PORT DUFFERIN – When Bonnie Whitman answered the phone in December 2020 – she instantly knew by the sound of her niece’s voice that it was the call she had been anticipating for four decades.
“My niece Shelby in Lethbridge, Alberta, had been contacted by Michelle in Ottawa through Ancestry inquiring if she would know her birth mother – Bonnie Oickle. When she said ‘yes,’ Michelle asked her if she could contact me.”
Unmarried in 1973 at age 18, Bonnie had become pregnant and, as she put it: “In those years you didn’t tell anybody. You were lucky if you could tell your parents. It was not a good time for the relationship and so I left my baby’s father, Clair Whitman, and I went to Ottawa.”
Bonnie had a brother and his wife in Ottawa, who provided her with family support and she gave birth to a daughter on Dec. 16, 1973.
“There was no talk from anybody [of keeping the baby], and I felt the right thing for me to do was to offer her for adoption. It felt like it was a given.”
The baby girl – a healthy seven pounds, 11 ounces – was taken from Bonnie as soon as she had delivered.
“She was just gone,” recalled Bonnie, with tears welling in her eyes as she relived the pain of that day. “I felt alone. Well – a part of you is gone. There was no talk of the baby – ever. You just learn to deal with it and push things inside and go on.”
Michelle Jefferies explained she cannot recall when she first learned she was adopted or even understanding what that meant.
“It’s just something my adoptive parents had always told me from a young age and I’ve never known any different.”
From what she remembers her parents explaining, her birth mother was not able to look after her at the time, so they decided to help out and adopt her.
“They couldn’t have children of their own and I needed a family. I was never made to feel any different than the rest of my adoptive family.”
The adoptive parents were Richard and Rosemary Beech. Michelle Ann was their only child, born Dec. 16, 1973, in Ottawa. “They had submitted adoption papers hoping for a boy but were informed a baby girl was available. I had been with a foster parent for the first six months before I was legally adopted. The paperwork only cost $10 – I was a bargain.”
The baby girl arrived with a few clothes and notes about her health and food preferences.
“Everything was in a plastic blue and white Dominion grocery store bag - which I still have,” said Michelle.
“I also came with my temporary name ‘Michelle’ which I knew my birth mother gave me. My parents separated and divorced when I was almost five years old and I stayed with my mom. A short time later my father remarried. From his second marriage I have two step-siblings – a younger sister and brother – and we are quite close.”
The family never had any secrets about the adoption. They spoke openly about it and her parents maintained it was solely her decision, if she ever decided to search.
“They never pushed but said that perhaps one day, when I was ready, I should try and reach out,” said Michelle. “I have had some health issues and learning family medical history could be helpful. My mother has since passed away; however, I know she would be thrilled for me to have found and met my birth family. My dad is really happy for us all and hopes to meet some of my biological family someday.”
Back in late 1973, Bonnie remained in Ottawa for a period of time, but she was homesick for her family back in Port Dufferin. When she returned to Nova Scotia, she and Clair eventually reconciled and only then did she tell him about the baby. They made a pact to never tell and in 1978 they married. In 1979, their son, Scott, was born – followed by their daughter, Michelle, in 1980. Later, Bonnie discovered that while she had maintained the secret – Clair had not. When news came out this past year of the daughter from long ago – to many friends and relatives it was not news.
Michelle Beech grew up in Ottawa and married Scott Jefferies in 2002 and they have three children: Campbell,17; Mackenzie, 15; and Reed, 13. They live within the rural city limits of Ottawa; Scott is a licensed electrician and Michelle recently retired as an analyst with the RCMP. However, as fulfilling as family life has been, she often reflected on her birth family and who they might be.
‘It’s so difficult to describe how you feel growing up knowing that out there – somewhere – there are parts of you and a whole backstory just waiting to be discovered. Finally having the opportunity to explore my story is incredible and heartwarming,” wrote Michelle.
“There has always been this feeling of yearning or curiosity to know where I came from, who I look like, do I have siblings or are they still alive? My mom always told me, ‘You look like you. Start with that and question everything else when you’re ready,’” Michelle said.
Her active search began 15 years ago, when Michelle mustered up the courage to request the long-form version of identifying information about her birth. The document named her birth mother as Bonnie Oickle.
