Last November, the McAuliffe family celebrated my brother John’s 70th birthday in New York City by attending the Syracuse – Notre Dame football game at Yankee Stadium. Syracuse and Notre Dame were part of my late parents’ legacy. They were from Syracuse; my mother graduated from Syracuse University and my dad was a Notre Dame graduate.
My father would have been happy that weekend because Notre Dame won, but few of us watched the game, because we spent most of the time doing what McAuliffes do when they get together… we tell stories.
That weekend started early, because my wife Kay and I wanted to visit our new daughter, Laura Michelle Pliego, who lives across the river in Montclair, New Jersey. I also wanted the three of us to take a drive near the Catskills Mountains of southeastern New York and visit a site that I had not been to in nearly fifty years – Max Yasgur’s farm outside of Bethel, site of the iconic 1969 Woodstock festival. We came close to cancelling my plan due to a massive snowstorm that pounded the area the evening before leaving many roads impassable. Laura came up with a slate of alternative activities for us in Montclair, but as we drove out of the Newark airport, the sun was shining, our road was clear and we decided to go for it.
Laura found me, her biological father, through Ancestry.com on March 21, 2018, due to my first cousin, Kevin McAuliffe, who was conducting research on Ancestry about his family tree. Both Laura and Kevin were notified that a match between them of a first cousin had appeared in the DNA pool. Laura emailed Kevin, who had nearly deleted her email and gave her permission to contact him. She called Kevin and said, “The only information I have of my biological father is that he was Irish, I have his nose, and he conceived me in January, 1969, when my late mother Renee was a sophomore at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.” Kevin recalled that in 1969, while he was a freshman at Notre Dame, he had a first cousin who was a freshman at Bowling Green. That cousin was me. But before sharing that information with Laura, Kevin thought he should call me first.
He called me and told me to fasten my seat belt, then gave me a primer about Ancestry DNA and what my options were as Laura’s likely dad. He added that that my wife of 46 years, Kay, would be relieved to know that Laura was 48 years old. Indeed, she was. That would not have been the case if Laura were under age 46. Kevin, who is a lawyer in Syracuse, told me that I could allow the mystery daughter to contact me or do nothing. Kay, who is a therapist in Tampa, knew the value of making this psychological connection and encouraged me to have Kevin give her my phone number.
Laura called me that evening and there was something visceral in her voice that resonated in a positive way. When she told me her name, I laughed, because I already had a daughter named Laura. She allayed any financial concerns by telling me that she and her husband Salvador were “well off and did not need anything…I just want to know my biological father.” She texted me her photo and my wife observed that “she does have your nose.” She also texted a photo of her mother, Renee Tatham, when she was a sophomore at Bowling Green. It was a face I recognized, and it triggered a memory of an ostensibly fleeting relationship, but now momentous, because that relationship produced Laura.
I told Laura that I met Renee in a downtown Bowling Green bar while she and her girlfriends were celebrating that she had broken up with John, her cheating boyfriend. Having recently experienced a breakup with my high school steady, who also cheated on me, we had a connection that led to a magical evening. However, our budding relationship turned out to be a short one. In less than a week, she forgave John and called me to say that she wanted to meet me in front of the campus student union where she said, “You were fun, but I love him more.”
That was the last time I saw Renee. Laura informed me that when Renee realized she was pregnant, she assumed John was the father. She then dropped out of college, married him, bore Laura that October, later had a son and sadly, after four years, divorced him. The now single mother Renee started a new life in California and raised Laura and her brother to excel in school. They both won academic scholarships to UCLA, and both earned master’s degrees. Renee, a Pearl Jam devotee, would later contract a nerve-damaging disease, Friedreich Ataxia, and die in 2011. She was eulogized at the memorial by Laura: “Renee is my hero.”
