Holly was a shrewd leader, articulate and
smart as a whip. Her sparkling blue eyes positively crackled with
purpose and clarity. She was the go-to person for the media and
politicians alike when they wanted information on adoption
disclosure, and she knew all about lobbying the government. Holly
never referred to adult adoptees as adopted “children,” and it
really irritated her when other people did. She wanted to be sure
that politicians and the public knew we were talking about the
rights of adults, not children, to gain access to their histories.
And I knew that Holly was very generous with her expertise and with
her time in helping people search for each other.
Using the little information I had about
my son’s adoptive parents, Holly began conducting a search on my
behalf. I didn’t have much, but Holly said I was lucky compared to
many others who were doing the same kind of thing.
Holly enlisted the help of Alice
MacDonald, a pioneer in adoption reunions long before computer
databases were created. Alice and her husband, Rick, scoured old
newspapers for adoption notices. Then, in a spreadsheet, they
entered the names in alphabetical order, along with all the
accompanying information. Adoption notices typically gave the baby’s
approximate date of birth; names of adoptive parents, grandparents,
and siblings; the adoptive mother’s birth name and place of
residence — in short, quite a bit of information. Eventually, Alice
and Rick started the Canadian Adoptees Registry Inc. (CARI). Working
as a full-time volunteer, Alice was responsible for bringing many
With my information in hand, Holly asked
Alice to look at her list of notices in that time frame and area.
The pair started checking old city directories, looking for men’s
occupations. Eventually they hit upon a family that was connected to
a fabric store and had a Dutch-sounding name, and they were able to
learn the names of everyone in that family. We were off and running.
Holly used whatever secret methods she had at her disposal.
Running the name through Canada 411, which
at the time was published quarterly on diskette, she discovered that
the family lived not too far away from where they’d been in the late
1960s and early ’70s. Holly and Alice believed that the family’s son
William could be the child I was looking for. They were able to find
out where the children from that family went to school. It turned
out that Alice’s daughter had gone to the same high school in the
early 1980s, so Alice asked her whether she was aware that the boy
she had known as William was adopted, and whether she knew if
William knew it. The answer was yes to both questions. After a bit
more sleuthing, they confirmed that his date of birth was the same
as that of the son I had named Andrew, and they began searching for
the family’s address.
Alice, whom I hadn’t met, kindly mailed me
a blurry, black-and-white photocopy of William’s picture from his
high school yearbook. Though I couldn’t quite make out his features,
it was still the first glimpse I had of my son in almost 30 years.
(Alice would die suddenly in 2010, but her invaluable work still
lives on. Gail Hadley and a few other dedicated volunteers continue
to maintain the CARI database and give hope to thousands of people
like me; the site is “dedicated to the memory of our angel, Alice.”)
The process of searching for my son took
more than a year. During that year, Mike Harris’s Progressive
Conservatives won a majority government. Premier Bob Rae and the
NDP, buffeted by a difficult term in office that coincided with a
serious worldwide recession, were thrown out of power. I now found
myself sitting with only 16 fellow New Democrats on the opposition
Then one night in November 1995, I came
home to a telephone message from Holly. She had some information. I
was trembling when I picked up the phone to call her back. The news
was good — Holly had found my son’s adoptive family, and although
she was unable to locate him directly, she had the name and address
of his brother.
This she knew for certain: the son I had
named Andrew had been renamed William. I had his full name, and I
had an address through which he could be reached.
My reaction was intense. I put down the
phone feeling completely overwhelmed. I started to tremble
uncontrollably. What felt like a tight spring in the pit of my
stomach — something that had likely been there for years — began to
uncoil in waves, and finally I felt it melt away.
My son’s name is William. My son’s name
is William. My son’s name is William.
I finally had a little piece of him. It
was so precious that I wroteit down, put it in an envelope and
carried it with me everywhere. I often would slip it out and stare
at it, and at night I kept it under my pillow. My son’s name is
I decided to write him a letter and send
it to his brother’s address, the only address I had. What do you say
to your child who is not your child, to someone you love but don’t
know at all, to someone you are not sure will welcome a letter from
I sat on my bed with a pad of paper,
struggling to find the words. I wasn’t certain he knew that he was
adopted, but I had to proceed on the assumption that he did. Working
determinedly, I ripped up page after page of rejected attempts.
