Karen Gaulrapp showed up at fatfish Wine Bar and Bistro in Bay Shore on Friday to meet the four sisters she never knew she had.
“I’m not anxious,” said Gaulrapp, 71, of Central Islip, moments before the meeting. “I’m meeting four strangers.”
Moments later, she saw their faces.
“Oh my God, the traffic!” one of them, Becky Hostetter, yelled from across the parking lot.
Gaulrapp stood, her arms open and waving, as Hostetter and the other three sisters — Nora Liell, 65, Maggie Liell, 59, and Kitty Liell, 56 — came across the parking lot to meet her. Maggie’s green eyes flooded with tears. The group hugged and shrieked as their faces and eyes reddened.
Gaulrapp, who was adopted at 18 months old, has known all her life that she did not share blood with the parents who raised her. But she took no interest in the details of her biological family.
“I was a happy camper,” she said. She recalled her early childhood in Floral Park, spent riding bicycles, running, playing Superwoman, climbing trees. The first doll her adoptive parents bought her, she “drop-kicked like a football.” She had the company of an adoptive brother who was four years her senior.
But in December, she decided she would like to know just her nationality.
Coincidentally, the sisters she did not know existed had also sent away for ancestry.com reports. Once Gaulrapp added her data to the system, the family was able to find her.
On March 18, Gaulrapp received a message from Hostetter, who said they appeared to be sisters.
“I said, well I hope you have identification,” Gaulrapp said. “I’m such a New Yorker.”
Gaulrapp’s partner, Robbie Stark, 66, had encouraged her to find family for years. Gaulrapp resisted.
“And then, boom! She doesn’t have one, she’s got four!” Stark said. “It sounds like a story that you would read to me.”
When Gaulrapp finally found herself speaking with Hostetter on the phone, emotion flooded them.
“They both just burst out on the phone,” Stark said. “They were crying and laughing.”
Hostetter, who lives in Indiana, told Gaulrapp she had four sisters total, along with a brother who died of cancer. The father the girls knew growing up, John Liell, was the biological father of Kitty, Nora and their late brother. Maggie, Becky and Karen were each born to different fathers, Hostetter said.
Their mother and John Liell both grew up on Long Island, according to Hostetter. Liell was from Bellmore by way of Brooklyn; her mother was from Freeport by way of Waterbury, Connecticut. They met at Hofstra and went on to graduate school at Yale. The girls would spend every summer on Long Island.
All the sisters live in Indiana except Maggie, who’s in Virginia. They did not know they had different fathers until they did their own digging on ancestry.com over the past couple of years.
Hostetter is a chef and restaurateur, Nora Liell a retired criminal defense investigator and court reporter, Maggie Liell the groundskeeper for the Claytor Nature Studies Center and Kitty Liell a criminal defense lawyer.
Hostetter, who is about to open her third restaurant, had been looking for Gaulrapp for decades.
“Mom and I started looking for you 40 years ago,” Hostetter told Gaulrapp. Their mother, who died in 2004, became pregnant with Gaulrapp during wartime. She told Hostetter that she was not in a position to raise a child at the time and had to give her up, Hostetter said.
Gaulrapp grew up to become a teacher, now retired, with few familial obligations.
“No weddings, no birthdays, no Christmases,” she remembers thinking. “I am free!”
She is free no longer.
“It’s hard for me, because I’ve been on my own,” Gaulrapp said. “I’ve been just doing what I want.”
On Friday, the sisters encircled Gaulrapp. They studied her small frame and high cheek bones. She looks like mom, they agreed.
But she has nicer hair, Maggie said.