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A Mother's Shocking Secret
After receiving a mysterious photo, Shelley Howard discovered a family she never knew existed.

After nearly 50 years her family's darkest secret was unraveling. In May 2003, Shelly Howard received correspondence that left her stunned, hurt and confused. Her mother, who had died six years earlier, never disclosed the circumstances of her "other life."

Shelley Howard (right) and her half-sister Brenda look through an old family photo album.

Shelley, 45, sat at her computer opening her e-mail messages. Her uncle had sent her an unfamiliar baby photo. "This is probably your half-brother," the e-mail stated. Shelley froze in disbelief.

Her uncle had always known that Shelley's mother, Doris, had given a baby up for adoption. He decided it was finally time to share this information. Bewildered, Shelley soon discovered that her mother had a relationship with a man named Jack prior to meeting Shelley's father, Donald. What her uncle didn't know was that Jack and Doris also had two other children.

It was Halloween 1952 when Doris ended her first relationship. Jack had taken their oldest son trick-or-treating while Doris remained home with Jack's sister to care for the two younger children. When Jack came home, his sister announced that Doris had left suddenly with no explanation. They waited all night, but Doris never returned.

Jack was distraught. As a construction worker he was unable to care for his three small children. They were placed in foster homes. Eventually he was able to regain custody of the two older children, Brenda and Larry. The youngest child, Donald, had already been adopted.

Meanwhile, Doris had run away with Jack's friend, also named Donald, to begin a new life. They had six children together, including Shelley, who is now a pastor with The Salvation Army in Hamilton, Ontario. "Life was tough," recalls Shelley. "My dad was an alcoholic and emotionally and physically abusive to the whole family."

When they needed help, Doris and Donald went to The Salvation Army. They attended church sporadically and the pastors at the time took a special interest in them. After their fourth child, the pastors provided a small wedding for them.

Shelley's dad Donald died from alcoholism when she was only 12. Her mom began to attend church regularly, accepted Christ and was involved in women's ministries while raising their six children.

The year after Shelley received the disquieting information was exciting and fearful for her as she connected with her long-lost siblings. She began her search by matching the name on the back of the photo with those in the phonebook. On her third call, Jack answered. He only lived a half hour away.

"He had no idea Mom married and had six more children," Shelley comments. Jack met with Shelley and her husband, Rob. "He totally embraced us," she recalls. Arrangements were made to meet her half-brother Larry and half-sister Brenda. "When we met for the first time it was amazing," says Shelley. "They just reached out and hugged me."

Shelley continues to search for Donald who is the missing piece in the family puzzle. Due to a non-disclosure agreement, the Children's Aid Society cannot reveal any information about the adoption. Unless Donald is seeking his siblings, there is little hope for success. "He may not even know he was adopted," Shelley observes.

Shelley has no idea why her mom kept such a secret. "She must have had her reasons. She had several opportunities to share her past." Shelley could continue to question why, but has chosen to "let it go." Her faith in God has given her a measure of peace about it.

Many wonderful blessings have come for both families. "This secret could have led to a negative experience, but we are choosing to make it positive," Shelley concludes. "Overcoming the fears of acceptance or rejection has been challenging, but it's exciting to see families coming together."

Linda Leigh is a writer for The Salvation Army.

Originally published in Faith & Friends, August 2004.




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