The email that changed Sue Beck's life arrived on May 22 at 5:30 a.m. She grabbed her cellphone in the darkened bedroom of her Springfield home and saw the notification from Ancestry.com.
Beck, then 56, an English teacher at Upper Darby High School, had signed up with Ancestry.com two months earlier and sent a saliva sample with her DNA. Adopted at birth, Beck had been raised by her loving but reserved German-American parents in Havertown, surrounded on playgrounds by mostly Irish kids. Expressive and emotional, compulsively drawn toward art, music and writing, Beck always felt different from the people around her.
"I wanted to know my nationality. I knew I wasn't German," even though she grew up eating a lot of sauerkraut, she laughed, so she hoped DNA would reveal her true heritage.
The results said she was 60 percent Italian.
"I'm jumping up and down," Beck said. "I really wanted to be Italian." There was more. The email said her DNA connected her with 96 other Ancestry members, and had "high confidence" that one, JoAnne Castor of South Jersey, was her relative.
Only then Beck realized she might be on the brink of something bigger. "I was beside myself," she said. Beck followed a link to Castor's Facebook.
"She said, 'I come from a long line of artists, writers and musicians,' " Beck recalled. "I was like, 'Oh my God!!' I couldn't believe it. I almost couldn't breathe."
"I found my people."
The story of Sue Beck and her people could not have happened without discoveries about genetics and the invention of easy, affordable DNA testing – not to mention technology that connects in nanoseconds people who might have struggled for years to find one another.
But ultimately it's a story about the things that are eternal – family, and the shock of discovering how much of who we are is not just in our stars, but in our genes. For 56 years, Sue Beck had no idea there was a boisterous family just 20 miles away who liked the same crazy things she did.
Her adopted parents were technicians, not artists. Her dad worked in auto repair, her mom was an x-ray technician. "They were great parents…but they weren't demonstrative," said Beck, an only child.
They had picked her up in a hospital parking lot in June 1960 from a teenager named Carol. No one knows or remembers her last name and the lawyer who handled the adoption has died.
Beck worked in the mortgage industry, raised two kids, got divorced. She decided to pursue her passion for writing and become an English teacher so she got a master's degree and landed a job at Upper Darby at the turn of the millennium.
With youthful exuberance, punctuated by black hipster glasses and funky jewelry, she became a popular teacher, the kind students feel comfortable calling "Beck."
Being a drummer in a band for 10 years was just one of her artistic hobbies. She decorated old cigar boxes, wrote an unpublished novel, taught art history. But with the arrival of middle age, her world seemed to be shrinking. Her father died, her kids moved out, while her ailing mom moved in. She had a smattering of relatives she saw around holidays.
"I am also a writer, artist and musician," Beck wrote to Castor that morning. "I was adopted at birth. I just got my results back and there is a high probability we are first cousins! I'm incredibly excited to find out anything about my family…"
Castor quickly responded. "Hi Susan, I am so anxious to find out more. I have spent years building my family tree. It's called "Castelli Casanova Tree" and I have added more than 300 people to it…"
Beck waited a day to tell her students, who knew about her search. "I ditched my lesson plan," she recalled. "We were trying to figure out how Odysseus is going to get back to Penelope. But we have a live Odyssey on our hands."
From the Ancestry.com website, Beck and her students accessed 1930 Census data and developed a family tree for Luigi and Julia Casanova – who had five kids and 14 grandchildren, including Castor.
At 10:30 a.m., Beck left the class to attend a meeting. When she returned 15 minutes later, one of her students held out a phone with the Facebook picture of a stylish, mustachioed man in a fedora. His name was Joe Costello, and he was Castor's brother.
"Beck," said the student, "this is your father!"
Gabriella Vizzarri, 16, and Rylee Shanahan, 15, who led the Internet sleuthing, said they learned from Castor's webpage that her brother was a high school teacher and musician — just like Beck — and bore a strong resemblance. Rylee said they also discovered that Costello crafted artistic boxes "and nobody else in the world makes boxes except Ms. Beck and him."
Beck was excited. This seemed to be the father who was coded in her genes.
