One night when I was about 11 or 12, I was nosing around in my Mother's stash of photo albums and sentimental papers. Mom and dad had traveled with carnivals for years, so the photo collection was rather unique. She caught me just as I was starting to open the large envelope from the bottom of the pile, and snatched it out of my hand. She put it away, mumbling something vague about maybe when I was older.
I was bubbling over with curiosity, but it was bedtime, and she seemed so uncomfortable I let it go. Then Mom came to tuck me in even though we'd abandoned that childish ritual years ago. We went through the envelope and talked. The most important piece of paper was a birth certificate for a little girl named Thea Patricia. I had a big sister!
For years I wondered about little Teddy Pat. But that night I had made my Mother cry. And who wants to see their Mother cry? So we didn't talk about her again. Until . . .
Fast forward twenty-mumble years. I was home in the daytime and caught one of those uplifting reunion shows that Leeza used to do. That was the point for me that it finally clicked - maybe we could actually FIND that little girl. But how could I approach my mother without upsetting her?
Then I get an e-mail from Mom. Again, triggered by television show, this time a documentary. "I have something to tell you," it said. "I hope you can forgive me." Maybe she'd forgotten that I knew, or more likely, she thought I'd forgotten. (As if!) So we both carried her secret for years, neither of us wanting to be first to break the silence. But once the floodgates opened E-mail flew back and forth, fast and furious.
I could tell she was afraid to initiate the search herself, fearing rejection. So I volunteered. (Just for her of course, not for me, right? A SISTER! Woooohooo!!!)
If I had been stunned all those years ago to find out that I had a sister, the rest of the story just about knocked me over. The situation was a bit unusual. First, very rare for her generation, she knew who had adopted her baby girl. And second, they were celebrities. You see, the show that had caught my mother's attention was a terrific Learning Channel documentary called Sideshow - Alive on the Inside. It featured an interview with Teddy Pat's mother. The loving couple that had adopted her were Al and Jeannie Tomaini, sideshow performers billed as the World's Strangest Married Couple.
I knew instinctively that this was a job for the internet. And sure enough there were a handful of sites lovingly maintained by fans of the people who performed in the circus side show. Within a few days I knew that Jeannie the Half Girl loved to perform and that her act had helped support her family from the age of three. I knew that she was being exploited by a tyrannical manager when she was rescued, in true romance novel fashion, by a handsome giant named Al. That they had gone on to perform in many sideshows, and even to run their own. That when they retired to their business in Florida to raise their daughters, not only did they run their own business, but Jeannie was a dedicated PTA Mom, and Al was Fire Chief in their small community.
But the only thing I knew about Teddy Pat was that her name was Patti now.
So I dug up an address for the Giant's Fishing Camp, wrote a letter, dropped it in a mail box. And promptly panicked. What if she didn't WANT to be found? What if she was mean to our mother? Or maybe worse, indifferent? Omigod, what had I done?
After the longest three days in my life. . . the letter came back.
The small town post office where Patti was raised no longer had on-street delivery, they'd gone to PO Boxes. But by that time I had tracked down an E-mail address for Patti's sister. Oh, I guess I mean her other sister! So that night I wrote a brief message titled 'Seeking Patti Tomaini' and headed to bed for a restless night. The next morning there was a gracious letter with lots of questions, lots of answers to questions I hadn't even asked yet, and best of all, PICTURES!
The first thing I learned about Patti was that she'd always had wanderlust, and tended to find ways to make a living that involved traveling. Carnivals, the dog show circuit, and now electronics shows. So the bad news was that she (and her fiance Ron) were off traveling with the show they worked on. But the good news was that they considered the family home in Florida their base, and were due back there in a couple of weeks for the Fourth of July holiday.
So in the mean time, we exchanged lots of information, and she printed out everything and saved it in a folder for Patti. I felt a little voyeuristic actually, peering into her life without her knowing it. But I did it anyway, figuring if she wasn't interested in us, I was would snag every bit of information I could while I had the chance.
Then the big day finally arrived, and I received an email with photos attached of Patti crying and waving at us. She took a day to absorb everything before writing to us. All my worries slid away. She wanted to know us, and the vibes were all positive! We wrote back and forth until they went back on the road. They didn't have email access then, but we received post cards from all over the place, and Florida oranges at Christmas time. Until finally, in January, they were headed our direction.
Mom had just had eye surgery, and was supposed to keep her head down, looking at the floor. (Yeah, right! Well, she did pretty good.) Tears and hugs were given freely. Patti and Ron put us at ease immediately. We caught up on our lives apart, and the interesting ways they seemed to parallel through the years.
There were things we knew instinctively before we ever met her. Like, she would have Mom's artistic edge and a knack for crafts. We were soooo certain she would love animals. Sure enough, when we finally met, she was traveling with two dogs and a cat. And at one time she raised Shelties, traveling the dog show circuit as a breeder and a vendor. Her daughter Tammy even qualified to go to Westminster as a junior handler.
We shared pain and joy, and became, I think, a family.
My sister is gorgeous, charming, smart, funny. . . I could go on and on. But most of all, she and her husband have hearts as big as their new home state. Patti and Ron got married that fall, the year we met them. They are no longer on the road, and they've settled into small town life.