June 5, 2015

‘A gift from God’: Longtime search for father leads woman to unexpected discovery of family and faith

After nearly 60 years of wondering about the life of her biological father, Muriel “Mimi” Riffle finally learned about him—a journey of faith that also led her to a new family connection. Here, the member of St. Agnes Parish in Nashville poses with a photo of her father, Francis Flagg, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

After nearly 60 years of wondering about the life of her biological father, Muriel “Mimi” Riffle finally learned about him—a journey of faith that also led her to a new family connection. Here, the member of St. Agnes Parish in Nashville poses with a photo of her father, Francis Flagg, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: As the archdiocese and the Church prepare for the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September, The Criterion is inviting readers to share their stories of how their faith has made a difference in their families. Here is another story.)

By John Shaughnessy

COLUMBUS—It was the moment that Muriel “Mimi” Riffle had desperately wanted to experience for nearly 60 years—a moment that would finally begin to unlock the secrets about the father she had never known, and unite her with the brother and the sister she had never met.

There was just one small detail to work out as Riffle and her husband Jim drove the last leg of their 15-hour journey from Indiana to Florida to connect with the family she had never known: How would they be able to identify each other at the destination where they agreed to meet?

That’s easy, Riffle’s soon-to-be-newfound sister said during a phone conversation as they neared the rendezvous place, “I’ll be wearing antlers.”

That whimsical introduction brought a smile to Riffle. And ever since that day earlier this year, the member of St. Agnes Parish in Nashville has been overwhelmed with joy about discovering this new part of her family.

“I might cry if I talk about it,” Riffle says. “I’ve always wanted to know who my father was, and now I do. I can’t believe how wonderful my sister is, and my brother is priceless, too. We could have enjoyed each other for a whole lifetime, and now we are. As far as I’m concerned, this is a gift from God.”

Her journey of faith and family has led the 78-year-old Riffle to a sense of “wholeness.” It has also led her back to the beginning of her journey when she was 19 and struggling to make sense of her life.

A shocking blow

“When I was 19, my parents revealed that my ‘in-house’ father was not my biological father,” Riffle recalls. “They said my father, Frank, was dead, and I’d been adopted by my stepfather when he and my mother married. I remembered feeling shocked, shaken and disconsolate that I’d never have the opportunity to get to know my biological father beyond his name.”

After that revelation, Riffle became immersed in shaping her own adult life. Living on the East Coast, she graduated from college, started a career as a teacher, and married a man whose roots were in southern Indiana where they moved in 1967. Nine years later, her husband left their marriage, leaving her devastated. At that point, she began life as a single mother of four young children. Then in 1978, she received another shocking blow.

“I was 42 when my mother and stepfather disclosed another stunning piece of information—my biological father had just recently died,” Riffle notes. “They hadn’t wanted me to seek out my biological father for their own reasons. Nothing else was disclosed.”

Nor, she says, did her parents provide any other information about her biological father before they died in the early 1990s. And she didn’t have the time to pursue the questions she had.

“My single-parent life was a survival marathon,” she recalls. “It was a rough period. It wasn’t until my children were self-sufficient that I was able to think about anything else.”

After the graduation of her youngest child from college, Riffle began thinking again about learning more about her biological father. For nearly two decades, she made sporadic attempts, but they all led to dead ends—until last year.

Making a startling discovery

By 2014, Riffle’s life had long made a turn from hard to good. After her husband left their marriage, a priest encouraged Riffle to seek an annulment. So she did. Nearly 20 years later, that choice prepared the path for her marriage to Jim Riffle in 2002.

“I got a special gift—a good man,” she says.

A few years ago, the couple visited Ellis Island in New York City, the place where many immigrants to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries first arrived. Riffle checked records there, hoping to learn about her ancestry.

“I found some ship’s manifests at Ellis Island and old census records clarifying my maternal grandparents’ immigration from Ireland, but no clues about my father,” she says. “In preparation for our visit to Ireland in the spring of 2014, a genealogist successfully identified the towns of origin of my maternal grandparents. I was so happy with her proficiency that I asked her to find my father, too.”

