On an ordinary day, 92-year-old Janice Muscara putters around her home in Centerport following a regular ritual.
“I like to do word puzzles,” she said, seated in her cozy living room. She loves gazing at her garden, a snug backyard oasis lit up in orange and purple, thanks to vibrant tiger lilies and a towering butterfly bush. She’ll often hitch a ride with a friend to socialize at a senior center in Huntington.
But for a week in July, routine went out the window. There was nothing ordinary going on.
Janice, who is originally from Honolulu, had a visit from her firstborn son. She hadn’t seen him since 1954, when she placed him for adoption — and, she hoped, a better life.
Janice walks with a cane but is in good health. She is admittedly spotty on details around the adoption.
“I didn’t think I would ever meet him again,” she said. “I keep looking at him. He’s my son. My firstborn.”
At the time of the adoption, the baby’s father was out of the picture. Janice was single and on her own. She considered what to call the baby. “I liked the name Jimmy,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m gonna call him Jimmy.’ ”
Dennis is the name the infant’s adoptive parents, Eleanor and Yoshito Kinoshita, gave him. Married with three grown kids and 12 grandchildren, he lives in Kahului, on Maui. He retired a few years ago from his job with a utility company. He turns 68 at the end of this month.
Hearing about the name Jimmy sent a surge of emotions. “It was strange,” said Dennis, who was standing alongside family members in Janice’s backyard. “I’ve been called Dennis all my life. In a way it’s all very odd. I had my own family, and now I have more.”
The expanded roster of relatives includes Janice’s two children with her late husband, Bill — Kathy Lebron, 66, a retired office manager who lives in Yonkers, and Joe Muscara, 54, a musician in Houston.
Dennis, Kathy and Joe, along with their spouses, all played leading roles in realizing a Long Island reunion.
The gathering has been decades in the making. “Even when I was really young, my parents told me that I was adopted,” Dennis said, adding that he has an adopted sister. “I never made a big deal about being adopted. I had good parents.”
“My mother and my father were both Japanese American. They were born and raised in Hawaii,” he said. His voice filled with pride when he said that his father was a decorated member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Japanese American unit in World War II. “He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.”
Still, Dennis was curious about his birth mom. With his parents’ blessing, he began looking for her nearly 25 years ago. He knew his mother’s maiden name, Kubose. Even with help from a private investigator, his search stalled. “I couldn’t find anything,” he said.
Years went by. His dad and mom died in 2007 and 2012 at ages 86 and 91, respectively. He considered the very real possibility that Janice might also have died. “I gave up,” he said.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, Kathy, who’s married with two daughters and two grandsons, was sitting on a huge family secret.
“When I was pregnant with my younger daughter, Nicole, who is now 32, my mom told me that she had given up a baby for adoption before I was born,” Kathy said. “I believe I am the first person that she ever told.”
In the next breath, her mother swore her to silence. Kathy respected her wish. “It wasn’t my secret to tell,” she said.
Decades later, in 2014, Janice shared her long-buried secret with Joe. “She didn’t do it in the way you might think, like ‘I have something to tell you,’ ” he said, adding that he doesn’t know why she chose the moment she did.
“I know the exact date because I made a Facebook post where I wrote about it,” Joe said.
The cryptic April 29 entry reads, in part: “My place in this world just changed completely. . . . No, I can’t share it just yet, sorry, but still wanted to share the overwhelming feeling.”
Turning to DNA
Six years earlier, Bill Muscara had died. His children are convinced that he knew nothing about the adoption.
“My dad was Italian. He was in the Marines. He met my mom in Hawaii,” said Kathy. “I was born there and then they came to New York.”
Kathy spent her teen years in the house in Centerport, which had belonged to her dad’s grandparents. “Joe and I both grew up feeling like single children because of the age gap,” she said.
“Both of us felt like an only child,” said Joe. “Kathy left home when I was 6.”
With their mother’s OK, the siblings searched for their brother. It proved frustrating. When initial efforts didn’t pay off, they broadened their scope. They turned to the genealogy giant Ancestry.com in hopes that its vast digital network would lead them to the brother they never knew.
All the while, they wondered: Who is he? Does he look like us? Do we like the same things? Will he want to meet us?
“He wanted to find his brother, especially once he knew his mom wanted to locate him,” said Joe’s wife, Lori, a research contract specialist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
By 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had hit and, in New York and Texas, Kathy and Joe remained hopeful. In Hawaii, Dennis was sharing big questions with his wife, Ginny. Is my mother still out there? Do I have other siblings?