One month after that phone call, I met my daughter at the Tampa airport and we couldn’t take our eyes off each other. She also bonded quickly with Kay and her new sisters Shannon, Laura, and Marisa, and my son Scott. Her husband Salvador came the next day and the following month, they brought their children and our two new grandchildren, Cristina Renee and Tiki, to spend a weekend with us in Tampa. In October, we met her mother’s extended family at a reception in North Baltimore, Ohio, that included her maverick grandma Sally and her forever girlfriends, “the housewives of Cincinnati.” I paid tribute to Kay for her heartfelt acceptance of Laura, knowing that parenthood isn’t limited to biology. I sometimes wonder how I would have responded if the roles were reversed.
As we made our way north on Route 17 into New York, Laura wanted to hear my story of Woodstock. I admitted that “my mental state in mid-August 1969 was not one of optimal lucidity due to chemical issues, so you will learn a lot more from the movie. But on Friday, August 15, four of my high school friends and the fun one left Syracuse for the much-anticipated concert. I really wanted to see the Who, because I listened every day to their rock opera Tommy.
From the get-go, the festival had a déjà vu feel of a close reunion of a community that had yet to exist, but seemed like it did. I remember a number of people saying to me, “I know you, don’t I?” Even introverts felt connected at Woodstock. I hooked up with students from New Paltz while Richie Havens sang Freedom and whooped with the Vietnam War vets to the anti-war chants of Country Joe the Fish. Santana’s performance was mesmerizing, I boogied to Going Up the Country with Canned Heat, and I rallied in party overdrive up until the Grateful Dead’s set, but faded with their mellow chords.
I succumbed to the cocktail of pot and exhaustion. Then, with my brother John, who I serendipitously had run into that afternoon, we headed home. It was two days of hippie heaven, amazing music and bathing downpours in what felt like God’s garden. Riding home, I felt this would be a keeper memory, and I was right. But still, go see the movie.”
Weaving through the roads of scenic Sullivan County kindled my half-century-old memories and, by mid-afternoon, we arrived at Bethel and went to The Museum at Bethel Woods, not far from the hallowed natural amphitheater. When entering the museum, I told the docent that this was my first time back since the concert, and he kindly gave me a commemorative pin that he gives to original attenders.
He asked me how Woodstock had affected my life. “Woodstock imparted hope in me for a community of creativity, peace, freedom and love in our country and the world.” He seemed to be on the same page. We spent the next hour appreciating the outstanding collection of videos and exhibits that capture the zeitgeist of both the festival and the decade of the sixties. We hiked around the grounds and I pointed out where the bands played and the vicinity of where I sat. We concluded our pilgrimage reading aloud the names of the performers etched into the plaques from the stone monument that overlooks that sacred field that somehow seems to possess a latent power to evoke mystically the meaning of those days.
We headed back to New York City where that evening Laura would meet my three brothers and some of my and now her extended family. She asked me how I felt about “going back to the garden… of seeing Woodstock again.” I said it was somewhat bittersweet: “sad that my ‘talked-about’ generation did not really transform our country in terms of the peace, love, social justice and community that characterized the event. But it was sweet. Sweet to relive those idealistic days and to share it with you. I truly am so very, very happy, as Blood, Sweat and Tears sang there on Sunday afternoon, ’that you have come into my life.’”
That night we had a great dinner in the city, and the McAuliffes welcomed and embraced Laura as if she had always been with us. My brothers separately told me how nice she is, one paying the ultimate tribute, “she reminds me of Millie,” our revered mother. My wife calls her a “female Joseph McAuliffe,” which I hope is a compliment. Laura Pliego is a testimony that sometimes-underrated nature does emerge and find an expression that transcends nurture She stayed up late with her new clan that night, partied like a long-ball hitter, and added a new chapter to our family story.
With an MA in History from Bowling Green State University, Joseph McAuliffe has been adjunct faculty in American history at USF and European history at Hillsborough Community College. Joseph manages educational programming for OLLI-USF and is a popular OLLI history instructor. He has taught many classes including sessions on the Origin of Latin America, Eugene Debs, Understanding the Ideology of White Supremacy, Manifest Destiny in the U.S., and The Protestant Reformation.