Anita “Cele” Westlake is happily climbing her family tree for the first time.
Westlake fantasized about her biological family for most of her 66 years. Adopted by a Washington couple, Westlake grew up in a happy home, but always wondered about her roots.
She’s wondering no more.
The Orcas Island woman recently traveled to Pilot Rock to meet two biological siblings and dozens of cousins, aunts, uncles and other family members who she hadn’t known existed until a few months ago.
Late last year, Westlake read an article about a woman who found her birth parents.
“The article gave instructions about how to obtain an original birth certificate,” she said.
In February, she applied and received a birth certificate that gave her parents’ names as Verna Etta Russell Fry and Robert Clair Fry. The space for the baby’s name was blank.
Armed with her parents’ names, Westlake searched Ancestry.com for connections and found postings from Donna DeGraw, of Pendleton, who listed Verna and Robert on her family tree. Westlake and DeGraw exchanged a flurry of messages and finally DeGraw wrote, “We are cousins.” The news sent Westlake spinning.
“It was ‘Oh, my God, oh my God, oh my God,’” she said.
Westlake learned that her parents, Verna and Robert, birthed at least eight children, but gave them all up, several of them all at once to an Ohio orphanage. Two were taken away by the court in 1956 because the couple had no known residence. DeGraw said the family has kept rough track of five of the kids, but didn’t know the fate of the others. She told Westlake that Robert died in 1975 and Verna’s whereabouts are unknown.
As an aside, Westlake decided to go through DNA testing offered by Ancestry.com to uncover her ethnic mix, and that’s when she got another surprise. Unbeknownst to her, another of Verna and Robert’s offspring was on his own quest to find his roots and had already undergone DNA testing. Ed Johns, of Mountain Home, Idaho, got his results a week before Westlake in early May. When the two appeared as matches, Westlake messaged Johns. Soon, they connected by phone.
“Are your feet touching the ground?” Johns asked Westlake.
“I’d been looking for years,” Johns said, “and all of a sudden the door opens. My DNA matched perfectly with hers.”
To welcome Westlake and Johns to the clan, DeGraw and other family members planned a blowout welcome for last weekend. The reunion started Friday in Pilot Rock at the home of Genevieve Russell, Westlake’s and Johns’ aunt and DeGraw’s mother. They would also meet another sister, Donna Henderson, of Prescott Valley, Arizona, who a few family members had met as a small child.
On Friday, Westlake was the first to arrive. DeGraw and Russell drew her in to their gregarious clan.
“We’ve been up in the clouds,” Aunt Genevieve told Westlake. “I was hoping this would happen before the good Lord called me home.”
Soon, Henderson walked in the front door. Westlake, tears welling, took her sister by the shoulders, looked deep into her eyes and pulled her close. When Johns arrived 15 minutes later, the trio of siblings shared another emotional embrace.
They swapped bios. Westlake, a mother of two, had grown up with a paint salesman father and church secretary mother in Washington, California and Ohio. She owned a print shop for a while and then worked in the accounting department of Orcas Power & Light. Now retired, she and husband, Bill, live in the San Juan Islands.
Henderson, 69, had it rougher. She lived in five different foster homes in Ohio and remembers “a lot of work and no love.” The Arizona woman has no memory of her parents. As an adult, she worked as a waitress, reporter for a new business publication, escrow officer and paraprofessional with an organization that advocates for at-risk children. She has two grown sons.
Johns, 64, was adopted as a baby and raised in John Day and Burns. The Blue Mountain Community College graduate now drives bus for a transportation company and coaches high school baseball in Mountain Home, Idaho. After connecting with Westlake, he learned from the family that another brother, Ron Frye, lives in the same town as Johns. Johns contacted his brother by phone.
“He told me his parents drove them up to an orphanage in Sandusky, Ohio, and dropped them off when he was seven,” Johns said.
In Pilot Rock, the trio braced themselves as a stream of new relations introduced themselves and marveled at the family resemblance. Tissues came out regularly to wipe tears.
“Oh, my goodness, you really look like us,” said Faith Pullen, a cousin to the three. “Welcome to the family.”
Dozens of family members filled in the blanks and shared what little they knew about Westlake, Johns and Henderson’s mother, Verna, who would be about 90 now. At a barbecue at Pendleton’s Community Park on Saturday, Verna’s younger brother, LeRoy Russell, of Sandy, said the family was dirt poor during his boyhood in Ontario. Verna had much of the responsibility for taking care of her eight brothers and sisters. She drifted away at about 19.
There were stories of Verna falling from her grandfather’s hayloft, knocking herself out and staying unconscious for three days. Maybe the head injury explained her lack of maternal instinct and flighty ways. Others remembered rumors of Verna and Robert working in a circus for a time. No one knew why they had so many children and gave them all up or why they eventually divorced.
When DeGraw, the family historian, heard that Verna had died in an Arizona prison, she investigated and found no record.
It’s a mystery that may never be solved.
This weekend, the newly acquainted siblings concentrated instead on gaining their equilibrium as they were pulled into the bosom of a large and loving family, soaking in the stories and photos and the hugs.
Westlake looked happy.
“It’s been goosebumps and tears,” she said.
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or call 541-966-0810.