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Finding joy amid grief; The death of the birth mother she had tried unsuccessfully to meet devastated Jackie Oddo. But through her newly found cousins, Oddo has had the chance to learn about the woman who gave her life

When Jackie Oddo came downstairs on the morning of Dec. 13, she noticed that her husband seemed oddly quiet and still as he read The Buffalo News in the kitchen of their Town of Tonawanda home.

"What are you looking at?" she asked.

Bart Oddo walked over to his wife and laid the obituary section in front of her.

"Oh my God," Jackie Oddo said, thunderstruck by what she saw.

"Marsha L. Straubinger, artist, dedicated volunteer. Aug. 17, 1942 -- Dec. 11, 2011," the obit read.

It was Oddo's birth mother. The woman who had given her up for adoption on a cold December day at a Buffalo hospital 50 years ago. The woman Jackie Oddo had reached out to but never got a chance to meet in person.

"Oh my God," Jackie Oddo recalled she kept saying.

"I was like I just couldn't function," she recounted.

Oddo realized that she had to go to the wake. She needed to meet the people who knew this woman whom she herself had never gotten a chance to get to know.

"This was my only opportunity to find out anything now," she thought. "I had to take that step and do it."

>The search begins

Jackie Oddo had grown up in a loving and supportive family, always knowing she was adopted, and being very comfortable with that fact.

"Because I had such a great, supportive life, I just never felt the need to search," she said. "Plus, you never know what you're going to find once you search."

Three years ago, having achieved a sense of balance and happiness in her life with her new husband and her two sons entering adulthood, she began to wonder about the woman who gave birth to her.

"That's when I felt I could take it to the next level and do a little research," she said.

"It was actually quite easy to find her."

Oddo had known a few details about her birth mother. She knew that her name was Marsha Carpenter. She figured her mother had been young when she had her. Her adoptive mother had told her on the day she brought her home from a Buffalo hospital -- she's not sure which one -- she had brought new baby clothes to take Jackie home in.

"She bundled me up," she said. "She walked me out to the car and for some reason, she decided to look back at the hospital and all the windows were filled with all the nurses and staff watching her take me away."

A friend of her adoptive mother who was a lawyer had arranged the private adoption.

Oddo reached out to that lawyer, and he told Oddo that the mother had gone to Kensington High School.

Oddo searched the Internet and saw that there was a reunion coming up for Kensington alumni. She emailed an organizer and said she was looking for Marsha Carpenter. The next morning, Oddo had a reply waiting for her in the inbox with Marsha's married name, Straubinger, her phone number and address.

"Within an hour I made the phone call," Oddo recounted.

Marsha Straubinger picked up the phone. "I've been expecting your call," she said.

The two had a wonderful conversation, Oddo said.

They talked about some basic things like family health history and then Oddo's "background," she said.

"She mentioned to me that at that time women did not have children out of wedlock," Oddo said.

As they talked, Oddo realized Straubinger didn't want to talk about Oddo's biological father. "I could sense a lot of pain," Oddo said. So she didn't ask anything more about that.

Straubinger told her about herself. She had married and been widowed five years ago. She also said she had never had any other children.

Oddo told her about her life and the two women quickly learned they had much in common.

"She loved to garden and I love to garden. She loved the sun and I love the sun."

They both had a love for the arts. "I always wanted to be an artist since I was a little girl," said Oddo, a professional liability broker at Russell Bond & Co. in Buffalo. "I took art classes in college, photography classes. But I just didn't have it."

Instead, Oddo always wore clothes and filled her home with things that had artistic flair. She and her husband also loved to go to all the art shows in the area, such as the Allentown Art Festival.

She found out Straubinger was a talented artist who sold artwork and handcrafted jewelry at those festivals.

They decided they would meet.

"I was going to go to her house," Oddo said.

Straubinger had bought a house in Williamsville after her husband died, and filled it with her artistic creations. She wanted to show it to Oddo.

But then, three days later, Straubinger called Oddo. She said she wasn't comfortable with her coming to the house. She suggested they meet at the Boulevard Mall instead.

"I understood," Oddo said. "She doesn't know who I am or anything. We decided what we'd be wearing and how we could find each other and all of that."

Two days later, Straubinger called again and said: "I can't do it."

Oddo was crushed. "It was harder than I thought it was going to be," she said.

But the women agreed that they should maybe take things a little slower. "She said she would mail me some pictures," Oddo said.

The pictures never came. And Oddo was disappointed.

On a Mother's Day a year or two later, Oddo printed up an extra photo of herself with her sons. She also picked up a pretty card with a flower on it. She began writing it to Straubinger. But then she stopped.

"I just couldn't do it," Oddo said.

They never had any other contact.

So it was a sudden and mind-blowing moment on Dec. 13 when Oddo looked at the picture in the obituary section and saw for the first time what her birth mother looked like. And saw how much she looked like this woman.

>Guests at the wake

That afternoon, Jackie and Bart Oddo drove to the Schlager DiVito Funeral Home in Snyder for the 2 p.m. visitation.

"I was scared as can be," Jackie Oddo said. "I had no idea what I was going to do there. But I knew I had to go."

The Oddos walked in together and saw Straubinger laid out in a coffin.

"We just walked over, and we just knelt," Jackie Oddo said.

Oddo looked at the woman in the coffin and didn't really know what to think or feel. Then, she and her husband went to a side room. Straubinger's family had filled it with her photography and paintings.

Jackie Oddo was transfixed. "I was trying to get an idea of who she was by looking at all of that," she said.

Mary Lynn Illos, Straubinger's niece who was very close to her aunt, approached the Oddos, not sure of who they were.

