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My New Sisters

Rona Fernandez expected to be nervous the first time she met her father, but she didn't expect the comfortable bond she would find with her new sisters.

Rona Fernandez photo by Hasain Rasheed

Rona prepares for her wedding with her sister, Arlene (left)

Photo by Hasain Rasheed

There’s a story that I met my father when I was a few months old, just before he left  my mother and me behind for good, but of course I don’t remember that. After that, I heard from him three times: he called me while I was in college (I refused to speak with him), he sent me a cryptic letter and a $1,000 check for my graduation, and he once mailed me an empty Christmas card, signed “Best Wishes.”

So I didn’t get to choose whether I had a father when I was growing up, but always felt a void, knowing he was out there somewhere. Fourteen years later, after an uncomfortable exchange of phone calls and emails, I flew to Philadelphia with my partner, Henry, to meet my father for the first time. As we got near the bottom of the airport escalator, I saw him: portly and balding, with a round, fat-cheeked face and eyes just like mine, only older. Two women in their thirties were with him—my half-sisters. I knew I’d meet them on this trip, but I hadn’t expected it so soon. I figured he had brought them along to act as a buffer, something to distract both of us from the tension of this first meeting.

I let go of Henry’s hand, and we all politely introduced ourselves. My sisters’ names were Arlene and Janet. Janet, the younger one, had a developmental disability and kept to herself. She held  a bouquet of flowers, which Arlene prompted her to hand to me. My father seemed nervous, and avoided my eyes, but Arlene was smiling and friendly. As we walked toward the baggage claim, she struck up a conversation, pulling me aside as my father chatted with Henry.

“He just told me about this a few days ago,” she said, jerking her head towards our father. “He kept bugging me to come, so I said ‘Yes.’”

Her tone was conspiratorial, but also apologetic, as if she knew that I hadn’t expected to be confronted immediately by three “new” relatives. Her comment  hinted that she didn’t hold our father in such high regard either.

As they drove us to our hotel, I found it surprisingly  easy to talk to Arlene. She was confident, congenial, almost a little bossy—qualities that have been used to describe me. My father seemed stiff, interrupting our easy banter with too-jokey remarks, as if we already shared a familiarity that I felt he hadn’t yet earned.

“You don’t need to stay at a hotel, you could just stay with us,” he said, as if I were his eldest child who’d just come home from college, instead of the daughter he’d abandoned more than thirty years earlier.

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“They want to stay in the city, Dad,” Arlene said, and I was glad that she was there. When they dropped us off and we said our good-byes, I felt relieved to see my father go—we were both uncomfortable—but I was sad to part from my sisters, even though we were going have dinner with them all later that night. It was surprising  and gratifying to already feel a bond with both of them. We hugged before they left—it felt like the most normal and familiar thing in the world.

The rest of the trip went about the same as this first hour of meeting my father and sisters: my father continued to act as if we had the most normal relationship in the world, which was more insulting than pleasant, but I quickly formed a relationship with my sisters, especially Arlene, that I knew would last even when I returned back to California. And it did, and it has. I didn’t choose who my sisters were, but I did choose to get to know them after half a lifetime of separation. I may not have a relationship with my father, but I now have two sisters whom I love and care about, my new family.


Rona Fernandez is a writer, fundraising consultant and activist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She blogs at ronafernandez.wordpress.com

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Rona Fernandez photo by Hasain Rasheed
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