Riffle was stunned by what happened next.

“She started looking through military records and cemetery records,” Riffle says. “She got very excited. She found his headstone in Daytona, Fla. She found his military records, too, and they fit. The telephone book in that area had an identical name—Francis Flagg. She said, ‘Why don’t you call that phone number and see what happens?’ ”

Riffle made the call, hoping for a connection. It led to her half-brother.

“My brother was out mowing the lawn, and his wife answered,” Riffle says. “She almost hung up, but she didn’t. He came in and talked on the phone. Both of us got so choked up that we couldn’t continue the conversation. He called back, and we went on from there.”

She also learned she has a half-sister, Virginia Bennett, who also lives in the same area as their brother. All three of them made a plan to meet. It happened in January of this year, starting for Riffle with a welcome from Bennett, wearing reindeer antlers.

‘We’ve found the pot of gold’

“We hugged, we laughed, we kept looking at each other for family resemblances,” says Riffle, adding she bears a resemblance to her father. “My siblings feel like friends I’ve known forever. My sister and I feel like Siamese twins in our faiths and family outlooks. My brother has a delightful sense of humor, an ebullient personality, and is still contributing to his community in city government. We feel like we’ve found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Francis “Bo” Flagg says the discovery of his new sister “has opened up another part of my life.”

“It’s a great feeling, and she’s really, really cool,” says Flagg, who plans to visit Riffle in Columbus for a few days in mid-June. “The first time I saw her, I said, ‘That’s my sister.’ I don’t refer to her as my step-sister. She’s my sister. How can it be after all those years? It’s been a fun experience.”

Bennett agrees: “It’s absolutely fabulous. We hit if off right away, like peas and carrots, pancakes and syrup. She looks exactly like our father. You would know she’s his daughter. I send her different things to stay in touch. We talk every week, and we have so much in common. We’re both very devout. We both love to garden. We both like doing things outdoors.”

Her voice rises as she adds, “I have a sister!”

Riffle has also learned some heartening information about her father from her siblings.

“They loved him, and said he was a great father,” she says. “He was an accountant. He took them to church. He said the rosary. And they went through Catholic education.”

She pauses and adds, “He tried to find my mother later in his life.”

One memory, one lasting impact

Bennett shared two meaningful memories with Riffle. The first one recalled when Bennett made an out-of-state visit to see an uncle when she was 13. During that visit, the uncle said to her, “Do you know your father has another child?”

That question laid the foundation for another memory that Bennett shared with Riffle— a memory that has “made all the difference in the world” to her.

“Our dad was on the phone one time when Virginia walked into the room, and he didn’t know she was there,” Riffle says. “She heard him ask, ‘How’s Muriel?’ When he learned I was going to be a teacher, he was pleased.”

That image of a loving, concerned father warms her heart and frees her of her previous thoughts that she was abandoned by him. Holding onto that feeling, she doesn’t dwell on the fact that this journey took nearly 60 years, far longer than she ever wanted. Instead, she focuses on the father she finally found and the extended family she now embraces.

“The ripple effect within our families has been exciting—phone calls, letters, e-mails and texts several days every week,” she says. “It’s a special gift.”

She also focuses on the gift of faith and the love of God that has guided her through this journey.

“I don’t know how I would have gotten through everything if I didn’t have a strong faith. It’s been the center of my life.

“I believe that everything that happens is God’s will. Even when we’re going through difficulties, there’s a reason. Life is filled with ups and downs. But God is with us the whole time.”

(Has faith made a difference in your family’s life? Has it deepened your relationships as a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, a son or a daughter? Do you have rituals and experiences of faith that have helped to make your family more Christ-centered? If so, we’d like to hear about it. Please send your responses and your stories to assistant editor John Shaughnessy by e-mail at jshaughnessy@archindy.org or by mail in care of The Criterion. 1400 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46202. Please include your parish and a daytime phone number where you can be reached.)

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