“When you grow up without a dad; just imagine … there’s no daddy-daughter dance, there’s no walking you down the aisle, there’s no dad protecting you. It’s just something that’s been a huge part of my life.”
April Ciarlone’s mother gave her a 23andMe DNA genetic testing kit last year, hoping it would lead Ciarlone to her birth father. The present turned into an even larger gift — a close relationship with her dad, 47 years after her birth.
The Ocoee woman never knew her father, and James “Barry” Oldham never knew he had a daughter. But all that changed last April when she received her DNA test results and discovered a familial match. With trepidation, Ciarlone reached out — and learned the match was her paternal aunt.
This led to the discovery that she has a big family, including her dad, a half- brother and -sister and a “bonus mom,” in Decatur, Alabama.
Ciarlone’s mother, now Donna Hirst, of Milton, was living in Alameda, California, when she met Oldham. She was a high school student; he was about five years older and stationed at the Naval Air Station Alameda. They met in the neighborhood, where she lived at home with her parents and he lived with a roommate in an apartment across the street.
They struck up a conversation, which led to a friendship, which led to something more. When Hirst discovered she was pregnant with Oldham’s child, he already had been sent to Vietnam and she had no way of contacting him.
Hirst was 19 when April was born in 1972. Oldham was fighting in a war and didn’t know he had a daughter — and he wouldn’t learn of her existence for more than four decades.
Hirst moved on, met and married another man and gave birth to a son.
Ciarlone grew up with her mother and brother, Rick Snurkowski. As an adult, though, she knew something was missing, and she wanted to know more about her father.
IT’S A MATCH
Oldham had a 23andMe testing kit, but he had yet to submit his DNA. After his sister and Ciarlone were matched, he immediately sent it in — but had to anxiously wait more than a week for the results.
“During that time, my emotions were everywhere,” he said. “My family was very supportive during that time. When the final results arrived, I opened it up to see a beautiful, brunette female that looked like my sisters! Beside it was the word DAUGHTER! My wife and I looked at each other because we had already decided that if this was true, it was God’s will.”
While Oldham, now 70, is upset to have missed out on a good portion of her life, he said he understands the situation. Ciarlone said he was more upset that she didn’t have her dad in her life growing up.
MORE TO LOVE
With all that behind them, the “new” family has been meeting frequently and getting to know one another. She spent her first Thanksgiving with them in November.
Ciarlone said she talks to her stepmother, Connie Oldham, several times a week and is grateful for her acceptance. More importantly, the family has formed a bond with Ciarlone’s daughter, Giannah, who is 12 and has autism.
Connie Oldham is a retired special-needs teacher who worked with children with autism for 40 years — another gift, Ciarlone said.
“She’s so great with Giannah,” she said. “Jesus was watching.”
Giannah is having fun getting to know her cousins and grandparents.
Barry Oldham and Hirst had not been in contact since he left for Vietnam, but he had one simple message for his daughter’s mother: “I just want you to know you’ve raised a wonderful woman.”
The more the father and daughter talk, the more they realize they have in common.
“April and I both have a Type A personality, we’re neat and organized, love music and enjoy an occasional cocktail,” Barry Oldham said. “All three siblings are health conscious and work out on a regular basis like me. Each of them also likes to have the last word!”
Ciarlone said she has noticed small similarities, too, besides the strong physical resemblance to her dad and younger siblings, Alicia Neely and Chase Oldham, such as their tendency to be bullheaded, the way she and her brother like their coffee and their affinity for pickles.
When the family isn’t together, there are frequent texts, calls and FaceTime sessions.
“April and I are very comfortable in our relationship,” Barry Oldham said. “I feel that we will continue to grow closer as time goes by. It’s like my family has come full circle. April and Giannah complete that circle.”
For Ciarlone, her circle now is complete, too.
“23andMe changed my life,” Ciarlone said. “My prayers of finding my father (have) come true. I get to say ‘Dad’ every day. ... This is my miracle.”
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.