Jasmyn Morris (JM): Welcome back…we’re excited to be returning to you with an all new season of the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. As always, you can think of us as your weekly dose of humanity — something we could all use a little more of these days.
For the next 12 weeks, we’ll be bringing you unscripted conversations between real people… and we’ll be talking about reunions—what drives us apart and brings us back together.
We start with Courtney McKinney, who was raised by a single mom…and spent the majority of her childhood wondering who her father was…
Courtney McKinney (CM): Do you remember how old I was when I really started asking questions?
Pamela McKinney (PM): Well you were always inquisitive and at four or five you were like, “Where are the dinosaurs in the bible?” You know, then you started noticing everybody else had dads…
JM: … in this episode, what it’s like to spend years searching for a father…only to find someone you didn’t even know you were looking for…
Alexandra Sanchez (AS): When I got your message I just started crying. So when we actually met for the very first time, when you ran up and hugged me, just – the feeling, the intense feelings inside, I just knew.
JM: I’m Jasmyn Morris. Stay with us…
JM: Pamela McKinney grew up in the 60’s with four brothers and sisters…and dreamed that she’d eventually get married, and have several kids of her own. Well, it wasn’t that easy…
But she did go on to have a child — her daughter, Courtney — and she raised her as a single mom…
PM: So what do you remember of the story I’d tell you about your dad?
CM: That his name was Charles, and he was white, and you guys had a brief relationship and it didn’t work out. And I just really distinctly remember not believing it.
CM: Do you remember how old I was when I really started asking questions?
PM: Well you were always inquisitive. At four or five you were like, “Where are the dinosaurs in the bible?” You know, then you started noticing everybody else had dads and that’s when I introduced the Charles thing. I didn’t think I would have to do it that quickly but I did. And so, same story I’d given to everyone else, I gave to you.
CM: We talked so deeply about everything else, like that’s kind of a staple of our relationship; and I could sense that you were cutting it off. What made you decide that you needed to tell me the truth?
PM: It was never a thought in my mind that I was not going to tell you the truth; I was just trying to find the right year, the right time. But I knew when you were 16 and ready to start dating, I said, You know what, I think this might be a good time.
CM: Do you remember how you told me?
PM: Yes… When I was pregnant, I put my video camera in front of me and, you know, just poured my heart out and I said everything I felt back then.
JM: On this VHS tape, Pamela is singing to her daughter… She tells her “you are a masterpiece.” She’s trying to convey how much she loves the life growing inside of her… a life that was growing, not because of a relationship with Charles… but because of an anonymous sperm donor.
PM: Did your feelings about me change when you learned what actually happened?
CM: No… I was just angry that for so long I didn’t know the truth. I felt like a freak being a donor kid. I’d never ever met anyone who (laughs) that was their story. And growing up, my father was kind of like a hands off subject; like, it was something we just didn’t talk about and that turned into shame for me. I mean, many people don’t know their fathers but they are allowed to want to.
JM: Courtney internalized all of this. The secrecy around the sperm donation… the story her mom made up… She lived with a ton of questions about her identity, but had no one to ask… She’s biracial. Her mom is black… but there weren’t many options for black sperm donors at the cryobank in 1989.
So Courtney knew she had a white father…but that was it. Over the years, she contacted the cryobank three times, searching for information… an old photograph, medical records, anything … Once, she got on the phone with an employee who remembered him… this woman, the gatekeeper to her father, could only tell Courtney how nice he was…
And then, Courtney learned about DNA testing kits — where you send in a sample of your DNA, and a few weeks later, receive information about your family history…
CM: What did it feel like when you knew I wanted to contact him?
PM: You know, the only thing I felt is that he gave me a gift. And I wanted to respect his…
PM: Yes, like if he had gotten married or had children. I wouldn’t think it was fair for them to be affected by a decision I made. Although he made the decision also.
PM: But I don’t think he was thinking about, in 20-something years there could be a swab that could decide…
PM: Or find out… You know what I’m saying?
CM: The reason I got on the DNA sites was to find him. And so to have these conflicting feelings, like, if I actually do that, I could hurt someone, even though I’ve been hurting for so long… It’s just really confusing.
JM: It’s complicated. Courtney never signed up for this…and technically, neither did the anonymous donor…
Back in the 80s and 90s, confidentiality agreements were often put in place if the donor didn’t want to be contacted…which Courtney’s did not. But these DNA testing kits are, in a way, creating this really interesting work around…where children can take matters into their own hands…
The terms of service for one of these DNA sites says: You may learn information about yourself that you do not anticipate. This information may evoke strong emotions and has the potential to alter your life and worldview. You may discover things about yourself that trouble you and that you may not have the ability to control or change.
But for Courtney… the idea of discovering family…and more about who she is…was worth the risk. Shortly after she submitted her sample, she got a match.
More after this short break.
JM: After years of searching for her father, Courtney learned she had a half-sister…
CM: So I messaged you. And I was like, “Any chance that you had a donor as a father?”
AS: When I got your message I just started crying.
JM: That’s Alexandra Sanchez. Like Courtney, she’d been told a similar story about her father…and learned the truth at 15.
AS: Hearing your voice for the first time was amazing, to say the least. I always wished for siblings. That’s the one thing I always dreamt of. So when we actually met for the very first time, when you ran up and hugged me, just – the feeling, the intense feelings inside, I just knew.
CM: We went to go have lunch and I think there was just a lot of processing.
AS: I remember thinking, “This is the first time I get to have a beer with my sister.” I grew up thinking that I looked exactly like my mother until I met you. I remember us looking at each other and saying “oh you have freckles!” (Laughter.)
AS: And of course the smile and the way our chins curve. I remember getting in the car, my husband said, “I have a sister-in-law.” And I was thinking could this all be true?
CM: Yeah, I just look forward to learning how to be a sister. That’s such a weird thing to do at 28 years old. (Laughter.)
AS: It’s something we both have learning to do in. We didn’t get to grow up together, but we will get to grow old together.
JM: That’s Alexandra Sanchez and her sister Courtney McKinney … who met for the first time earlier this year…
Of course, it should be said that not all biological family members want to be reunited…Courtney’s father being one of them. She hasn’t been able to track him down anyway.
But ultimately, that mystery surrounding her dad’s side of the family is no longer a source of shame for Courtney…
…and this new relationship with her sister… has actually helped strengthen the one with her mother…
CS: One of the things that’s been really eye opening finding my sister is having her say just how much she admires our relationship and how much you allowed me to spread my wings while also being protective of me…and I feel like I really, now, at 28 see the benefits of all of that.
PM: I know you felt like I was lying all these years because I was embarrassed, but it definitely was not embarrassment. I’m really sorry for the shame you felt, that was never my intent. But looking back I don’t know if I would have did it different because my job was to protect you.
I did want to be a mom. It may not have been the traditional way, but there’s never one day, one moment, that I say, God, what did I get myself into? You have just been the light of my life.
CM: I love you.
PM: I love you too.
JM: That’s it for this week’s episode. Thanks to producers Aisha Turner and Jud Esty-Kendall…as well as our engineer, David Herman, script editor, Danielle Roth…and special thanks to StoryCorps facilitator Kevin Oliver.
If you want to leave a voicemail for anyone you’ve heard on this podcast, give us a call at 301 744 TALK.
And write us a review where ever you get your podcasts — tell us what you think. If you want to sign up for your own interview… visit our website, www.storycorps.org.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Jasmyn Morris. Thanks for listening.