Gabrielle’s story

On December 1, 1997 (almost ten years ago), I received an odd piece of email, from someone I didn’t know, someone in Germany.

The email read [lightly edited]:

Date: Mon, 1 Dec 1997 12:14:31 +0100
From: [email address removed by Jed]
Subject: Attn. Jed Hartman

*Please don't trash this.  It is NOT junk mail and is very

I am looking for someone named Peter Hartman and you
indicated on your page that your father is P.H. and working
as a substitute teacher in Tacoma.  The man I'm looking for
lived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco,
California in the 1960's and knew Penny P-- [last name
removed by Jed for privacy]. Attached file is a photograph
of him from around 1966.

Thank you for your time and please accept my apologies for
this intrusion if this is not the P.H. I am seeking.

Many Thanks.
Peter Hartman
Peter, maybe circa 1966

That was a little odd already. It got odder when I opened up the attached image file and found a copy of a grainy black & white photograph that might or might not have looked like my father, Peter, 30 years before—I couldn’t tell for sure. (The photo here in this entry is a better version of that photo.)

I wrote back to the person in Germany:

Date: Mon, 1 Dec 1997 23:55:58 -0500 (EST)
From: Jed Hartman <[...]>
To: [...]
Subject: Peter response

Hi.  My father Peter did indeed live in San Francisco in the
1960s; I'll see if he knew someone named Penny P-- (though
he's told me he had a fair number of friends back then whose
names he never really knew).  I looked at the photo and
can't tell whether it's my father or not; at first glance it
looked a lot like pictures of him from that time in some
ways, but on closer inspection it looks pretty different.

Before I proceed further, though, I'd like to know more --
who you are, why you're looking for him, why it's "very
important," and so on.  I try to protect the privacy of
friends and family; I'm reluctant to give out any more
information without understanding the situation better, and
I have to admit that the urgency and specificity of your
note made me a little uneasy. I don't mean this in an
antagonistic way; just trying to be careful.


Meanwhile, I called Peter and asked him about it. He said he didn’t know the name “Penny” but he had indeed lived in that area at that time, and was curious to see what it was all about.

Another note from my mysterious German correspondent arrived:

Date: Wed, 3 Dec 1997 13:10:51 +0100
To: [...]
From: [...]
Subject: Regarding Peter Hartman

Dear Jed,

Thank you for responding so promptly.  I appreciate, and
understand your ambivalence regarding my request, and the
desire to protect the privacy of family and friends.  I
would do no less.  My name is Gabrielle J--, I'm 30 years
old, an artist who normally resides in Los Angeles. I'm a
self-supporting adult (with two loving parents) and I'm
currently on an artist's residency in Berlin (where I have a
computer with an isdn connection at my disposal, which has
made this search possible). The reason I contacted you
regarding your father is that I'm looking for mine.  My
biological father's name is Peter Hartman, this fact, the
one photograph, and that he knew my mother (Penny P--) in
the Haight-Ashbury district in 1966 are all I have to go on.
Whether this person and your father are the same man is the
question.  I've discovered there are a lot of Peter Hartmans
out there.  My motive for looking for him is simply the
desire everyone has to know where they came from.  Whoever
he is, wherever, this is all I'm looking for from him.

With this information given, I'm uncertain how to proceed. 
Do you have any other questions?  I understand that this may
be a bit unnerving, it certainly is for me.  Let me know if
you want a better version of the photograph.  All I have
here in Berlin is a photocopy, the original's in storage,
but I'd gladly mail you one if it would help. 

Thanks again.

                Gabrielle J--

I called Peter back and read him the email. He said, in a kind of struck-by-a-sudden-memory tone: “You know, there was this woman. . . .”

Date: Thu, 4 Dec 1997 01:07:04 -0500 (EST)
From: Jed Hartman <[...]>
To: [...]
Subject: Re: Regarding Peter Hartman

Hi!  Thanks for the elaboration.  Funny, I had a kind of
inkling that this was why you were writing -- an adopted
friend of mine recently went through a (successful) search
for her biological mother, and something about your first
note struck me as similar, I'm not quite sure why...

So anyway, I just called up my father and read him your
email. His response leaves the question still a little
uncertain: he said that when he was living near Stanyan
& Alma (which I assume is in the Haight) in San
Francisco in the mid-'60s, there was a woman who insisted
that he was the father of her [then-unborn] child.  Peter
(I've called him Peter as long as I can remember) believed
that the child's parentage was in doubt -- he said there
were at least two other guys who could have been the father
(one of whom, he recalled later in the conversation, had red
hair; there's never been any red hair in the Hartman family,
so Peter figured that could potentially have been a way to
resolve the question). The woman wanted Peter to marry her,
but he wouldn't.  Eventually she went to live at Tassajara,
the Zen monastery (?) in SF where they bake bread.

