Jackie Cochrane never imagined her mother could have given up a child for adoption or kept it a secret

Sandy Caswell would not have contacted Jackie Cochrane had she realized right off the bat this was her half-sister.

“My adopted life was fine,” said Caswell, 63, who lives in Dansville. But the information she received through genetic testing and analysis service 23andMe suggested a niece in Naples, and that was Cochrane.

“I figured niece was far enough off the chart that she wouldn’t be personally impacted by the pros and cons of me,” remarked Caswell, who grew up in the Rochester suburb of Greece.

Half-sister would have meant opening a door that perhaps shouldn’t be opened. But contacting a possible niece seemed harmless enough.

So she sent a text.

It was Friday evening, March 30, and Cochrane had just sat down at her computer after work. Intrigued by the message that popped up through her own contact with 23andMe, Cochrane gave Caswell her phone number and almost immediately got the call. For two hours they talked, swapped information, pored over documents and tried to make sense of it.

“I knew plenty about my family history, in fact the ancestors that Sandy asked about, my mother’s father’s side, the Richards line, dated back as far as the Revolutionary War,” said Cochrane, who lives on French Hill Road not far from where she grew up. “The thought that 23andMe assumed she was my aunt just made me smile. I knew all of my aunts on my mom’s side and Sandy wasn’t one of them.”

Caswell said it was Cochrane who “put the words to air first.” Cochrane insists now she was just kidding when she remarked during that first conversation: “Maybe you are my sister.”

But with further scrutiny revealing 23andMe listing them having a 25 percent DNA match, it was hard to dispute.

There were other telltale signs, like physical resemblance. They set up their first meeting three days later. Also on hand was Jill Nunes Madden — Cochrane’s older, but apparently not oldest sister — at Cochrane’s house in Naples.

“It’s amazing how much Sandy looks like our mother,” said Cochrane. “She physically resembles our mom more than Jill or I ever did. In fact, that first day Sandy visited, she walked up my porch steps and I had to take a breath and hold it. It was like looking at a ghost.”

Their mother, Alice Katherine “Kay” Richards Nunes, died more than 20 years ago. But here she was, walking up the steps, said Cochrane: “It was her body, her walk, her smile.”

Then there are Caswell’s adoption papers Caswell dug out to uncover a stunning revelation. Adopted as an infant through a closed adoption in Rochester nearly 63 years ago, Caswell never thought much about the document. But now, with good reason, she checked the names. Expecting to be identified as Baby Doe, instead she was identified as Sandra Jean Richards.

For Caswell, who had made a few failed attempts years ago to track down her birth parents, it was simply wonderful to stumble upon her newfound family.

“For me it was easy,” said Caswell. She was told early on she was adopted and she was fine with that. She had a happy childhood with her parents and siblings, she said. Like Cochrane, she had registered with 23andMe mostly over questions on how her lineage might shed light on health issues. She got those answers and more.

“I got sisters out of the deal, and that was a bonus,” Caswell said.

For Cochrane it wasn’t so easy. “Learning you have a half sister that you didn’t know existed isn’t all roses. It took several days just to wrap my head around the idea that it was true,” she said. “There was no denying her looks, and there was no denying the science. It just didn’t seem right.”

People kept asking her what it was like, how it felt — and she didn’t know how to reply.

“Was I supposed to be angry at my mom? Was I supposed to forbid Sandy any contact and ignore her email and phone calls? Neither of those options seemed right. Am I supposed to accept her into my family with open arms and unconditional love? I did a lot of soul searching,” Cochrane said. “Who am I? Who is she?

“That last option seemed a lot more acceptable and like the right answer,” Cochrane said. “She is part of my family now.”

The three sisters — Cochrane and Madden have a youngest sister who isn’t interested — are texting and talking daily. They are learning more about each other, discovering similarities and differences. Cochrane, a registered nurse and care manager, and Caswell, a life coach, are both focused on health and healing. They both love crafting and fiber arts, particularly crocheting — something their mother did avidly.

Madden, who was immediately on board with discovery of a sister, said she loves having a big sister — for the first time — enjoying hand-me-down clothes and all.

There are questions. Who is Caswell’s father? Why and how did their mom keep her pregnancy and adoption a secret? 

Cochrane said her father, who died several years ago, told the family when she was young about his previous marriage and a child he had then. They knew their mom had also been married before but weren’t told about any other children. Cochrane said the timing of Caswell’s birth indicates she was born sometime between their mother’s first marriage and marriage to their dad. Their mother would have been 24 when Caswell was born.

“A child out of wedlock by my mom was difficult to believe, not only for me but for my other sisters too,” said Cochrane. “Mom was always the most honest, kind person you would ever want to meet. She had plenty of opportunity to share her secrets with me when I was growing up,” she said. Details their mom shared with her daughters included miscarriages she had before they were born.

“Mom had many miscarriages —why did mom never mention to us, this first successful birth of a baby given up for adoption?” Cochrane said. She and Madden have talked about the possibilities at length.

“We can only conclude that whatever secret our mother kept was for baby Richards’ best interest and that she gave her up for adoption purely out of love and selflessness,” Cochrane said.

Discovering a secret sister “has been an amazing, crazy, unusual experience,” she added. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”