Favorite

As the holiday season begins, one man discovers the meaning of family. 

Home Again

Two months ago, Jeff Ivanitch opened an e-mail message that changed his family forever. The writer asked Ivanitch, a truck driver in Meshoppen, Penn., if he knew the whereabouts of a woman named Mildred who had married Michael Ivanitch more than 30 years ago. "I thought, OK, yes, that's my mother and stepfather," says Ivanitch, 39, who never knew his real father and took his stepfather's name. "I responded saying: 'Today's your lucky day. Now who are you and what do you want?'" says Ivanitch. The return message sped back: Ivanitch has a long-lost older brother. That stunning message opened a new, hopeful chapter in the tale of a torn family that began 44 years ago. The story of Terry Sullivan's search began the day after Thanksgiving in 1957, when Willard and Phyllis Sullivan of Petersburg adopted the boy they named Terry. He was 15 months old. And all his life he wondered where he came from. While growing up, Sullivan says, he invented thousands of scenarios about his real family. But the love and respect he had for his adoptive parents kept him from searching for his birth parents. "I was always told I was chosen," says Terry Sullivan, now 44 and an employee of Ellwood Thompson's Natural Market. "It's why I've always had what I think is a healthy attitude about it. My main flaw was I grew up just a little bit lonely." In 1973, Sullivan's father, an electrical contractor, died. Sullivan was 17. Phyllis Sullivan offered to help her son find his birth family, but Sullivan refused. "I was a privileged child, and I knew I was loved," he says. "I always thought it'd be a slap in the face to her" to find his birth parents. But when his mother died of lung cancer in 1996, Sullivan decided it was time to begin searching for his other family. His adopted mother had given Sullivan only two vague clues she told him she had learned from the Richmond Department of Social Services: His birth mother was a large woman who already had two children, and she moved from place to place. "I thought of everything," says Sullivan. "It was the 1950s. I thought my mother could have been a prostitute. I wanted to prepare myself. I knew it wouldn't be a fairy tale. If it was a fairy tale, she never would have given me up." His query began with the Richmond Department of Social Services, the agency that handled his adoption. Sullivan filed what's called a request for nonidentifying information - records that reveal where and when an adopted child was born but don't reveal the address or names of the birth parents. Then he waited. The Richmond Department of Social Services receives hundreds of requests from all over the world for information on adoptions that took place in Richmond 20, 30, 40 and 50 years ago. It can take years to uncover details. But finally, three years later, new tactics and clues prevailed. Sullivan met Beth. Beth, who asked that her last name be withheld, had experience uncovering family secrets. She, too, is adopted and in finding her birth mother she had taught herself some investigative techniques. She agreed to help Sullivan. What's more, Rita White took over Sullivan's case. In just months, White, who works with the Richmond Department of Social Services' post-adoption office, was able to find Sullivan's birth mother's name. But White couldn't give Sullivan that important fact without the birth mother's consent. White sent a letter to Mildred Ivanitch in Wilkes-Barre, Penn. telling her that her son, Terry, had requested information and hoped she would call or write him. Weeks passed with no word from Sullivan's birth mother. Meanwhile, Beth made a crucial break in the case. Sullivan had learned from his file with social services that he was born on Sept. 5, 1956, at the Medical College of Virginia Hospitals. He also had read in the file that his mother had called social services from Pennsylvania two years after he was born to see if her son had been adopted. Beth combined this information with the names of women who delivered babies at MCV on Sullivan's birth date. She discovered a possible match. A woman named Mildred Ivonitch lived somewhere in Pennsylvania and had given birth at MCV on the Sept. 5, 1956. Sullivan doesn't have a computer, so Beth did the online research. She plugged the name Ivanitch into an Internet search engine. A Web page for Snake Creek, a rock and country band in Weshoppen, Penn., popped up with the name Jeff Ivanitch, along with his e-mail address. It was a Friday in September when Beth contacted Ivanitch. Sullivan says he'll never forget the phone call he received that night from Beth. It was 9:05 p.m. and he had just finished his shift at the natural-foods store. "She said 'Terry, I've found them,'" Sullivan recalls. "I was crying right there at work." Jeff Ivanitch, it turns out, is the younger brother of Kathy and Robert Ivanitch. "It's really strange," Jeff Ivanitch says of discovering another brother. "But it didn't surprise me, for some reason. I didn't know a lot about my natural father." The revelation did surprise Sullivan. "I'm usually good at predicting things," he says. "In my heart I never thought I'd meet them." Sullivan's appearance spurred some tension. Kathy Ivanitch confronted her mother with the revelation of Sullivan and his adoption. "I think she was ashamed," Ivanitch says, "and I think a large weight has been lifted from her shoulders." Sullivan says he harbors no ill will toward his mother who, he believes, felt the family couldn't afford a third child. He emphasizes that he doesn't want answers or apologies from her. "I've been like a gypsy too, like my mother, moving place to place," he says. "She did the right thing for herself, her children and me." In mid-October, Sullivan took time off from work and went to meet the family he never thought he'd find. He spent $142 on bus fare to Pennsylvania and nearly $300 on baskets of wine, cheese and other gifts. Ivanitch recalls seeing Sullivan step down from the bus: "Jesus Christ!" he gasped. "He looks just like my sister, Kathy." Sullivan spent three days with his younger brother. "I rode with Jeff on his rig," Sullivan says, "and he would look over at me and say, 'Are you bored yet?' And I'd say, 'Are you kidding? I've never had a brother. I'll never get bored of this.'" On Sunday, Oct. 15, Terry Sullivan met his two older siblings, Kathy and Robert, who live in Wilkes-Barre. "Our hands and arms and butts look alike," says Sullivan about the family resemblance. What's more, he finally met his real mother. "I just expected this Mama Cass Elliott because of me. But she was pretty small. She grabbed me and held me real close and she had tears in her eyes." The visit connected Sullivan to a past he had never known. But the time came to return to Richmond. "I cried all the way home," he says. He says he's not going to expect too much from his Pennsylvania family. His mother and sister have written several times, and he speaks to Ivanitch regularly on the phone. But long-distance bills add up. Sullivan says he's anxious to buy an inexpensive computer so he can e-mail his brother. This Thanksgiving, 43 years after he was adopted, Sullivan took the long journey to be with his new family for the holiday weekend. And he's considering moving closer to them. Though he says he doesn't want to rush things, it's clear he hopes to give them something back. "I can tell my role in this family will be as the one to bring us all together," Sullivan says. And he adds: "People who have siblings should go home and hug
Favorite

Latest in Miscellany

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Connect with Style Weekly

Newsletter Sign-Up

The Flash
The Bite
The Scoop

Most Popular Stories

Copyright © 2017 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation