Sister, brother meet for the first timeFor the first time in her 60-year life, Chattanooga resident Gayle Balaban met her brother. After being separated at birth by adoption she reconnected with her brother Michael Economy. Economy drove down from Pennsylvania to meet her Tuesday.
Gayle Balaban grew up in Tinton Falls, N.J., with adopted parents she described as being like Archie and Edith Bunker from "All in the Family."
Michael Economy grew up in Elizabeth, N.J., and never knew his father. When he was 13, his mother died and he went to live with his aunt in Franklin Township, N.J., because his stepfather didn't want him.
Until a few months ago, Balaban and Economy never knew they were brother and sister with the same set of parents.
On Tuesday morning, the two met for the first time in Chattanooga, where Balaban moved in 1987.
"Oh, my God," Balaban said as Economy approached her outside the Panera Bread on Gunbarrel Road, greeting her with a hug and a bouquet of flowers. "I'd get up but I'd fall over."
"Do we look alike?" she asked his wife, Linda.
"A little bit," Linda said.
Balaban, 60, was adopted at birth through Catholic Charities in Newark, N.J., and her childhood was a mixed bag.
"My mother was very sweet and tried to make a typical household," she said. "My father was rigid. He had prejudices. He was your typical blue-collar worker."
She played football on an all-woman team, drove charter buses, was a drug and alcohol counselor and a real estate agent and is now working as an independent career mentor, a sort of counselor who helps people create businesses and careers. She's never been married and has no children.
"My life has been a challenge and a blessing," she said. "I've had very, very highs and very, very lows. I take it all in stride."
She'd looked for her birth family in the 1980s to no avail and had given up. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004 and, when symptoms began manifesting several years ago, she decided to try searching again.
Brandon Gee, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, said an illness is "not an uncommon motivator" when people search for their biological families.
A caseworker with Catholic Charities learned that Balaban's natural mother had died and hired a private investigator to help find any other relatives. The search turned up Economy, a 57-year-old bricklayer, husband, father of two and grandfather of three from Gilberton, Pa.
He'd been a high school wrestler and had entered the Air Force at age 17, where he met Linda, a medic. They married in 1975.
He'd met half-siblings in his 20s, he said, but never knew he had a biological sister. In fact, when the letter came from Catholic Charities telling him he had a sister, he said he assumed it was a solicitation and told his wife to throw it away. She opened it anyway.
"It was a shock to find out you had another sister you never knew about," he said. "You see it on TV, but when it happens to you, it's different."
Before any information could be provided, both parties had to sign a release form. Economy was out of town at the time, but his wife contacted Catholic Charities, telling them to please inform Balaban of the reason for the delay.
"We didn't want Gayle to think we didn't care about her," she said.
Before the meeting, both Economy and Balaban said they were hopeful but had no expectations.
"I've talked to Michael on the phone, and he seems really quiet and shy," Balaban said the day before they met. "He doesn't seem overbearing. I'm just hoping we like each other."
For their long-awaited first meeting, Linda brought along photos of the family members, including half siblings from both parents. Balaban has been getting to know them as well, communicating through phone and Facebook. There's Joanne, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Fred -- called Junior -- in New Jersey. Diane died and Kenny, another full brother, has been missing for years.
"To me, facially, Joanne and I look a lot alike," Balaban said.
Linda Economy brought a photo of Balaban's and Economy's mother, the only such photo her husband has.
"Oh, thank you, Linda," Balaban said, her voice tinged with emotion. "It helps to see what she looks like."
They talk about their lives, their childhoods. Economy has put most of his past behind him.
"I remember bits and pieces about my past," he said, "I try to bury it."
"And here I am digging it all up," Balaban said.
Economy is quiet, his wife and Balaban more talkative. The conversation jumps back and forth between chatter and more serious issues. They talk about the trip from Pennsylvania, Balaban's illness, the June heat in Tennessee and the process of coming together after all these years. He thinks he might have heard something in passing, years ago, about a sister, but hadn't remembered. She wishes she had been more persistent in finding her family earlier.
"All my life, I always wanted a family," she said. "My adoptive brother died and my parents, too. I told people I have no family, and now I have a big family. To be a real brother and a real sister matters to me."
"It matters to me, too."
Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...
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