Born countries apart, siblings reunite after a half century
Cathy Walker had always led a fairly normal life.
Raised in a military family in northern Virginia, she had all she needed growing up, including a loving, supportive family.
An only child, she'd gone on to college, become a special education teacher, married the love of her life, Bill Walker, and had children of her own.
Then, in her 58th year, things got complicated.
As a part of caring for her elderly father, Vince Dougherty, Cathy and Bill were preparing an old truck he no longer used to be sold. Cleaning out behind the truck's seat, Bill discovered a brown paper bag with a blue binder inside. Glancing through the binder, he realized after only a few moments what it was.
"I opened it up and I saw (Cathy's naturalization papers)," Bill said. "And then I flipped it over and it said, 'Application for adoption of Anette Martha Fleckenstein' and I said, 'Who the hell is that?'"
"He got this funny look on his face," Cathy said. "I kind of peeped over his back, and I said, 'I was adopted, wasn't I?' And he said, 'Yeah.'"
The initial shock
Learning that she'd lived 58 years with the huge secret was a bombshell to Cathy, who'd never even suspected she wasn't her parents' biological child. But she didn't have an immediate reaction.
"I kind of stewed about it," she said. "I don't know what my reaction was, I think I was in such shock."
"She wasn't angry, she wasn't upset," her husband chimed in. "She just really wasn't sure how she took it. She didn't react one way or the other — she was just in shock."
Cathy decided to keep it quiet.
"She really didn't want to pursue it or upset her dad at the time," Bill said.
But, as the couple was living with her elderly father because of his need for assistance, keeping it bottled up became too much.
"One day I just couldn't take it anymore," Cathy said. "I brought the binder (into the room with Vince and Bill) and said, 'Daddy, we need to talk.'"
"When he saw that binder," Bill said, "he looked as white as a ghost. He immediately got very uncomfortable."
After some hemming and hawing, along with quick denials, Cathy's father finally relented.
"He said, 'Your mom always wanted to tell you, but I never did, so we didn't.'"
Uncovering the details
Nearly a year after learning about her past, Cathy lost her father.
Four months after that, with both adoptive parents deceased and no siblings, she decided it was time to finally explore her past.
"My cousin was doing Ancestry.com, so I went on there," Cathy said.
She knew her birthdate in 1952, and that she'd been born in Heidelberg, Germany. She also knew she'd been named Anette Martha by her birth mother, Ida Elizabeth Fleckenstein.
"How many Ida Fleckensteins are there?" Cathy said. "Sure enough, one popped up and she'd come over on the Queen Mary with a daughter that was 3 named Ethel."
That's got to be my birth mother, Cathy thought.
A few weeks later, she found an obituary she believed to be for Ida.
"I really wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to the other names in it, but I zeroed in on Ethel Barron," she said, believing she'd found her sister.
"It's amazing what you can find on the Internet," she continued. "I went on the Internet and found tax records for Ethel Barron and just decided I was going to sit down and write her a letter. That's the link I had, the Queen Mary and Ethel."
"You need to sit down," Ethel Barron told her brother, John, a few states away, over the phone in July 2011.
Current Pigeon Forge boys basketball coach John Kucela had lived 55 years of his life knowing he and his three siblings had an older half-brother born in Germany prior to his mother's immigration to America to join his father.
But that didn't prepare him for the call he received from his sister that warm July evening.
Ethel had received a letter, penned by Cathy, laying out all the details.
"I came to the conclusion that either I was going to hear or I was not going to hear, and I was no better or worse," Cathy said. "I wasn't expecting anything. So I mailed that on a Thursday."
The next Tuesday she got a call from her husband, telling her to come home. She'd had a phone call.
Ethel had broken the news to John and given him Cathy's contact information — she wasn't ready to make a call herself.
"You're kind of leery. You don't know who these people are. They could be crazy," Cathy admitted.
But John, ever inquisitive, didn't hesitate to reach out.
"(When) he called and I was finding out that there was more than just Ethel, the whole family, we probably talked a couple hours," Cathy said.
"His daughter called us Aunt Cathy and Uncle Bill from that very night. It was so welcoming and nice when he called. He said, 'Ethel's going to call you. She's just real upset. It might take her a few days.'"
A few days later, Cathy's new older sister made contact.
