For more than five decades, Alison Altazan Guerra was unaware of the blessed reality right in front of her: Every time she looked in a mirror, she was gazing into the face of the birth mother she had never known.
Guerra’s reflection hinted at her biological mother’s exquisitely arched eyebrows, high forehead and brown, almond-shaped eyes; her mother’s adorable nose, rosebud mouth and slightly rounded chin.
A special Christmas gift
On Dec. 26, the mirror images came together in the flesh at Louis Armstrong International Airport, marking the joyful conclusion of Guerra’s search for her mother through DNA analysis, her own online sleuthing and loving guidance from Adoption Services of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, the office that handled Guerra’s closed adoption in 1961.
After a long bear hug in baggage claim, 55-year-old Guerra of New Orleans and San Diego-based Suzanne Fisch, 87, placed the palms of their hands together to make a perfect match.
“I told Suzanne that on every single birthday, I always thought of her and wondered if she ever thought of me, or if she was even alive – it was all so surreal and amazing,” said Guerra of the pair’s emotional reunion.
“I had buried Alison’s birth so deep for over a half a century,” said Fisch, a retired social services worker. “But we recognized one another immediately. There was no hesitation. We just walked right up as if we had met each other at airports forever.”
Nature, nurture or both?
Beyond the shared architecture of their faces, other uncanny similarities between the two women came to light during Fisch’s four-day visit to her daughter’s home in Gentilly’s Oak Park neighborhood.
Both hated raisins and would diligently pick them out of baked goods.
Both were talented seamstresses and had a common passion for raising plants from seed and placing the tiny pots on their kitchen window sills.
Most strikingly, both Guerra and Fisch had been diagnosed with breast cancer at age 52 and had beaten the disease.
Adopted by loving family
“From the time I was able to know anything at all, I knew I was adopted,” said Guerra, recounting how her adoptive parents, John and Marie Altazan, would always say she stood out as the most beautiful infant in St. Vincent’s Maternity Home on Magazine Street.
A graduate of St. Frances Cabrini Elementary and St. Mary’s Dominican High, Guerra said her full and happy life with her adoptive parents and her also-adopted sibling, Kerrin Altazan, put off her desire to formally inquire into her ancestry until her freshman year at the University of New Orleans. While talking to a friend born two days earlier than she, Guerra learned that the friend had also been born at Guerra’s birth hospital of Hotel Dieu.
“In 1961, women who had babies didn’t go home the next day, so we may have been in the nursery together,” Guerra said.
That possibility was enough to send the then 18-year-old, with the full support of the Altazans, to Catholic Charities’ Adoption Services office. Amazingly, her adoption’s original caseworker, Gloria O’Day, was still on staff and able to give Guerra some generic, “non-identifying” information from her adoption records: the ages of her birth mother and her maternal grandparents; and the age of her birth father and his profession.
“That was enough to satisfy me for a while,” said Guerra, who felt another “twinge of wanting to know if I looked like someone else” in 1994, when her sister Kerrin reconnected with her own birth family.
A musical grandfather
In 2015, Guerra, who had lost her personal papers in Hurricane Katrina, obtained a copy of her information from Catholic Charities and gleaned a few more tantalizing tidbits about her background from Danna Cousins, program director of Adoption Services: Guerra’s maternal grandfather had been a professional musician and orchestra leader before his death at age 43. The new information sent Guerra into a frenzy of late-night Googling – followed by a string of dead-ends.
Last spring, Guerra made what would turn out to be a pivotal request: She asked her husband Ramiro and their children, John, 20, and Olivia, 15, to give her a DNA kit from Ancestry.com as a joint Mother’s Day and birthday gift.
Modern science lends a hand
“My (adoptive) father had died the previous January, so maybe that had something to do with resuming my search, or maybe it was watching an entire season of TLC’s ‘Long Lost Family,’” Guerra said, smiling. “I would watch that show and cry like a baby when people were united with their birth mothers, fathers and siblings. I wanted it, too!”
Guerra’s results arrived via email on June 3, 2016. She forwarded her DNA profile and other bits of biographical information to a Facebook page that unites adoptees and birth parents, and was assigned a “search angel,” who took her data and ran with it. More than 80 DNA matches were found.
“Within a day, my search angel had found my orchestra-leader grandfather and his two daughters, one of whom was my biological mother – Suzanne Fisch of San Diego,” Guerra said. (Guerra also learned the identity of her birth father, but has no immediate plans to contact him).
Once Guerra had zeroed in on her birth mother’s name and residence, her family tree filled out rapidly and somewhat dramatically. The keywords took her to a YouTube trailer for an unreleased documentary called “The Tapestry,” which chronicled the adoption story of a Detroit-based violinist named Ann Strubler and Strubler’s biological mother – Suzanne Fisch of San Diego.
