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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps, the project recording interviews between every day Americans. This story starts one night in 1995. Phil Donney and his younger sister Laura could hear their parents arguing. The fight ended when their father murdered their mother. Phil was seven, his sister four, and they went to live with their mom's sisters. Phil is now 23. He recently came to StoryCorps with Abby Leibman, one of the aunts who raised him.

PHIL DONNEY: What was it like becoming a parent to my sister and I, overnight?

ABBY LEIBMAN: Well, at the time, I was living in a two-bedroom condo and felt a little panicky, to be honest. I really didn't know how to parent; I knew how to be an aunt. You know, when I was just the aunt, and you guys were jumping on the bed, then I could jump on the bed, too. But now that I had to be the parent, I realized that things had really changed.

After you came to live with me, you had to have some minor surgery. And in the recovery room, you were asking for your mommy. And this was not a moment in time to do a whole bunch of explaining about why your mommy's not there.

DONNEY: Right.

LEIBMAN: So, I just said to you, I'm right here. My voice is a lot like your mom's, and so, you were fine.

And, then, I tried really hard to cook the things that your mom made, and you both wouldn't tolerate it. I remember thinking that she was going to come and pick you up. The experiment was over, and she would come and get you - but that couldn't happen.

DONNEY: So where do you feel we are now?

LEIBMAN: You know, when you first came to live with me, there was no doubt in my mind: I was your aunt; you were my nephew; Laura was my niece, which always then requires a huge explanation when people want to figure out why my niece and nephew live with me.

And now, I think of you as my son. And I think of her as my daughter. And I see no difference there at all.

DONNEY: You know that we've always been very appreciative of what you've done for us. Though the things that have happened to us have been really difficult and really hard, I think they've also given us a remarkable opportunity to really understand what those family bonds mean.

LEIBMAN: I am really grateful for the fact that you're in my life. I wanted our house to be filled with love. And I always feel that is what our house is filled with. Always.

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MONTAGNE: Abby Leibman with her nephew Phil Donney at StoryCorps in Los Angeles. Their conversation will be archived in the Library of Congress. Get the Podcast at npr.org.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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