Standing on the congested city street, the Torre del Oro looming up behind him, Nick Paola reconsiders his decision to arrive so early. People bustle around him, going to work, going to school, or going home to family. A flurry of Spanish words hangs in the air like a snowstorm of foreign vocabulary—only some of which Paola actually understands. He fiddles with the hem of his red T-shirt, as bright as a matador’s flag. The city seems to move at a constant and unforgiving pace, while he simply stands and waits.
A man approaches him, accompanied by three children. “Nico?” the Spaniard asks, warily eyeing the American college student. Their resemblance is uncanny and their innate connection is undeniable.The four people come together without another word and hug, kissing each other’s cheeks—one side and then the other—in pure European fashion. The surrounding masses go about their day, taking no notice of the incredible event that has just occurred.
Thousands of miles from home, Paola had finally found his family.
But less than three years ago, this happy ending was nothing more than a hope. Less than three years ago, a mother and son were forming an optimistic plan that they thought would never come to fruition.
“This is as much her story as it is mine,” says Nicholas Paola, a University of Oregon senior who prefers to go by Nick. “She’s the one who started it all.”
Paola’s mother was born in Seville, Spain, in 1965 under the name Maria de Rosario Ordoñez Diaz-Pescuezo. Not long after her birth, Paola’s mother was adopted by a member of the U.S. Air Force and his wife, while they were stationed in Seville. The couple gave her a new name—Pamela Sue Kesselring—a new home in Columbus, Ohio, and a new life in America that would forever leave her wondering about her Spanish roots.
“She didn’t have an easy childhood,” Paola says. Kesselring’s adoptive parents divorced when she was a child, and she was subsequently relocated to Oregon, where she lived with her adoptive father. It was during this period of transition that Kesselring began to question her origins.
“It’s not like my grandparents came together, sat her down, and told her,” Paola says. “She had to ask questions to find out.”
Through the truth, an obsession was born. Paola remembers how his mother’s zest for Spanish culture often took shape in the kitchen, where she cooked and danced to Spanish music. “It was her dream to find her family,” he says. “She had a passion for Spanish culture that she could never put her finger on, but was always there.”
Kesselring’s interest in finding her family was ever present throughout her teens and early twenties, but it wasn’t until her early thirties—when she was able to finance the search—that she began to actively seek out her relatives.
In 1993, with the help of a private investigator, Kesselring discovered she had a sister living in Dallas, Texas. Loni Dollison, had also been adopted out of Spain by another military couple who knew Kesselring’s adoptive parents. The two women connected instantly and talked constantly.
“They would call each other every day. Every day,” Paola says. “They were like giggling little girls.”
Inspired by this discovery, Kesselring became even more determined to find her family in Spain. During Paola’s first year in college, Kesselring asked him to join the search, and together they made plans to travel to Seville.
But their plans were permanently put on hold when Kesselring was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. “I didn’t really worry at first,” Paola remembers. “No matter what transformations her body was going through because of the treatment, it never affected her personality.”
But it did affect her hair, which started to fall out during chemotherapy sessions.
“She had the most beautiful, long, dark hair,” Paola says. “But she decided to do the proud cancer thing and shave it all off anyway.”
In the weeks and months that followed, Kesselring’s condition drastically worsened, and Paola knew he needed to be with her. So in the winter of 2009, Paola dropped out of school and moved home to Milwaukie, Oregon.
“I would go to the hospital every day until the nurses sent me home,” Paola says.
When the cancer spread to Kesselring’s brain and she was no longer able to talk, Paola turned to religion for guidance. “Sometimes I would just cry in the shower and tell God ‘If you really need my mom, then you can have her. But, please, I don’t want to let her go.’ ”
Sixteen months after being diagnosed, Kesselring passed away.
“It was like a Band-Aid had been ripped off my whole family. She was the core that held us all together, and then she was gone,” Paola says. “I knew the only thing left to do was live her passion and fulfill her dream.”
When Paola returned to the University of Oregon the next fall, he felt a renewed sense of vigor for school and an indefatigable motivation to get to Spain. “I had done my grieving before she died, so I could move on and do what I knew she would want,” he says.
The easiest way to get there, he reasoned, was through the university’s study abroad program, which sends more than 900 students overseas each year. When Paola told his father, brother, and sister, about his decision, they were nothing but supportive.
“From when I told them about what I was doing to when I had a passport in my hand, they knew I was dead serious,” Paola says.
