my profile belonged to HIS family. I didn't even think about that when I ordered the test. To be honest, once I found out that my biological father had passed away, I closed the book on that part of my life and pretty much forgot about it. Once I saw the names matching my DNA profile, I figured if one of the matches on my Ancestry profile asked me who I was.... well, we'd cross that bridge when we came to it.

Suddenly on that late November day, I was standing on the bridge. Smack-dab in the middle.

I told the investigator I doubted the family knew of my existence and to please be respectful of their feelings. I wanted nothing from them, but was happy to communicate with them if that's what they wanted. A few days later, my half-brother called.

He'd found me on Facebook. Not only did I look like the other women in his family, he and I had mutual friends.

This world, my friends, is a very small place.

Over the next few weeks and months there was a flurry of activity. I flew to Las Vegas to meet him. He and his wife hosted a family gathering to introduce me and the woman who had hired the detective (who turned out to be the daughter of another half-sibling) to the rest of the family. I found an aunt who is so much like me we can finish each other's sentences. This family took me in -- never once questioning that I was theirs. "We couldn't deny you if we wanted to," one cousin said. "You look just like the rest of us."

So over the past 18-months or so, I've had to sort out my identity. If you've never been through something like this, it's all but impossible to understand. I sat numb for a long time. A few months after finding this side of family, it was my biological father's birthday. I asked his sister how her mother would have celebrated. What sort of cake would she have made for him?

She suggested an apple pie.

So I made the pie and cried, and screamed and got mad. I wrote a scathing letter to him, admonishing him for abandoning me. I visualized him hugging me and telling me he was sorry. I spent A LOT of time in my therapist's office that winter and then would have imaginary conversations with my bio-father on the drive home. I'm still sorting through things. Let me assure you that family secrets suck. I've yet to see how they've helped anyone, anywhere. Being the family secret forces you to question everything in your life because in order for family secrets to be kept, a lot of lies have to be told. Secrets provide a shitty foundation on which to build a relationship with others and sure as hell make your relationship with yourself a lot of hard work.

Which brings me to this chocolate cake. The day I first met my aunt, she held my chin in her hands and said, "Let me look at you. You have my mother's eyes." I can't explain it, but that statement broke me -- I sobbed. No...I flat-out-ugly-cried in this woman's arms.

Perhaps it was the validation that I belonged? The healing of a hole in my heart? I know not. I just cried.

I don't have many pictures of her mother, my grandma Lillie. I've seen a few and I can see a resemblance between her and me.

The other day, one of my cousin's sent me a message via Facebook. I haven't met this cousin yet, but she said she'd been following my posts and thought it was pretty cool I seemed to have so many of the personality traits of the family. She told me the women in our family are survivors.

"Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and hold your head up high! More than simply survivors, we are all bad-asses. Smart, strong, generous... and please tell me you're a hothead!"

The conversation made my day and filled my heart in ways I cannot explain.

She also sent me a few of my grandmother's recipes. Apparently Grandma Lillie rarely cooked with a recipe and what few are written down are written on scraps of paper that had originally been used for something else.

As I said the other day, the word "connection" and all of it's meanings has been bouncing around my heart and head lately. Right now, this recipe for chocolate cake is my connection to woman I never had the chance to meet.

So, I'm heading for my kitchen and hoping Grandma Lillian will guide my hands as I make this cake. Maybe someday, when we all meet again, she'll be proud of me for trying. I hope we will look into our matching eyes and find connection. Until then, I have cake.

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