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Our Gillis family gatherings are generally raucous and accentuated by generous portions of wine, Canadian beer and the freshest, crustiest bread we can find. My four brothers and sisters and I trade family folklore and try our best to outdo each other with who has the most colourful childhood stories. Often during these gatherings we share a standing joke. It goes like this: “We likely have a sibling somewhere in or around Sicily!” There is laughter all around. We guess that in some quaint town lives a brother or sister fathered by my dad during his time at the Battle of Ortona in Italy.
In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, my 21-year-old father, Alec Gillis “rode the rails” from Cape Breton to Alberta looking for work. When war was declared in Europe, long before he knew my mother, he enlisted in the Canadian army. Initially, he was stationed in London where he served as an MP and a military dispatcher. We have lovingly imagined our dad racing around London and environs on his motorcycle perhaps attending the local dances we have heard were part of that wartime scene. But Dad left that posting and volunteered to join the fighting.
AJ, as he was nicknamed, went on to North Africa. He then was ordered to Italy where he fought in what was probably the bloodiest of Second World War battles: the Battle of Ortona. He was one of very few brave Canadians who survived the December combat. Dad didn’t share much about that engagement nor for that matter did he share stories about any of his time overseas. I guess he had his reasons.
So, our conjecture about a possible sibling had no foundation in anything our father ever said. But a phone call from my sister this past January transformed the joke into reality.
Margaret-Ann’s astonishing call came after a dinner in Toronto with my dad’s brother Jim and his family. The conversation began easily, trading pleasantries and reminiscing. Then the bombshell: “You and your siblings have a half-brother who lives in England!”
It seems my cousin and my youngest son Matthew entered their DNA into Ancestry.com. So did another English fellow named Sam. When Sam turned 80, his daughter bought him the ancestry kit as a birthday gift. What Sam eventually discovered was his birth father – my father – and five half-siblings in Canada.
It didn’t take long for my siblings and me to try connecting with Sam, who had grown up unaware of his biological parentage. We began with a Zoom call connecting Edmonton and Ottawa with Sharon, Sam’s adult daughter (my newfound niece) living in the Midlands.
Through that call, we learned that Sam was born in the village of Codsall in 1942. His mother was unwed and he was adopted by the midwife who delivered him. He never knew his biological parents.
As luck would have it my sons and I already had a spring trip booked to England. We decided to reach out to his family, who live in Wolverhampton, a short train ride from London, to see if we could stop by and got the go-ahead for a visit.
In a flash, all my siblings got on board and all seven of us travelled to meet Sam and his partner Cynthia.
On a warm and sunny day in late May, we boarded the early morning train in London. Connecting with Sam and his family was emotional and filled with a sense of belonging that words cannot adequately describe. We shared our personal stories and told Sam what we had learned about AJ’s war experiences. We brought him Dad’s war medals. It seemed fitting that Dad’s son, born in the Second World War, should have his military medals. Sam found this especially meaningful.
We were astounded how much Sam resembled our dad. We didn’t need a DNA test to affirm that he is our brother. And Dad and Sam had more than good looks in common. Both were electricians, both loved to dance and both were involved in boxing.
Since the first reunion, our family has been on an incredible journey of building new bonds and creating treasured memories. We have embraced our newfound brother with open arms and he us. We are all eager to make up for the lost time.
My younger brother Doug pointed out that I am no longer the oldest child in the family. He was smug in declaring that he will always be the youngest. My response? Don’t count on it!
Our story is a testament to the power of technology and the role it plays in connecting families across time and distance. Discovering a long-lost brother has been a life-altering experience. It has taught us the importance of embracing our past, cherishing our present and building a future together. We are grateful to have uncovered this remarkable story and our journey continues, filled with love, laughter, and the shared bond of a family made whole.
Kathy Grieve lives in Edmonton.