In June 1986, when she was 22 years old, Charlene Bender asked her parents to drive her from the house where they lived in Boonton, New Jersey, to a hospital about 5 miles away in Denville. She told her parents and her boyfriend, Rich Hufnagle, she was checking in for a dilation and curettage, a surgical procedure to remove tissue from inside her uterus, the result of blood clotting caused by birth control. Two days later, she returned home and told everyone the surgery had been successful.
But Charlene didn’t actually have surgery. In those two days, she gave birth to a baby girl, who shared her and Rich’s light-colored hair and blue eyes. She didn’t tell her parents or Rich, who proposed to her five months later.
In 1988, just over a year after their wedding, Charlene gave birth to Corrine, a baby girl Rich thought was their first. Five years later, they had Allie, then Richard five years after that — all with fair skin, white-blonde hair, and big blue eyes. Charlene never told them about her firstborn. In fact, if Charlene hadn’t returned to that same hospital in Denville 28 years later, that little girl — now a woman named Lindsay — would’ve stayed a secret to her biological family forever. This is the improbable story of how Lindsay discovered a family she never knew she had.
Jeri Goldshlack, a nurse, and her husband Jack, a pulmonologist, lived 15 miles away from Charlene, in Randolph, New Jersey. Their son, Dan, was born in 1979 with tufts of dark hair and deep brown eyes like his parents’. Two years later, the couple decided to have a second child, but it just wasn’t working. Jeri underwent fertility treatments, only to suffer through three miscarriages. In 1986, Jeri finally told her OB, who worked at the same Denville hospital as Jack, that they were considering adoption.
After an attempt to adopt a baby boy fell through in April, the Goldshlacks knew not to get their hopes up when Jeri’s OB called two months later to report that a girl just born at the hospital was being placed for adoption. The young woman “needed to just lose this baby right away,” the OB said, because nobody knew she was pregnant.
The next morning, June 3, 1986, Jeri sped to the hospital. She and the young woman named Charlene wept on each other’s shoulders. “You don’t know the gift you’re giving me,” Jeri told Charlene. “You don’t know the gift you’re giving me,” Charlene replied. But when Jeri asked if the father would sign his rights away, Charlene froze. “If you don’t want him to do that,” Jeri told her, “you’re going to have to say you don’t know who the father is.'” Charlene denied knowing the baby’s father.
Two days later, the Goldshlacks took the baby home as their own and named her Lindsay. The whole thing happened so quickly that Lindsay slept in a dresser drawer that first night. When Charlene didn’t show up to the adoption hearing in September, Lindsay was officially considered abandoned, then adopted.
Lindsay always had a happy childhood with extravagant birthday parties. But when she was four, amid the candy and balloons at her backyard carnival, she asked Jeri about how she grew in her tummy. “My tummy was broken,” Jeri told her. “You grew in another mommy’s tummy, and she loved you so much she gave you to me so I could take care of you.” To Lindsay, that sounded special. Growing up, she bragged about being adopted at school.
But she wondered about her birth mom, too. “My whole family has brown eyes, so where do my blue eyes come from?” she remembers thinking. She always imagined she’d meet her birth mom someday, but as she got closer to 18, the age she could legally contact Charlene, she never made plans to. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” Lindsay says. “I don’t know what’s going on in her life, I don’t know if she wants to meet me.”
Jeri found Charlene on Classmates.com when the family got their first computer in 2000. She saw that Charlene was living nearby and learned her married name. But she kept the info to herself. She didn’t want to cause distress or even legal trouble if she reached out before it was welcome.
Then, in September 2004, three months after Lindsay’s 18th birthday, Charlene accidentally found Jeri. Jeri was working as a nurse at an MRI office, and, one evening she took a call from a Charlene Hufnagle, who was scheduling an appointment for her husband, Rich. Jeri recognized the last name she’d seen on Classmates.com and knew it was her daughter’s birth mother, but didn’t introduce herself. It felt inappropriate.
On the morning of Rich’s exam, Jeri was a wreck. She didn’t know if Charlene would come in with him. If she did, should Jeri talk to her? Tell her how well Lindsay was doing in college, how great her childhood had been? Jeri shoved a few pictures of Lindsay into her purse, just in case. But Rich came alone. “I took one look at him, and I knew he was the father,” Jeri says. “He had those big blue eyes.” She and a coworker pulled Rich aside while he waited for a physician, and started asking him questions.
“I thought they were being very friendly,” Rich says. “I remember Jeri being very talkative, she was asking me a lot about my family.” He told Jeri he and his wife had three kids.
After work, Jeri invited Lindsay over for dinner. “I had a glass of wine or two,” Jeri says. “I said, ‘Lindsay, I think I met your birth father today.” When Lindsay remembers that night, she remembers mention of her birth father, but she doesn’t remember asking much more about it. “I had never thought about the possibility that I had a biological father in the picture,” she says. “It didn’t feel real to me.”
Almost 10 years later, in January 2014, Jack was on call at the Denville hospital where Lindsay was born. The call caught Jack by surprise — pulmonologists are only called in for the most dire cases — but he immediately recognized the patient’s name: Charlene Hufnagle.
Charlene was unconscious when Jack got to her room. She wouldn’t live much longer. Her legal next-of-kin, 25-year-old Corrine, stood in the quiet hospital room, Allie, now 20, and Richard, 15, by her side. (Rich and Charlene divorced in 2012.) Jack saw his daughter in the two girls: the blue eyes, the lips, the nose. “I met her three children at the end of her life,” Jack says. “I had to be very professional. How do you tell somebody their mom is going to die?”
