Colleen Kelly: I didn’t know my brother. Then I rang his doorbell.
For Colleen Kelly Powell, It turns out, Des Moines is an easy place to run into a half-sibling who may or may not know you exist. Des Moines Storytellers Project/Mediacom
Editor's note: Colleen Kelly Powell first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project: Siblings event. The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version of Powell's story appears below.
Two and a half years ago, I drove to a home not far from where I live.
I gathered my letters and my pictures, all of my proof. I mustered up some courage, fixed my hair, walked to the door, rang the doorbell and ... no one was home. (Because only in the movies is anybody ever home on the first attempt at a grand gesture.)
But a few days later, I went back and a lovely young woman invited me in. We were joined by a young man, presumably her husband.
I said to that young man, "My name is Colleen Kelly. Do you know who I am?"
He looked at me and said, "Yes."
That young man is my biological brother, Greg. He was someone who for more than 30 years I had only known from photographs, but he was someone I had wanted to know in real life for a very long time.
Let me back up.
My mother had me at 18.
My biological father wanted nothing to do with the baby and, for whatever reason, my mother wasn't particularly forthcoming about who my biological father was.
I soon learned that when you don't have a Norman Rockwell-esque family, people almost demand to know why. Simply saying, "I don't have a dad," just doesn't cut it.
So I would make up stories. For instance, in the early 1980s when feather earrings were in style, I told people my dad was a Native American and he had made me these earrings out of birds he killed himself.
What is a little unique about my story is that my biological dad's mom, my Grandma Bridie, a pious Irish woman, did want to be part of my life.
I was raised for much of my life thinking her and her husband, my Grandpa Barney, were just this nice older couple who we saw all the time and who let me run in and out of their home.
One day, when I was about 7, I was standing in Bridie's kitchen and I made a comment about how she always had the best cookies in her cookie jar.
She turned to me and said, "Well, that's what grandmas are for."
"You're my grandma?" I asked. "Well, who's my dad?"
"Kevin," she said.
I walked out of the kitchen, down the hallway where I knew she had photographs of all her children and there was an 8-by-10 of my biological dad.
It all kind of made sense. I looked like him and, although I was only 7 and far more interested in getting my hands on another one of those cookies than cataloging all the ways my Bio Dad and I were similar, I knew in my elementary school mind that this was a big moment.
Time went by. I learned my Bio Dad — as I'll call Kevin from now on — had gotten married and started a family.
More time went by. I remember the first time I saw my brother Greg's picture on my grandma's fridge. He was young because I was only a teenager, but I stood there and I looked and thought, "Wow, I have a little brother."
Even more time went by. My grandmother ended up passing away, but through conversations with my grandfather, I learned that Greg was going to college at Central in Pella. At the time, I was living in Des Moines and thought, "Well, this is it. Our paths are crossing. I think we should know each other."
I ran the idea past my grandfather. He thought it was great!
We formed a plan. We'd go to the Amana Colonies and he would facilitate our meeting. The only thing was I didn't think Greg knew that I existed.
And I didn't think I should be the one to tell him.
So I wrote my Bio Dad a letter saying, basically, "I've accepted the fact that you don't want to be a part of my life, but my brother Greg is an adult. He's going to college 40 minutes from where I live and maybe he feels differently than you."
About a month later, I got one paragraph back from my Bio Dad. It read:
"I am shocked that you would want anything to do with me or my family. You forced me to have a very uncomfortable conversation with my son. He has decided he does not want to know you. We expect that you will respect his decision."
That hurt. How could he not want to know me? I'm funny. I'm kind. I'm on the flippin' radio!
But I respected his decision and moved on with my life. As fate would have it, Greg ended up graduating from Central and moving to Des Moines.
My grandfather came here in 2010 for my wedding and said something at our reception that struck me. He said it was too bad that he drove all the way here from Indiana and he couldn't see both of his grandchildren because he couldn't tell Greg why he was in town.
I thought that was odd, but then it occurred to me: What if my Bio Dad lied? What if he never told Greg about me? What if we're living in the same city and he doesn't even know who I am?
I thought about telling Greg then, but I had just gotten married. We were going to start a family. It seemed like a lot of drama, and I figured Des Moines a big city, what are the chances we'll even run into each other?
Turns out good.
In 2013, I volunteered to do the Governor's Steer show at the State Fair. I walk into the barn to meet my steer. Next to me is a young woman preparing her steer and standing next to her is Greg, my brother. This person who I had only known from photographs is standing right here and I just kind of froze.
I decided to avoid making eye contact.
About a year later, my husband and I were out to dinner at Fleming's in West Des Moines and a family walks in and sits down at the table right next to us. It was my Bio Dad, Greg, the young woman from the steer show and Greg's mom.
