Ellen Reardon was just a baby when her parents split up in 1953. Her father was an electrician, but he lost his job when the Quincy Shipyard closed down. He couldn’t find work in Boston, and Reardon’s mother’s family didn’t exactly want him around, so he moved back to his native Ohio.
Ellen Reardon and her mother bounced between apartments in Dorchester and South Boston until her mother remarried and went on to have four more kids. Ellen Reardon loved her new family, but never stopped wondering about the father she never knew.
She knew he was from Akron, so when she was in high school, she called directory assistance, but there was no listing for him.
“This was back in the day, before the Internet, before Facebook,” she said. “I always wanted to find him, but I didn’t know how.”
As Ellen Reardon closed in on 60, she started thinking, more and more, about finding her father.
Last spring, her 24-year-old daughter Hannah was working in Copley Square and dropped into the Boston Public Library and saw they were offering a free genealogy class. She brought home the info, and Reardon left her Swampscott home for the BPL.
Linda MacIver, the librarian who taught the class, and Reardon bonded from the get go, and MacIver imparted an important lesson: When you are looking for family and find someone else looking at your family tree, then it’s your family.
Reardon used a feature on ancestry.com that allowed her to send an anonymous e-mail to someone who was researching the same people she was. It turned out to be her cousin who lived in California. Later, they met for the first time in New York City.
“She had almost the same story as me: Parents divorced. Her father was my father’s older brother,” Reardon said. “My cousins were in Chicago, but my dad had stayed in Akron.”
Her cousin hadn’t seen Reardon’s father in some 20 years and said he had lived in Anaheim at one point, then added something Reardon desperately wanted to hear.
“She said my father was a wonderful person,” Reardon said.
At the end of August, Reardon got another email from the grandson of her father’s sister. He told her to expect a call from her father’s niece that Saturday. Reardon was sitting in the quiet room of the Newburyport Public Library when her cellphone rang and she stepped outside to take the call. It was a man’s voice.
“I think you’ve been looking for me,” he said. “I’m Richard Rainey. I’m your father.”
They talked for an hour. He’s 83, living in Atlantic, Iowa. Reardon didn’t even know there was an Atlantic, Iowa, but last month she and Hannah traveled there to meet the father and grandfather who had fallen off the grid for nearly 60 years.
“I made a conscious decision as we flew out there not to dwell on the past or lost opportunities,” Ellen Reardon said. “Life is too short.”
Her father had many surprises. He had remarried, but never had another child. He gave her the wedding band he had worn for the brief time he was married to her mother. He also handed her an annuity he had taken out for her and had paid faithfully, $1.75 a month, in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Now you can cash it in,” he told her.
But she won’t. She likes looking at the certificate and can’t bear to part with it.
He handed her some Rosary beads that her mother had given him and then blew up every preconception she had about her own family.
“My dad’s a Protestant,” she said. “I had spent my life thinking I was Irish Catholic, through and through. If my Irish grandmother was alive, she’d be spitting nickels.”
Reardon’s not just half Protestant. She’s got royal blood, a descendant of Anne Parr, whose sister married Henry VIII.
Grandma would be spitting more than nickels at that.
Ellen Reardon always liked Thanksgiving, but this one’s special. She found dad.