At age 4, Lamar Hoke Jr. walked into his mother’s bedroom one morning to find her dead behind the newspaper she was reading. He ran to get his sister, Connie, who was 11 at the time, and, after she confirmed what he saw, the two of them sprinted down the street to get their grandmother.
After that, their memories are all a mess.
The two siblings, who were living in St. Louis, had different fathers. Lamar’s lived in Chicago, and Lamar would soon go to live with his dad and paternal grandmother more than 300 miles away. Connie’s dad, a bachelor who raised her for the first few years of her life, wasn’t ready to look after a pre-teen girl on his own, so Connie went to stay with a foster family in her St. Louis neighborhood.
That was in 1946.
They’ve been trying to find each other ever since.
“Big sister” came close once. After she was married, Connie Stanley found an old box of her mother’s that contained some letters. One was from Lamar’s father in Chicago. She wrote to the address telling her baby brother that she had gotten married, had children and that she had named one of them – Eric Lamar – after him.
When Lamar got the letter, he was delirious with joy, carrying it with him everywhere he went. “Look, I got a letter from my sister,” he’d say as he walked around his high school campus. “I kept the letter on me and I showed it to everybody I saw.”
Then maybe the address faded, or maybe Lamar, in all the excitement, lost the letter. What’s for sure is that he never wrote back and, without the address on the envelope, he never could.
“Because I didn’t answer the letter, she probably thinks I don’t care about her,” Lamar, who lives in Palm Springs and is now 78, remembered thinking. That guilt is part of the reason Lamar spent his whole adult life trying to find his sister – even becoming an actor in hopes that she would see him on television and recognize him.
He wondered what had happened to the girl who protected him from neighborhood kids who laughed at him while he played outside naked. The girl who had explained to him while he sat on the swings that they weren’t going to be able to stay together – that he was going to have to go live with his father and grandmother.
“She was beautiful,” he remembers. “She was my protector.”
‘74 years is a long time to look for somebody’
Connie was looking too. And when her brother didn’t answer her, she thought she must have had the wrong address and didn’t write again.
“I never thought anything negative,” she said while sitting at her table in the home she shares with her daughter and grandsons in Fairview Heights, Ill., just 20 minutes from St. Louis and the Missouri border.
In the years since, Connie lost her husband and one son. She has 19 grandchildren and a few “greats.”
Everywhere she traveled with her foster family and, later, her husband, she would flip through the yellow pages looking for her brother’s name. Again and again, there was no Lamar Hoke.
“I can’t say my life was bad,” she said. “If my brother had been in my life, I could say I had a perfect life.”
Her husband’s family treated her like one of their own, but when her friends talked about their brothers and sisters, there was always a pang of sadness as she kept quiet about her little brother.
“Deep down inside,” she said, “I wanted something to call mine.”
Back in Chicago, Lamar graduated high school, attended film school, and served in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. He too got married, had three sons and nine grandchildren.
Because of his interest in the film and television industry, he moved his family to California in 1981. They moved to Palm Springs from Porter Ranch, a Los Angeles neighborhood, two years ago. And all that time, he too longed for his long-lost sister.
“Connie is it,” he said. “Since we were separated, I’ve been looking for her.”
In the last decade, Lamar’s wife, Josette, started an Ancestry.com account as a way to try to find Connie. It helped her connect with Lamar’s uncle’s family. They went to a family reunion with them, meeting cousins and others from his mother’s family, in Sacramento in 2013. Nearly 300 family members Lamar had never met were there, welcoming him with open arms, but Connie wasn’t among them.
“It was surreal,” he said. The family knew about her, but not where she was. “It had been a sad thing that I looked for her, looked for her, looked for her then I’d get tired and I’d stop,” Lamar said. He’d find another relative and regain hope, just to hit a dead end.
It was the same for Connie. There had been so many stops and starts that when her daughter found a man named Lamar Hoke Jr. on Facebook last year, she wasn’t sure they should even reach out.
“Seventy-four years is a long time to look for somebody – all your life peeping behind rocks, in corners, looking in phone books and suddenly there he is, sitting there at a piano on Facebook,” Connie said. “I didn’t want him to think I was some kind of troll or somebody trying to hack him out of something.”
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“That’s where my kids took over,” Connie said.
Her daughter, Victoria, decided to reach out. Assuming the old man at the piano wasn’t on Facebook often, she sent a message on the social media platform to the man’s son, Hasan, and asked if he was related to Lamar Hoke Jr. She also reached out to Lamar on Instagram, but he doesn’t ever use his account, so he never saw the message.