With his mother’s birth certificate as his only clue, Paola joined the Center for International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and signed up for a five-month-long business program in Seville, Spain.
“I understood that I was going to a huge city and that I might not find them,” Paola says. “But I had to hope.”
A big believer in fate, Paola delved right into the search, trusting that if he told his story to anyone and everyone, someone would lead him to his family. And fate came in the form of an employer. Through CIEE, Paola interned at a Sevillan T-shirt printing business, translating the company’s website from Spanish to English.
“I was just typing at my computer when my boss, Ricardo, came over and said, ‘We’re going to take time off work now and do your family thing,’” Paola remembers, chuckling at the simplicity of the statement. Finding long-lost family members on a lunch break? No es un problemo.
With a quick Internet search and a few phone calls to local friends, Ricardo Meidiro had done more investigatory work in twenty minutes than Paola had done in months. When Meidiro finally hung up the phone, he said those magic words that Paola—and Kesselring—had wanted to hear for so long: “We found them.”
Meidiro had talked to Paola’s uncle, Juan Ordoñez, and they organized a meeting for the very next day at the thirteenth century military lookout, Torre del Oro. Paola would wear a red shirt so Ordoñez could find him.
“The walk home after work was so emotional,” Paola recalls. “I felt like I had accomplished something for my mom.”
The next day, a sunny Saturday afternoon, Paola arrived far earlier than the designated meeting time. His nerves had kept him up all night. Too anxious to wait in his apartment any longer, he went to the Torre del Oro hours ahead of schedule. Tension filled his body as he waited on the sunny sidewalk and people bustled around him.
“And then I did a double-take,” Paola says. “I saw a family walking toward me, smiling, and I just knew.” All sense of nervousness evaporated, leaving only pure excitement.
That day, with a hug and a mutual sense of amazement, the pieces of a broken family puzzle were brought together, and a clearer picture of this family’s history began to take shape.
Paola’s mother was one of seven children. She and Dollison shared a different father than the other five children. Both men were persistently absent, which wasn’t unusual for families growing up in post-World War II Spain.
Whether it was due to the confusion of wartime or a simple lack of communication, the events that followed have always been clouded by uncertainty and speculation.
“We came to the conclusion that my grandmother must have either separated from her first husband or had an affair,” Paola says. “And she must have been ashamed to tell the rest of the family, so she put them up for adoption.”
Paola and his relatives believe money may have motivated the adoption, as his grandmother had only an olive-picker’s salary to support herself and her children. But they will never know for sure: Kesselring’s birth mother died of cancer in 1999, and both fathers have long been out of the picture.
“It was ground breaking to hear all of this,” Paola says. “It started to make sense why they didn’t know I existed and that my mother existed.”
Despite her absence, Kesselring’s connection to the family was undeniable. Her passion for familial relations must have been genetic because Paola felt it in every encounter with his family.
When Paola fell ill during his last month overseas, an uncle convinced him to go to the hospital and get checked out. Paola’s cousin was called to pick him up and take him to a doctor.
“I was outside, shivering in the rain, waiting, when a car pulls up and my cousin jumps out,” Paola recalls. “She was so beautiful, I thought my mother had stepped out of the car. She had my mom’s beautiful dark hair.”
For two hours, his cousin and her boyfriend stayed with Paola at the hospital, translating and helping Paola get medicine. “But that’s what you do for family,” he says.
Over the course of his trip, Paola continued to meet more and more relatives, with whom he stayed in touch via Facebook. He sometimes wonders how different his life would be if his mother had never been adopted. Would he have been born and raised in Seville? Would he have walked the streets of this Spanish city all his life? Would he have known these people since he was born, instead of tracking them down as an adult?
Still, Paola is ecstatic about how things turned out.
“I love life,” he says. “I feel blessed. I know that everything happened as it was supposed to happen.”
Back in Oregon and working toward graduating in the spring with a bachelors in both Spanish and business administration, Paola has a new outlook and a stronger focus on the relationships in his life.
“You can lose yourself if you lose your family,” Paola says. “They’re the heart of everything.”
Just last year, Paola participated in the Race for the Cure, shaving his head like his mother did during her cancer treatments. She had been the heart of his overseas adventure.
“I know she’s looking down at me, proud,” Paola says. “What she wanted; what I wanted; what I had been searching for all along was another piece of my heart. And I found it in Seville.”