ESCONDIDO, Calif. (CBS13) — Holding onto tattered black and white photos of her as a bright-eyed little girl sitting on her daddy’s lap, Claudia Aragon sits in the kitchen of her Escondido home reflecting on the more than 40 years since she last saw him.
“I always wondered if he tried to find me and couldn’t,” she says.
Did Norman Robert Chester think of her as much as she thought of him? She was just 10-years old. Her parents divorced and her father left for a trucking job in Missouri.
“Oh he said he would keep in touch,” she said.
But before he could send his address, her mother moved her and her sisters from California to Indiana. Her mother remarried and had a new last name. Her dad would have no way of finding them.
For four decades, Claudia searched off and on for her dad. She says she wrote him letters, sending them to her uncle to forward to her father. When she was 19, she was devastated when her uncle returned the letters unopened saying he didn’t know what happened to him.
She knew her father served in the Korean War and World War II. She reached out to the government for help, but they couldn’t. Claudia wondered if her dad was even still alive.
Now in her fifties, technology and a friend’s online search of her dad’s name were about to give her the answer. Up popped a television news story about Wes Nell of Sacramento. The frail elderly man was talking about his best friend, Bob Chester.
Claudia recalls watching the report, “The camera pans. There’s a picture of my dad on the wall, and I froze it. I knew it was him.”
The image showed a white-haired man with decades of life weathered on his face. It was Claudia’s father.
“He looked like a sweet old man. Someone I’d really want to talk to,” she says as a tear streams down her face.
But she wouldn’t be able to talk with him. That news story was our own. (Read and watch our initial story from November 2007 here.)
Wes Nell was trying to get a military funeral for his best friend, months after Bob’s death. The coroner wouldn’t allow it because Wes wasn’t family and the coroner couldn’t find Bob’s next of kin. They couldn’t find Claudia.
“I’ve never met Wes, but I’m going to love that man until the day I die,” Claudia said.
Through the persistence of Wes and our help, her dad was buried with full military honors at the Veteran’s Cemetery in Dixon. Claudia watched the service we video-taped, when a song played on bagpipes triggered a memory she hadn’t thought of in years.
“Oh my God,” she said with her lip quivering. “My dad’s favorite song was Amazing Grace. And I remember singing it to him as a little kid. To hear it now hurts.”
And that burning question she spent most of her life wondering; did her father think of her? Once she proved to the government she was the daughter of Bob Chester, the answer would show up in a letter.
“So when I got the envelope I was just shaking,” she recalls.
It contained the contents of her dad’s wallet. Inside? Two carefully preserved photos of her as a baby and as a ten-year old girl, just before her dad moved away.
“And that said a lot because for him to die at 82 and to be carrying pictures around for more than 50 years of me, that meant a lot. It said I wasn’t just an afterthought. I really did mean a lot to him. But he could never tell me, because we never found each other.”
And now a lifetime of wondering is over. Claudia knows where to find her father, buried at the cemetery in Dixon. She knows exactly where to find the man she never forgot; who she now knows never forgot her.
“I’ll have a place where I could see my dad. That’s the last part I’m going to need to have for my closure.”
Claudia and Wes have been on the phone sharing stories. Wes says Bob was a quiet man who didn’t talk much about his past.
But she did learn something. Her dad spent the last thirty years of his life living in Sacramento. For ten of those years, Claudia lived within forty miles of him in Olivehurst. She wonders if their paths ever crossed, and they didn’t know it.
Claudia has written her own story called “Remembering Dad”. She shares more of her childhood and what it was like during her years of searching.