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Growing up fatherless and without siblings was really tough for Mom. Raised on Chicago's north side, Mom always felt different; she wanted to fit in and be like everyone else. She assumed her father had died, but digging through old documents after her mother died in 1992, discovered that her father, let's call him "Bill," hadn't died, but rather had disappeared, c. 1935, when mom was 6. Curious about her father, she hired a private investigator. But in those pre-Internet years, no information surfaced.

Fast forward to 2007. I'm living in Champaign in a house built in 1907. Ready to throw a theme party for the 100-year house celebration, I spend numerous hours at the Urbana Free Library, specifically the Champaign County Historical Archives on the second floor, gathering information about the house, its occupants, and neighboring homes. The librarians are knowledgeable; the project feels completed, and during the process I become "hooked" on doing research. Now, I'm hungry for another project.

So I embark on assembling our family tree. Aunt Judy has much information on our Dad's lineage. Mom knows a lot about her ancestors. And being a bit compulsive, within a few weeks, I've entered nearly 1,000 names, dates, birthplaces and so on of relatives living decades before me in Chicago, Omaha, New York and those many Jewish immigrants of my grandparents generation who came through Ellis Island, Castle Garden and other ports such as Halifax and Boston, from The Pale of Settlement, Kiev, Ukraine, Poland and Hungary, to make a better life in America.

But the missing ancestor is Grandpa Bill.

A chance conversation with a friend leads me to take a day trip to the Allen County Archives in Fort Wayne, Ind. Who knew they had the reputation of having a huge genealogy collection worthy of the three-hour drive each way?

I get to Fort Wayne and, frankly, am disappointed that their resources are hardly any more extensive than those in Urbana, and the archivists there not nearly as helpful as those at Urbana Free Library. Tired and feeling defeated, I am ready to head home until I stumble upon a database of obituaries; but it only contains about six American cities.

And there it is! A 1977 obituary of Jack, Grandpa Bill's brother, pops up, and one of the survivors is Bill. Like many obituaries, Jack's obituary lists survivors. I Google those three surviving daughters and contact them, with information about how we might be related. One daughter responds to me immediately, suggesting that I really want to talk with "Len," Bill's son. Oh my goodness, if Bill has a son, that means my Mom has a half-brother!!!

I share this amazing discovery with Mom, who's ready to "shoot the messenger." She doesn't want to hear that her Dad left, only to start a new family, Len, plus another son and daughter.

"Mom, talk to Len just once on the phone and let him fill in the holes about your Dad to give you some sense of closure," I encourage her.

I soon learn that Mom has spoken with Len, who plans to visit Chicago's north suburbs, so he and his wife can meet my Mom and Dad in May 2008. The visit goes amazingly well. Mom has become a "big sister" at age 80! I tease her that she gave me two little brothers and a sister, and now I have given her this gift of having three younger siblings of her own.

Mom and Len become the best of friends, planning several subsequent visits alternating Chicago area and Los Angeles, and have frequent phone conversations.

Sadly, Len felt the loss of his new "big sis," as we all did after she, a non-smoker, died of lung disease just past her 86th birthday, in 2015.

But this isn't really the end of the story.

Coincidentally, my daughter and husband, and now three small children, live near Los Angeles. Len and his wife have become the "in-town grandparents" helping with babysitting and participating in birthday parties and enjoying holidays with these grandchildren. Len often emails me photos of them taking the little ones to places like the local park or the Los Angeles Zoo, and tells me cute anecdotes about my little grandkids and the funny things they sometimes say or do. Len and his wife are filling a role that the "real grandparents" cannot possibly do, simply because of geography.

Life is ironic sometimes, and gifts come in all sorts of tangible and intangible packages.

Debra Karplus is an occupational therapist and freelance writer living in Urbana-Champaign. Learn more at