So, does any of that jibe with what you know of your & your
mother's history?  Peter was curious/interested (and awfully
surprised); if his various pieces of story match yours, he's
definitely interested in finding out more.  I thought at
first that the red-hair part was an interesting detail, but
on further thought I'm guessing that if your mother was
indeed the woman in Peter's version of the story, she
wouldn't have thought he was the father if you in fact have
red hair... (Did that make any sense?  I may not be being
entirely coherent here...) So maybe this is a red hairing.
(sorry, I don't mean to make light of this, just couldn't
resist...  The penchant for puns is a Hartman family trait,
though probably more environment than heredity I guess.)

Um.  So let me know whether the above connects at all with
the facts you know.  I'll happily pass on any further info
to Peter...  And if he remembers anything more I'll
certainly pass that on to you as well. (Peter doesn't have
email at this point.)

--jed, still getting used to the idea that he might have a
half-sister, and very curious to find out more...

(In the Hartman family, Peter is one of four brothers, and
in my generation there are six cousins (counting me), of
whom five are male.)

. . . I suppose in the interests of full disclosure, I should add that Peter said something more specific about the red hair thing: he said that he’d always figured that if the baby had turned out not to have red hair, the woman would’ve gotten back in touch. I’m sorry to say that Peter was not always the most responsible person in the world, and perhaps particularly not in San Francisco in 1966.

Anyway. Gabrielle wrote back:

Date: Thu, 4 Dec 1997 13:26:59 +0100
To: [...]
From: [...]
Subject: Wow!

Hi Jed.  I have to tell you I'm in shock, my boyfriend is
taking dictation because I can't stop shaking.  Weird.  My
mother has always said that he lived at Alma and Stanyan, in
fact I've gone there just to look at the building.  Every
time I've been in San Francisco with my mom she insists on
driving by there and saying that's where you were conceived.
So to read your e-mail naming those same streets was almost
frightening. She also did indeed go to Tassajara to bake
bread while pregnant with me.  She gave me his photograph
when I was nine years old, and told me the person I'd always
thought of as my father wasn't "really" my father.  It was
obvious then, as it is now, to even the most casual observer
that this man in the photograph was my father.  The
resemblance was/is striking.  I'm going to try and e-mail
you a photograph of myself, perhaps you'll see what I mean. 
I'm not sure (again) how to proceed from here, especially
since I'm so far away.

I really appreciate your willingness to pursue this Jed, to
say that it means a lot to me is, of course, an
understatement.  I'm not sure what else to say right now. 
I'm sure we'll go into life stories soon... Please tell
Peter I look forward to meeting him, (and you) if that's ok.
I'm coming back to the US in April.  My postal address while
here is --


My mom's memory is sketchy on some points, but I believe she
told me that he was working at Bethlehem Steel at the time. 
Anyway, I look forward to continuing this correspondence...
I guess if all this is true then, yeah, I am your half
sister.  Funny, huh?  Are you an only child? I know this
must be shocking for Peter too. I've had the last 20 years
to get used to the idea of him.  He doesn't have that
benefit. Ok, thanks again for your help.

Best, Gabrielle

Over the next couple days, we established beyond doubt that Gabrielle’s mother was indeed the woman in Peter’s story, and that Peter was indeed the same Peter Hartman as the man in Penny’s story. We sent each other abbreviated life stories, and I gave Gabrielle and Peter each other’s direct contact info. Gabrielle sent a higher-quality scan of the photo she’d sent before (the improved version is the one you can see up above), and I printed out various photos she’d sent and papermailed them to Peter (easier than having her mail stuff from Germany).

Peter was originally unconvinced that Gabrielle was in fact his biological daughter. But he met her a little later, down in LA, and they were both immediately convinced.

Gabrielle and I corresponded occasionally via email over the next few years, and I always intended to go visit LA and meet her in person, but never got around to it. She did meet my brother Jay, though.

The last I heard from Peter about Gabrielle was sometime in the early 2000s; he said she had written him a letter about six months earlier, and that he’d intended to respond to it but hadn’t gotten around to it, and that the letter was somewhere around. Since he had similarly failed to respond to a letter of mine, and I was kinda annoyed about that, I figured he was just never going to get around to getting back in touch with her. And I’m sorry to say that I, too, more or less dropped out of touch with her.

