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Published Saturday September 26th, 2009 at 2:33am

Original Article by Janet M. Bernice

(Published March 1, 2005 in Ancestry Magazine)

In the May/June 1999 edition of Ancestry Magazine, I wrote about finding my birth father, Vasco A. Leitao. The experience of learning about the man whose name was on my original birth certificate took my breath away. There was no way of knowing then that Vasco was not my father or that the truth of my conception would unfold like a soap opera.

I ended that story by saying I was now seeking my birth mother, Marjory K. McGill. Looking for birth parents is not for cowards. It takes courage, tenacity, and more perseverance than most other genealogy research. The heart and emotions move from intense intrigue to fear of denial and discouragement at regular intervals. I fantasized about reuniting with my birth parents and finding a bond with them. On the other hand, I also knew there was a chance that those same parents might not want to be reminded of my existence or the memories surrounding the event.

The need to know though, always won out over fear. I told myself that the truth would be better than the vague explanation from my adopted father: "Oh you're of good English stock, I'm fairly sure, because of your coloring. (I am a blue-eyed blonde.) I think your father was a poor, uneducated sailor off some ship in San Francisco harbor who met and married your mother but divorced her soon after you were born." His explanation was, no doubt, an attempt to satisfy me, but of course it didn't. When I found out years later that Vasco A. Leitao was an educated man from China of Portuguese origin, who came to the United States in the suite of a Standard Oil ship to attend a Catholic university, I had to chuckle. Vasco spoke several languages and went on to have a career working to invent the first computers.

With the Leitao story published, I spent the next two years searching for my birth mother. I wrote letters to all the McGills in the San Francisco area where I was born, just as I had done with the name Leitao: "Hello, I am doing genealogy on a relative named Marjory K. McGill. If you have any information on this person that you would be willing to share, I would be most grateful. I have enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope for your convenience. Thank you."

Unlike the Leitao search, I got very few responses. The individuals that did take the time to write back proffered no leads.

One evening in November of 2002, I received a phone call. "Is this Janet Bernice? Did you write a story about Vasco Leitao? I am his son Toni."

Anthony "Toni" Leitao was one of four children from Vasco's second marriage. He had randomly discovered the Ancestry Magazine story on the Internet and was curious to speak to a half-sister he didn't know he had. It was a wonderful surprise to hear from him, and over the next few months we had interesting conversations. He shared about his growing up years, about a father who worked hard and was often gone, about brothers and sisters and his mother, Jan. Eventually the conversation came around to me.

"I don't remember you, but my mother remembers Vasco's son, Michael. She used to pick him up from Katherine (I think that's your mother's name) for family activities. Sometimes she took him to buy clothes or picked him up on his birthday. But she doesn't have any memory of you."

What?! A brother Michael? When, who…my mind was reeling! Soon, I began e-mailing with Jan Robertson, Vasco's second wife and Toni's mother. She had remarried. I was touched by how willing she seemed to be to share information. Her marriage to Vasco had not been a happy one, but she dredged up as much about those early years as she could. She remembered Michael as a dark-eyed handsome young man who joined the navy when he was eighteen. Jan lost touch with him then and had often wondered where he had gone and if he had survived the Vietnam War.

Now in the spring of 2003, Jan and I talked occasionally by phone. One day, Jan called and said, "As I was drifting off to sleep last night, I seemed to recall that your mother Kathleen remarried someone named Rasmussen. I can't be sure that's accurate because I was half asleep, but it seems so."

"Wait," I said. "Her name is Kathleen not Katherine?"

"Oh yes," Jan replied, "I am sure of that. She never went by Marjory, I always knew her as Kathleen."

I summed up the new information: My mother's name was Marjory Kathleen McGill, now possibly Rasmussen. For a brief time she was married to Vasco Leitao and there was a son, Michael. Where to go from here . . .

Recently moved to Idaho, I became acquainted with Ellie Grover, a lovely grandmother with extensive genealogy knowledge.

I attended genealogy classes taught by Ellie and her teaching partner Kathy Grover. They encouraged me to continue the pursuit, taught me about using the Internet for research, and introduced me to other genealogy resources. Their kindness and assurance that I could handle whatever I discovered, kept me going. Ellie had also helped a family member who was adopted find her birth parents and knew all too well the intensity of such a situation. An arm around my shoulder and a hug or two were the very things I needed, and she and Kathy gave their assurance without reserve.