Around Thanksgiving 2020, Ginny got her husband an Ancestry.com DNA kit. He sent a sample, as required. Then he prayed.
A couple days after Christmas, the ancestry profiles matched.
“Joe messaged me,” said Dennis, who recalled scanning a stranger’s picture and searching for a family resemblance while grappling with the prospect of what this all meant.
“I’m a very simple guy,” said Dennis. He didn’t respond to Joe.
A week passed. Ginny nudged. “My wife said, ‘You can’t not message this guy back,’ ” he said. “So I did. It was not even 30 seconds and he responded to me — boom. He was right there. He was waiting for me to answer him.”
Dennis vividly recalls that first conversation. “He said, ‘My name is Joe, I’m your brother. You have a sister, Kathy. Your mother is still alive and is 91 years old.’ ”
“My jaw hit the ground,” Dennis continued. “I thought my mom had already passed.” The brothers talked for four hours.
A trip to New York
An elated Kathy later spoke on the phone with Dennis. More calls and FaceTime chats followed. Kathy gently broke the news of the discovery to her mother in person.
“She sort of put up a wall,” said Kathy. “It took her a couple of weeks to process.”
Eventually Janice spoke and FaceTimed with Dennis. In 2021, Kathy and her husband, Luis, celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary on Maui to meet and spend time with Dennis and his family.
For Mother’s Day 2022, Dennis mailed Janice a card. When she flipped it open she heard a familiar voice and a ukulele. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” sung by Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, the late Honolulu-born singer, formed a musical bridge connecting past and present.
“She basically walked around all day holding it,” Kathy said. “She’d say, ‘My son sent me this.’ ”
Janice’s children maintain that although their mom isn’t emotionally demonstrative, having her firstborn back in her life has had a deep impact. “She doesn’t say it out loud, but she’s been very moved this entire time,” Joe said.
A face-to-face family gathering became a priority, considering Janice turns 93 in October. A date was set for late July. It was Dennis’ first trip to New York.
The time together has brought laughs, tears and conversation “about everything,” said Dennis. Even the tiniest details seem filled with meaning.
“I learned why I don’t like certain things and found out that she and I feel the same about other things,” he said. “We both don’t like bell peppers.”
She loves the Yankees. He does not. “That’s OK, I’m her firstborn,” he joked.
Joe and Kathy, meanwhile, ganged up on their big brother as siblings do.
“One of the first things we did to him was this,” Joe said, displaying a photo of him and his sister smooching either side of Dennis’ face.
“I’m not a hugger,” Dennis said.
What do all three siblings have in common? “Sarcasm,” according to Joe. His sibs didn’t disagree.
A wry sense of humor runs in the family. “During one conversation I mentioned that I had 12 grandchildren,” said Dennis. “I said, ‘It’s really going to cost you at Christmas.’ ”
Kathy’s daughter Nicole Velasquez, 32, an office coordinator who lives in Port Chester, in Westchester, seized the chance to be part of the reunion. “Our family was always kind of small,” she said. “And now we have a ton of family members.”
Dennis’ daughter, Deborah Lawson, 33, made the trip to Long Island with her parents. She envies her cousin’s life in New York. Nicole marvels at her cousin’s life in Hawaii.
“We’re both jealous of each other,” said Deborah, who’s married with three kids. Like everyone else, she’s adjusting to the shift in her family dynamics and being in Centerport.
“I was just standing in the kitchen yesterday cutting cucumbers,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wait, where am I?’ ”
That’s a natural reaction, according to Patricia Pitta, a Manhasset-based family psychologist and author of “Solving Modern Family Dilemmas” (Routledge, 2014).
Major life events like this bring “a redefinition of relationships,” she said. “That’s challenging work but important work.”
Pitta’s expert advice: Consider boundaries and keep realistic expectations, she said. “There is tremendous potential for positivity.”
And pizza. Turns out that Dennis fell hard for local takeout. “That’s the best pizza that we ever had,” he said. In a poetic slice of namesake symmetry, the pies were from Jimmy’s Pizzeria.
“It feels like a Hallmark movie,” said Dennis. “It feels satisfying. There’s a happy ending.”
Asked how she felt, Janice, a woman of few words and telling gestures, put a hand to her heart. “Great,” she said. “It’s a surprise.”