What are the chances?
I remember my husband looking at me and saying, "Coll, if there was ever a time you were going to say something, now might be it."
But I wasn't prepared. What was I going to say? How were they going to react? We're in the middle of Fleming's steakhouse. I'm not going to cause a big scene, so I went to the bathroom and cried.
We took our $200 dinner to go.
Then, as fate would have it, I find out through family that the young woman from the steer show and Greg ended up getting married. She worked for a competing radio group in town where my best friend worked.
Just to recap, at this point, my best friend has met my biological brother through work functions and I haven't even met him yet.
The final straw came when my grandfather told me that Greg and his wife were building a home. We live in Clive, the mecca of home-building. What are the chances this guy is gonna end up being my neighbor?
I looked him up on the Dallas County assessor site and sure enough, they had purchased a home about three miles from where we live.
Am I going to see him at Hy-Vee and pretend to look at the ground? Am I going to see him at Lifetime Fitness? In all the local bars and restaurants? Is avoiding eye contact going to be a reality for the rest of my life?
For most people, family is something you're given. It's something you're born into. They're the people we celebrate with, the people we grumble about.
But for those of us who don't have it that easy, we're left to wonder how, and if, we fit in our identity as a mother, a father, a brother, a sister or a daughter. It isn't just given to us like it is for other people.
All these times that my path was crossing with Greg, I felt like I was standing on the outside of a house. Inside was a dad, a brother and a sister. Even though we were related, I was like a creepy nosy neighbors staring in a window — and it just felt bad.
Now, I thought long and hard about contacting Greg because you can't insert yourself into else's life without there being consequences and a ripple effect.
But it was time. I wanted to be a part of the story and I needed to know if Greg wanted to add to his family.
So that brings me to the beginning of the story.
I asked Greg if he knew who I was and he said yes.
At first my heart kind of sank because I thought, "Oh man, he's known this whole time and he doesn't want to know me and here I am. This is awkward."
But we exchanged pleasantries. He said that he was glad I had introduced myself and I left their home thinking, "If this is it, at least the truth is out there and I don't have to avoid making eye contact forever."
Greg reached out to me about a month after that and said that he and his wife would like to take me to dinner. To be honest, I was a little concerned like he might need a kidney or bone marrow or some organ. (He didn't.)
We had a great night with great conversation. And you know what? Greg and I have spent the past two and a half years getting to know each other and it's been awesome.
My Bio Dad is less than pleased. He made a decision decades ago and hoped his family would follow suit and respect that decision. He questions my motives and my intentions, but I know they are rooted in truth.
But I wanted getting to know Greg to be the thing I was looking for. I wanted it to be like when Dorothy walked from sepia into color or when the Brady's all got together.
What I learned is sharing a set of chromosomes does not entitle you to a relationship.
Maya Angelou said that is an accident of birth that makes us brothers and sisters, but "brotherhood and sisterhood is a condition you have to work at," and I get that now.
I will never have a Norman Rockwell-like family. It's messy. It's a little complicated, but so is everyone else's.
People ask me all the time if I would do it again. Knowing what I know now and what has happened over the past two and a half years, would I ring that doorbell again?
I know in my heart, Greg and I were meant to meet each other.
Because I have a little brother and he is more than just a picture on a fridge.
ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: Colleen Kelly Powell has been a part of "Ken, Colleen, and Kurt in the Morning" on STAR 102.5 in Des Moines for almost 20 years. She lives in Clive with her husband and two children. She loves camping, boating, traveling and playing cards. She's excited to be a part of the Des Moines Register's Storytellers Project because it gets her out of her comfort zone and is a space to share a part of her life she hasn't talked about on the radio.
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Next year, the Storytellers Project will offer one show at 7 p.m. at Hoyt Sherman Place. Guests will be able to reserve a seat, so no more having to save seats or rushing to arrive early.
- Love in the Modern World: The messy world of dating, marriage and singledom (Feb. 12)
- My Great Adventure: Wanderlust, taking a leap and getting away (April 23)
- On Second Thought: Ideas reconsidered and lessons learned (June 18)
- My First Time: The awkward enlightenment of coming of age (Aug. 20)
- True Tall Tales: Stories so bizarre and mysterious they have to be true (Oct. 29)
- Holiday Spectacular: Family, faith and reasons we gather at the end of the year (Dec. 17)
Season tickets, which start at $60, are on sale now at DesMoinesRegister.com/Storytellers; by phone at 1-800-745-3000; or at the Hoyt Sherman Place box office, 1501 Woodland Ave., Des Moines.
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