Oddo muttered something about knowing her from the "art community." She didn't know what to say.

Then Illos's brother, Gregory Vinal, also approached Jackie Oddo. He, too, was close to Straubinger, and had wanted to comfort this woman who seemed so visibly upset.

Vinal walked away to go to talk to someone else and Jackie Oddo told her husband that perhaps they should leave.

She had recalled in her conversations with Straubinger that she had said her family, particularly her niece and nephew, were dear to her.

"I didn't want to hurt these people," Oddo said.

Bart Oddo knew how important this opportunity could be to his wife. He suggested she tell the nice man that had just been talking to them. They could tell he was close to Straubinger because they had seen him conferring with the priest about the eulogy for the funeral the next day.

The Oddos asked Vinal to come over. "This is Marsha's daughter," Bart Oddo said, gesturing to his wife. "Marsha was Jackie's biological mother."

Vinal looked extremely surprised. He said something about how that made sense, because Straubinger had been a very private person and let few people into her life.

The Oddos gave Vinal their phone number and said they would be at the funeral the next day.

They got in their car. Jackie Oddo said she was overcome with a feeling of relief "as though a weight had been totally lifted from me."

After the first visitation hours were over, Straubinger's family members gathered at Illos' home in Snyder to eat and prepare for the 6 to 8 p.m. visitation.

Mary Lynn Illos, 47, was making tea in the kitchen when her brother, Vinal, 48, came in.

"In his lawyerly fashion, he said: 'Lynn. Here. Now.' "

He pulled his sister outside and asked her if she had met "anybody at the wake that you were really surprised to meet?"

Illos said she hadn't.

"Well, I did," said Vinal, and proceeded to tell his sister about Jackie Oddo.

>Bursting with emotion

Illos was stunned. She and her brother decided they should tell only a few other family members who they brought outside.

Then it was time to go back to the funeral home.

Illos was bursting with emotion. "It was almost like a gift because it took away my mourning and grief," she said. "It was like I felt hope. I felt excitement. That, 'Oh my gosh. There's a piece of Marsha left.' "

Because Straubinger never had other children and had few family members in Buffalo, she grew close to her late husband's family, particularly Illos and Vinal. She was like a second mother to them but also a good friend in whom they could confide. They grew up marveling at her artistic ability and her vivacious personality.

It had come as a surprise when she suffered a TIA, a kind of ministroke, on the day after Thanksgiving. Everyone had thought she would recover, but she had severe complications and within a few days, the bleeding in her brain was so bad that it was clear her end was near.

She was placed under hospice care at Millard Fillmore Hospital. Family members who came to say goodbye all noted how young and peaceful she looked. They also remarked at how long she appeared to be hanging on. Several people had asked Illos if she thought there was perhaps someone else Straubinger was waiting for before passing.

Looking back at that, Illos couldn't help but wonder if her aunt had in some way been waiting for Oddo.

The next morning, Illos saw Jackie Oddo in front of St. Benedict Church in Eggertsville.

She walked right up to her.

"She grabbed my hand and she held it tight and she just hugged me," Oddo said.

>Overwhelmed

The women didn't say a word. They just held hands, and Illos pulled Oddo with her as they walked into the church together.

Illos invited the Oddos to come sit in the front of the church with them. Oddo was overwhelmed.

Throughout the service at the church where Straubinger had sung in the choir, she stared up at a large photograph of Straubinger, amazed how much she looked like her.

She was filled with emotion as Vinal eulogized Straubinger. He talked about how Straubinger had hated being the center of attention. Her passing, he said, was in keeping with her infamous habit of leaving parties without saying goodbye.

After the funeral, Illos, Vinal and their spouses invited the Oddos to a breakfast and then to Illos' home. There, Jackie Oddo told her story to all of the family members.

They all noticed how much Oddo looked like Straubinger and also how her mannerisms were similar, too. As Oddo began eating some salad, someone noted she held her fork the way Straubinger did.

As the family sat and talked, Illos gave Oddo a gift: Straubinger's wedding and engagement rings. Illos had been wearing them since right before the funeral on her pinky finger. Oddo slipped them onto her ring finger. They fit perfectly.

Illos and Vinal invited Oddo to come to Straubinger's house the following day. There, they gave her photographs, acrylic paintings and jewelry that Straubinger had made. They gave her a stack of drawings of models in Jackie Kennedy-style garb that Straubinger had made while a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, just a couple of years after Oddo was born.

Vinal handed Oddo a book he had found in the house. Straubinger, a very religious woman, was a fan of Joyce Meyer. Tucked inside a copy of Meyer's "The Battlefield of the Mind," he found a cut-out of a "Dear Abby."

It was a letter from a man who had been adopted as a baby who asked Dear Abby to print what he'd like to say to his birth mother. The letter was evidence to Oddo that her birth mother had been thinking of her.

Oddo and Illos believe there's something spiritually significant about how everything unfolded since Straubinger's passing. It has been that much more special to them that it happened at Christmas time.

"I feel that she orchestrated this," Illos said. "She didn't have to explain herself."

Oddo chimed in: "She didn't have to worry about all that. She got to keep her life the way it was, but now she's able to share it."

Illos feels it was her aunt's way of giving her one final gift. "It's almost like she gave me a gift of still having her "

Oddo nodded. She received a gift from her birth mother through Straubinger's loved ones, she said. "They are so giving and loving and caring and unselfish," she said.

And now, Oddo can give something back to her birth mother, too. Through everything Straubinger's family has shared with her, she can now share all of that with her children.

"She has a legacy now," she said.

email: mbecker@buffnews.com