Adopted as a toddler from a children’s home in Latvia, Baton Rouge’s Brandon Gautreau always wondered about his birth family. But, separated by an ocean and language, he didn’t hold out much hope of ever finding out about them.
Then, his mother, Trisha Gautreau, started typing names into Facebook’s search bar. Now, Brandon, 25, has not only learned about his relatives, but he has traveled across the world to meet them.
In late July, Brandon and Trisha Gautreau and her sister, Jennifer Beckwith, went to Latvia, a country of about 2 million people on the Baltic Sea. They spent a little over a week getting to know Brandon's older sisters, Sandija Palcevska, 32, and Alina Jevsejeva, 30, who had never seen their brother, even though they remembered learning of his birth.
“Not a dry eye in the room at the hotel,” Brandon said. “Not a dry eye.”
In 1995, Trisha and Tommy Gautreau had adopted Brandon — his name was Konstantin then, which the Gautreaus kept as his middle name — and they learned the name of his birth mother, Iveta Vimbson, and the names and birth dates of his sisters.
Brandon's biological mother had a drinking problem, and he was sickly at birth and never went home. When he was well enough to leave the hospital, he entered a children’s home in the capital, Riga. Eventually, Vimbson lost parental rights to the girls. She died in 2011 at age 45.
The Gautreaus told Brandon of his origins when he was growing up, and the family had a Latvian dinner every year on Christmas Eve, cooking piragi, which are meat pies with ham, bacon and sautéed onions.
Last year, Trisha Gautreau started searching the sisters’ names on Facebook and sent messages to everyone she could find with the same names asking if they might be Brandon’s sister.
A few replied that they weren’t and wished her luck. One claimed to be a cousin but had lost contact with them. A Latvian woman named Sandija living in the United Kingdom said she’d try to find her namesake. A few months passed, and Trisha Gautreau quit searching.
Then, a message arrived in August 2017. The Sandija from the U.K. had found Brandon’s older sister.
“I was kind of wary,” Trisha Gautreau said. “Once we started talking to her, she had some of the paperwork with Brandon’s name and his date of birth, so we were sure that was her.”
They began communicating, using Google Translate to read each other’s messages because the Gautreaus knew no Latvian and his sister knew only a little English. Very soon, Brandon started planning the big reunion.
Although the Gautreaus expected it to begin when they arrived at their Riga hotel, Palcevska met them at the airport along with her sister-in-law, Jelena Palcevska; son, Alexss, 12; and daughter, Margarita, 3.
The Latvian family greeted them with flowers. The Gautreaus brought toys and trinkets for the children and one of the most Louisiana-centric gifts they could think of for the adults — a large container of Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning.
They spent four days with Palcevska and her family, touring Riga — including the children’s home where Brandon spent his first two years — along with historical sites and a bobsled track about an hour away. Palcevska told them she had celebrated her brother’s birthday every year and always wondered where and how he was.
Then they rented a car and drove about 140 miles to Preili, to meet Brandon's other sister, Alina Jervejeva, who lives with her partner, Viesturs Peipins, and children Raitis, 9; Aleksandra, 7; and Intars, 4.
Now back home, Brandon and his extended family keep in touch about once a week, and he hopes to one day visit again.
“It’s meant a lot to me,” Brandon said of finally meeting his siblings. “I know a lot more about them, now, a better understanding of their culture and stuff.”