“It was amazing to put a name to the woman who gave birth to me,” she said. “That was as far as I got until 2019 when I bought myself an Ancestry DNA kit for Christmas. My nerves got the better of me and the kit sat on the shelf for another year. I just couldn’t do it.”
Finally, at 46, she submitted an Ancestry DNA kit in October 2020. It was from the close DNA matches that she was able to connect with her biological family members.
Waiting for the results took almost two months and, coincidentally, the email arrived on Michelle’s birthday.
“I noticed there were quite a few close DNA matches and the real shocker came when I saw other people with the surname Oickle. That evening, I made the decision to find out more about myself … to fill that void. Through the Ancestry.ca website I sent a few general messages to my close matches. Within 12 hours, I had a response and they knew exactly who I was.”
When Michelle received a message back from her Ancestry second cousin match, she said, “I was in absolute shock and the tears started to flow. They confirmed that Bonnie [Oickle, now Whitman] was my mother – told me where she lived and I had a sister and a brother. The fact that I had actually found my birth mother – plus – I had two full-blood siblings absolutely floored me. This news was absolutely incredible. I was petrified knowing me popping up would make its way to Bonnie.” She continued, “I think only other adoptees can fully understand that feeling of being curious but cautious at the same time. There has always been some anxiety associated with my curiosity.”
Back in Port Dufferin, when her brother Scott was told about his new sibling, he quietly accepted the news and simply said, “Well … that’s good.”
While Bonnie’s second daughter, also named Michelle, was thrilled to make immediate contact with her sister – Bonnie had to take some time to reach out.
“I couldn’t. All I could do was cry. I couldn’t do it.”
Bonnie had worries.
“Had she had a good life? Did she have everything she needed growing up? There has not been one day in my whole life that I haven’t thought about her.”
In August, the Whitman family hosted a wedding for Michelle and her fiancé Matt and they invited their newfound sibling and her family to Port Dufferin to meet and to share in the celebration.
Michelle’s husband and children were excited to travel east to Nova Scotia to meet a whole lot of family.
“I was really excited to meet Bonnie, Michelle and Scott,” Michelle said.
“Holding them in person and talking with one another is more than I could have ever dreamed. They made us feel so welcome.”
When the family arrived in Port Dufferin, Bonnie met them at the door of her porch.
“We just hugged. It was wonderful. There were a lot of tears. Michelle hugged me – and hugged me – and kept saying to me, ‘Everything is all right’. Those words were wonderful. Her children and husband, Scott, are wonderful. I am so lucky to have them all – along with my son Scott … and Michelle and her new husband Matt and his daughters.”
The family had an amazing time meeting everyone at the wedding and seeing photographs of family. Michelle recognized resemblances to either her or her children. “For the first time in my life, that void was being filled. A bonus was also meeting my new brother-in-law, Matt, and my two beautiful nieces.”
By Michelle’s admission, the experience of meeting her birth mother and two siblings has completely changed her life. “I never dreamed that I would ever find my biological family – much less have such a welcoming reception after all these years. I am really looking forward to growing a strong relationship with Bonnie. I can sum up this visit in a word and that’s ‘comfortable.’ Albeit cliché, I felt very much at home.”
Clair, Michelle’s biological father, passed away Oct. 27, 2018.
“I was absolutely gutted when I learned my biological father had passed away. All these years I let my fear get the better of me. I fully regret not trying to find my family earlier. I have enjoyed listening to some of the stories about my father and look forward to hearing more.”
“Any adoptee or adoptive parents who are genuinely interested in finding a birth family,” advised Michelle, “should follow their curiosity and see where it leads. I understand everyone’s life situations are different and I must accept their choices. In my case, the receptions I received have exceeded my expectations and I’m thrilled. Embracing Bonnie for the first time in my life was absolutely fulfilling.”
She said she has an old metal blue steamer trunk in her garage that contains “so many things in it from when I was young.”
“Inside the trunk is where I keep the old Dominion bag that I came with and some old photo albums, which I’m sure have plenty more pictures of me as a baby. As I mentioned, I know my mom would be very happy. My dad was surprised when I first told him about my Ancestry results. He said how great it is that I have full blood siblings too.”
As for Bonnie, she misses Clair.
“He’s gone and an empty part remains. But – my life feels fulfilled and complete. She [Michelle] is in our lives and my son and daughter have accepted her as one of us. She’s family.”