Family secret

Canton woman loses a son
but gains a whole new family

Viki Knowles sat on her living room couch one day staring at nothing in particular. She was often lost these days, absorbed in grief. It had been only a few months since Ben, her eldest son, had been killed in a car accident. Whole days went by in a trance. Ben was just 21, a loyal friend, willing helper, an old soul with an effervescent presence. His whole life lay ahead of him. How could he be gone?

She looked up to see her mother, Betty, standing over her, thrusting a thick sheaf of folded paper at her.

Please read this, Betty said. She was trembling. This is going to change your life.

Oh really, Mom? Viki remembered thinking snidely. More than my son’s death?

Mystified, Viki took the letter. Her mother lived in the downstairs apartment in the big house in Canton where Viki, her husband Michael, and her children lived. They could talk anytime. Why a letter? she wondered.

Betty retreated to a corner of the room and covered her face with her hands. Viki opened the letter, all 12 pages, and began reading.

Her mother was right.

Viki’s mother was prompted to reveal the identity of Viki’s birth father in a 12-page letter after Felipe’s family contacted her.


So I’m Cuban?

In 1973, Betty Brown was divorced and living in an apartment in the West Hialeah area of Miami, home to the Hialeah Park Race Track, pink flamingos and a majority Cuban population. One day, while working behind the cosmetic counter at a drug store, she met the new assistant manager, Felipe Fernandez. It was a second job for him, a journalist who left Havana in 1959 shortly after Fidel Castro came into power. Betty liked this handsome man with the pencil moustache.

“He had a dry humor that left people wondering whether he was teasing or not,” she said.

Betty noticed how sad Felipe was after his father died, and the two began to talk. Their relationship soon became romantic, although Felipe was married and had children.

When Betty discovered she was pregnant, she was both alarmed and ecstatic. During her first marriage, she suffered several miscarriages early in her pregnancies. A doctor told her it was unlikely she could have children. Now, at 31, realizing she was already several months along, “it seemed like a miracle,” she said.

But Felipe leaving his family for her was never an option.

“I really did love him,” said Betty, “but I knew I’d feel guilty and selfish if I tried to take him away from his wife and children.”

Instead, Betty moved into a crowded apartment with her sister and her family. The situation was difficult. Betty knew she had to find her own space and a way to support herself and the child she was carrying.

Into this scenario stepped Glenn Hines, a former suitor, who inspected airplane tires for a company near the Miami airport. He was 20 years older than Betty. Professing his love to her, he offered to marry her and accept the child as his own.

“I refused him again and again,” said Betty. “It didn’t seem fair to him.”

But Glenn persisted, claiming she would grow to love him. Besides, he offered her a lot more than marriage — financial stability, legitimacy and a father for her unborn child. Betty knew he was good man, a man she could, and did, grow to love. She was six months pregnant when they married. When Viki was born, she took Glenn’s surname. She was officially his.

Betty was now a proud and happy mother.

“I vowed that I would carry this secret with me to my grave,” she said.

Betty and Glenn. Contributed photo

Betty and Glenn. Contributed photo

So I’m Cuban? were Viki’s first words after reading her mother’s letter.

Betty expected a much harsher reaction.

“I was prepared for her to tell me to pack up and leave,” said Betty. “I thought she’d hate me.”

Not that they never exchanged angry words. Viki was furious this part of her identity had been kept from her. She felt duped. Especially when she learned that Felipe had died in 2008. Now she could never get to know him.

But Viki also understood how Betty must have felt. Being unmarried and pregnant in 1973 carried a shameful stigma. She had some excruciating choices to make. Viki came to see her mother’s decision as selfless and loving.

Upon reflection, Betty thinks Glenn’s motives for marrying her were probably more complex than just infatuation with a pretty young woman. He was an orphan who had been sold off as a farmhand as a young boy. He never had a family. The idea of stepping into a ready-made one must have been appealing. He embraced Betty and her daughter, whom he raised as his only child, walking her down the aisle on her wedding day and crying tears of joy upon the birth of her first child. And Viki loved him like a father; she relished their fishing trips and baseball outings, and she mourned him when he died in May 2001.

But Glenn was not her biological father.

