My brother and I searched for most of our lives to find our father. ‘I think he came from Alberta,’ mom would say. ‘He said he had no family and I never met any. But who knows if that was true. He could make anybody believe anything.’ One day in June 1945 when I was three months old my father walked out and never returned. We never found even a trace of him.
My mom and dad moved nine months before my birth to Morrisburg, a small town along the St. Lawrence River in Ontario, Canada. Morrisburg had a population of about six thousand people then. We lived in a large three story house by the canal. In summer months, the canal was used for ships to pass through the shallow part the river, carrying cargo to the east and across the Atlantic to Europe. We lived in two rooms on the ground floor. Another family lived down the hall. All the rooms on the upper two floors were occupied by people who didn’t know each other.
When I was six we moved to a row house a few blocks away, but the canal, was still our playground. My brother Lionel taught me to swim in it. He tied a rope around my waist to hold my head above water, while he stood on the bank high above pulling me along. One day he dropped the rope and low and behold I was swimming. In winter months my brothers played hockey on the canal, painting blue lines on it for the ring and stones to mark the goal posts. Meantime I slipped and stumbled on skates with two blades, following my older sister Barbara in her white figure skates as she pivoted and twirled on the ice, imagining she was the world champion, Barbara Ann Scott. When we were not in school we played all day all over town, coming home only to eat and sleep while my mother washed, ironed and parceled up clothes for other people; to keep us warm, put food on the table and pay rent. Until I was ten, the five of us were the entire Bell family. My maternal grandmother made it six when we moved to England in December, 1954.
I stopped looking for my father years ago until a friend convinced me to do DNA testing with Ancestry. I did so reluctantly, never expecting to turn up anything new. I discovered my father was one of eight children, from a very close family, sharing their lives and helping out in times of need. I had grandparents, four aunties and three uncles; all of them gone. But they are alive and well in the memories of my cousins.
When the link to my DNA results appeared in my email messages, I ignored it. I had little interest in spending any more of my life trying to find someone who abandoned me at birth. I had my story, told by my mother over and over again as if she was still unable to believe he was truly gone. ‘Your father got up one morning’ she would say, ‘took longer than usual to leave for his job as a traveling salesman. He took extra time with each of you,’ mom’s eyes would look up and away as she spoke, ‘playing with you, hugging you. He even picked you up from your crib,’ she told me, ‘held you and kissed you, put you back in your crib and was gone. I never saw or heard from him again.’ My brothers and my sister went to their graves, not knowing.
My DNA results sat in my inbox for about three months. Then one day as I was deleting my saved inbox messages, I reopened the mail from Ancestry and without thinking, clicked on the DNA results link. I had no idea how to interpret the information. OK, I get the ninety six percent English part. But who are these people whose names I don’t recognize? I was not used to thinking about aunts, uncles, cousins. And what does “extremely likely” mean next to “possible first cousin?” How close is that? There were no Bells in any of the ancestor lists of relatives, so I clicked on a family tree of one the people listed, looking for my name somewhere. Then I stumbled on a sepia toned photograph of a teenage boy with a cap perched sideways like the young Robert Redford in the movie ‘Sting.’ The eyes peering from the photo dance, and the slight half smile on the face looking directly at the camera, is the face of my brother Brian. “I have found my father,” I tell my husband.
Dropping my iPad, I rush out of the room in search of a photo of my father; the one my mother used to paint his portrait; a man much older, dressed in a slick tailored suit, stiff white shirt with a buttoned down collar and fat striped tie, his hair Brillo smooth and black, so different from the sepia photograph of the teenager in a flat cap and rumpled suit. There was no mistaking the smile though. I could feel my body quivering like when I have to speak publicly or give a piano recital. I look at the sepia photo comparing it with the formal portrait of the much older man, the hairline, eyebrows and ears. He had signed it ‘Love Bob.’ I start clicking on the links in the ‘extremely likely’ list of close relatives and send the same query to two people on the list.
“It looks like we’re related. My father has been missing since 1945 when I was three months old. We lived in Ontario Canada.” I click the send button and wait.
I wanted to believe it, but I didn’t or couldn’t believe it. I’m puzzled at my reaction. After all, I was done with trying to find my father years ago. I was enjoying retirement, had lots of hobbies and was not interested in spending any more of my life looking for anything about him. I was done. Yet here I was, waiting with bated breath to see if I had finally found him.
Within a few months I found my cousin Shelley who lived in Alameda, California, a block from me until a few years ago; now living fifteen minutes away. I have cousins in Oregon and Washington. In Southern England where I was raised from the age of ten, I discover my half sister Muriel and her twin daughters, Debbie and Dee. We are all connected now, share time together and family stories. I am stunned at the synchronicity, past and present.