Finally, I decided to keep it simple, and mention only a few key
things: I didn’t want to cause any upheaval in his life. It was his
decision whether we should meet. He had a half-sister who was dying
to meet him. And at the very least, no matter what he decided to do,
I longed for him to send me a picture so I’d know what he looked
I mailed my letter on Nov. 29, 1995, with
a covering letter from Holly written in the careful terms that such
letters use. Here is what she wrote:
TO BE OPENED ONLY BY ADDRESSEE
PRIVATE AND STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL
I am writing to you on behalf of my
friend, Marilyn, about a very personal matter. I’ve sent this letter
in care of your brother Brian, because I was unable to determine
your personal mailing address through public records, and unwilling
to disclose the reason for my wanting to get in touch with you to
When she was very young, Marilyn gave a
child to adoption. The social climate at that time left her little
alternative, as she was single and unable to care for him by
herself. She wanted her son to have all of the benefits of the love
of two mature parents, financial security and a stable home. She
hoped that he be nurtured and cared for, at least as much as she
loved and cared for him.
Marilyn’s son was born on January 30th,
1968 in Barrie, and she named him Andrew. On February 9th, he went
home to his parents and his named was changed to William.
Since then, not a day has gone by that
Marilyn hasn’t thought of her birth son, worried and wondered
whether he is alive and well and happy. Some time ago she registered
with the provincial disclosure registry; however, due to funding
cutbacks and a lengthy waiting list for services, about a year ago,
we began to conduct a discreet, active search using the
non-identifying information supplied under Ontario’s Child & Family
Services Act, old city directories and the like.
I too was adopted. I found my birth
mother in 1979 through my own efforts, and for us reunion has been a
joyous experience and one which I wish all adopted people and their
birth mothers could share. I was fortunate in that I had the support
of my family. Though some people choose — understandably — to keep
contact with a birth relative very private, in the sixteen years I
have worked in this field more often than not adoptees are
delightfully surprised to learn that their parents want to share
this with them.
In any case, Marilyn has no desire to
disrupt anyone’s lives. She would like very much to correspond with
her birth son, and to meet him, even once. She needs to know that he
is okay, that he understands why she had to relinquish him, and to
reassure herself that she made the right decision under the
Never the less, Marilyn will respect
his feelings and wishes: she sincerely has no intention of
I’d like to add here that Marilyn is a
lovely woman — kind, empathetic, bright, with a wonderful sense of
humour and a demonstrated social conscience. She is well educated,
holds a respected position, and is well thought of by her
colleagues, many friends and in her community.
I truly hope that you will be able to
help Marilyn complete her search and that you will find it in your
heart to get in touch with one of us. Enclosed is a sealed note from
Marilyn and a self-addressed envelope. If you would rather talk,
don’t hesitate to call (collect) in confidence.
Thank you very much for your
I followed Parent Finders’ recommended
process for making that first contact: the return address and phone
number were in care of Holly at Parent Finders. Now all I could do
was wait. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
Christmas came and went. Nothing. Even
though I knew I shouldn’t, I had built up my hope that I would be
sharing that Christmas with my son and my daughter together.
In January 1996, Holly called. I could
hear the excitement in her voice. She’d heard from William.
It took a few minutes for this news to
kick in. Then I asked her a million questions. What was his voice
like? What did he do? Was he married? Did he sound kind? Did he seem
hostile? Did he want to meet me? She laughed and patiently told me
that he was a university student, that he wanted me to know that he
harboured no hard feelings toward me and that he would be writing to
It was another agonizing wait. February
passed. Then came March, with the legislature recessed for a week
during spring break. On Tuesday, March 12, a lovely spring day, I
finished a mountain of constituency work and went to a movie with my
friend Lesley. When I got home, I reached into the mailbox. I was
used to coming out disappointed, but on that day, there it was — a
letter with William’s name and return address.
I went inside and sat on the couch,
studying the unusually beautiful handwriting on the envelope. Then,
slowly, I opened it. The letter was very kind, beginning with an
apology for the delay in his response. He explained that he was
attending university in Waterloo and his brother had called him to
tell him a registered letter had arrived from someone named Holly
Kramer. He didn’t have a clue who Holly was, so he was not
particularly concerned, and he asked his brother to just hold onto
it until he came home for Christmas.
