My mom's 40-year search for her birth mother led to a father she didn't expect to find

Christi Bernlohr and her biological father, Jeff, standing at Laguna Beach in southern Calif.

The letter read something like a college rejection.

“Despite our best efforts, and with much regret, we must inform you that we have been unable to locate your biological parents.”

Sent three days before Christmas in 2005, the letter was from a Florida-based firm that specializes in finding the biological parents of adopted children. It was addressed to Ms. Christi Bernlohr, a mother of four from York, Pa.

The oldest of her four children is me — just 13 at the time.

I know that blow to my mother’s search was one of many setbacks in her quest to fill a void — a sinking feeling that existed since age 8 when her older brother, also adopted, joked that someone left her in a basket on the doorstep.

My mother had a happy childhood, but she always desperately wanted to meet the woman who gave birth to her. As for her biological father, the adoption agency disclosed he didn’t know she existed.

That Christmastime letter came before years of begging the state for information as simple as her mother’s birthday. It came before my stepfather ordered old yearbooks from every school district in York County — 13 in all — just to scan them for someone who might vaguely resemble his wife.

And it came well before she took an at-home DNA matching test in 2016, a process that ended a 40-year saga in a way no one saw coming.

My mother is a whip-smart, adventurous type. She is always wrestling into submission her thick curls. She’s got a particularly strong central Pennsylvania accent that is most noticeable when she says words like bad and bath. Her fiery, never-quit spirit is somewhere between inspiring and intimidating.

Camera icon Christi Bernlohr
Christi Bernlohr in the mid-2000s with her husband, Chris, children Ryan, Mallory and Madison, and daughter Anna Orso, an Inquirer staff writer.

She is guarded, too. I didn’t see her shed a tear for the first 16 years of my life. Save for a routine “love you” before bed, my mother isn’t the type to verbalize how she feels.

She always resented having to fill out those doctor’s office medical history forms with “N/A” after “N/A.” She dreaded when I’d come home from school to tell her I was assigned yet another family-tree project we couldn’t really fill out. She hated being asked about her “heritage,” whatever that actually means.

>>READ MORE: Abandoned at birth, a Texas woman takes a DNA test and finds four Philly half-siblings

And she always felt the only people who couldn’t abandon her — whom she couldn’t lose — were her children. And even if we did, she’d still maintain that biological connection.

Camera icon Christi Bernlohr
Christi Bernlohr at age 18

Her search for her birth parents began in earnest in 1984. My mother was 15, and she went to York County’s children and youth services division, begging them to help. They wouldn’t release information until she turned 18. So whenever she had time between working at McDonald’s and learning to drive, she went to public libraries and scrolled through old newspapers preserved in microfilm, endlessly searching for a birth announcement that wasn’t there.

Over the next decade during multiple trips to the agency, non-identifying information slowly trickled out. Her mother was 19 when she gave birth. Her father was of Jewish descent. He had family from the eastern part of Pennsylvania.

My parents hired the search firm OmniTrace in 2003, and the investigators warned that the search would be difficult because of Pennsylvania’s laws related to adoptees: At the time, they couldn’t get a copy of their own unredacted birth certificate. That law changed in 2016, and my mother applied to obtain hers as soon as she could.

But before that arrived, she took a $199 23andMe DNA test to get a report about her genetic health risks. It yielded something unexpected: an ancestry database match with a paternal aunt in California. That aunt led my mother to a 69-year-old man named Jeff, who had no idea that he had a 47-year-old daughter living 2,600 miles away.

After the match was confirmed, Jeff sent my mother a letter in fall 2016. “This has rocked me to my very core,” he wrote. He also wrote of his disbelief, of the fact that he was happy to find out she was healthy, of his desire to one day communicate with her once he digested the feelings it took my mother more than 40 years to come to terms with herself.

>>READ MORE: When a DNA test unites family members, not everyone is happy about it

They met for the first time on May 19, 2017, in Jeff’s living room in Southern California. My mother was so nervous she could hardly stand, but after Jeff hugged her, and they stared at each other disbelievingly, she regained composure enough to listen to Jeff’s life story: his time living in Johnstown, Pa., what he was like as a Penn State student, who he thought her mother might be, choices he’d made over the years.

He was accepting her. And that changed everything.

My mother’s thick hair is still curly. She is still formidable, and she still murders the word bad, but that’s improved over the years. Though, these days, she says she feels whole in a way she didn’t expect.

My stepfather’s noticed too. He senses a profound sense of inner peace in her — the lingering restlessness that’s no longer there.

“To want something your entire life at a level that I wanted this information and then to find it out, when you finally get that answer, it’s just pretty hard to explain,” my mother told me recently. “Not even wanted to know. Had to know.”

The birth-certificate summary came in the mail last year, and right there in black and white next to the word mother was the name of a woman who still lives in York County. My mother wrote a letter. But her attempts to connect haven’t been reciprocated.

That blow is softened because of her relationship with Jeff, although she doesn’t call him Dad.

My grandfather, my mother’s adoptive father, died in 2013. He was a brilliant and unrelentingly dry-humored patriarch who sacrificed everything he could for his four children and 11 grandchildren. I aspire to love the way he loved my grandmother, his wife of 55 years. In his eulogy, I said there was no one quite like him — he’s irreplaceable. And that is true.

But now my mother has a second father, and a second family — Jeff has two 20-something kids and a couple of sisters — whom she never expected to find. They are more people who include her in group texts, whom she can send birthday gifts to, whom she can say “I love you” to. They’re people who not only accept her, but embrace her.

And more important, she has new biological connections — people she can never lose.