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50 years to find a sister

Mother's complicated life made searching for family challenging

There were balloons, hugs, smiles and tears when two long-lost sisters were reunited at the Edmonton International Airport on Tuesday morning. St. Albert’s Velvet Martin finally looked straight into the eyes of Bonnie Williamson-Powell, arriving from Ontario.

It was a moment Martin thought would never come – that is, until her genealogical detective work solved some riddles last November. A lot of those riddles started because of their mother’s complicated life.

“I thought I was an only child growing up. It wasn't until I was an adult that I learned that my mom had had another life before myself and my dad,” she began. “I promised her when she disclosed this to me that I would not search for the past because she was ... afraid of the past. I wouldn't search until she passed.”

Losing her mother in 2015 meant that she could now start asking questions about who else might be out there. She wrote to children's aid societies, posted messages to Facebook groups and made requests of online genealogy sites, and more.

“I wasn't sure where to write because my mom was born in Nova Scotia and lived in Ontario. To complicate matters, my mom was a foster child so she had many names growing up.”

She contacted her mother’s orphanage and even took one of those DNA kits. Through all of her research, she determined that her mother had a sibling that she never knew about.

“I was actually on a Facebook group for Nova Scotia and met a woman online who lives in Alberta, coincidentally. Her father was my mother's brother. She'd been doing a lot of DNA digging for quite a while. Her brother already did the DNA test so she convinced me to go do it. I did it and sure enough, we were first cousins.”

The two ended up working together to help Martin in her search. They developed a list of possible surnames for her sibling and photos that went with them. Near the end of 2018, there was one picture that had potential, though the face in it was off in the distance. There was no way of knowing what she should be looking for to recognize the face anyway.

Martin contacted the person in the photo who ended up being her sister’s sibling.

“She's like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know who Bonnie is. That's my sister,’ ” Martin said.

A phone number was passed along and last November she received the call from Ontario. The puzzle hadn’t been solved just yet. Skepticism in such circumstances is understandable. The difference in their ages is nearly 20 years. Williamson-Powell didn’t exactly know all of the details of her mother’s life either.

When the two spoke on the phone, they figured that sending photographs by email might help solve the mystery once and for all. Williamson-Powell sent along a portrait photo of herself as a young child with her father and her mother right there, wearing an outfit that Martin immediately recognized.

“Throughout my whole childhood growing up, mom had this portrait hanging up in the house, which now that she's passed it hangs up in my house. It's identical… it's got to be from the same photoshoot because she's wearing the same outfit. It's just a portrait of her. I sent that back to Bonnie and said, ‘Oh, yes, this is definitely the same woman.’ ”

They were indeed sisters and, in true sisterly form, they’ve spent hours talking on the phone, sharing details and asking questions to catch up on all of the years as fast as possible.

“It's nice to be able to find your past,” Martin said, starting to choke up with emotion. “My mom and dad both passed. My daughter passed. We've had so many losses. For the first time, it's like we're gaining family. It's incredible.”

Williamson-Powell, too, is relieved to have a new sister and to have been able to put some of the sad stories of her family’s past to rest, though there is much more to discover.

“I really don't know how to describe it. I have had a pretty complicated life so this didn't come as a huge surprise to me. At first, I think I was just happy and sad at the same time, I guess, because I had been looking for my birth mother for most of my life. When Velvet found me and I spoke to her, and I found out that my mother had passed on was really, really sad. There’s a lot of mixed emotions," she said, later writing in an email, "In the end, we are left with family and friends and nothing else matters as much."

The two suggested that there would probably be a lot of photo albums looked at during this week-long visit. They still have much to talk about. It turns out that their mother had another relationship, and there are three other sisters from that as well, though one has already passed away. There is another that lives somewhere in Canada and another in the United States. The search for them continues.

Scott Hayes

About the Author: Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.
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