William wrote that while visiting his
family on Christmas Eve, he had opened the letter and had been
stunned by its contents. He did not tell his family immediately, but
took the letter back with him to Waterloo. He needed some time to
digest it and decide what to do. He said that he was shocked to hear
from me, but that he had always known he was adopted, that he had
often wondered about me and didn’t resent me or hate me. He said his
adoptive parents were the kindest people in the world; they loved
him unconditionally and would do anything for him. He wanted us to
correspond for a while, to get to know more about each other before
Folded in the letter was a beautiful
colour photograph. He was wearing a tux, walking down the aisle at
his brother’s wedding. He was slender, with dark hair down to his
shoulders, and he was absolutely gorgeous. Like Brad Pitt, only
better. I carried that picture everywhere and kept it in front of
me, no matter what I was doing. I even propped it up on my water
glass at my legislature desk and stared at it between questions.
I couldn’t get enough of that face — my
son’s face, more than 28 years later.
We sent letters and pictures back and
forth, telling each other about our lives, about our families, about
our likes and dislikes. I had kept my daughter, who was 22 years old
and a new young mother herself, in the loop throughout all of this.
Now I hightailed it to her house to show her that first letter. She
was as excited as I was and couldn’t wait to see him.
I wrote back immediately and, after we’d
exchanged a few letters, I started to think that if I didn’t make a
move soon, our meeting might never happen. He had mentioned in his
second letter to me that he felt ready, but he had exams the week of
April 22 so it would have to be after that. Then there was silence.
It was making me crazy. I was dying to see my son, to touch him and
to hug him if he’d let me.
I fantasized about driving to Waterloo and
parking outside his unit just to get a look at him. I wouldn’t do
anything to alienate him or make him hesitate to see me, but I was
getting impatient. My first letter to him had been sent in January,
and we still had not met or spoken on the phone.
One chilly evening in early May, I had a
meeting in my constituency with Jack Layton, who was then the city
councillor in my riding. Jack had been there through every step of
my search for my son. That evening, we went out to a bar and I told
him how frustrating it was waiting for my son to suggest a time to
meet. Jack replied, with a twinkle in his eye, that if William was
like most guys, it might take him a while to get in touch. He
suggested that I take the bull by the horns and try to set something
I came home just tipsy enough to muster
some courage, strode purposefully into the house and, without taking
off my hat or gloves, picked up the phone and dialed 411. I had no
idea if William had a phone listed under his name — he was sharing a
townhouse with other students — but I gave his name to the operator
and got a number. I punched it in.
The phone rang. A male voice said,
“Is William there, please?”
My knees buckled. This was the first time
I had heard his voice. “William, this is Marilyn,” I said calmly,
though shaking on the inside. “I don’t know about you, but I think
it’s time we set a date to get together.”
I held my breath. There was a long
hesitation. Then he said yes, he was ready, too. We set it up for
the following week.
I dressed carefully that day, like I was
going on a first date. I was so excited in the car that just before
I got on the highway, I spilled coffee all over myself and had to go
home and change. When I got to Waterloo, already 45 minutes late, I
promptly got lost. I pulled over and called his number from a pay
phone. It turned out I was only five minutes from his door. The
moment I had waited so long for was about to happen.
I was trembling as I approached the door.
It was an ordinary door, but I knew that when it opened, I would
enter an extraordinary new world. I had spent so many years thinking
about the day when I would come face to face with my son. But now
that it was here, I was barely thinking at all. I could feel my
heart racing and my body trembling; my mind went very, very still. I
was simply in the moment.
I knocked. Waited. Heard footsteps.
The door opened and there he was — my son.
We stood there transfixed. The world
around me disappeared. It was just him and me, inches apart. The
last time I had seen him was the heartbreaking day I said goodbye
through a pane of glass, telling him that I would find him some day.
And the day had arrived.
Excerpted with permission from
Shameless: The Fight for Adoption Disclosure and the Search for My
Son by Marilyn Churley, Between the Lines Books, 2015. Marilyn
Churley is a former Toronto city councillor and former member of
provincial parliament. She has served as the deputy leader of the
Ontario New Democratic Party and was the Ontario legislature’s first
female deputy Speaker. She has been referred to as the mother of
adoption disclosure reform in Ontario.