Jen Sullivan-Triplett was leaving her substitute teaching job during the second week of March when a phone call, coming from North Carolina, popped onto the screen of her smartphone.
It was strange, she thought, because she has no east coast ties. The call rang through to voicemail.
Immediately after, a revelation experienced less than a year earlier snapped into her mind: that’s where her father — whom she’d never met and found through an extensive, exhausting ancestry hunt — lives.
In the months following her summer 2019 discovery, she’d sent cards, pictures and letters to his mailing address and heard nothing back.
Then came that missed call.
“Hi, it’s Mike (last name omitted), don’t drop the phone,” the voicemail said.
Growing up in Fremont, Sullivan-Triplett relied fully on her mother during the duration of her upbringing. Dad was simply never part of the picture — not asked about by young Jen — nor brought up by mom.
Sullivan-Triplett was born in 1972; a time when having a child out of wedlock wasn’t accepted and could result in a mother being relegated to pariah status. She knew she had a father, obviously, but his identity remained cloaked, all the way through 2001 when her mother died from breast cancer.
Dad’s identity didn’t come up, she believes, because her mother either didn’t know who he was or didn’t feel comfortable discussing. Either way, Sullivan-Triplett, conscientious of her mother’s feeling and not wanting to back her into a corner, never broached the subject.
“She was really young when she had me,” said Sullivan-Triplett, who now works as an assistant children’s librarian at Bellevue Public Library. “She was 18 in Fremont, and back then it was just different times. So it never came up, and then she went through her cancer battle so I never wanted to make her feel uncomfortable.”
Although dad’s identity wasn’t discussed, during her late teen years and into her 20s, Sullivan-Triplett did some sleuthing. She visited Keene Memorial Library in Fremont and sifted through old Fremont High School yearbooks, followed leads, wrote a handful of letters and made phone calls.
Ultimately, in the early 2000s she found one man who had ties to her mother –- the first promising lead. He agreed to a paternity test, which came back negative.
Another dead end.
This was all during a time when internet technology was just gearing up and genealogy services like Ancestry.com weren’t commonplace.
The going was so slow, in fact, that she stopped actively digging into her background for more than a decade. In 2017, the hunt started again when Sullivan-Triplett saw an advertisement for Ancestry.com.
“I thought, well, if I’m never going to find out who my dad is, I want to know my genealogy. What am I? … I also thought that maybe he (her dad) had taken a test, and it would link us up as parent and child, whoever this person is.”
That didn’t happen, but questions were answered about two years later. And it was jump started through an unlikely outlet: a podcast.
“My husband, Larry, is adopted, and it was all about DNA and people figuring out and solving murder mysteries with DNA,” she said of the podcast. “… They mentioned a group called Search Angels.”
The group, according to its website, is a nonprofit that assists people with their genealogy and DNA test results in an effort to help them find their biological roots.
She encouraged Larry to contact the group to assist with locating his biological parents. At the time, she said he wasn’t interested, but she believed it might be the answer to her mystery.
After reaching out with a letter, a Search Angels volunteer took the case and sifted through her DNA profile.
“She said she felt compelled to help me, she liked my story, she kind of felt linked with me,” she said. “And within two days she found my birth family information.”
She learned that she was related to a Fremont family and that one of two men was her father.
Finding contact information for both, Sullivan-Triplett sent one letter from Bellevue to Fremont.
The other headed across country to Greensboro, North Carolina.
The Fremont letter was answered first by a man named Dale (out of privacy to the family, the Leader agreed to keep the family’s last name anonymous.) He was friendly and receptive to the fact that he might be her father, but a paternity test quickly determined that he was her uncle.
By a quick process of elimination, they knew that his brother, Mike, was Sullivan-Triplett’s father.
While forging a relationship with her uncle, Sullivan-Triplett treaded lightly with Mike. Dale told her that Mike would likely be shocked and he wasn’t sure how his brother would respond. But, that didn’t stop her from periodically sending him little momentos of her life: pictures, letters, cards.
Still, she heard nothing — until March. Then, that missed phone call altered the course of her life.
“I contacted him the next day and we talked, we fumbled around that, and ever since then we have been emailing every day; I call him Dad.”
She learned that Mike has two sons, but that she is his only daughter. He had no clue she even existed prior to receiving her letter. But with open dialogue, the pair quickly grew closer.
“It was a little rough at first, and then he started emailing me things about the family acreage and gardening tips, he started giving me fatherly advice,” she said. “I’ve never had that before.
“It’s just been the most surreal thing, I never thought in a million years I would ever experience this. And this is my first Father’s Day that I’ll ever get to experience.”
For Father’s Day, Sullivan Triplett compiled a photo album, a few miscellaneous odds and ends and a few sentimental items to ship to Mike. It’s tough, she said, because she isn’t able to see him while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Mike is battling lung cancer and is currently receiving autoimmune therapy, which she said he’s responding nicely to.
While distance separates the duo physically, they are growing emotionally stronger daily. All of the pieces of the puzzle are aligning.
Some of the facts she’s learned blow her away. Both of their families grew up in the same Fremont neighborhood, she and Mike both attended now-closed Northside Elementary School and Sullivan-Triplett’s son’s birthday is June 29, just like Mike’s.
Connecting the pieces of her life took many, many years, but now she has a sense of peace that she never imagined possible.
“When I found him, I finally found like I had a real identity,” she said. “It’s been wild. I feel like I’m going to wake up from some sort of dream.
“It’s amazing, and I feel like my mom is probably smiling down, she’s probably really happy for me.”