Leanne Domotor was not sure how to break the news to her mother and an aunt. She finally invited them over for dinner last month in Brantford, Ont. The three women and their husbands were at the table when Domotor took a deep breath.
She had a revelation to share about their beloved dad, her grandfather.
Whatever worries she felt soon fell away. The story stunned and delighted Domotor's mom, Linda Lee Costen, 78, and Costen's younger sister, Sharon Wingrove, 76. Within minutes, they were making a call to set up a meeting with 84-year-old Audrey Owen of Clarence.
She is a sister they never knew they had. A few weeks ago, they connected for the first time. For Father's Day, Audrey finally knows the history of her birth father and how she came to be through a night of teenage romance at Crystal Beach, the closed and still-lamented Canadian amusement park that holds magical resonance on both sides of the Niagara River.
For this family, make that as magical as it can be.
“Two crazy kids meet up there one night in 1934, and we get my mother,” said Audrey's son, Gary Owen of Lancaster, who helped bring this all about.
His strong resemblance to the late Fred McColman, a Brantford man who turns out to be his grandfather, is a pivot in the tale. Even before Costen and Wingrove closely studied the Ancestry DNA findings that locked in all these ties, they saw Gary’s picture and knew it was true.
For Audrey Owen, the questions begin with earliest memory. As an infant, she was adopted by Glenn and Nellie Wagner, a Buffalo couple she described as selfless and loving parents. The adoption was handled privately, and the curious Audrey, knowing she and her only sister were both adopted, offered a childhood question to her mom when she was 8 or 9.
“Who’s my real mother?” she said, and Nellie’s hurt reaction – "I'm your real mother!" – made Audrey decide she had best keep that one to herself. Still, on more than one occasion, Nellie pointed out a woman who worked in the old Hens & Kelly department store and handed Audrey a tantalizing clue.
Before the adoption, she said, that woman would have been your aunt.
Audrey remembered. Out of respect to her parents, she waited many years, until after their deaths, to call the woman who worked at the store. She was indeed a biological aunt. The woman helped arrange a meeting with Audrey's birth mother, whose husband, it turns out, was angrily opposed to any long-term contact.
As a 16-year-old in 1934, the birth mother explained, she went to Crystal Beach and spent a few unexpected and intimate hours with a boy she met there. She came home, found out to her shock that she was pregnant, and her family arranged an adoption. She knew nothing more about the boy, who had no knowledge of the baby.
Audrey, who graduated from the University at Buffalo and worked for many years as a school nurse, sighed and accepted it. The contacts soon ended. Audrey eventually learned of her birth mother's death, and she and her husband, John, kept their focus on three children of their own, Jack, Dawn and Gary.
Facing what seemed like impossible obstacles, the quest all but ended for her birth dad. That was before she could dream of easy access to DNA testing that swept away the limitations of searches based on old documents or memory, testing that provides rock-solid confirmation of otherwise unknown relatives.
Megan Smolenyak, a nationally known genealogist and researcher, said it seems as if she learns every day of two or three DNA reunions that almost surely would not have happened even a decade ago.
"As this continues," she said, "I think you'll find that almost every family has some kind of surprise."
Certainly, that was true for Audrey Owen and her Canadian sisters. Last Christmas, her son Gary, 59, bought one Ancestry kit for her and another for himself. Gary deeply loved his late grandparents, but harbored natural curiosity. He thought maybe, just maybe, he might find some connection to the biological grandfather he never knew.
To use baseball parlance, it was a grand slam.
In Canada, Leanne Domotor, 55, had also signed up for Ancestry. The initial results were typical, connecting her to many distant cousins linked by shards of DNA, until a new notice struck her with a jolt. There was a stranger near Buffalo in her 80s of such close kinship that Domotor realized the woman had to be a biological aunt.
Thanks to their shared use of the same Ancestry website, she and Gary were able to contact each other. They began to correspond, and Domotor looked at his photo.
There it was.
Gary bore a strong resemblance to her grandfather, Fred McColman, described by Domotor as “a fantastic, fantastic man.” He was a mechanic of Scottish ancestry, a devoted husband and father beloved around Brantford for his singing, joke-telling and sheer love of life until his death in 1969.
He also had two living daughters, including Domotor's mother. At the family dinner, Domotor broke the news: They had an older sister, through their dad. Once the disbelief wore off, the older women felt a sense of wonder. Their mother had not met their father until 1938, four years after Audrey was conceived.
The notion of Crystal Beach made powerful sense. Their grandfather was a carpenter who helped build the original Cyclone, the roller coaster that came before the fabled Comet, and several of his sons, including Fred, held summer jobs at the famed amusement park that later closed down.
By the end of that dinner, the sisters were on the phone with their until-then-unknown nephew, an ecstatic Gary Owen. Within a week or so, Wingrove and Costen and their husbands were on their way to Audrey's home in Clarence.
The Canadian sisters arrived to hugs, tears and laughter from Audrey, who was there with her children, Dawn and Gary, and their family. They began handing around a slew of pictures, and every now and then Audrey would weep from joy. They also cut a cake and shared a toast, in which Gary raised a cup and said in appreciation:
“To Fred … you dog!”
Everyone roared. Costen and Wingrove said their dad was an exuberant and soulful guy, and they have no doubt about one key element.
If he had known of Audrey, he would have somehow played a role in her life.
"I just feel it’s amazing that at 84, she’s got an answer," Costen said.
Already, there are plans for more gatherings this summer. Audrey has trouble explaining what it means, how she now has framed photos of two different dads set out for Father's Day.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a wonderful family,” she said, “and my adoptive parents were wonderful people. But it’s great knowing who these people are, and to know they are such nice people.”
She paused, then said, “I wish I could have known him.”
In a way, through her new sisters, she does. Costen and Wingrove clearly inherited their father's warm personality. They arrived in Clarence with a gift for Audrey, a plaque marking the end to what you might call the longest of all roller-coaster rides from Crystal Beach.
"Every family has a story," it reads. "Welcome to ours.”
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more of his work in this archive.