One Man's Emotional Search For His Birth Parents
It started out as a typical outport childhood for Wallace (Wally) Collett. Growing up in the isolated (now abandoned) community of Harbour Buffett on Long Island in Placentia Bay in the 1940s, he recalls hours spent as a young lad spreading fish on flakes to dry, digging into Sunday dinners of corned beef and cabbage, and playing by the ocean.
For him and others, excitement in the remote harbour was triggered by the arrival of the coastal boat. “Half the community would gather on the wharf that night, usually it was after supper, dark in the evenings, when the boat would come in,” remembers Wally, now 81, speaking over the phone from his home in New Brunswick. The coastal boat delivered vital supplies, mail and passengers. On one unforgettable occasion, the vessel brought with it a mystery that would confound Wally for much of his young life.
Once a year, a trunk arrived for his family. It contained clothing of all styles and sizes, plus toys for the children. His Aunt Gladys Collett - beloved by Wally and his siblings - sent the gently used items from Montreal, where she worked for a wealthy family.
“It was kind of like Christmas in the middle of the summer,” Wally fondly recalls. The most memorable of all the gifts he received from his aunt in this manner, he says, was his first teddy bear, which he proudly showed off around the tiny cove.
“An old lady down there was always hanging out her kitchen window in the summer to see and hear what she could…I show her the teddy bear and she asks who gave it to me. ‘Oh, my Aunt Glad,’ I told her, whereupon she tells me, ‘Oh my dear, that is not your Aunt Glad. That is your mother.’”
For young Wally, the brash admission was understandably jarring, but not far-fetched. From a young age, he’d wondered why his parents and siblings (Holletts) didn’t share his last name (Collett) - a point that got him taunted at school. But could his cherished aunt really be his mother? Finding out wouldn’t be easy.
“In those days it seemed that it was an accepted thing that a child is not told about his or her background,” says Wally. “No matter how many questions I asked, no answers were forthcoming.” As Wally got older, he grew more desperate to know the truth about his past. His own sleuthing eventually uncovered his biological father’s name (Ted Baker), which he found as a teenager on documents hidden in his family’s home.
“I decided to keep it all inside me and somewhere, somehow, someday I would get to the bottom of it all,” says Wally. Years later, he finally did - and not a moment too soon.
The Search for the Truth
Wally left Newfoundland as a young man in the mid-1950s for a career with the RCMP. Training took him to Ottawa, near where his Aunt Gladys still lived in Montreal. During his many visits to see her, Gladys confirmed she was, in fact, his birth mother. Wally revelled in those opportunities to bond with her and learn all he could about his past.
“[Those visits] were beautiful, they were emotional, because we really went back to the day I was born and talked about the whole thing,” says Wally.
Upon his birth in 1937, Gladys was a young, unwed woman living in St. John’s, where his father, Ted, worked as a policeman, she told him. The couple parted for religious reasons (an all too familiar tale in those days in Newfoundland). Told by a priest that she must renounce her Protestant family before marrying Ted, a Catholic, she refused; the pair split before Wally was born.
Gladys initially had a friend babysit her newborn son while she worked. When that was no longer an option, Gladys asked the hospital where Wally was born to care for him until she could make other arrangements.
“She would go in and visit me all the time, and this one particular day she went in and I wasn’t there… she was totally devastated,” says Wally, retelling the sad story as Gladys (who’s since passed away) told it to him years ago. Without her knowledge, hospital staff had arranged to transfer the care of Wally to her
family in Harbour Buffett. Gladys’ newlywed sister, Susan Hollett, offered to raise him (though he was never formally adopted). With few options, and comforted that her son would be reared by family, Gladys agreed to keep his origins a secret.
“I think she was always haunted by it,” says Wally. “One thing she told me, she said she had several opportunities to marry, and she said she promised herself she would never marry until I was settled down, I was married and had a home of my own,” says Wally. True to her word, six months after Wally was wed, Gladys finally tied the knot as well. Wally would remain her only natural-born son.
Putting the Past to Rest
Having finally established a relationship with his birth mother, Wally set his sights on finding his biological father.
“I really got obsessed with it. I would spend nights on patrol in the police car and I would be thinking about it,” remembers Wally. Eventually he wrote the Chief of Police in St. John’s, hoping for any lead on Ted Baker, a former member of the Newfoundland Constabulary.
“A short while later I got a reply, and in it was all the information I could ever have hoped for,” says Wally. The response included a current address for Ted in Philadelphia, USA. Wally nervously mailed a letter. He received a reply from his birth father within days.
“The letter was very pleasant. He said, ‘I know who you are and I want to see you.’ I cried,” remembers Wally. Months later, Ted travelled to visit Wally in New Brunswick.
“Even when I talk about it now I get all choked up,” says Wally, recalling the 10 days in 1963 that he spent getting to know the man who had fathered him.
“We just talked and shared about everything under the sun.”
Sadly, within a year of their meeting, Ted passed away. Wally attended his funeral in Philadelphia, where he met Ted’s siblings and children. Suddenly, Wally’s already large family became even larger, with the addition of several aunts, an uncle and siblings. Shortly after Ted passed, Wally and his wife had their third son, whom they named Christopher Baker Collett in honour of his birth father.
Wally keeps in contact with that branch of his family, and in recent years he paid a visit to Ted’s birthplace, Conception Harbour, NL.
“I found the old family homestead, where he was brought up. The house is not there; it was left abandoned and fell down. I walked through the area and I found the remnants of an old wood and coal stove. I picked up one of those round cast-iron covers off the stove, and I brought it back to New Brunswick with me,” says Wally. He’s since painted a scene on the piece, which he displays in his home in a nod to his roots.
Fortunately, Wally had more time to bond with his birth mother, who lived to be 88. He eventually made arrangements for Gladys to live near him in New Brunswick, where he could care for her in her final years.
“I was so very, very blessed to have had the chance to do that for her, especially since she was not able to really care for me in my growing up years,” says Wally. She passed away in 2003, and Wally - who eventually retired from policing and became an ordained minister - gave the sermon at her funeral.
As he looks back on the long and interesting life he’s led so far, Wally holds no grudges for the secrets that were kept. He is, however, full of gratitude for having had the chance to connect with each of his birth parents in a meaningful way, and for the Holletts, who took him in and raised him as one of their own.
“If I hadn’t been able to find my roots I think I would still be a very frustrated person,” says Wally. “It made me feel that much more whole.”
- by Ashley Miller