October 18, 2008

Paths cross, lives change
By Aaron Wasserman/Daily News staff
Even after a 70-year separation, family bonds can be rekindled. Clara Brothers, an 80-year-old who hadn't known a relative since she was a girl, has proved this to be true.

Last January, Clara had a routine meeting with her social workers and the caretaker with whom she had lived the past 14 years.

Clara, 80, had been placed in Viola Michalik's Sutton home by the Milford office of the Kennedy-Donovan Center, a nonprofit agency founded by Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.'s family nurse that serves the developmentally disabled.

She said although she enjoyed living with Michalik, people at the meeting recalled, she wanted to move in with her own family.

The problem was, no one knew of any of Clara's living relatives.

Clara was separated from her eight siblings at the age of 10, when her father died and her mother was ill. All were sent to foster care or, like Clara, a state institution for the mentally disabled. Records said everyone else had died.

"Clara broke down and said, 'I really want my own family,' and I said, 'I can't give you your family,' because we were under the impression all her siblings had passed on," said Carol Rollins, a state service coordinator who's overseen Clara's care for nearly 16 years. "It ached in her heart to have her family."

Little did she know a long-lost niece was nearby.

Only a few months before, Lisa Gallagher, 40, started working at the center's Milford office. Gallagher works in the program that places mentally disabled adults in private homes.

Gallagher often heard her co-worker Julie White, Clara's social worker at the center, talk after that January meeting about Clara's living situation.

The last name Brothers, the same as her paternal grandmother's, struck Gallagher. She suggested to her supervisor, Sandy Karlson, that maybe she and Clara were related.

"I don't know if I was half-joking because I don't know anyone from my father's side, but Sandy said, 'Why don't you look at the file?"' Gallagher said, recalling a conversation over lunch.

Later that afternoon, Gallagher did.

It turned out one of Clara's brothers, Theodore, had the same name and birthdate as Gallagher's father. Gallagher quickly deduced she is Clara's niece. After 70 years separated from her family, Clara was found by a relative working in the same office that was helping care for her.

"There was more information on those couple of pages than I'd known about my father's family," Gallagher said, adding about her father: "He really wasn't open about what happened as a child."

She said she took the following weekend to digest the revelation. She talked to her sister and decided to introduce Clara to the rest of the family.

On March 21, at the Mandarin restaurant in Milford, everyone met. Gallagher had a collage of family photos in tow. As Clara entered the room, Karlson said, "she had her hands already out to take everyone in."

"I was happy to hug you," Clara told her niece last week, recalling the reunion at the Kennedy-Donovan Center's Milford office.

"One of the things I remember her saying was, 'Where's my people?' We got a kick out of that," Gallagher said. "She was instantly smiling."

"We were all in tears, it was heart-wrenching," Karlson said.

But it was also a trying reunion. Clara, naturally, wanted to know about her brother, Theodore, with whom she was raised in Worcester. He had died, and it was Gallagher's job to break the news.

"She said, 'Where's Teddy?' and I said, 'Teddy has passed on,"' Gallagher recounted. "She rubbed his picture and said, 'I thought about you all the time, Teddy, and prayed for you.' It was heartbreaking and, as nice as it was to meet, it was hard."

Heightening the mystery, it turned out Lisa Gallagher grew up in Wrentham, about a mile away from what is now known as the Wrentham Developmental Center, a state facility for the disabled, where her aunt had lived for many years. No one in Gallagher's family ever realized.

"If my father had known she was there, she never would've been there," Gallagher said of Clara.

With a new family, Clara started doing the things families do, going to birthday parties and other get-togethers. The search for Clara's new home continued.

Gallagher said she was scouting one option when, one weekend, her aunt visited her house in Plainville, saw a vacant bedroom and suggested she move in. Clara started living with her family again Aug. 8.

Clara said she loves living with her niece and gets along very well with Gallagher's two sons, who call her "Auntie Clara," a nickname she hasn't heard before. Gallagher said her sister takes their aunt shopping and to yard sales - a favorite activity.

"She's all over the place," Gallagher said.

Clara's case managers say the unexpected, almost unfathomable, fortuitous reunion has boosted the spirits of a woman who they already described as sweet, witty and gregarious. And it all happened around Clara's 80th birthday.

"She's opened up so much and talks so much more," said Rollins, the state service coordinator. "It's wonderful. She's so obviously happy."

And for Rollins and White, the case manager at the Kennedy-Donovan Center, Clara's reunion has been a joy so rare, they become emotional when talking about it.

"I can't be any more excited than I am about this," White said. "To have somebody who has not seen her family for so many years - it's been years and years and years to think you don't have a family - and at 80 years old, you have a family. It brings tears to my eyes."

Aaron Wasserman may be reached at 508-634-7546 or awasserm@cnc.com.

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