COLUMBIA CITY, Ore. (KOIN) — “Holy smokes! That’s my sister!”
It’s a journey that dates back to the 1950s with a young woman and her boyfriend traveling from the Midwest to Portland.
Alice Beth Undlin – from Madison, Minnesota — and Dennis Odden met at a creamery where they both worked. When she was 18 or 19, they visited her brother in Portland shortly before Dennis shipped off with the Marines to the Korean War.
After the war they married, had 4 children and spent the next 52 years together before Dennis died in 2006. Beth died March 29, 2016 at the age of 82.
They took a secret with them to their graves.
‘You have to come home’
Shortly after Beth died, her daughter Kathy was driving to Minneapolis when she got a call from her brother, Rick. “He called me and said, ‘You have to come home.’ And I said, ‘Why do I have to come home?’” Kathy Odden told KOIN 6 News. “Thinking the worst was happening with him, I go home.”
When she got there, Rick laid out some pictures for her to look at.
“He said, ‘This is your 63-year-old sister that (our) parents gave up for adoption,’” she said. “I’m in shock and my mother had just died at the end of March and I was going, ‘Mom, you didn’t tell us.’”
But as she looked at the pictures, she knew. “There was no doubt in my mind that she was my sister.”
Gretchen Lewis was born in February 1953 and was adopted by a Portland attorney and his wife. She grew up happy and loved.
“I always knew I was adopted,” Gretchen told KOIN 6 News. But it would be 63 years before she learned who her birth parents are — and that she’s the oldest of 5 full siblings.
About 2 years ago, Gretchen contacted her adoption agency hoping for medical information. But she found much more.
“I found out my birth parents were engaged to be married, at which point I probably burst into tears because that was wonderful news,” she said. “On the pre-adoption birth certificate there’s no father listed, so I had no idea if it was an accident, if I was from a bad situation. I didn’t know.”
She also learned her birth mother Beth — listed on her pre-adoption certificate as “Alice Johnson” — wanted the adoption to be confidential.
“So at that point,” Gretchen said, “that was the end of that.”
Until March 2016, when she decided to do an Ancestry.com DNA test to confirm she’s of Norwegian descent.
“What I didn’t know is they send you user names of people’s profiles who you match to some degree,” Gretchen said. “I had 129 pages.”
The pastor and his sister
Soon after Gretchen got her DNA profile information, a California pastor named Ron Hovick contacted her.
“He said, ‘Do you know the Hovick name or the Undlin name?’ and I said, ‘I’m adopted. I’m sorry, I don’t know anything.’”
But the pastor “got a bee under his bonnet,” Gretchen said. “He just had a calling, something, and he wanted to figure out how I was related to him.”
The pastor and his sister Barb Padre began researching. Gretchen said they are the “Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of this whole thing.” They asked many questions, asked Gretchen to send pictures — and Gretchen told them to slow down.
“I wasn’t really looking for this and all of a sudden things are coming to the surface,” Gretchen said. “And it’s like, ‘Do I really want this?’ And then I got to thinking, I’m 63 at the time, and I thought, ‘What difference does it make?’ I don’t need anything. If I can get some medical information, I’m good.”
The pastor and his sister eventually found an obituary with a picture for Alice Beth Undlin Odden of Madison, Minnesota. Beth had died just 6 weeks before. He sent the picture to Gretchen — but told her not to open it until she was ready to look.
“And here’s this picture of somebody who looks like me,” Gretchen said.
Hovick then sent the full obituary and it was there Gretchen learned Dennis died in 2006 — and that she has a brother and 3 sisters.
‘Holy smokes! She’s my sister!’
The first time Gretchen spoke with Kathy by phone brought her to tears of joy.
“I say, ‘I realize we don’t know each other at all but I love you,’” Gretchen said, fighting back tears as she recounted the call. “And my sister Kathy told me that the first time she talked to me, the first phone call, she says, ‘I want you to know I love you already.”
Kathy said she loved Gretchen from the second they began talking.
“It’s hard to describe that when you don’t know this person at all but you love them because you can feel it in your heart,” Kathy said, “and you can look at her and go, ‘Holy smokes! She’s my sister!’”
Kathy looked at old family photo albums and found pictures of the time Beth and Dennis spent in Portland in 1952. She saw pictures of Beth with a newspaper across her stomach, another with a kitchen towel held up in front and a third picture where Beth is wearing a coat backwards and peeking over her shoulder.
“(Kathy) said,’I suddenly knew that these are pictures of you. She was pregnant with you.’ And it was like, Holy Moly!” Gretchen said.
Later, younger sister Judy did a full DNA test with immediate family which confirmed Gretchen is the oldest of 5 children of Beth and Dennis Odden.
Last September, Gretchen and her husband, Mike, went to Madison, Minnesota to meet her siblings for the first time. The Minnesota clan greeted her with open arms and a balloon that said, “It’s A Girl.”
“The thing is,” Kathy told KOIN 6 News, “we just lost our mom and (Gretchen) walks into the picture — and there’s our mom walking in the door. It’s crazy she looks so much like her!”
The similarities don’t stop there. Both Gretchen and Kathy have been bankers their whole careers and, Kathy said, “we’re both motor mouths.” Gretchen is left-handed — as was their mother..
“(Kathy) said if I had said the phrase ‘Good Gravy,’ that she would have fallen over,” Gretchen said, laughing.
‘Things happen the way they are supposed to’
No one really knows why Beth and Dennis kept their secret to their graves.
“We all are wondering that, but we also know that it was the times,” Kathy said. “They both would have wanted to do what was absolutely best for Gretchen. They didn’t know if Dad was going to come back from the war.”
At the end of her life, her family said Beth held on for weeks in hospice. The day before Beth died, Gretchen became a grandmother for the very first time.
Gretchen said she feels “very strongly that things happen they way they are supposed to. Our grandson was late, he was like 10 days late. He was born at 9:30 on a Monday night. (Beth) passed away at 10:30 the following night.”
Gretchen Lewis, who grew up loved and happy in Portland, happily married with children of her own, now has an even more full life blessed with this new beginning.
“A family that’s mine. A history that’s mine,” she said. “It goes way back.”