"She said, 'I'm angry. I'm not angry at you. I'm angry at our mom for giving up two kids for adoption,'" Cathy recalled. "I said, 'Well, we don't know what things were like in post-war Germany at the time, so I'm not going to judge her.' I said, 'I grew up in a great family, and I don't have any regrets there. I just wish I could have met her.'
"Ethel said, 'Well, I grew up without any sisters.' And I said, 'I grew up without any brothers or sisters.'
"She said, 'Honey, you hit the jackpot.'"
Meeting face to face
The schedules worked out, and all of the American siblings decided to meet over Labor Day weekend 2011.
"(John) invited us to stay at his house, and I said, 'Bill, we're not staying with these people. We don't even know who they are.' So we stayed in a motel, which was comfortable."
But Cathy quickly learned there wouldn't be an awkwardness in meeting her family for the first time.
"We all get along," she said. "We've talked for hours."
And, in the three years since, the siblings have all treated her exactly as what she is — one of them.
"The fact that whole family just welcomed her (was incredible)," Marti Bowen, a friend and co-worker that accompanied the Walkers on this latest trip to Tennessee, said.
"To me the most special part of the story is, these are (such accepting) people," Bowen said. "Every single holiday, Cathy gets a card: 'To my sister.'
"I said, 'You are so lucky. These could have been crazy people, but these people were wide open to the joy of having a new sister. And to me, that's the best part of the story."
"Ethel is so funny," Cathy said of her older sister. "She loves antiques, going to thrift stores and yard sales and antique stores, and so do I."
The similarities with John are even more striking.
Maybe it's in the genes
"There are so many similarities it's scary," said Gale Parton, John's coworker at Pigeon Forge High School. She has also spent a considerable amount of time around Cathy.
"Their mannerisms are the same. Their hand gestures are the same. The pictures on her walls are some of the same pictures he has on his walls — they chose some of the same paintings — it's crazy. They have the same type of demeanor, the same sense of humor, it was very strange.
"It was almost like looking at a mirror image, even though they didn't grow up together," Parton continued. "They would sit down, and they can finish each other's sentences. There's that huge gap in their lives, and it's almost like they already knew each other."
What's most intriguing is this: John and Cathy even have the same occupation — teaching special education.
"They are both very compassionate people, both very detailed," said Parton, who'd traveled with Kucela and co-worker Betty Delozier to Virginia to learn about a special education program Cathy developed. "They both take care of people and know how to make people happy. They're very thoughtful about the things they say and do.
"The similarities are amazing."
Add to the unlikelihood that both are special education teachers the fact that both of their spouses are pharmacists, and it becomes uncanny.
"Being special ed teachers and having spouses that are both pharmacists — what are the chances?" Cathy mused.
Nailing down the details
It's a fool's errand, figuring out the myriad of details relating to Cathy's birth and adoption, and Ida's living situation before she met Ed Kucela, her longtime husband.
With Ida having died in 2008, there's no one left to remember the specifics.
Rudolf, Ida's first child — adopted by a German family — was born in her home country when she was just 17.
"My mom's family kind of disowned her," John said. "Here it is, late 1940s, right after the war, and she got pregnant with an American baby from an American G.I."
A few years later she met John's father, Ed, and they had a daughter, Ethel.
Shortly after, Ed had to leave Germany for Korea.
It's unlikely Ida thought she'd ever see him again. She then became pregnant with Cathy.
But after returning to the United States, Ed sent for Ida, a common practice for war brides at the time.
"(Ed's family) found out he'd gotten a girl pregnant and had a baby, and they basically told him he was going to make it right," Cathy surmised. "And he sent for them to come to Pennsylvania.
"I didn't fit into that picture."
So Cathy was given up for adoption in Heidelberg, where she'd been born. She was adopted by Vince and Caroline Dougherty, an American military couple, and brought home to northern Virginia.
After Ida made it to the U.S. with young Ethel, she and Ed settled down and had four more children — John, Rudy, Ed and Paul, who died as an infant.
And for next half century, the four Kucela siblings lived apart from their unknown sister, Cathy.
Until that fateful day in 2011, when a blue binder was found and the puzzle of their lives started coming together.
"I think we're kind of stuck with each other now," Cathy said Thursday with a genuine smile.
And the five siblings wouldn't have it any other way.