Practically holding my hand, the two women helped me open a Google search on the Internet and pull up all the "K. Rasmussens" in San Francisco and neighboring areas. On a hunch, we determined to look at the Elk Grove, California, listings. Ellie started making calls on a Saturday evening to all the Rasmussen phone numbers. To this day, neither of us is sure what led us to Elk Grove, but it turned out to be the right decision.

Once again I waited, too afraid to make the calls myself. I was so nervous I couldn't even speak, not a normal state for the sometimes pushy, aggressive woman I could be. Twenty minutes, a half hour--maybe this was a wild goose chase; maybe my mother had died. What if she didn't want to talk to me or even acknowledge she had a daughter? Questions and scenarios raced through my mind.

The phone rang; it was Ellie.

"I just got off the phone with your mother. She's been trying to find you for the last ten years."

"I'll be right over."

I wept profusely. I could hardly drive the four blocks to the Grover house because I was crying so hard. The relief, the intensity of the moment was beyond description.

"Hello, Kathleen?"

"You can call me Mom--if you want to," said a gravelly older voice.

The next two hours answered questions I had carried for forty years, but with one more surprise I could never have guessed. During the 1950s, my grandmother Zella McGill ran a boarding house in San Francisco. Her husband Neil, my mother's father, died when Kathleen was just thirteen years old.

Zella . . . Aunt Zella . . . I remembered an Aunt Zella from a visit to San Francisco with my adopted parents when I was about five years old. She gave me a doll with real hair and a yellow-flowered dress.

"Oh yes, your adopted father and I are first cousins. Zella wasn't an aunt to you, she was your grandmother. Aunt Zella was your adopted father's aunt."

Also in 1950, Vasco Leitao came to rent a room in the boarding house for the summer while he was out of college. He and my mother fell in love and married, then Michael was born. Times were difficult, my mother revealed, because they were all living in the boarding house together, work didn't pay much, and Vasco wanted to return to school in Santa Clara. Further complicating matters, Vasco's parents, still in China, were very upset about the marriage.

"By the way," Kathleen said, "Vasco is not your father. He was not faithful to me, and I decided I'd better go to school myself, just in case. So I took some classes at San Francisco State College. I met another man who swept me off my feet. When I learned I was expecting another child, I confessed to Vasco. He was always good to me, even though we didn't always get along. He said no one needed to know you weren't his child, so he was listed as your father on the birth certificate."

Within the space of two hours I had learned that my adopted father was my birth mother's first cousin (his mother and my grandmother were sisters), that a woman I'd always called aunt was actually my grandmother, and that I was conceived by someone other than the man whose name was on my birth certificate. The intensity of all this information far outweighed the emotions of that long-ago beginning search. I could hardly take it all in.

I didn't sleep most of that night as my thoughts tried to grasp all the new realities. First, my adopted father knew much more than he was willing to tell. In fact, Kathleen had approached him several years before asking if I had ever wanted to know about my background. He replied that I had never asked and was not curious. Secondly, my birth mother hired a private detective to seek me out, but he lost track of me in 1995 when I finished school at the University of Utah and left the state. Third, I had an older brother named Michael, the only child of Vasco and Kathleen, as my father turned out to be someone else. And finally, Kathleen McGill Rasmussen had four children with her second husband. I now had five half-brothers and sisters and a father that I would have to begin researching all over again.

In August of 2003, I journeyed to San Francisco and met my mother Kathleen, as well as a brother John and his family, and sisters Carole and Karen and their families. They accepted me without reserve and made my visit comfortable. In September, I traveled to Seattle and met my brother Michael and his wife. Through previous phone conversations, Michael learned that Toni Leitao lived only a few miles from him--the very man who had made the initial phone call regarding the 1999 Ancestry story about his father. Toni and Michael became acquainted and began to play golf together. Also during that September visit, Jan Robertson (Vasco's second wife) and her husband came to visit. Grown Leitao children Anita, Toni, and Louis, and their spouses were there, too. It was the month of Michael's birthday as well, and Anita presented him with a photographic collage of his Leitao family.

In June 2004, I met my remaining brother, Erik Rasmussen, and his wife and child. They traveled from Australia for a family get-together in California, where I once again visited with my birth family.

My searching continues, this time for the man my mother named as my father--Geoffrey Charles Bowman, born 29 December 1928. I think I am close to finding him. Perhaps there is one more chapter to be written to round out my story. But I'm sure whatever comes, I can handle it, and I think I will succeed.