One phone call and countless tears served to piece together the fragmented history of three siblings separated at birth and raised in foster care, only to be fully reunited in their senior years.
Each sibling only knew of one other, so when Saegertown resident Sheena Baker met her brother Gary Waide for the first time accidentally in 1976, she began a 40-year search for Shirley Hopper, their older sister who they believed was in Arkansas.
Based on a handful of leads and a partial family history from two surviving aunts and a late uncle, Baker investigated the story of her mother, Pennsylvania woman Gladys Billsborough, and the location of her remaining sibling.
After what seemed like a convoluted and fruitless effort, Baker received a call on Dec. 30 from a young girl in Texas.
“She said, ‘Are you Sheena Baker? We’ll I’m Gladys Billsborough’s great-granddaughter,’” Baker recalled. “I almost fell through the floor.”
Apparently, Hopper’s granddaughter had discovered her ancestry using Genealogy.com in the fall of 2012, when Hopper’s son Thomas Walker began looking up family relations.
Baker recovered from the initial excitement sufficiently enough to send her newly discovered grandniece her Facebook profile, containing a collection of photocopied rarities, including a picture of Billsborough.
“Her dad had the picture enlarged and the cracks taken out,” Baker said. “He framed it, wrapped it and gave it to his mom, my sister, as a late Christmas gift.”
Handed to Hopper on Jan. 2, the picture kicked off the New Year with a bright start as Hopper sat on her back porch watching the sun go down.
“I opened the box and there was a picture of my mother and I cried,” Hopper said. “It was quite a gift my son gave me. I’ll never forget that one.”
“We did a lot of crying and laughing,” said Baker, who since began calling her sister at least once a week, catching up on lost years and learning the two have a serendipitous amount of personal preferences in common.
“Catching up is pretty good,” she added. “Both of us are writing things down to ask each other, personal likes and differences. But from the sound of everything, we pretty much have a lot in common.”
Hopper and Waide also spoke to each other for the first time in the past few months, bringing a degree of closure to a family history still missing a few pages.
The compilation of family accounts and discovered information places a young Billsborough in a marriage with Gerald Waid sometime around 1935 during the Great Depression. They conceived two children, Waide and Hopper, before their separation. Billsborough retained custody.
Waide went into the Air Force at the age of 17, when the “e” was added to his last name through an alleged certificate misprint.
By 1940, Billsborough married Everett Heysham and lived with him in Richburg, N.Y. Within a year, they had conceived Baker and separated. Heysham took Baker but reportedly hit financial struggles and placed her in foster care around 1941.
Billsborough, with Hopper in tow, traveled to Arkansas where she contracted tuberculosis and was housed in a sanitarium. She passed away in 1947 at the age of 29, according to Baker.
Hopper and Waide were placed in foster care, although the timing and location of Waide’s placement is unclear.
“My foster parents had taken me right from the hospital the way I understood,” Waide said. “It would’ve been nice to have met my mother, but she died too early.”
None of the siblings ever experienced formal adoption but were raised by at least one set of foster parents. Those who had old photographs lost many of them during their travels.
Each sibling married and started a family of their own, each with several children, grandchildren and some great-grandchildren.
“The family is all excited for me,” Baker said. “They’re very happy.”
Hopper traveled between Arkansas and Texas, eventually settling down in the Texan countryside near Thorndale.
Waide ended up in the Erie area and currently resides near Harborcreek. Baker reportedly lived in northwestern Pennsylvania at the time.
“We met by accident, Sheena and I,” he said, recalling how his foster sisters met and befriended him in the mid-1970s. “My foster mother invited her and the kids to dinner one night and they got to talking.”
Eventually, Waide’s foster mother put Baker’s maiden name “Heysham” and Billborough’s first name together. She approached the half-siblings and revealed her discovery.
“It was kind of a shock to me,” said Waide, who said he knew about Hopper growing up. “It was a joy and a pleasant surprise to learn I had another sister.”
Waide’s father, Gerald Waid, was also a military serviceman at the time of his marriage to Billsborough, according to Hopper, who tied in the significance to her family’s frequent but unrecorded travel in its early stages.
“This is just mind-boggling; all the dates and years (are) unaccounted for,” she said. “I’ll be really glad when we can put all of this behind us and pick up the pieces from here.”
Baker struggled to piece her family’s history together in the first place, trying numerous avenues, including a call to Unsolved Mysteries, which was backlogged with similar requests.
“We went down to Arkansas at one point, hoping to find information on Shirley,” she said. “My daughter made up some flyers with an old picture and some information.”
Baker and her family visited Billsborough’s grave site in Bloomfield, Ark., around 1997 and placed a marker there with a flyer in the hopes one of the siblings would come across it.
“After seeing my mother’s grave, I thought to save time and energy, why not get a hold of the monument place and see who put the stone down?” she said. “Every time I called, though, they said they had to have a definite date when the stone was laid.”
The lack of modern technology and verifiable information made individual searches difficult for all the siblings to act on their collective curiosity.
“Computers were not out then and we had no way of hiring investigators,” Hopper said.
On top of that, even with a few leads, none of the siblings really had a good idea of where to look for one another. The Waide-Baker reunion served only to rekindle the curiosity burning inside them.
“I started praying every Christmas since about five years ago, asking God if he would bring her to me and that it would be the greatest gift ever,” Baker said, coming to tears as she recalled the day her prayers were answered. “I was just about to give up when he finally did it. It just took time.”
All three siblings, now in their 70s, are hoping to reunite in person, perhaps in the summer when flu season ends and inclement weather is less likely to impede their travel.
“I’m certainly hoping for a reunion,” Waide said. “We’re all getting up there a little bit in age, but we’d all like to. I’m sure it will happen.”
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.