TURNERSVILLE – Jill Hope Begien Lafferty and her brother have a lot in common.
Their birthdays are a week apart in January. They’re quick with a good line, and tend to be hypochondriacs, worrying they have whatever ailment was just mentioned on TV. They both like Frank Sinatra and Barry Manilow music.
And that could be just the start of it.
Lafferty, 63, and her 80-year-old brother, Jerry Callahan, are still getting to know each other … after all, they just met a couple of weeks ago.
Before that, they didn’t even know the other existed. Lafferty was adopted at 5 days old and knew nothing about her birth mother except her name.
Then this fall, she went on Ancestry.com, and quickly began to find the answers she’d been seeking most of her life.
When Lafferty was 6 or 7, her adoptive mom read her a book called “The Chosen Baby” about a boy and girl who had been adopted “and how special they were,” she said.
“My mom said, ‘You know, you were adopted.’ I said, ‘OK, that’s nice’ and I went outside and played.”
Lafferty recalls feeling special like the children in the book, and didn’t give her background too much more thought until she gave birth to her own daughter at age 22.
“For the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to have a blood relative,” said Lafferty.
Growing up in Philadelphia’s Overbrook Park section, Lafferty had a “wonderful life and great parents.”
But once she felt the pull to learn her biological roots, she acted on it. She sent away for her long-form birth certificate shortly after her daughter Jami’s birth in 1977.
Lafferty found out her place of birth, and the names and ages of her biological parents — Eleanor May Gauer, 37, and Francis J. Burke, 45 — but little else.
“It made me even more curious about who I was.”
So she attempted to do her own pre-Internet detective work.
“On my own, I went and got all the Southeastern Pennsylvania phone books. There were only a few Gauers, but hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Burkes.”
Lafferty called all the Gauer households that were listed but hit a dead end.
And life went on.
Lafferty got divorced, worked as a medical lab technologist and married guitarist Kevin Lafferty in 1995. She was blessed with two grandchildren — Nathan, 19; and Brianna, 10 — and devastated by the loss of her husband in 2004. Two years ago, Lafferty settled back in Woodbury, where she had lived with Kevin.
Retired and with a little time on her hands, she became intrigued by Ancestry.com commercials this fall and decided to follow up.
“My dad had passed away 10 years ago at age 90,” Lafferty said, adding her mother died when Lafferty was just 16. “So I wouldn’t hurt him if I started to inquire about who I am.”
Within days, Lafferty had information — including names of others in the Ancestry.com database who had some connection with her DNA.
It was an important start, but a “search angel” on an adoptees’ website volunteered to help Lafferty with the next step.
The volunteer researcher discovered that a Turnersville woman named Dina Callahan who had turned up as a DNA hit had a connection to Eleanor May Gauer — Lafferty’s birth mom.
Lafferty’s daughter, Jami Cubbler ran with that clue, finding Callahan on Facebook and messaging her.
“She told her, ‘I’m not some crazy kook looking for information to scam you'” and explained the Ancestry.com information.
On her end, Callahan told her son about the message. “He said, ‘Mom, it seems legit. Maybe you should reach out.'”
“Omigod,” Callahan told Cubbler when they finally connected. “My dad’s name is Jerry Callahan and his mother was Eleanor May Gauer.”
All of a sudden, Lafferty had a brother. And a niece.
“It was mind-boggling to me. I had no siblings all my life,” she said.
Family of secrets
Dina Callahan, 56, a medical-surgical nurse at Jefferson, had a message for her dad when he got home that day.
“Oh, Dad, you have a sister and she’s coming over on Sunday.”
Jerry Callahan, who at 80, still works full time in the Philadelphia Flyers’ community relations department, took it in stride.
“She was all gaga,” he said about his daughter. “Well, I don’t get too excited. I said, ‘I guess it’s interesting.'”
But when Sunday, Dec. 2, came, Callahan — whose other sister died 10 years ago — was struck by Lafferty’s presence.
“I stood at the top of the steps. I looked over at the door, and thought, ‘That’s my mother. She resembles my mother.’ That pretty well closes it up.”
Raised by his Aunt Ruth and grandmother, Callahan didn’t have much contact with his mother growing up, and never knew she was pregnant with Lafferty.
Now his little sister was taking him in for the first time.
“I looked straight ahead on the staircase,” Lafferty said, breaking down. “There’s this man … my brother Jerry. I just stare at him. I’m looking at my brother.
“We hugged, we cried … My life is now complete.”
Eleanor May Gauer wasn’t the only person in the family who kept secrets.
She had a brother, Franklin, who never mentioned to his daughter that he had siblings.
That daughter, Mary Gauer-Inverso, discovered her long-lost family members through Lafferty’s intervention.
“It’s like a Christmas miracle how all this happened,” said Gauer-Inverso, who was delighted to learn she had first cousins that included Lafferty and Jerry Callahan.