Howard and I planned our retirement in Nova Scotia where we lived for thirty years. Ten years ago we did a home exchange with a family in Alameda. On the spot, we decided to stay. We never planned to move from our lovely home in beloved Halifax. Yet here we are living in the place my family have called home since the mid nineteenth century. What am I doing here at this stage of my life?
It was easy to meet with Shelley; we live close by each other. But my sister Muriel and nieces Debbie and Dee live in England so not so easy to arrange. But during a few message exchanges we learn that within a few months, we will be landing in the same airport at the same hour. Muriel, Debbie, her husband Peter and twin sister Dee join me for dinner at the hotel where I am staying, half an hour from their home. Like ships in the night we pass briefly, sharing time and space, and nothing is ever the same again.
We discover that both my sisters, Muriel and Barbara named their daughters Debbie, that Muriel, Dee and Debbie are avid needlecrafters. I too had at one time, made my living sewing. Like my Aunt Betty I was once a hairdresser. My grandson Martin called his first son Lee, my ‘real’ family name. In my twenties I moved from England to Calgary, a two hour drive north of my father’s birthplace. We had no connections there, no reason to choose Alberta over British Columbia where most immigrant Brits were moving at that time. Settled at sixty-five in a lovely home I renovated, in our favorite place in Nova Scotia, we picked up and moved to the northern coast of the US where my father’s family have lived since the eighteen hundreds. I am thoroughly convinced there is much to learn about time, space and our collective consciousness.
A photo of my cousin Garry’s mother, my aunt Betty, sits on Garry’s sideboard in an eight by ten silver frame. I look at the photo and see my sister looking back at me. Garry looks into to my eyes and apologizes for staring. “Your eyes are not just like my mother’s,” he says. “They are my mother’s.” I smile wishing I had known her, trying to know her as I look at the photo that to me is my sister. In my mind I hear my sister’s voice, her laughter and try to imagine the voice of the woman in the photograph, my aunt Betty. It feels surreal. My cousin Monica turns up with family photos. She has the same portrait of my father that I’ve seen for my whole life. Hers, however, is signed, ‘Love Leslie.’
Since then Shelley and I have spent countless hours over coffee, visiting her mum, (my cousin Alice) celebrated family birthdays (Shelley and I have the same birthday), attended writing workshops, conferences and getaways together. I’ve traveled to the UK, spent time with my sister, Muriel, stayed with Debbie and her husband Peter and had many evenings of family dinners. Debbie and Peter have stayed with us in Alameda. We’ve had BBQs with cousins, traveled to Oregon to meet up with more cousins, gathering for lunch to share photos and stories. I am learning about my father. I’m trying to understand who he was, what forces were in play that would lead him to abandon us. “He came from such a loving family,” Garry tells me. I can see that. My mother told us he was a loving father. My brother’s eyes, right up to his death, would fill with tears at the mention of his name. Yet my father up and left one day leaving no trace of himself. “She’s definitely a Lee,” is a comment I hear every time I meet a new family member. The name on my birth certificate is fake. My real name Lee, but it’s a name I cannot claim. Who was this man my father? What happened to him? I’m learning about my father when he was a thirteen year old boy living in Portland Oregon with his family, and later when he was twenty and alone in Alberta during the 1930s; the beginning of the Great Depression. I’m writing to try and make sense of it all.
It turns out that writing is a trend in my family going back to my great grandfather Arron Lee who wrote a book published in the early 1900’s titled ‘From the Atlantic to the Pacific,’ the story of a young man from Massachusetts heading west. He tells of his pioneer days, wagon trains and first settlers; how he was asked to teach the children and build the first schoolhouse on his settlement; his experience as a soldier during the American civil war. The book is a treasure, a story covering thirty years of early American history, now part of my story, thanks to my cousin Garry who digitized the book and passes it our freely. My cousin Shelley keeps the family trend alive as an author, a creative writing teacher and leader of a monthly writers’ meetup group. Of course I’m a member.
I’m thrilled to find my family and at the same time I feel a deep sense of loss; grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, cousins; stories I do not share, was not a part of. But as time goes on and we share our lives there are more stories that I am a part of. I feel so grateful to my family for the welcome I received and the family history I never knew. And to all those who made DNA testing possible and accessible to everyone; to the millions who kept records, who spent countless hours digitizing records; the list goes on. I’ve spent my whole life helping families stay together; refugees, families in crisis, parents with children who have disabilities. I’ve always known the power of family. Now I know mine.