Sounding Joy: Finding identity and family

News | December 22, 2021

The journey to identity and family can take a circuitous route.

I was born in California in 1946.

Esther Powell is listed as mother on my birth certificate. She was a mix of English, French, German, and Irish, born and raised in Pennsylvania.

Mariano Fernandez is listed as father. He was born in the Philippine Islands, full Filipino.

Yet, from an early age, around six or seven, my mother told me that Mariano was not my biological father; a Japanese American named Fred Yamashita was.

I have never seen Fred and have only a handful of memories of Mariano, as he worked on oceangoing vessels most of the year and my mother divorced him while I was young. About a year or two later my mother married Richard Haru, a second-generation Japanese, born and raised in Hawaii. In 1959, my mother died at age 32, and I was 13. So, our stepfather brought my three younger siblings and me to Hawaii. There, emersed in much that is Japanese, I grew up identifying as half-Japanese and half-Caucasian.

In 2017, at age 71, I took a genetic test with 23&Me. Their report said I was half Filipino. How can that be, I thought? My mother made it clear that Mariano was not my biological father. I took another genetic test from Ancestry. It confirmed the results of 23&Me.

Was Mariano really my biological father? Why, then, would my mother say he wasn’t? This didn’t make any sense to me. Nonetheless, I resigned myself to the possibility that Mariano was my father despite the unfathomable reason why my mother said otherwise.

I now began a shift in my well-entrenched identify as half-Japanese as well as who my father might be.

Then, on September 8, 2020, at age 74, I received a curious email from a Dennis Engalla who said he and his two sisters, Ginny, and Emlyn, had taken the genetic test from 23&Me. Their results showed that we were my half-siblings (their brother Sam did not take the test). I now had four half-siblings I never knew about, all of whom were of Filipino ancestry.

In subsequent emails, they said that when they were teenagers, their (now our) father, Alphonso Engalla, confided in them that he had fathered two children (my sister Alison and me) with a Caucasian woman three and two years before he married their mother. He then told them about a box with pictures of him and my mother, with him and my sister and me, and of letters that my mother wrote to him from 1945 to 1959. After making copies for themselves, they sent the originals to me. It was his wish, they said, that one day we could all be together. They also noted that he carried baby pictures of Alison and me in his wallet until the day he died on June 27, 1988, age 81.

His wish finally came true on September 26, 2021. After much email correspondence getting to know one another, all six of us, along with spouses, all of our children, and our children’s children, finally met in person in California at our father’s gravesite, followed by a celebration of connection and the heartfelt joy of family warmth, generosity, graciousness, and laughter, as well as a new-found sense of identity for my sister and me in a way we never had expected.

Terry is a retired compliance officer for Heritage Behavioral Health Center in Decatur, Illinois. He is married to Elaine Olson, and the two enjoy spending time with their grown children and grandchildren.

2 Comments on “Sounding Joy: Finding identity and family”

  • Patty Johannesen

    December 24, 2021 at 4:35 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing. I, too have found my biological family and it’s really exciting to identify with them.

    Your story is so encouraging for all of us. It reminds me how difficult life was for everyone during the War. I was born in 1945 and my Father had another family and my Mother, 18 years old, died with her secret, and I finally understood.

  • Sharon Hofeling

    December 24, 2021 at 12:31 am

    Terry, I had no idea about this amazing story! I am so happy for you

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