Until three weeks ago, Carl Sontowski thought most of his biological relatives had died – his mother in 2000, his sister and father in 2009.
Then, while working in the garage at his home in Medical Lake, Sontowski, 57, received a call from an aunt he hadn’t heard from in more than a decade.
“She said, ‘Hey, I need to tell you something.’ And I said, ‘OK,’ ” Sontowski recalled. “And she said, ‘You have a half-sister.’ ”
Lindsay Lee, 71, had spent most of her life wondering about her biological family when the Saskatchewan Ministry of Social Services unsealed her original birth certificate in January. With her mother’s full maiden name – Jean Clarissa Yuill – Lee used Ancestry.com to find several second cousins, who put her in touch with the aunt, who confirmed the relationship with a DNA test and passed along Lee’s contact information to Sontowski.
The long-lost siblings have been emailing each other almost daily. They plan to meet at Sontowski’s house for a Thanksgiving feast.
Lee lives just three hours away in Yahk, a tiny British Columbia town just north of the Idaho border. She has even visited the Spokane area each year for doctor’s appointments, and once for a getaway at Northern Quest Resort & Casino.
“I was really surprised we live as close as we do,” she said.
Sontowski was surprised too. His mother, who was born and raised in Saskatchewan, was 19 when she gave birth to Lee – long before she married Karl Sontowski, Carl’s father.
“My mother never spoke about having another child adopted or anything,” Sontowski said. “And I don’t know who Lindsay’s biological father would be.”
Neither does Lee. The records she got from Saskatchewan’s social services ministry are heavily redacted, covered with black bars as though her genealogy were a matter of national security, she said, jokingly. She doesn’t know her father’s name.
Lee’s experience as an adoptee struggling to learn about her ancestry is not unique. In most U.S. states, original birth certificates are sealed, or access is restricted, according to the American Adoption Congress, an advocacy group.
Leya Moore, a spokeswoman for Saskatchewan’s social services ministry, said under rules that took effect this year, adoptees can access all information on their birth certificates unless a biological parent files a veto against disclosure of certain information. Such a veto would expire upon the death of the parent who filed it, Moore said.
Lee said she spent the first six months of her life in a hospital and always knew she was adopted, but her parents refused to say anything about her biological mother.
“I questioned them a lot,” she said, “and you got nothing out of them.”
They finally gave Lee her birth mom’s name shortly before both parents died in the mid-1980s. But they didn’t give her middle name. As it turns out, there was another Jean Yuill born in Saskatchewan the same year as her mother. Lee said she reached out to that woman, who died in 2010, but never heard back.
Meanwhile, Lee’s sister, also adopted, became a social worker and managed to track down some of her biological relatives.
Jean Yuill-Sontowski died at age 72 in Calgary in April 2000, nearly five years after suffering a catastrophic stroke, her son said. She had worked as an accountant in New Jersey, Texas and Canada.
Lee, a former schoolteacher and florist, has two children and lives with her husband in Yahk. She thinks her daughter, who was a math whiz in high school, may have taken after the grandmother she never knew.
Lee said she’s cautiously optimistic about meeting her brother.
Sontowski also is retired, after a career in the U.S. Navy and Air National Guard. He doesn’t have any biological children, but his wife has two sons, ages 18 and 25. He said he looks forward to meeting a new segment of his family, especially his brother-in-law.
“He’s a mechanic and a gun enthusiast, so we’ll have a lot in common,” Sontowski said.
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