ST. PAUL — Susan McCrea's quest to find her birth parents started during a routine medical visit three years ago, when a doctor encouraged her to use genetic counseling to learn more about her health history.

Before long, McCrea, who was adopted at birth and now lives in the Twin Cities suburbs, found herself down a rabbit hole of internet ancestry websites and family trees.

“I always pictured mom being a homecoming queen and my dad a football star,” she said.

By March 2019, McCrea had connected with her birth father, Rick Nelson, who lives just north of Milwaukee — a star baseball player, but, by his own admission, not so great at football.

Nelson, who has three sons, said he had no idea he had a daughter, too, until last year.

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"It came as a total surprise. I was shocked and happy and excited all at the same time,” he said.

Susan McCrea often calls her birth father, Rick Nelson, from the shore of Lake Minnetonka, which is close to her home. Nelson lives near Lake Michigan, and the two often share photos of their lakes with each other. (Christine T. Nguyen / MPR News)
Susan McCrea often calls her birth father, Rick Nelson, from the shore of Lake Minnetonka, which is close to her home. Nelson lives near Lake Michigan, and the two often share photos of their lakes with each other. (Christine T. Nguyen / MPR News)

After meeting briefly in person that August, Nelson and McCrea decided it was time for him to meet McCrea's two sons — his grandsons. They made plans for a longer, bigger family visit this spring, just as COVID-19 hit the Upper Midwest.

But the pandemic upended those plans.

“It was the perfect storm, the third week of March,” McCrea said. “I'll never forget it. I remember canceling that trip, and boy did I feel so sorry for myself."

Through the spring and summer, McCrea and Nelson tried to reschedule that visit.

But concerns about safety in the middle of the raging pandemic kept them apart.

“If I came, brought the virus and something happened to [him], I would never forgive myself. Being this newfound child, what would this family think of me?” McCrea said.

Finally, in September, after more than a week of quarantining, McCrea and her husband spent a long weekend with Nelson, his wife, friends and family in Wisconsin. McCrea's sons, who are in college, had to lay low at school and couldn't join.

The weather cooperated for a lot of outdoor activities — trap shooting, al fresco meals.

“It was a great weekend,” Nelson recalled. “Could not have been better, we just had a super time.”

McCrea says the visit buoyed her through a difficult fall of growing case numbers and stricter isolation measures.

And in the midst of a pandemic that is preventing her from spending more time with her relatives in person, she says she's never felt more connected — to her roots and to her family, old and new.

"You define 2020 with isolation and sacrifices. But amongst all of that I feel like I have made some amazing connections,” she said.

Susan says that her greatest hope for the new year is to nurture those connections — and to finally introduce her sons to their newly found grandfather.