Jack broke the news, then left the kids with their grief. He called his wife in shock to tell her that Charlene had died on his shift.
In the following days, Jeri wrestled with what to do. She considered bringing Lindsay to the wake, but decided it would be a bad idea. How could she bring a daughter who looks just like the Hufnagles to their mother’s wake? Instead, Jeri called Lindsay and told her they needed to talk. Now 28, Lindsay was married, living 40 minutes away in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.
Two weeks later, they met at Lindsay’s house. “My dad said, ‘We found out your birth mother passed away,'” Lindsay says. She cried, realizing any possibility of meeting her birth mom was gone. “It was just like, this whole vision I had growing up, that moment I would get to meet her, everything was gone,” Lindsay says. She felt like mourning, but how do you mourn the loss of a mom you never met?
There were also three children, Jack explained, and they might be her full siblings. She looked the family up on Facebook and was amazed. “I opened a whole world of my biological family that I never knew,” Lindsay says. Corrine was tagged in a photo: “I saw her blue eyes, and her nose, and her facial expressions, and was like, That’s me with red hair!”
As happy as she felt, she was also overwhelmed. She wanted to meet her biological family, but what did it mean for her adoptive family, the only family she’d ever known? Lindsay sat on the information for 5 months, unsure whether she should reach out.
In May 2014, Rich got a Facebook message from a stranger.
“Hi, you don’t know me, but in fact, we actually met about 12 years ago. I was the nurse who did your MRI. It’s very important that I meet with you and have a conversation.”
Curious, Rich agreed to meet at a restaurant halfway between their two towns. There was a big game on that night, and the bar was loud, but Jeri got straight to business. She asked when Rich and Charlene got married, and if anything strange was going on with Charlene a year before. Rich recalled the hospital trip involving birth control and blood clots. “She goes, ‘She didn’t have a D&C. She gave birth to a baby girl, and I think you’re the birth father,'” Rich says.
The way Jeri tells it, Rich looked like he was going to fall out of his chair. But he got up, and went to the bathroom, and came back with questions. He didn’t think Lindsay could be anyone else’s, but as he puts it, “stranger things have happened.” If he was going to meet Lindsay, both he and Jeri wanted to be sure he was her biological father. They agreed to a DNA test.
The results came back in July. Rich and Lindsay were a 99.8 percent match. On the phone with Jeri, Lindsay wept on the sidewalk outside her office.
“I think I’ve typed, deleted, and retyped this email about ten times, because I don’t know how to begin talking to you,” Lindsay wrote in her first email to her biological father. The two set up a meeting at a nearby restaurant.
Rich showed up early and with a red rose, and ordered a glass of red wine. When the bartender asked if it was a special occasion, Rich sort of sighed. “You might say so,” he said. He drank the glass quickly and recounted the short version of how he learned his ex-wife had a baby when they were dating, and kept that baby a secret from everyone for her entire life. The bartender blinked, and offered another glass of wine.
Lindsay was so nervous she’d driven right past the restaurant, twice. When she pulled up, Rich was outside.
“All of a sudden, this blonde girl comes bouncing around the side of the restaurant, just like her birth mother did,” Rich says. “She always had a bounce in her step.”
Lindsay saw Rich, and the rose, and his bright blue eyes. They hugged and stepped back to look at each other. “For someone who’s so emotional, I couldn’t cry,” she says. “This was a moment I never pictured would happen in my entire life because I didn’t think he existed, or would ever be in my world.”
Over the next five hours, they talked about Charlene, Lindsay’s childhood, her wedding, college. Her husband, Chris Klose, came by to meet them after a couple of hours. One thing both Rich and Lindsay remember most about that first meeting was that Lindsay seemed especially relieved by the fact that Rich and his children were all plagued with dental issues.
“I’ve always had really bad teeth, lots of cavities” Lindsay says. “And Rich goes, ‘It’s genetic! We all have really bad teeth.'”
A couple of weeks later, Rich showed Corrine a photo. “I thought it was an old picture of my mom,” Corrine says. It was a photo of Lindsay, her long-lost sister, Rich explained. Corrine, Richard, and Allie set up a time to meet her. “I just remember seeing Lindsay walk toward me, and it shook me,” Allie says. “It was just like seeing a ghost of my mom. It felt like a piece of my mom coming back to me.”
As 2014 passed, Lindsay, Rich, and the three kids got to know each other. By December, both of Lindsay’s families decided to come together for the first time to celebrate Christmas. Her biological family planned a special surprise.
Since Charlene’s death, the family had been trying to figure out how to divide up her jewelry. The only thing left to give was the engagement ring Rich had given Charlene a few months after she’d had Lindsay in secret. “We decided we would have the diamond put in a necklace for Lindsay and give her that for Christmas,” Rich says. At the big family celebration, Corrine, Allie, and Richard presented Lindsay with the necklace through tears. “That was like, the moment when I really felt like they wanted me to be a part of their family,” Lindsay says. “This is the most special thing they could give to me. Just knowing that this diamond was a part of Charlene.”
Then Lindsay announced a surprise of her own: she and her husband Chris were expecting their first child, a daughter. Kaylee Klose was born on July 23, 2015 — exactly a year, to the day, after Lindsay sent that first email to Rich. She has Lindsay’s — and Charlene’s — bright blue eyes.
By Hannah Smothers