Children of Sandee McCann in Georgia: From left, Chris Gebert, Bria Gebert, Alexandra Firestone (holding a photo of her mother and father), Dylan Gebert and Jude Gebert.
By Amy McConnell Schaarsmith Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When her mother left home seven years ago, 15-year-old Alexandra Firestone thought she was just taking another trip with a boyfriend, and that she'd come home soon.
But then weeks passed, and months, without a word. Ms. Firestone, left behind with five half-siblings and her step-father, began to think her mother, Sandra Gebert, might be dead, killed by the man with whom she'd begun the affair. Years passed, and Ms. Firestone said she worried constantly about her mother, searching the Internet all the while for any information.
Last month, by searching for information about a book she had published before she left home, Ms. Firestone found her mother. She also discovered that seven years ago, her mother -- a South Side native -- had changed her name to Sandee McCann and started a new life with a new husband in England, where she had written more than a half-dozen romance novels with titles such as "Candy Girl" and "Shattered Dreams."
"It was kind of a real happy feeling to know she was alive and OK, and then it was that sick feeling, real nauseous," said Ms. Firestone, now 21 and living with her brothers, a sister and her step-father in Lilburn, Ga.
Then, reading an online interview in which her mother said she was considering having a baby soon, part of her got angry.
"It's not anger as in hatred," she said. "It's a 'How could you do this?' type of thing."
In hope of getting her mother's attention, Ms. Firestone said she contacted a group, Talk to the Press, that buys personal stories for British tabloids. The company promised her $1,000 -- though getting attention, not money, was the reason she decided to talk publicly, she said -- for the details of her mother's abandonment.
Ms. McCann, who was approached by a Sun reporter at her "comfortable home in Coventry," refused to be interviewed for that story, which appeared Aug. 23.
In the storm of public criticism that followed, several readers who wrote to the newspaper called Ms. McCann evil, among other things. Others said she should be assessed delinquent child support and sent to jail. She quickly shut down her personal Web site, www.sandeemccann.com, and changed her outgoing voicemail message.
"Please be advised that under no circumstances will I ever grant interviews regarding family or personal matters," Ms. McCann says on her voicemail in an unmistakable Pittsburgh accent.
Ms. McCann did not respond to phone or e-mail messages requesting an interview.
'Great feeling of freedom'
An author profile on several publishing company Web sites says Ms. McCann is living in Coventry, England with her husband, Michael, and working part-time as a nurse on a neurosurgical unit of a local hospital. It also says she is a graduate of Duquesne University and of City College Coventry in England's West Midlands county.
While Ms. McCann did not reply to interview requests, some details about her life and her opinions are still published on Web sites that review romance novels.
After taking a novel writing workshop in 1995, she published her first book, "Shattered Dreams," in 1996, followed by "No Dad Needed," "For Keeps" and "Sentimental Street" a few years later. She has written several more books -- some of which take inspiration from her early life in Pittsburgh -- since moving to England, according to an interview last October with a reviewer for The Romance Studio.
As a writer, Ms. McCann said, she enjoys a "great feeling of freedom" now that she mostly can write what she wants, how she wants.
Of all her accomplishments, she told the interviewer, she is most proud of her new life in England.
"I am proud that when I was [feeling] rather unhappy and unfulfilled with my life I had the courage to pick myself up and successfully relocate myself to a new country," she said.
Much of Ms. McCann's work is marketed as online "e-books" available for under $10, while others have been printed as traditional paperbacks.
Raised on South Side
Sandee McCann, 42, began life as Sandra Feth, the daughter of a Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. steelworker and a stay-at-home mom on the South Side. After graduating from St. Michael's School -- a small Catholic school that has since closed -- in 1980 at age 17, she began taking nursing classes at Mercy Hospital, according to her mother, Mildred Feth. She also volunteered as an emergency medical technician in Brentwood, Mrs. Feth said.
Then, at age 18, she met Dean Firestone while volunteering, and her behavior began to change, her mother said. Her parents didn't approve of Mr. Firestone.
"One day, she just never came home," said Mrs. Feth.
She dropped out of nursing school and married Mr. Firestone, Mrs. Feth said. Alexandra was born in 1987. Two years later, Sandra left her husband and began dating John Gebert, a computer specialist from Mc- Keesport whom she met through a dating service.
