Penney Dodson, kneeling second from left, reunited with family members including, in front from left, Tommy Reel, half-brother; Carolyn Eddings, cousin; and Kathy Reel Weller and Debbie Reel Cruver, half-sisters. In back are Georgia Reel Thompson, aunt; Donny Reel, uncle; and Bernice Reel, aunt.Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
“Everything living strives for wholeness.”
— Carl G. Jung
HEARD ON THE TOWN
Three weeks ago, Penney Dodson traveled from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Chattanooga to attend a family reunion. Because she didn’t know any of the people who would be attending, she was nervous. But once she arrived at the Soddy-Daisy Community Center, where the reunion was held, her fears morphed into tears of happiness as each person greeted her with a warm smile and a heartfelt hug.
“Welcome home, baby,” said Georgia Reel Thompson, who wrapped Dodson, 46, in a loving embrace. Thompson, 78, Dodson’s aunt, hadn’t seen her in 43 years. In fact, Dodson had learned only recently that she had an Aunt Georgia. Last March, Dodson found something she had been looking for since she was a teenager — her biological family.
Now a resident of West Palm Beach, Fla., and married with three children, Dodson had never given up hope that she’d one day find her biological father and his family, but she had just one clue — “Reel,” his last name.
When Dodson was a young child, she lived in Soddy-Daisy with her parents and sister until the age of 3 when her mom took the children and moved to Michigan. Dodson never again saw her father, and, as time passed, she lost all memory of him.
Several years after leaving Tennessee, Dodson and her sister were adopted by her mom’s new husband. Her parents had three more children.
“I didn’t find out I was adopted until I was about 10,” Dodson said. “Part of me knew I was adopted because I didn’t look like my siblings, and I vaguely remembered that my mom once told me I looked like my dad. Even after I found out I was adopted, my mother gave me no details until I was about 16. She told me his last name, and then we never talked about it again.”
Dodson said she always had a feeling of being lost.
“I just wanted to know who I was, and all I had to go on was a name,” she said.
For years, Dodson searched court records, including her original birth certificate, but found no new information. Frustration caused her to halt the search for a few years. But, last March, after encouragement from her half-sister, Dodson Googled her father’s name.
This time, luck was on her side.
“My sister and I sat down at the computer and typed in his name and up popped his obituary. When I saw his name, I started crying. When I saw his face, I saw mine. After all these years, I was looking at my father.”
Her father, Charles Reel, 75, had died just two months earlier.
Through her tears, Dodson began reading the “Reel” obituary in the Chattanooga Times Free Press when she saw her name — Rosemarie Penney.
“We started jumping up and down, screaming and crying,” she said. “I immediately went on Facebook and started looking up names mentioned in the obituary. I found a cousin who got back with me immediately.”
Sale Creek resident Carolyn Eddings, Dodson’s first cousin, was thrilled Dodson found her father via the obituary. That was her plan, Eddings said.
“Our family was very close,” Eddings said, recalling that she was 14 when her cousins were whisked away to Michigan. “We all loved those little girls, and it hurt us that we never saw them again, especially their daddy, Charles Reel. Just because they left didn’t mean we cut the blood. That’s why I put their names in the obituary.”
Eddings told Dodson her father searched for his daughters, but because he didn’t know their new last name, he couldn’t find them.
“He loved his little girls,” she said. “He even had their names tattooed on his arm.”
The family arranged a reunion to introduce Dodson to her long-lost relatives.
“It was a little overwhelming, but I can’t explain how excited I was,” Dodson said of the reunion. “I found out I have 19 first cousins and 22 step-first cousins. I also have two aunts and an uncle. It’s still rather surreal.”
She didn’t get to meet her father, though.
“I was sad when I read that he died. I missed him by just two months. But, it’s also bittersweet because I would have never found my family if he hadn’t died. In my heart, I feel like this is the way it was supposed to be. I did want to meet him, though. There were so many things I wanted to ask him, but I was thrilled to meet the family. And, for me to hear Aunt Georgia say, ‘Welcome home, baby,’ I felt like I was home. My search was over.”
Dodson, a school teacher, is married and has three children. Her family, including her step-father, supported her efforts to find her father and his family.
“My step-father is a good man, and he loves me,” she said. “My mom died 20 years ago, and he understood my desire to find my biological father. My family knew it was important to me.
“I have a whole new family to get to know, and I love them already. It’s like I always loved them. My cousins told me how they played with me and carried me around when I was little. Do you know how much that means to hear they love me?”
Dodson, who stayed in Chattanooga for a week, said she was sad to leave.
“I will come back,” she said. “Part of me doesn’t want to leave. It’s a whole new world.”
Contact Karen Nazor Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6396. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/karennazorhill.
Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...