To honor her parents’ wedding anniversary, Shirley Gauthier gave them an engraved silver platter.
She had no idea the gift would cause such a stir in their small town of Sutherlin.
Gauthier had surprised her parents with the gift at her younger sister’s high school graduation party in 1975, where many family members were attending.
“I thought in my head that since I was 25, it was a 25th wedding anniversary,” she says. “And since there would be people and family there, how nice it would be to recognize it. So, I had a rather large silver platter engraved.”
When Shirley’s mother opened the package, her father looked at it, and said, “That’s not the year we got married.”
It was obvious, Gauthier says, that the math didn’t add up.
When the question typically came up in the past of how her parents met, they always told the same story: Her mother had gone to visit her sister in another part of Oregon, went to a dance at the local grange and met Shirley’s father. It was love at first sight and they were married two weeks later.
“It was a wonderful, lovely story to tell us kids all the years,” Gauthier says. “But they were married in April — and I was born in October.”
It was just a story, though, and Gauthier quickly devised the truth — the man who raised her was not her biological father.
There are many unknown details, including whether her mother’s new husband knew she was already pregnant when they met and married. Even decades later, there are few answers.
“The only time I was alone with (her adopted father) to discuss anything was when he was dying in the hospital of cancer,” Gauthier says. “All he said to me was, ‘You must be really angry with me.’”
Rather than be angry, Gauthier says she felt sadness that the truth had been kept hidden.
After she was married, Gauthier’s husband Mark also learned about a “secret” sibling in his past. His mother disclosed to him that she had been engaged to be married but was raped by a different man. The rape resulted in a pregnancy. His mother gave birth to a daughter then gave her up for adoption.
“She just came out with it,” Mark Gauthier says. “She said she broke off the engagement and had to go away for a while. That’s what you did back then, you went away for a while and gave your baby up for adoption, or you got married.”
His mother told him about the situation because she was afraid someone else in the family would tell him first.
An adoption project undertaken by the University of Oregon estimates that from 1945 to 1973, 4 million parents placed children for adoption, with 2 million giving their babies up during the 1960s alone. Shirley and Mark know their story is not unique, and Shirley would like to encourage others to reach out.
“I want to get the message out that there’s a lot of lost siblings and it’s not too late,” she says.
In 1983, Gauthier wrote a letter to her mother and asked for more information about the man she calls her “sperm donor.” Her mother replied, apologized for the deception and emphasized their love for Shirley. But her mother didn’t provide the requested details.
Gauthier tried again in 1987, and this time her mother acquiesced. She told her daughter the man’s name was George. He was married at the time of the pregnancy, already had another child and didn’t want another one. Instead, he gave her money for a bus ticket out of town.
Gauthier learned that George was the youngest of 10 children and when his family home burned down, the neighbors took care of George, later adopting him. He changed his last name from Hettick to Eddlemon.
In 1994, Mark Gauthier traveled to the small town in Montana where George lived and brought back a local phone book. They didn’t know yet that George had changed his name, so Shirley started calling Hetticks in the Montana area.
Once she connected with some of his relatives, she learned he had changed his last name and that finally gave her the connection she needed to find him. She called George and he answered. At first, he was reluctant to speak with Gauthier, but she eventually was able to meet him.
Gauthier discovered that George had three children — Patty, Charlie and Dennis. She reached out to each of them and they accepted her right away.
Even more, after George died his sons discovered letters showing their father was divorced from an earlier marriage and had a daughter named Mae, who lives in Florida. Mae knew George was her father, but she didn’t know anything about her half-sister Shirley.
“It’s a miracle to me that Charlie and Dennis were able to find me,” says Mae, who was interviewed from the hospital awaiting the birth of her fourth great-grandchild. “But (they) got on the computer and one evening my phone rang. We talked and they were so welcoming. And then getting to know Shirley has been a very nice surprise.”
“You can’t go back and fix it because it wasn’t your choice,” Charlie says. “So, you just forgive and then start working forward and that’s what I did.”
Gauthier’s main concern was disrupting the lives of her newly-discovered siblings but, she says, they have all accepted her with open arms.
And simply knowing your roots and having access to important information such as a medical history can be very important and helpful.
“I hope my story inspires and motivates other people to step out of that comfort zone and just (reach out) because even if there’s some hard adjustments, the rewards of getting to know your history and your family is worth it,” she says. “To me, I’ve never felt so included or felt so loved.”