The couple married in 1991 and soon moved to Lake Worth, Fla., near Palm Beach. They had a daughter, Rebecca, later that year and four more children in the decade that followed.
Alexandra Firestone said her mother did not let Dean Firestone, her father, have any contact with her, and that she has no memories of him. After a few years of living in Florida, her mother also had a falling-out with her grandmother, and broke off all contact with her family in Pittsburgh.
During that time, Ms. Firestone said, her mother seemed to grow more and more frustrated and began leaving much of the cooking, cleaning and child care to her. Her mother often would spend the day, from 9 a.m. until late at night, surfing the Internet and writing.
After Ms. Firestone finished fifth grade, her mother took her out of school.
"She said she wanted to do home-school because she thought she could do a better job, but I thought she needed me there to help so she could be on the computer," Ms. Firestone said.
In their new home, neither Ms. Firestone nor her mother had many friends, and they grew closer. Her mother often confided in her about men she had met on the Internet, and took several trips -- one for as long as three weeks -- with them, while telling her husband she was attending out-of-town writers' conferences, according to Ms. Firestone.
One online profile her mother showed her described a man named Michael who lived in Coventry, England, she said.
Her then-husband, Mr. Gebert, 54, said he discovered evidence on the computer of some of his wife's affairs and confronted her, sparking furious arguments. A few months later, Ms. McCann told her children -- but not her husband -- that she was going on a short trip.
The next day, a Saturday, she waited for her husband to leave for work, then packed her bags, gave each of her children -- the youngest, Christian, then not quite 3 years old -- a hug, told Ms. Firestone to take care of them and left. Ms. Firestone recently told her grandmother that her mother was completely calm when she left and didn't hesitate when she walked away.
"The hardest part for me to understand is that she never looked back," said Mrs. Feth, who was reunited with her grandchildren late last year after Rebecca Gebert, the second eldest of the combined family, found her telephone number among her mother's belongings. "A limousine from the airport came to the house, away she went and that was it."
Teen takes over
Ms. Firestone said her mother had called home often during her previous trips, but not this time. Christian, who had been talking when his mother left, went silent -- his way of coping with the trauma, Mr. Gebert said doctors told him. Ms. Firestone said her brother later was diagnosed with a mild form of autism.
The Geberts formally divorced in 2002 through a process in which one spouse can dissolve a marriage if he or she cannot locate the other person for an extended period of time.
Months and years passed, and Ms. Firestone, who never went back to school, took care of her siblings as her mother had asked, picking up their school uniforms, walking them to the bus stop, cooking, cleaning and overseeing schoolwork, bedtimes and teachers' conferences.
"It's normal life -- showers, homework, dinner," she said, and sighed. "Everything kind of fits together."
Ms. Firestone said she regrets missing out on normal teenage life: making friends, attending the prom, graduating, going on dates. She has continued trying to homeschool herself but hasn't taken the test to earn her general equivalency degree, or GED.
That's her next goal, followed -- she hopes -- by moving her entire family back to Pittsburgh so she can attend college here, surrounded by her extended family.
She said her grandmother, who had lost touch with her grandchildren (Mr. Gebert admits he moved twice without telling her), has become her staunchest ally.
"You can call her crying and hang up laughing."
Mrs. Feth and her two sisters periodically send Ms. Firestone Wal-Mart gift cards and care packages to help the family through its money troubles. They send cleaning supplies, noodles, instant soup, boxed scalloped potatoes, pancake mix, earrings for the girls. And Steelers hats and shirts.
"They're all big Steelers fans," said Mrs. Feth.
She and her sisters have offered the family a place to stay if they relocate to Pittsburgh, and promised to help them with whatever they need.
"I said, 'You don't have to worry about having no food and being hungry -- you don't have to worry about nothing. We're all here for you,' " Mrs. Feth said. "Oh, my God. For that baby, I'd do anything."
Mrs. Feth is still angry.
"No matter if she's living in the United Kingdom, she has a duty to those children," said Mrs. Feth. "She owes them something -- she's a woman of means now and the children should be entitled to a little bit of something. Don't you agree?"
For her part, Ms. Firestone just wants to know why her mother left her and her brothers and sisters, and how she could have let them think she might be dead. She wants to e-mail or call her mother, but she feels nervous about reaching out after so many years.
"What do you say? How do you even start?" she said.