She wrote to Costello on Facebook in front of the class, mentioning her genetic match with Castor and that they may be "closely related." When she hadn't heard back by the time she left school she began to panic that this new family wanted nothing to do with her.
She started to cry.
But things were percolating behind the scenes with the Costello-Castor clan. Suddenly, her phone was going crazy. "Casanovas, Costellos, Calangelos…All these Italians were Facebooking me!" she recalled.
At 3:10 her phone dinged one more time. The man who would turn out to be her biological father sent a friend request.
JoAnne Castor, 76, who lives in the house in Glendora, N.J., where her photographer father moved the family from South Philadelphia in 1959, was just as excited as Beck to connect the genetic dots linking them.
Apparently not coded into the DNA of this large, close-knit family was any suspicion of this outsider. From day one, the extended family viewed Beck as one of their own. "It was taking a chance," Castor admits. "I saw her background online and just felt good about it."
But they struggled to figure out how they might be related. "I was calling my cousins and asking them and could not figure out what the connection could be," Castor said. "I asked Joe…"
Her brother, Carl Joseph Costello, 74, is a former front man and music producer. In 1988 he found the perfect job, running the audio-visual program at Triton Regional High School in Runnemede, N.J. where he and his wife Melody raised two kids. He also wrote three unpublished books, carved wooden boxes, drew elaborate pictures, and made short videos for YouTube.
Just 20 minutes after Costello sent his friend request, father and daughter spoke for the first time as the rest of the family huddled around a speaker phone in Castor's kitchen.
They were both shocked at how much they had in common – almost like twins separated at birth. "Every time I turn around, there's another thing!" Costello marveled.
That week, they saw each other for the first time during a Facetime chat. "I had to hang up," Beck said. "I couldn't take it. I thought I was going to have a heart attack." They started exchanging texts at 6 a.m. and swapping pictures. Her dad sent her a video of him singing "Summer Wind" in front of a family montage, which she loved.
They met in person on June 18 – Father's Day. Beck arrived at her Aunt JoAnne's house, where a yellow ribbon was tied around the tree in front. She brought balloons that said 'It's a Girl,' and candy cigars.
There was a cake for Beck's 57th birthday, three days later, and Costello gave his daughter a drawing he did of his father, her grandfather. Everyone was there, her stepmother, her newfound brother and sister, Carlee and Joe, her son Dylan and all the others from the big Italian family she'd known about for less than a month.
Costello – who in July took the DNA test confirming he's Beck's father – recalled how he met Sue's mother when her family came to visit his Uncle Albert for a week. He was 16 – and one thing led to another.
Costello said Carol's family told his parents that she was pregnant, then a few days later said she had made it up. He joined the Air Force and forgot about it.
As for Beck's adoptive mother, "She said I'm so happy that when I go you're going to be with these people, your family," Beck said. "That takes a hell of a person to be so kind in her heart."
She sees her biological dad and many of the others nearly every weekend, where they play Pictionary and sometimes sing karaoke. They went to an escape room, spent a weekend at the shore. She texts or talks to Costello every day. This summer, she attended her sister's wedding, where Beck and her father danced to "Summer Wind."
"What happened when she met us, she was finally where she belongs," Costello said. "There was no oddity about her. Everybody is like her."
There was little doubt of that last Sunday night when the brood gathered for dinner at Castor's house, the yellow ribbon still on the tree in front.
As meatballs simmered, Beck recalled asking her father to tell her a joke. He launched into a complicated story about a supermarket clerk, a half-head of cabbage…and Canadians. Beck was amazed – "he starts telling it and I finished the sentence…I've been telling that joke my whole life!"
Costello sometime bemoans the lost years, saying "If not for science, DNA, I would have gone to my grave not knowing I had a child."
Next up are big plans for Christmas Eve and the Feast of the Seven Fishes, another Italian tradition that will be brand new for Beck.
"It took 57 years for her to come home," Castor said, and Beck couldn't agree more. "I didn't realize I was missing an identity," she said, "until I got one."
There was one last twist of the family's DNA stands. Inspired by the remarkable reunion, Costello's wife sent her own saliva sample to Ancestry.com.
She learned she has a sister she never knew about.