From not knowing he was adopted, to having a hunch for years, to finally finding his birth records, Irving Atkins had been searching decades for his biological family.
On Saturday, there they were, gathered for a family "reunion" in a kosher deli in Lake Grove.
Atkins, 89, was over the moon with joy at seeing his biological relatives — two of his biological sisters and a bevy of nieces and nephews — joined by members of his adopted family.
More than 30 relatives, split pretty much between the two families, gathered at Zan's Kosher Deli, with Atkins perched proudly at the head of a long table. They broke bread and enjoyed corned beef, pastrami and turkey along with a healthy dose of surprise and laughter as they caught up on a lifetime of memories.
"I just wanted to make connections, and be joyful," said Atkins, who now resides in the Arbors at Hauppauge assisted living community. "I never had any sisters. Now I have three, though one has passed."
New limbs on family tree
Grafting new limbs onto his family tree has been something of a lifesaver for Atkins. Six months ago, he was living alone in Nevada, his wife unresponsive in a nursing home with advanced dementia.
"Being alone, I was losing it mentally," he said. "I was a mess."
Then his son, Brian Atkins, of Kings Park, brought him to the assisted living community. Here on Long Island, where he had lived from 1957 to 1999, his life has come full circle. It's here he connected with his new relations, many of whom live on the Island.
"It cheered him up," said Brian Atkins, 61.
Irving Atkins has long been a history detective about his own life. He was born in 1933 to an unmarried couple, who, knowing they could not afford to raise him, put the baby up for adoption, he said.
Adopted by Louis and Dolly Atkins, he grew up in Westchester and, he said, had a "wonderful childhood." The couple went to their graves with the secret of his adoption, he said.
Learned in 50s of adoption
Atkins was in his 50s when his older brother told him that he was adopted. He had long held suspicions, since his birth record was not a genuine certificate and it stated he had been born in Staten Island. His adopted family had never lived there, he said.
"I was a very obedient child, so I didn't press for answers," he said.
Years passed until 2020, when New York State allowed adopted children to obtain their true birth records. From there, he plowed through ancestry websites and eventually mailed a letter to his long-lost family.
He said he had learned that his biological parents married four years after his birth and had four more children.
Saturday was not the first meeting he's had with these new relatives. He sat down in the spring with a few of them in a Commack diner. There, he met his biological nephew, Paul Farash, 63, who peppered him with questions like a little kid.
"I was completely floored, blown away and mesmerized by his story," said Farash, who lives in West Babylon. He is the son of Atkins' sister Phyllis Farash, who died in 2007.
Irving Atkins' new niece, Vivian Paleno, flew up from Florida to be there Saturday. She's the daughter of Atkins' biological sister, Rhoda Giacinto, of Levittown, who sat beside her brother during the meal while Paleno gathered a plate of food for him.
"I'm elated and grateful. It's so touching that we can come together and celebrate life," said Paleno, 54. "Him and my mother look identical."
Hoping to stay in touch
Saturday began with a little game to break the ice, as Brian Atkins handed out name tags at random and each person had to find the person on the tag. Irving Atkins made a speech and shared stories of coming to Long Island in 1957 and living in Commack, East Northport and Holtsville.
He's a man accustomed to reaching for big goals. Working for Grumman in the late 1960s, he helped build the radar system used for landing the lunar module on the moon. The employees who built the lunar module all signed a group photo, a copy of which now resides on the moon. Atkins has his own copy in his room at the Arbors, with a little red arrow pointing to him.
Looking ahead, family members said they hoped to stay in touch.
"I'm sure we'll get together and chew the fat," Paul Farash said. "I have a lot of questions and I know that each answer will lead to another question."