Viki holds photos of Felipe.


Secret revealed

Viki began to rethink her entire childhood after she discovered her Cuban heritage.

“I always felt like an outsider,” she said. “Most of my classmates were Cuban. I was exposed to all these colorful traditions, food and music through my friends and especially through my Cuban nanny. I wanted to be like them and yet I resented them, too.”

At least she had the benefit of growing up bilingual, thanks to Mama Vicki, her beloved nanny.

She recalled vivid memories of sitting by the radio with her mother on Sunday evenings listening to a Spanish news broadcast aimed at Miami’s Cuban-American population called Cadena Azul, Blue Chain. Betty would hush Viki as a man’s voice began to speak. Viki always wondered why Betty was so interested in the show. While Viki was fairly fluent, her mother’s Spanish was sketchy at best. The host’s name was Felipe.

Viki also remembered a man who occasionally took her and her mother out to lunch in his car. He was funny, recalled Viki. He called his car “Betsy.” She loved running her hands over Betsy’s red plush interior while her mother and the man talked in the front seat. His name was Felipe.

In hindsight, Viki wonders why she never suspected anything. But she was a child, who, like most kids, didn’t see her parents as people who had their own lives.

Now she takes comfort in knowing she met her biological father and was a small part of his life, even if she hadn’t known it at the time. She now knows he saw her more than she was aware. Betty said Felipe watched Viki’s first marriage from outside the church.

Why had she waited so long to tell her, Viki asked her mother. And why now?

Neither the revelation nor the timing had been Betty’s choice. Felipe’s family had tracked Betty down through the Internet. They wanted to know Felipe’s daughter.

At the time of Viki’s birth, Felipe told his brother everything. The brother eventually told other family members, although Felipe’s wife and sons never knew.

Felipe’s nephew Jorge Fernandez remembers his grandmother telling him about Viki.

“I thought it was sad that this girl would never know she had brothers,” he said.

At the funeral of Felipe’s wife in 2016, the family decided they would divulge the secret. After all, Felipe was long dead, and, now, so was his wife. Neither could be hurt by the revelation anymore. So when all the mourners had left the church, the family sat down with Felipe’s sons, now men in their 50s, to tell them they had a half-sister.

“I had absolutely no idea,” said John Fernandez, Felipe’s youngest son. “At first I didn’t know if we should even try to find her, but it didn’t take me long to warm up to the idea. I had a sister.”

For months Felipe’s family searched for clues to finding Viki without success. Then one day, a cousin was cleaning out an aunt’s house and came across a shoe box of old photos. Inside were pictures of Viki that Betty had sent to Felipe over the years. Scribbled on the back were names and dates. It was enough to facilitate a search.

The family found Viki’s Facebook page and learned about the recent loss of her son, Ben.

“We decided not to contact her directly,” said Jorge. They would go through Betty; she had a Facebook page, too. When Betty heard from them, she was frantic.

“I knew my secret was no longer safe,” she said. “But I did not want Viki to get a Facebook message from them out of the blue. I wanted, needed, to be the one who broke the news to her.”

She spent two months composing the letter and working up the courage. Betty’s anguish was compounded by her grief over the death of her grandson.

Viki might have noticed her mother’s distress during that time if she had not been preoccupied with her own anguish over Ben.

Now Viki recalls how Ben often asked her why he was the only one in the family with a dark complexion.

Some kids think I’m Hispanic, he once joked.

To Viki’s surprise, the unexpected news of her parentage helped dissipate her depression over Ben’s death. She had something else to occupy her thoughts. Something that was not dreadful. It was hopeful, in fact. She had family in Miami she did not know. She was not an only child. And she was Cuban, a member of the community she so revered back in grade school.

Tears well up in her eyes when she thinks about how Ben would have loved to know he carried the bloodline of Felipe. Side by side photos of the two show remarkable similarities.

Viki drinks Cuban coffee with her daughter Nikki Swartz (third from left), 16, and new nieces (from left) Kelsey, 18, Cassidy, 20, and Kristen Fernandez, 21, at Viki's home in Canton.


Divine serendipity

Overnight, Viki had two half-brothers, aunts, uncles and a passel of cousins, most living in Miami’s Little Havana area, and a few in Orlando. She couldn’t wait to meet them.