Lafferty had reached out to Gauer-Inverso, 62, on Facebook after noticing her familiar last name.
“I never knew my dad had two sisters. It was a very secretive family for whatever reason,” Gauer-Inverso said.
Another first cousin — Jay Bryan, 68, of Woodbury — is the son of Eleanor Gauer’s sister Ruth, who raised Jerry Callahan.
When Lafferty learned about him, she “reached out first” to Bryan’s son on Facebook, he said. “We met at the Deptford Mall.”
Rounding out the cousin clan is Bryan’s sister Linda Chamberlin, 65.
“It all started with Jill,” Gauer-Inverso echoed, giving credit to her newfound cousin. “If not for her, none of this would have happened.
“It’s exciting for me to have new family. I have no brothers or sisters, and never had children. Now I have all these first cousins and second cousins.”
Thinking about taking a DNA test? We tell you everything you should know. Kelly-Jane Cotter, @KellyJaneCotter
Despite a lifetime apart, it’s taken no time for the relatives to connect.
Lafferty spent three hours chatting with her brother and looking at photos at their first meeting.
“We connected like we knew each other all our lives, and we knew each other five minutes.
“I believe God had a hand in this. It’s just so life-changing.”
She even appreciated being able to talk about the mundane.
“We were talking about our health. It’s so weird to be able to make a medical connection with a sibling who had issues that were the same as mine.”
The story of how Lafferty found her family members is so intriguing, she feels compelled to share it.
“People are into this,” she said. “I even told my pharmacist at the Acme!”
Sitting in the Callahans’ welcoming living room beside a Christmas tree recently, newly discovered family members can’t get over the recent turn of events.
“This is my family,” Lafferty said. “I’m just overwhelmed.”
“She loves when I call her ‘Aunt Jill,'” added Dina Callahan.
The two women, just seven years apart, each said they have found a new friend.
“Me and her talk a lot,” Callahan said. “She’s not much older than me.”
“I got a new girlfriend,” Lafferty affirmed.
Family get-togethers are easy since all of the relatives live near each other in Gloucester County.
“We all live within miles of each other,” said Gauer-Inverso of Clayton. “Everyone is so close.”
“I’m glad you made it so convenient for me,” Jerry Callahan quipped.
And the geography isn’t the only thing working in their favor, Lafferty said.
“I got so lucky,” she said. “These are the sweetest, nicest people you would ever want to be in your family.”
Lafferty is among millions of people who has had DNA testing through Ancestry.com AncestryDNA, the arm of the business that conducts testing, reported in April 2017 that it had tested 4 million people. By February 2018, that number had increased to 7 million, according to a recent Asbury Park Press report.
And Ancestry.com’s website includes a number of emotional testimonials from adoptees and others who connected with family members after having their DNA tested.
“Ancestry recognizes that the information we provide to our customers can be surprising and at times, life-changing,” the company stated in an email. “Our technology enables the democratization of information by offering tools to people who want to understand who they are and where they come from.”
Those who find out unexpected information can turn to Ancestry.com representatives who “are trained to help customers understand and interpret their DNA test results,” the company said.
Lafferty’s discoveries have indeed had a dramatic impact, she said.
“It answered questions I had for 63 years. Who was this person? Why did she give me up?”
Some who Lafferty has met through the adoption community urged her to try to understand her biological mother’s decision, but she said that’s been tough.
“I believe she gave me up not to make my life better, but to make her life better.”
Any negative feelings she has, though, are balanced by the knowledge that she ended up having a good life.
“Am I bitter? Yeah,” Lafferty said. “Am I blessed? Yeah, because of the parents I had.”
Now she’s learning more about herself — and recognizing a lot in her brother.
“We have the same eyes, cheekbones, smile and nose,” Lafferty said. “It’s just uncanny the similarities between the two of us.”
Between the strong resemblance and the fact that Lafferty’s Ancestry.com search turned up no DNA from anyone named Burke — as in Francis J. Burke, the man listed as her father on her birth certificate, Lafferty wonders if she and Callahan might have had the same mother and father.
“The next step is to find out who my birth father really is,” she said. “It’s a little bit of the puzzle that’s not complete yet.”
In the immediate future, though, there’s a family occasion coming up. Jerry Callahan asked his sister to go with him to “The Rat Pack” tribute to Sinatra and friends at Pitman’s Broadway Theatre in a couple of weeks.
Of course, Lafferty added the date to her suddenly busy calendar.
“I didn’t have any family. I didn’t have any nieces and nephews. All the blood I knew was my daughter.
“Now,” she said, gesturing around a couch filled with cousins, “I have all this blood!”
Sheri Berkery: @SheriBerkery; 856-486-2673; firstname.lastname@example.org
An Irish-American author discovers new family after testing his DNA. Doug Hood, Asbury Park Press