United despite decades of family secrets
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
It’s only common for families to gather during the holiday season, sharing laughs and stories and reminiscences. But for one Sonoma woman, the season brought an unfamiliar face – a half-sister she never knew existed.
Were it not for Facebook and a series of seemingly random circumstances, Beth Cuccia Reilly, 43, may never have encountered her older sibling. The women grew up some 900 miles apart, separated by family secrets and decades of stern denial.
The women have the same father, different mothers. And, like an engrossing mystery, only one person knows the true details of their separate lives: their father, who died in 1982.
“I only wish I could ask him questions,” says Reilly. “That’s what kept me up at night at first.”
Reilly grew up in a small town in Illinois with her father, mother and older sister, Phyllis.
Down in the Gulf Coast, her half-sister, 54-year-old Terri Covington, was raised by her mother and stepfather in a small Louisiana town. That family includes Covington’s four stepsiblings and her sister, Toni, who also is Reilly’s half-sister.
A sugary “Yours, Mine and Ours” it is not. Reilly’s father apparently never wanted the two sets of sisters to know about the others. Even his will did not acknowledge Covington, her sister or their mother, his first wife.
Reilly says her father abandoned her half-sisters even before Covington was born. The circumstances are unconfirmed.
Reilly, a local Realtor and school volunteer, believes it’s more about him and his vanity than anything else. “I think it was to protect his image,” she says. “Dad was very much about keeping himself in a good light.”
Although five years passed before he met Reilly’s mother, she thinks he wanted to remain in a favorable light and maintain the tight bond he’d developed with her parents.
Their “100% Italian, hard-core Catholic” family embraced old world values that wouldn’t necessarily have overlooked her father’s background, Reilly believes.
She recalls that he was “handsome and charismatic, a good-time Charlie kind of guy and a great dancer.” And, she says, “He really did love the ladies. The attractive ones, of course.”
Ironically, Reilly wondered if her father may have had other children. She was just 12 when he died, but she remembers his will listing the name of a second wife. She jotted the name in her diary and, years later, tried to track the woman down to see if there were any long-lost siblings with the Cuccia surname.
Reilly worked as a paralegal while attending Northwestern University, using her research skills attempting to locate her father’s second wife. She asked an older cousin for direction, the unofficial Cuccia family historian, who gave no clues. She also sought the help of a friend working as a private investigator.
No luck, no half-siblings uncovered.
Reilly was shocked, then, when two years ago a message on her Facebook page posed a simple question from a stranger: it listed a couple’s name and asked if they were her parents.
The woman asking the question was Covington. She had done a Google search on the Internet and found Reilly, whose maiden name is part of her legal married name.
When Reilly questioned her mother about Covington, she was met with complete denial.
“I knew instantly my mom was lying,” she recalls.
Before long, her mother gave in. “She said, ‘After a restless night’s sleep, I woke up and remembered something I’d forgotten for 30 years.’ ”
At that moment, the skeletons emerged from the Cuccia family closet. Adding to Reilly’s frustration was the fact that seemingly everyone in her father’s family knew about her two half-sisters.
“It was more of a shock that they all knew but just never went there,” Reilly says.
She and her sister, a college mathematics teacher in Illinois, have spent the past two years corresponding with their two half-sisters in Louisiana. They’ve discovered much in common and have worked together to link pieces of family history.
In November, just before Thanksgiving, Reilly and Covington were finally able to meet face-to-face for a four-day visit in Sonoma.
“We had a brief crying moment,” Reilly says. “We’ve both known each other, but we’re both strangers.”
They spent their visit learning more about both their families – Covington is a grandmother – and discovering shared quirks like being “neurotic,” “worrywarts” and “hypochondriacs,” Reilly jokes.
Reilly now looks forward to meeting her other half-sister.
While their discovery has been “a pleasant, unexpected thing and really positive,” it has brought up an avalanche of mixed emotions about Reilly’s father and his family’s decision to keep his secret.
She can’t imagine that the proud, overprotective father who tucked her into bed each night is the same man who left two little girls behind in Louisiana.
“He must have blocked it from his psyche to leave his kids,” she says.
Reilly has worked through some resentment and anger, but focuses on how her new half-sisters must feel.
“I wonder how it affected their lives to be abandoned? I can not imagine what it feels like to be abandoned,” she says.
Reilly’s husband, Jeff Reilly, and their daughters Alexandria, 9, and Amelia, 6, welcome the new members of their extended family.
Beth Cuccia Reilly believes the union was all fate.
She had deactivated her Facebook account, but only after leaving her hairdresser a message on the salon’s public Facebook page. When Covington keyed in Reilly’s name, that post ultimately led to her.