A Cousin for Christmas

Back in 2009 I got an email from a lady – we’ll call her J –  who was searching for her biological mother. Her story was that she’d been left at an orphanage in Saint John, New Brunswick and adopted when she was eight days old. All she knew about her parents was that her mother had been a Protestant, her father an Irish Catholic. Eventually she discovered one more piece of the puzzle when she spotted her birth name on a document prepared by the lawyer who had taken care of the adoption. She contacted me because her surname according to that document was MacVay; after reading some of what I’d written about my family history, she hoped I might be able to help.

Over the next couple of years, she relied on two main sources of information: the government of New Brunswick and me. There were stretches of months at a time when neither source of information was of much help to her. Still, every time the government gave her a tiny bit of information – which wasn’t very often, nor was there very much of it – I tried to match it with what I knew about the New Brunswick branch of my family. In the meantime, we called each other ‘cousin’ anyway. It was quite possible she belonged to a different family, but it was also possible the MacVay spelling on that document was correct — and if it was, she would definitely be related to me, since my family is the only one in Canada that spells the name that way.

The search wasn’t easy, for two reasons. The main reason was that, as I mentioned, the government wasn’t giving her much information. I wrote about this last year in a post that blasted New Brunswick’s policy on adoption records. The provincial government goes to great lengths to protect the privacy of people who have given their children up for adoption, but seems to have terrible disregard for people’s right to know very basic things like who they came from. As I said then, I firmly believe that a child’s right to know who their parents are/were trumps their parents’ right to privacy. No adoptee should be prevented from knowing such basic information.

The other reason it wasn’t easy to fit all the pieces together was that there were too many gaps in my knowledge of that side of the family. I had learned a lot about them, and had some hunches, but there were gaping holes where some names and dates should have been. The few contacts I had among my New Brunswick relatives didn’t know much. It’s a very large extended family, after all. The relative I was closest to, Uncle Bill — the only one out of hundreds of descendants of my great-great-grandparents to bear the family name outside of my immediate family — knew little about the relatives I wanted to focus on, thanks to a feud between his father and his uncle over the family business during the Great Depression.

We kept plodding on, though. J kept hounding the government, and I kept trying to assemble a family tree and somehow place her in it. Eventually, things started coming together. The government was only giving J ‘non-identifying information’, but each snippet they released allowed me to fill in a blank. Based on names and dates I had and the precious little information J was able to obtain about her parents and grandparents, I was able to zero in on one person in my family tree. I knew nothing about her except her name, when she was born, and who her parents and siblings were. But I felt very confident that out of all the possibilities, she was J’s mother. Months later, J was informed by the province that a first cousin might be interested in making contact. They didn’t tell her who that was, but I was able to figure it out. Several more months went by, until finally they informed J that her cousin did indeed want to have contact with her. They gave J the woman’s name and contact information — it was exactly who I’d told her it would be.

They haven’t had that first meeting or phone conversation yet, but it feels like we’ve won already because now we know for sure that we’re cousins. Actually I know her better than anyone else on that side of my family, especially since Uncle Bill passed away in September at the age of 92. I’ve been in touch with other relatives but we’re not as close as I’d like. In fact, a couple of them stopped replying to my emails altogether around the time I started telling them about J’s plight. But it’s all good, it turns out I’m close to someone on that side of the family after all.

J mentioned to me the other day that it’s a great Christmas gift. I suppose it is. I’m grateful to the New Brunswick provincial government for giving us this gift. It should have been done a long time ago, and many significant improvements need to be made in how they treat adoptees. But yes, I’m grateful. I can’t speak for J but I’m pretty sure she is too.