Irene Mannheims Mueller and Kathryn “Kathy” Gossard
When Irene saw the slim, blonde woman walking toward her, she immediately knew exactly who she was.
After nervous hellos, Kathy settled into the opposite side of the diner booth and spread a DNA chart bearing the names of Irene’s family on the table.
Between sips of coffee, then bites of lunch, Kathy asked question after question. Irene’s answers fit so neatly into the puzzle of her past that Kathy took a breath and asked her boldest question yet: “Are you an aunt?”
Irene reached across the table and offered her hand. Kathy took it.
“Don’t you understand who I am?” Irene asked gently. “Kathy, I am your mother.”
In 1965, Irene, who grew up in Olney and Cheltenham, was 26. She had great friends and a good job she loved. One evening, an acquaintance offered a ride home from a gathering, pulled off the road, and attacked her in the car.
When Irene learned she was pregnant, she took steps that did not seem optional: She left her job. She stayed with friends, then on the beach in Ocean City, and then, for six weeks, at St. Vincent’s Home for Unwed Mothers. Irene did everything she could to have a healthy pregnancy and to quell her feelings. Catholic Charities promised to find a home for the baby girl, and Irene wished her one filled with love and joy.
The baby, Kathy, was adopted by Patricia and Ralph, who made Irene’s wish come true in Holland, Bucks County.
Kathy always knew she had been adopted. Her parents shared what little information they had about her birth mother and pledged their support if she ever wanted to find out more. For decades, she didn’t. She had wonderful parents and felt fiercely loyal to them. Yet, traits she didn’t share with them — such as her messy creativity — made Kathy wonder if she was like someone else out there. Patricia and Ralph told her that her other mother was an artist.
Irene thought about the baby nearly every day, but she moved forward and built a happy life. She excelled at her job in publishing, which she held for nearly 40 years. In 1970, she married Walter, who worked in the physics department at Penn and did most of the cooking. They traveled to Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy, spent an annual week in the Caribbean, and, in 2003, took their first cruise. In 2009, Irene and Walter moved from Olney to Warminster. She has a solid network of close friends. She makes jewelry and dabbles with watercolor.
In 2015, Walter died, and Irene was still grieving in 2016 when doctors discovered her sister Charlotte’s glioblastoma had returned. Irene managed her sister’s home and finances and whatever else Charlotte needed for the year she was hospitalized. In 2018, in the later days of her sister’s life, Irene received Kathy’s first letter.
Kathy grew up, got married, moved to Warminster, and had a daughter, Mya, now 13. Her mother died in 2016. Later that year at a family Christmas party, a couple excitedly shared their DNA test results. It made Kathy wonder what such a test might reveal about her own background — information that might be useful or at least interesting for her and Mya.
The results showed she was not German and Irish, as her parents had thought, but German and Italian. Kathy wanted to learn more but didn’t know how. Then a friend, coworker, and genealogy sleuth at Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health, where Kathy manages the respiratory therapy department, offered her help.
Melissa found some cousins, and one gave Kathy the family name of relatives who lived in Philadelphia the year she was born: Mannheims. Online, Kathy found a photo of a grave she would later learn is her grandmother’s, and the names of the woman’s two daughters, both in their 20s in 1965.
Kathy sent a letter to the younger sister, Charlotte. There was no answer, but her genealogy buddy had unearthed more news: The older Mannheims sister, Irene, lived just a mile and a half from Kathy, and they had a mutual Facebook friend.
Kathy sent the first letter — the one that Irene didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to answer. She also messaged the mutual friend on Facebook, a classmate of Kathy’s and Irene’s niece.
Irene’s parents and her husband had been the only people who knew about the baby. She told her niece that Kathy’s questions were likely valid.
Irene was about to leave for Europe with friends when Kathy’s second letter arrived. This time, Irene answered: When she returned, she wrote, she would be ready to talk.
Kathy, who is now 55, and Irene, now 81, each took a short drive to Lancer’s Diner to meet for the first time since Irene held her on the day Kathy was born.
Kathy knew Irene had information that could help her find her biological family, but she was not expecting the most surreal words she has ever heard: “I am your mother.”
Neither woman expected their anxiety to give way to two hours of excited conversation that ended with elation, a selfie in the parking lot, and plans to meet again for a fancy lunch.
“From then on out, it was pretty steady dating,” Irene jokes.
“We did describe it like that,” adds Kathy. Each knew she wanted to see more of the other, but at first was afraid the feeling would stop being mutual, and that things would fall apart.
“I asked her, ‘How can you even like me after I gave you up?’ ” said Irene.
“I thanked her for giving me life and allowing me to have a good family,” said Kathy.
They think so much alike that they were soon finishing each other’s sentences. At later gatherings at Tony’s Place in Ivyland, folks would see them obviously enjoying each other’s company and ask how they were related. “We’re mother and daughter, but we just met,” Irene would say. She and Kathy would laugh, and then delight in sharing how DNA, Facebook, and a couple of letters brought them together. This story is no longer a secret.
Asked what she loves about the woman she calls “Mama” or “I,” Kathy says: “Everything! I love my [late] mother so much and we had such a good relationship, but this is also a connection that is so real. And what a gift to have this connection, to learn about myself and to know the place where so many parts of me come from.”
Kathy has fully embraced her love of photography, and she and Irene together attend Bucks-Mont Art League meetings (temporarily on COVID-19 hiatus) for which Irene arranges the guest speakers.
Asked what she loves about the woman she calls “Sweetheart” or “Darling” or “Dearest Daughter,” Irene says: “Everything! She is the sweetest, most loving, better version of me. She is smart. She is capable of everything.”
Irene didn’t just get a daughter. “I got a charming, adorable, very smart granddaughter, who is wise beyond her years and absorbs everything,” she said. Mya calls Irene “Mia.” The three generations enjoy museums and trips together, and hope to reschedule this year’s planned excursion to Germany.
Kathy’s father, who knows Irene and is happy that Kathy now does, still lives in her childhood home. She talks to him daily and sees him weekly.
Kathy and Irene are also in each other’s COVID bubble. They have dinner together every Tuesday. “I am so thankful that we live so close to each other that we can see each other, and have really grown to love each other so much,” Kathy said.
Irene looks forward to the day Kathy retires. “I want her to take her old mother on trips,” she said. “I want to play with her every day.”