In the summer of 1988, Steve Ellis received shocking news that would reverberate for more than 30 years and lead to an unexpected friendship.
Steve Ellis was at work, in the magazine offices Beautiful in London, when the letter arrived. The envelope had a Halifax stamp on it, and Steve recognized the handwriting immediately: It was from his mother.
“Dear Stephen, I have not been proud of my past and sometimes it still hurts a lot,” the letter began.
“Believe me, no one knows the anguish I have been through for many years. People forgave me and him for what we did, and I can tell you that the hardest thing is to forgive yourself.”
Steve, one of the founding editors of the women’s magazine, was 37 years old and had been raised as an only child by his single mother, Dorothy.
But in her letter, Dorothy revealed that she also had given birth to another child, a girl born 2 years after him.
Steve and his sister had the same father, Dorothy wrote, but he was married and had his own family.
“It was the first time she mentioned having another child,” says Steve. “She broke a bubble of silence, of something that had not been discussed between mother and son.”
“Stephen, please forgive me for the past, because I can’t explain what a heartbreak it has been for me,” Dorothy wrote. “I love you a lot.”
Although his mother’s letter had surprised him, Steve I don’t I missor knowing that he had a sister.
In fact, he had discovered his mother’s secret more than 25 yearswhen one day he came across a pile of letters in his bedroom.
Among them was a birth certificate of someone named Susan Ellis, born in December 1953, 2 years after him.
“I was so surprised, I wasn’t the only person in the world,” says Steve.
There were also letters from the Adoption Society of Ashton-under-Lyne, a town outside Manchester, saying things like: “We are very sorry for your action”, “This is a very sinful act” and “I hope your family forgive her”.
Steve, then 10 years old, knew what adoption meant, but there were other words he didn’t understand, and discovering his mother’s secrets made him feel guilty. Steve never said a word to her about what he had found.
Another mouth to feed
The day after receiving her letter, Steve went to see his mother at her apartment in Halifax. Through tears, Dorothy told him how she had nursed her little girl for 10 weeks and two days at home, before she was taken away.
“An ‘illegitimate’ second child, born into a small 2-bedroom house with 7, sometimes 8 occupants was too much,” says Steve.
At the time, he and his mother lived with Dorothy’s parents and 3 or 4 of her siblings. Steve’s grandmother was a cleaning worker, while his grandfather fueled boilers in a carpet factory.
Dorothy had no job and they couldn’t afford another mouth to feed.
Dorothy had lived with “horrendous guilt,” she told him, in addition to having to bear the stigma of being a single mother who had “given away” one of her children.
It had been difficult to find work because many employers didn’t accept single mothers, and some of Dorothy’s friends hadn’t spoken to her for years.
“People would cross the street and refuse to talk to her because she had an illegitimate child,” says Steve. “She was a lost woman.”
Steve had always wondered about Susan. He asked Dorothy if she would like him to try to find her, and her mother said, “Yes.”
Within days, Steve was filling out forms at the Registrar General’s Office. He contacted lawyers, talked to a private detective agency, and even placed an ad in the Manchester Evening News because I had a hunch that Susan lived in that area.
“There was no response,” says Steve. No matter where he looked, he got no results.
As the years passed, Steve often wondered if his sister was the stranger he passed on the street. He longed to find Susan, not only for her own sake, but for her mother’s as well.
“I can’t imagine a day going by without her thinking about her daughter,” he says.
“In some ways, it is worse than death. Someone you gave birth to is out there, but you don’t know what she looks like, if her parents were nice or nasty, if she was successful. She is there, but she is not.”
“My sister was alive”
By 2019, Steve was in his 60s and resigned himself to the fact that he might never find his sister. But over time, the law changed to allow intermediary agencies to help locate people separated by adoption before December 30, 2005.
When Steve realized that this help was available, he contacted an agency and told them everything he could about Susan Ellis. A few months later, a specialized investigator had news for him.
“My sister was alive”Steve says.
The intermediary warned her that they would have to be careful: Susan might not even know that she had been adopted.
They sent a very nicely written letter and waited, but Susan’s response was not what Steve had hoped for.
“Was very angry and shocked“, remember.
Susan, who had been told she had been turned over to social services after the death of her birth mother, and had no idea she had any living relatives, said she needed time to consider her brother’s approach.
Steve hoped that Susan would accept the situation and they could finally build a sibling relationship, but when more than five months passed and there was no news, he began to lose hope.
On a sunny day in April, just a couple of weeks after the first Covid lockdown in 2020, the middleman called. But it was not good news. Susan had died 3 days before.
“I sat in the garden crying,” says Steve, “I had lost my sister.”
The broker told Steve that his sister’s husband, Graham, would like to speak with him, and later that night the 2 men talked.
Sarah, whose name was changed from Susan when she was adopted, had had the idea of contacting Steve, Graham said, but her health had deteriorated after a complicated heart operation and she had been admitted to hospital.
“As she got sicker, she became more conciliatory and wanted to make contact,” explains Steve. “But then her health deteriorated to the point that she was too late.”
Sarah died in isolation. At the top of her death certificate it says covid-19.
Ironies of life
Though in the midst of his own grief, Graham answered Steve’s questions about Sarah and created an image of the sister Steve had never known. She was jovial, warm and sociable, Graham told him, and she enjoyed life.
“It was 66 years of history condensed into 90 minutes,” says Steve, “it was amazing.”
Sarah had been raised by loving foster parents: her father was a school principal and they lived in a large house.
“There’s a wonderful irony there, of these contrasts in his life and mine,” says Steve. “I was left in this crowded backstreet shack in Halifax, while my sister went off to a pretty great life.”
After attending private school, Sarah spent three years as an officer in the British Royal Air Force and then ran her own cafeteria.
A few days later, Graham emailed Steve a picture of Sarah, the first he had ever seen.
“When it came on screen, I just broke down,” says Steve. “I think it was 60 years of suppressed emotion. It was the most amazing feeling, I’ve never had it before and I’ve never had it since.”
“She came to life, even though she was dead.”
Steve and his wife saw Graham standing alone in the crematorium on the day of Sarah’s funeral, via video link from their home. From there, the two men began to talk on the phone every day and a link grew up among them.
An extremely generous brother-in-law
Eventually, Graham invited Steve to stay at the house he and Sarah had shared. Spending time with her husband, looking at photographs and visiting places she had been, Steve felt closer to his sister than ever.
also discovered interesting parallels– They both played the piano by ear and loved to bake, and when Steve saw some of Sarah’s paintings, he was struck by how similar her watercolor style was to his own.
“You wouldn’t be able to tell if she painted them or I did,” he says.
Dorothy, Steve’s mother, died 2 years before Steve found his sister, taking the blame to the grave. Steve feels sad that he couldn’t reassure his mother about how things had turned out for the baby he had to give up.
“It would have been wonderful to let her know that she had gone to good, loving parents,” he says.
Steve is grateful for the relationship with his newly found brother-in-law, who fulfilled Sarah’s dying wishes by making possible Steve’s “pilgrimage” to learn about his sister.
“I’ll never get to meet her, I’ll never get to talk to her, and that will be a source of regret forever,” says Steve, now 70.
“Nevertheless, I met Sarah after her death, because her husband Graham opened his heart and his home to allow me to discover as much as possible about my long-lost sister, an act of amazing generosity.”
All photos courtesy of Steve Ellis.
It may interest you:
* He was reunited with his biological mother 35 years after giving him up for adoption; he fell in love with her and now they are a happy couple
* He traveled more than 9,000 km to be reunited with his nanny 45 years later
* They were neighbors, they studied together and 60 years later they discovered that they were sisters
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