“Her biological mother had the same name as my biological mother, and her mother lived in the same city as mine!” Guerra said. “I could only see Suzanne’s profile (in the trailer), but it was enough for me to say, ‘That face is the same as mine!’ I lost my breath. There was my mother – in the flesh – on the screen, and there was her voice, talking to me. Ann, my sister was a violinist. My first instrument at age 6 was a violin!”
And the musically gifted maternal grandfather of whom Guerra had been told? The trailer revealed that he was a member of John Philip Sousa’s marching band. That “music gene” had been passed down to Guerra’s own children, both talented pianists and composers.
Last November, Guerra and her family traveled to Detroit to meet Strubler and attend the premiere of “The Tapestry” documentary and its related symphonic poem composed by Strubler’s son, Matthew, and performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Pregnancy was kept secret
Although the adopted Strubler, 64, had found her birth mother Fisch some 30 years earlier and had forged a close relationship with her, Strubler was unaware of her half sister’s existence until Guerra’s search angel contacted Strubler through “The Tapestry” website.
Fisch had kept her second pregnancy, with Guerra, hidden from everyone in her life.
“I just couldn’t put my mother through this a second time. I had broken her heart eight years earlier when I got pregnant the first time,” recalled Fisch, noting that single motherhood – and its potential to disgrace a family’s name – loomed as much bigger taboos in 1961 than they do today.
Fisch asked her obstetrician to arrange for her to go to a maternity home far away from California, specifically requesting one run by Catholic Social Services, which had operated the Minnesota maternity home in which Fisch had given birth to Strubler in 1952. Fisch had positive memories of being loved and protected by the nuns there, and doing chores such as scrubbing floors, ironing altar cloths and baking the sisters’ Sunday coffee cake.
Given an alias, cover story
Fisch and her doctor settled on St. Vincent’s in New Orleans, staffed by the Daughters of Charity.
“I told my mother I was driving to Miami to meet up with some girlfriends, but I knew I was never going to Miami,” Fisch said.
To protect the identities of their residents, St. Vincent’s Daughters of Charity gave each woman an alias – based on the initials of her first and last names – and a cover story that explained their pregnancies. Fisch’s tale was that she had temporarily relocated to New Orleans to live with her sister while her “husband” completed a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy.
“I was ‘Sally Fillmore from California,’” said Fisch, recalling how she would attend morning Mass with the sisters in their chapel, eat meals with about a dozen fellow residents and spend her weekdays working as a calligrapher and steel company receptionist.
“The nuns were so impressed (with my steady employment) that they gave me a separate room away from all the other people, right across the hall from their own quarters,” Fisch said.
Because her baby was not due until May, Fisch also attended her first and only Mardi Gras, saving the glass beads.
An anguishing time
Other than the bookend events of the taxi ride to Hotel Dieu to deliver her baby and waking up in her room at St. Vincent’s post-partum, Fisch said she has no memories of giving birth to Guerra. She wasn’t even sure of Guerra’s birthdate – a lapse commonly reported by mid-century women who essentially were “put to sleep” during labor and who opted not to see their babies before giving them up for adoption.
“I made a decision that I didn’t even want to know the gender of the child,” said Fisch, recalling that she was still haunted by the requirement, at the time of her first daughter’s birth, of having to care for her infant for a short time before relinquishing custody to the adoptive parents.
“Having to see that beautiful little person turned over to someone and say goodbye forever – I knew I could not do that again,” she said.
A few months after Guerra’s birth, Fisch returned to her life in California “with a story to tell about the Mardi Gras.” She kept her second pregnancy to herself – until Strubler called her with the news that “Alison Guerra of New Orleans” was searching for her.
Two mothers became friends
In the months leading up to their airport reunion, Guerra and Fisch became acquainted through letters, emails and photos. Their first phone call lasted three and a half hours.
In the process, Guerra’s adoptive mother, Marie Altazan, and Fisch became pen pals. The former was grateful to Fisch for giving Guerra the gift of life, the latter indebted to Altazan for providing Guerra with the happiest of homes.
Their next plan is to get the complete trio of Fisch, Strubler and Guerra together in the same city.
Love, gratitude prevail
“God found a way to somehow connect us. He used pawns but he did it in his own time,” Fisch said, admitting that she still feels pangs of guilt for erasing Guerra’s birth from her memory bank.
“God has given Alison the grace – and the graciousness – not to have held any kind of resentment (toward me). How great a blessing is that? I can’t really grasp that yet,” Fisch said.
“But if you entrust your worries to the Lord God, you have to take him up on his promise to come and put it all on his shoulders, and that’s all I could do (at the time of Guerra’s adoption),” Fisch added. “I totally had to trust in God’s providence. My only prayer was, ‘Lord, do above and beyond what I could ever have imagined providing.’”
During Fisch’s recent visit to New Orleans, Guerra caught her two children – both of whom Guerra believes to look more like their father, Ramiro – buzzing about the remarkable resemblance between their mother and newly discovered grandmother.
“For the first time in my life,” Guerra said, “I look like someone.”
To view “The Tapestry,” visit www.thetapestryfilm.com.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.