After an initial Facebook correspondence, phone calls began flying back and forth between Viki and her new family. They, too, were eager to meet her. A reunion was scheduled in Orlando last May. Betty was probably the most nervous of all. She wasn’t sure Felipe’s family would welcome her. She had no need to worry.

“There was never any judgment,” said Betty.

“No holding back,” Viki added. “Just an outpouring of love.”

Sharing life stories and laughing over old photos was a balm for Viki’s soul. Even sharing information about Ben’s life and death felt like an honor and not a gloomy task. In the unfamiliar faces of her new family, she saw the familiar face of Ben.

On the way back home, Viki stopped in Tampa to see Mama Vicky, her old nanny, now 102 and still sharp of mind.

Viki haltingly told her about learning Felipe was her father. Mama Vicky didn’t blink.

Lo se, she said in Spanish. I know.

Though Betty insists she never told Mama Vicky, she suspects gossip spread through the Cuban community. Or maybe the elderly woman was just a keen observer.

By the time she returned to Atlanta, Viki had decided to visit Cuba. She wanted to see this colorful island that entranced her so when she was a child. Cuba was now part of her story, part of her identity.

Last September, she and her husband, Michael, landed in Havana with plans to stay for a week. They cruised along the Malecón, the thoroughfare bordering the ocean, in a classic car. They drank mojitos and listened to salsa music. They devoured fried plantains and picadillo, a kind of a hash made with ground beef, olives, raisins and cumin. Through the faded glamour, Viki could see the vibrant city that was once a haven for tourists, the city that was once her father’s home.

As Hurricane Irma barreled toward the Caribbean, Viki and Michael were among the hordes of tourists ordered to evacuate. Their week-long trip was cut short after three days. Viki took it in stride.

“I’ll just have to go back again,” she said with a smile. “This time I’d like to take my children.”

Meanwhile, she’s started incorporating flavors of the island into her diet. She taught her daughter, Nikki, how to make pastelitos de guyaba, guava turnovers.

“She makes them better than I do,” Viki said.

And she’s begun making cafecito, Cuban coffee, in the morning for her co-workers at Emory Orthopedic and Spine Hospital, where she works as a radiologic technologist.

“It’s a very strong, sweet coffee,” she said. “Wakes us all up!”

Viki is also brushing up on her Spanish and arm-twisted her husband into taking salsa dance lessons with her.

Viki’s husband Michael jokes that he always pined for a Cuban beauty while growing up in Miami, but he thought they were out of his league.

“Now I find out that I got myself a Cuban girl without even realizing it,” he said.

Viki ponders the timing of the disclosure that has altered her perception of her identity.

“It’s been so hard healing after Ben’s death,” she said. “But all the emotional energy I was putting into grief got nudged into this surprising new revelation. It was divine serendipity.”

Near Main Street and Arnold Mill Road in Woodstock are concrete benches that residents can buy as memorials. It’s an area where Ben used to hang out with his friends. On Viki’s birthday last year, a bench was dedicated to Ben. The inscription reads “All of Our Love, Benjamin R. Spotts IV, 1995-2016.” A nod to Ben’s love of music, the inscription is a reference to the Led Zeppelin song “All of My Love,” written by Robert Plant who composed it after the death of his son.

During a recent visit, Viki took her new brother John to see the bench. It was a chance to introduce her family to the nephew they were too late to know. It was a solemn moment. And a wonderful one, too.

Viki and her new niece, Cassidy Fernandez (left), make pastelitos de guyaba, a traditional Cuban dish, during a recent visit.

Whether it’s pure coincidence or divine intervention, sometimes in life things seem to occur at just the right time for maximum impact. This is just such a story, about how the timing of the disclosure of a family secret helped a grieving mother heal.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor

Laurie Eynon is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Personal Journeys. She is gradually retiring from her position as a chaplain at Northside Hospital, but loves it too much to just quit. Now residents of Atlanta for 14 years, she and husband Rob are happy and proud to call it home, but still make frequent trips to Indiana for family time.

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.

Viki holds a photograph of her son Ben Spotts on a bench dedicated to his memory in Woodstock.