Frances Enzler has three kids, a husband, and, when she’s not working as an academic advisor and instructor at the University of Evansville, a career as the aquatics director/swim coach at the Evansville Country Club and the swim coach at Reitz Memorial High School. That’s her life. It’s what she’s built, what she’s crafted, after she was adopted by an American couple 54 years ago. And up until the beginning of this year, it’s the life she knew.
Fast-forward to April. Enzler is in Salzburg, Austria, on a trip with her daughter, Franny. They’ve been tourists for days, visiting Munich and other cities in Germany and Austria. But they are not tourists now. Now they are stepping off a train. Now they are walking on a platform. Now they are being hugged out of their minds. Now they have an entirely new family.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
“You did have a good life, right?”
Those are some of the first words out of Franz and Lily Hintermaier’s mouths. They’ve just finished hugging their oldest daughter, the one Lily gave up when Frances — she was named Pia then — was just a baby.
The story is complicated. Austrians Lily and Franz had seriously dated but then broke up while living in Germany. Lily, meanwhile, became pregnant, and Franz was the father. She carried Pia to full term, but single motherhood proved very challenging, and she gave Pia up for adoption. Pia was an infant when she was placed in an orphanage near her birthplace in Erlangen, Germany. Later, Lily and Franz got back together. They visited the orphanage as often as they could as they tried to regain custody of their daughter. And then, one day, Pia was gone.
AN UNFORGETTABLE JOURNEY
Pia became Frances when she was adopted by Robert and Frances Kelley, an American couple living at the time in Virginia. Overjoyed by the adoption of their new daughter, they had no idea Frances’ birth parents were trying to find her. Because of German privacy laws, the orphanage was prevented from giving out details about Pia and her adoptive parents. There was talk of hiring a private investigator, but Pia’s birth parents had no idea where she was. Resigned to the loss of their daughter, Franz and Lily married, moved to Iran, had another daughter, Mandy, and then moved to Kuwait. Yet throughout it all, they kept thinking about Pia.
“They gave up hope for a long time,” Frances says. “They were sad about it, there’s no doubt about it. My sister spelled this out for me. They were very torn, and that’s what made it very emotional for me, because I knew the pain that they went through, and being a mother myself, I felt their pain. And knowing the joy that my parents felt in adopting a child, in having a child, it was really a double-edged sword.”
The Kelleys and the Hintermaiers, it turns out, weren’t so different. Franz was an engineer (electrical) for Siemens, an energy company, and Lily was a stay-at-home mother to Mandy. Robert Kelley, now deceased, was an engineer (chemical), and Frances Kelley, Frances’ adoptive mother, stayed home to care for Frances and her older adoptive brother, Robbie Kelley, too. Mandy is a swimmer, just like Frances, who qualified for the 200-meter butterfly trials in the 1972 Olympics.
And then there were the more subtle similarities that make Frances laugh.
“My birth Dad and I were both crazy picture-takers,” she chuckles. “He was snapping every moment, I was snapping every moment. We were kind of nuts, actually.”
Frances looks a lot like her mother, Lily, who has the same taste in clothes — sporty — and also prefers to wear minimal jewelry. Mandy even looks like Frances’ oldest daughter, Christie, and Mandy’s younger son, Wael, looks a lot like Frances’ son, David.
But Frances wouldn’t have known any of these things if she hadn’t received a brochure about an European cruise in the mail. That was an incentive to finally visit her birthplace, and Franny decided to come along.
“I had gone all my life … I was kind of immune to it,” she says of the fact that she was adopted, adding that her adoptive parents had always supported and encouraged her decision to search for her birth parents, if she chose to do so. “This year, I was thinking I was young enough, I could still go there.”
Franny did the preliminary computer work, contacting the hospital where her mother’s birth records were located and the church and orphanage that had known Frances as an infant. Once they had that information, Franny and Frances contacted a government social worker in Erlangen who helped Frances reconnect with her birth parents. For almost six weeks, Frances, Franz, and Mandy corresponded via email, sending pictures, before Franz, Lily, Mandy, Frances, and Franny actually met at that Salzburg train station on April 13. Franz, Lily, and Mandy speak English, which was fortunate because Frances and Franny do not speak German.
“We had exchanged enough pictures that we recognized them right away,” Frances says, recalling what it was like to be on the train as it rolled into the Salzburg station. “I did see them, and they looked very anxious. When we got off the train, we knew what direction to go in. It was very emotional.”
The new family spent four days together talking, eating, and touring, then talking and eating some more, Frances says. Frances and Franny had compiled a book of pictures to tell the stories of their own family. Franz, Lily, and Mandy did the same with albums and a video of family events, talking and telling stories about Frances’ grandparents on her Austrian side and other family members. The group visited St. Wolfgang, in Austrian lake country, going to the church where Franz and Lily were married. They also visited many quaint little villages and saw highlights from areas featured in the movie “The Sound of Music.”
“They put a lot of thought into this,” Frances says. “It was very wonderful.”
On the last day of their visit, the new family went to a beautiful shopping district in Salzburg before later going to the train station to send Frances and Franny off on the rest of their European voyage to Munich and Neuschwanstein Castle.
“That was very, very hard,” Frances says. “We cried horribly and — I’m not really sure why, to be honest. It was just very emotional, to know that our trip had ended and that there was still so much that we could have done. (The trip) was just to see where I was born and to experience my culture, and this was like an incredible bonus, because the research which we did, we thought we would never find them. We never really confronted why they (gave me up for adoption). There was nothing like that. We were just elated to see one another. We didn’t try to judge one another.”
While she only saw her parents and sister for a short time, Frances says the group was immediately comfortable with each other and plans to see each other again. Franny agrees.
“It was really special for me to see how my mom interacted with her sister, because my mom has never had a sister before,” Franny says. “It was like they grew up together as sisters. Everything flowed so naturally.”
Dave Enzler, Frances’ husband, says that while there was a certain amount of nervousness and apprehension before Frances went to Austria, every indication is that the visit exceeded every expectation.
“I feel that Frances has been twice blessed,” he says. “Knowing her parents here in the states that she grew up with — they were very loving, very supportive — and to go back and meet her biological parents and her sister, she was blessed both times.”
Months later, Frances thinks back to that day in the train station, when she saw her parents for the first time after 54 years and her younger sister. And she thinks of that moment when her father hugged her, looked at her, and said, “You are truly my daughter.”
“I see so much bad news,” Frances adds. “I’m happy to share this story. I just want to share the good news and the wonderful experience that I had. It was great. It was phenomenal. It truly was a fairy tale.”
And to Brooks Logan, who has never heard this story, has never heard that Frances was adopted, never knew that one of the reasons she went to Austria was to reconnect with her birth family, it’s mind-blowing. The 17-year-old soon-to-be senior at Reitz Memorial High School has had Frances as a swim coach for 10 years, and “she’s like a mother to me. It’s a very close relationship that I have with her, much more personal than just coach and athlete.”
Logan falls silent on the phone, then calls it a heartwarming story, the sort of thing you see in movies or read in books.
“Stuff like that, sometimes it works, but more than often it doesn’t,” he says. “That’s great for Frances. I’m sure that was a wonderful experience for her, to be able to meet her birth parents and see where she grew up.”
Logan thinks for a moment. He adds that this past year, it was the first time his swim team at Memorial had ever gone undefeated in a season. Though the team didn’t win the conference, it won sectionals.
“That was the happiest I have ever seen Frances,” Logan says. “Now I’m sure that whenever she went to (Austria) and met her birth parents, that moment far eclipsed that.”