27 year Sister SearchPublished 7:32am Thursday, May 10, 2012 Updated 8:03am Thursday, May 10, 2012
“I felt like I was hatched.”
Patricia Hutchinson was born in 1943, World War II times, to a 17-year-old girl from central Wisconsin who “went to work” in the big city of Milwaukee as unwed expectant mothers did in those days. The girl, a pretty, bright, hardworking farm kid named Betty, lived in the city for eight months, regularly visiting her older brother in Kenosha, and really did go to work – as a nurse’s aide. She had no prenatal care, no emotional support, little money, and wore a tight girdle every day until her delivery to mask her pregnancy. When in labor, she rode the train, standing up the 40 miles from Kenosha to Milwaukee to the hospital.
She named the baby Rebecca. And then she told her brother about her. Together they kept the secret even from their parents. Betty boarded the baby at a foster home and visited her for 13 months until – out of money and having met the man she eventually would marry – she released the baby for adoption.
“My adoptive parents were wonderful,” said Pat. “But I was an only child, both protected and expected to achieve, while all my life there was just a black wall behind me. I had no history like others had.”
When her adoptive parents died in 1981, Pat began a 27-year journey to find the rest of her family. First, she wrote to the State of Wisconsin and was given the name of a social-search worker from Lutheran Social Service. She wrote to the search worker, carrying the letter in her purse for three months before daring to mail it. But within two weeks of sending it, she had a response.
Pat could request a “Birth Family Social History Profile,” which she did, but all identifying information had been blacked out. “I was angry. It didn’t seem fair that laws had been passed to prevent me from knowing my own identity,” she said. Pat read and re-read the file. She joined a support group for adult adoptees. She read volumes on the search process.
Pat learned that Wisconsin law allowed for the adoption agency, Lutheran Social Service, to contact the mother on the child’s behalf to request a meeting. So she asked for that. But Betty said no. After 38 years on a dairy farm in South Dakota with a husband and three children who did not know about the baby she had given up in 1944, she thought it better to close the door again.
By state law Pat could ask twice more with five years between each request. So she waited. After five years she asked the agency to contact Betty again. Again Betty said no. Pat waited another five years and one last time asked the agency to contact Betty. Still her answer was no.
“I never was angry that she couldn’t say yes,” Pat said. “I didn’t walk in her shoes. I couldn’t know what she felt.”
But Pat couldn’t quite give up. She met two search-experienced women, one who had found a daughter she had relinquished at birth and one who had found her birthparents, who helped. They developed a system for counting typewriter strikes in each blackened word in the State of Wisconsin file to get clues to Pat’s family identity. They searched court records, which by law were open to people working on genealogy projects but closed to people searching for birth parents, a distinction lost on Pat. They filled files with information. But unsuccessful after 22 years, they put it to rest.
“I don’t know how I would have survived the disappointment without my supportive husband Jim and three children and, by this time, eight beautiful grandchildren,” Pat said. “I had a family, after all, and some of them looked like me.”
In 2008 things changed. Betty and her husband, both in their 80s, died within a week of each other in May that year. One of the women who had been helping Pat had compiled enough identity clues that, when she stumbled on the obituary online in December, she know she had found what she was looking for. Included were the names, ages, and hometowns of Betty’s other children. She called Pat.
“I had two sisters! I had a brother!” Pat said. “I was shaking.”
A month later, Pat wrote a letter to her each of her siblings. One of the letters came to Carol Bjerklie in Fergus Falls – but to her son’s former address. Carol’s husband Don, who worked at the post office, thought it odd and called Carol to see if she wanted the letter. Some hoax? She refused it. But that night her brother called from Texas.
“Did you get a registered letter?” he asked.
“Maybe,” she said. “Why?”
He read his copy of the letter to her. “This is a difficult letter for me to write, not knowing how you will perceive it. Having the strength and courage to send it is one of the hardest things I have ever done, knowing I will be waiting for an answer that may bring me joy or heartache. It is the same feeling of ‘unknown’ that I have lived with all my life…” The letter told the story and included a photo of Pat and Jim.
According to Carol, the family wondered at first whether some stranger were preying on families that were settling the estates. But if so, why wouldn’t a smart criminal choose an estate with more money? “Then we saw the picture and knew that Pat was real,” Carol said. “She looked just like Mom.”
Carol called Betty’s older brother, who still was living in Wisconsin. Silent on the subject for 65 years, he now confirmed Pat’s story. Then Carol called Pat – who wasn’t home. Jim took the call.
“If I had any lingering suspicions, he dispelled them,” Carol said. “What a nice man. And I remember his saying, ‘You don’t know how many years we waited for this call.’”
Pat and Carol exchanged phone calls and photos and met for the first time at a truck stop in Clearwater that spring. Pat was riding through Minnesota with a friend who could make time for a lunch stop if Carol could meet them. The reunion was familiarity and laughter and relief at first sight.
“The connection is hard to explain,” said Carol. “She was part of our family right away. From the moment we met, we never had any question about that.”
The relationship has bloomed. The two couples traveled to Texas together and met their other sister at their brother’s home in San Antonio. Trips to the Hutchinsons’ cabin on Lake Michigan likely will become annual events for the Bjerklies. Pat and Jim spent last Thanksgiving in Minnesota with Carol and Don and their children. The cousins may meet this summer.
Meanwhile, Pat lives with Jim in big-city Milwaukee, works at a health club, and participates on a Rockettes-style dance line for fun. Carol lives in rural Fergus Falls, works in the public school system, and puts hours on horseback whenever she can. Both are grandmothers. And both have red streaks in their hair.
“I got a second chance for a family. And it’s like we’ve known each other all of our lives,” said Pat.
Carol agreed. “I got a second chance too. I got a new sister – an older sister,” she emphasized with a wink. Pat just laughed.