And so when Jay and Holly and Kam and I flew up to Tacoma after Peter’s death, I wanted to get in touch with Gabrielle, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it—I think I didn’t have any recent contact info for her. And I thought that she and Peter hadn’t been in touch for years.

But amid the miraculously unburned small stack of letters in the kitchen (“miraculously” because the kitchen is where Nancy started the fire), there was a note from Gabrielle. It thanked Peter for having sent a gift—and it included a photo of Gabrielle’s then-toddler daughter, Phoebe, whom I hadn’t heard about.

It turned out Gabrielle had even visited Tacoma, and had met Grandma and Grandpa before Grandpa died, and had been welcomed to the family. And she and Peter had, thankfully, had more contact than I had thought.

So after that we exchanged a little more email, and she became a regular reader of this journal. (Hi, Gabrielle! Thanks for giving me permission to post all this; I’ve been meaning to ask you for that permission for years, but never quite got around to it.)

And yet, somehow, I still didn’t meet her in person. I’ve continued to plan to go spend some time in LA, and to meet her and her family there (as well as seeing Jay and Holly, and various friends in that area), but I never quite manage to follow through on that plan.

So why am I telling y’all this now?

Because one of the best things about Saturday’s memorial gathering for Grandma was that Gabrielle came to it, and we finally got to talk in person.

It’s still a little weird. I spent nearly 30 years believing myself to be the oldest in the Hartman family in my generation, and most of us cousins were males whose names started with J. (I don’t think there was any good reason for that J thing; I think it just happened.) To suddenly acquire a 15-months-older sister (whose name didn’t even start with J!) was a bit of a shock to my worldview. Not in any huge way, just a little strange. And then I somehow managed to spend ten years without actually meeting her in person.

But now we’ve met. And it was really cool to meet her.

We didn’t talk all that much—there wasn’t much time before the memorial, and then we ended up at different tables at dinner. But after dinner, we both had the idea of sitting down together and talking, and it was really nice. A great beginning. We’ll have plenty to talk about in future meetings.

And I’m still planning to head down to LA later this year and meet her family. I think Phoebe just turned four last month.

So. The memorial was sad, but it was good to see family, and especially good to see Gabrielle. It’s not every day that you meet your older sister for the first time.

15 Responses to “Gabrielle’s story”

  1. Claris (sentimentalromantic)

    With the exception of having to meet at a memorial service, that’s all pretty wonderful–I mean, that she contacted you, and that you and your dad were both so receptive and open and helpful. How amazed and relieved Gabrielle must have been.

  2. Finlay

    cool story, and lucky you for surprise extra family! i sometimes wonder if i have other siblings floating around in the world. but i have a whole bunch less to go on, and don’t really feel like digging around in official adoption records. so it goes.

  3. Jillian

    Wow, that’s a fantastic story. It beats the time I found my grandfather’s much-younger half-sister on Rootsweb (though for her, it must have been a similar experience). I’m glad you got to actually meet!

  4. Twig

    Oh, I didn’t even think about that when you were going up. How wonderful that you finally got to meet!


    That is such a wild story. It’s also amazing the resemblance between you and your dad–does Gabrielle have any family resemblance?

  6. Megan

    Wow. Yeah, that was worth reading. I’m glad that some good (beyond the normal emotional support) came out of the memorial service.

    And in the past few weeks, this is the second friend’s anecdote that make me even happier about open adoption.

  7. Jay Hartman

    One remarkable thing in connection with resemblance: If you put a picture of Jed when he was about two next to a picture of Gabrielle’s daughter Phoebe when Phoebe was about two, you could easily think that Jed and Phoebe were siblings, perhaps even twins.

  8. Samuel

    What an amazing story, Jed! It’s wonderful how positive it is; I know of people who have gone through situations that are not dramatically different in circumstances, but who reacted in really negative ways. It’s great that both you and Gabrielle are welcoming to one another.

  9. Diana

    Wow. That’s beautiful.

  10. Kendra

    Whoa, cool!

  11. Nao

    How wonderful!

  12. Jenn Reese

    This entry made me cry, and I’m not even entirely sure why. And I’m happy you have another reason to visit LA. 🙂

  13. Heather Shaw

    This entry made me cry, too. What a wonderful, cool, story!

  14. Jon Varese

    This is a truly incredible story Jed! (Charles forwarded it to us.) I look forward to hearing more about it over that long-delayed dinner we haven’t had yet. It won’t be ten years I hope!

  15. Gabrielle

    Hey Jed,
    I forgot you had posted all this – great to have the whole ‘Finding the Hartmans’ story in one place!xog


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