“I thought, ‘whatever, we’re not going to hear anything back,’” Connie said.
And for months, they didn’t.
Then, this past June, about a year after those first messages were sent, Hasan finally noticed. The delay was not intentional. He simply hadn’t seen the message because of a feature on Facebook that keeps messages from people you aren’t connected to in a separate inbox that many people don’t check.
When Victoria told her mother they’d found him, she said: “Girl, don’t play.”
Connie didn’t know how to react – she barely reacted at all.
“I just didn’t believe it,” she said. Her children couldn’t understand why she wasn’t happier, why she wasn’t jumping up and down. “It was like a dream,” she said. “I’m going to wake up in a minute and it’s not going to be true.”
‘I’d thought I’d lost you forever’
When Lamar’s son relayed the message to him, Lamar was scared that the phone number Victoria had sent, being a year old, wouldn’t be good anymore.
“It was really touch-and-go for a minute,” Lamar said, remembering the last couple of months. He wasn’t sure whether he and his sister would ever reconnect despite finally finding one another.
They finally spoke for the first time on June 25.
“I picked up the phone and said, ‘I’ve been looking for you all my life,’ and got emotional about it,” he said, pacing around the room. “I was getting all worked up and she says, ‘Stop that!’”
Seventy-four years later, Connie didn’t want her baby brother crying over her.
Since then, they’ve talked on the phone nearly every day and have video chatted via Zoom – something that’s normal in the time of COVID-19, but not ideal for rekindling lost relationships.
“We picked up right where we left off in love,” Lamar said during a video call on Thursday. Lamar, the slightly more excitable of the two, talks over his big sister, but catches himself. They laugh a lot – mostly at Lamar for getting emotional or, in this last call, for the daily naps he takes while Connie, seven years his senior, never naps at all.
But there are serious conversations, too. Lamar wants to know more about their childhood before they were separated. Connie has blocked a lot out. What she does know, she doesn’t want Lamar to ask about. She used to tell her husband that she didn’t want to talk about those years.
She remembers the picnic they were at when their mother told the family that she had cancer and that there was nothing doctors could do for her. She remembers her mother dying slowly. When they found their mother dead that day, she was only 28 years old.
“Lamar and I would do, I guess, what sisters and brothers do, we clinged to each other,” she said. “I can remember some things when we were together – some of it was good and some of it was really traumatic.”
Growing up, Lamar didn’t know how his mother died. He had never even seen a picture of her. He also didn’t know that the foster family Connie went to live with tried to convince his paternal grandmother to let them take him too. He didn’t know that his sister was looking for him.
“I thought I’d lost you forever,” Connie told him during one of their recent phone conversations.
“I thought I’d lost you forever too,” Lamar said. “If it wasn’t for COVID, we’d have seen each other by now.”
“Oh my goodness, yes,” she said. “Even If I had to walk.”
Still a world away
With nearly 1,800 miles separating the siblings, getting together isn’t an option yet. And that’s frustrating.
Lamar and Josette live near Palm Springs International Airport and could hop on a plane tomorrow, if not for coronavirus. Both Lamar and Connie have sons living in the Dallas area, they could meet there. But not yet.
“When can we see each other?” It’s the topic of every conversation.
“I just have to see my brother, so COVID’s gonna have to do something,” Connie says. “I was willing to go to Dallas, COVID or no COVID.”
“If I have to get a hazmat suit, I don’t care,” says Lamar.
But both know their families won’t let them take the risk. Both know what the risk would be – that it could mean losing each other again and forever.
“I’ve imagined it,” Lamar said. “I run up and grab her, hug her, kiss her, say ‘Hey, hi!’ then I think about the virus again.”
“It would be pretty crazy not to hug or show some affection after 74 years,” he said. It’s a miracle they’ve connected, he said, but the virus has made things much more complicated.
Zoom calls just aren’t the same, but, for now, they’ll have to do.
“I don’t want to leave this world … without seeing him,” Connie said.
“It’s just god’s timeline,” Lamar said.
Despite the time and miles between them, their affection for one another knows no bounds. They answer and end every call with loving nicknames: sweetie, darling, lovely one.
“We found each other and the past is the past,” Connie says. “Today is all we have.”
Maria Sestito covers aging and the senior population in Coachella Valley for The Desert Sun. She is also a Report for America corps member and new to the desert. Please say “hello” via [email protected] or @RiaSestito.