A world and a lifetime apart: N.S. woman discovers half-sister across the Atlantic

·6 min read
Sheila Kennedy and her half-sister Carole Sanderson only just learned of each other's existence last year. They met for the first time, virtually, after messaging back and forth for months. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC - image credit)
Sheila Kennedy and her half-sister Carole Sanderson only just learned of each other's existence last year. They met for the first time, virtually, after messaging back and forth for months. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC - image credit)

After her father left when she was little, Sheila Kennedy of Truro, N.S., spent most of her life wondering about him.

She never expected, at the age of 76, she'd get a chance to learn about his life – or the family she never knew she had.

Sheila was born in 1943. By 1946, her dad was out of the picture.

All she knew was he had been in Britain's Royal Air Force, stationed nearby in Debert.

Her father and mother married. She was born. He was gone before she was old enough to remember him.

Growing up, she never got any answers from her mother or grandparents. It was a bad subject. The photos she has of her father, Arthur Jobling, can be counted on one hand.

Arthur Jobling and Fran Cox's wedding photo from 1943 is one of the only pictures Sheila has of her father.
Arthur Jobling and Fran Cox's wedding photo from 1943 is one of the only pictures Sheila has of her father.(Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

"It just wasn't something that you should talk about," Sheila said. "They'd rather not discuss it."

It had a far-reaching impact on her mother, Fran Cox, whose life, she said, was never quite the same. Fran never remarried.

Sheila didn't have any brothers or sisters to help fill in the blanks. Growing up without any siblings was hard on her, especially in an era when families were typically large. She always wanted a sister, but she never had one.

Until now.

Two marriages, two families

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Carole Sanderson didn't think much of it when her daughter started digging around on a genealogy website to map out her family tree last summer. But she was in for "quite a shock."

"She couldn't believe it," said Carole, who is 65. "It was a sister I knew nothing about."

Carole was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne in England. Her father, a member of her country's air force, had been stationed in Nova Scotia during the Second World War.

After he returned to the U.K. in 1946, he met Carole's mother and they got married in 1949 before having two children, Carole and Tony.

Her father died 20 years ago, but Carole remembers him as a wonderful father with a great sense of humour, always the life of the party.

Carole Sanderson, 65, and her brother Tony, 70, grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England. Their parents were Arthur and Olive Jobling.
Carole Sanderson, 65, and her brother Tony, 70, grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England. Their parents were Arthur and Olive Jobling.(Submitted by Carole Sanderson)

"Nobody knew a thing about [his first marriage] and he got married again … He didn't bother getting a divorce," she said with a laugh, adding it was "typical" of him.

With nothing but the name of the street where he'd lived in 1943 and the first name of her long-lost half-sister, Carole decided to track her down.

"I thought, 'Now I've got to try and find this person,'" she said. "I wanted to know, and hoped that she wanted to get in touch."

Finding Sheila

But looking up the address online was a dead end, so Carole reached out to a local mayor in Nova Scotia, who directed her to a community Facebook group with more than 18,000 members.

One of the many people who commented on her plea for help was Shelley Crowell. She lives in Elmsdale, about halfway between Halifax and Truro.

When she saw Carole's post asking for help tracking down her half-sister, Shelley Crowell was eager to help. She and Carole have remained friends since.
When she saw Carole's post asking for help tracking down her half-sister, Shelley Crowell was eager to help. She and Carole have remained friends since.(Submitted by Shelley Crowell)

As an adoptive mother with her own personal connection to stories of family reunification, Shelley took a special interest in Carole's quest. She said it was her way of paying it forward, with the added bonus of unlocking a mystery, one piece at a time.

With her local library offering free subscriptions to Ancestry.com, Shelley was able to dig much deeper than Carole's daughter could. For days, she pored over voting records, incoming passenger records, marriage certificates, obituaries and local news articles.

Shelley was in constant contact with Carole in the U.K. over Facebook, filling her in with each new clue she found, until she was absolutely sure she'd found the right Sheila.

"She didn't just point me in the direction, she delved right into it," Carole said, calling Shelley an "absolute angel." The two women have remained friends ever since.

'A good dad'

Finding out she had two half-siblings was a major shock to Sheila, but she and Carole didn't waste any time getting to know each other.

"I thought I was the only one … I was an only child and then to find out 70-some years later that you have two half-siblings. It's really amazing," Sheila said.

From their first Facebook message, they wrote to each other weekly, sometimes daily. They shared photos of themselves, their spouses, their kids and grandchildren, and their father.

From left: Sheila and her husband, Bruce Kennedy. At right: Carole and her husband, David Sanderson.
From left: Sheila and her husband, Bruce Kennedy. At right: Carole and her husband, David Sanderson.(Submitted by Carole Sanderson)

"He was a good dad. My only regret is, I wish Sheila could have had some of him. That's what I wish. You know, he was so lovely, that I wish she'd known him," Carole said.

While Sheila might not have gotten the answers to some of the questions she'd lived with her whole life, like why he left, she at least got to hear about what he was like. She was grateful for that.

The first meeting

The half-sisters planned to meet in person as soon as the pandemic would allow.

But as time went on and a second wave came, then a third, they realized it could be years before they could travel across the Atlantic without having to quarantine.

So, in true pandemic fashion, they had their first meeting virtually, almost a full year after they first started writing to each other.

When Carole and Sheila had their first virtual meeting, there was non-stop laughter. They talked for more than an hour until they were both hoarse.
When Carole and Sheila had their first virtual meeting, there was non-stop laughter. They talked for more than an hour until they were both hoarse.(Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

The half-sisters talked and laughed together for more than an hour. They met each other's husbands, they shared stories, and found they had all sorts of things in common — a love of horses, a grandson named Andrew, a funny relationship to the song Old Shep.

They carried on so easily it seemed like they'd known each other forever.

Having finally heard each others' voices and seen each others' faces in real time, both Sheila and Carole are more eager than ever to meet in person, to be able to hug each other.

The half-sisters, and their husbands, have each had their first dose of the vaccine. There's hope on the horizon for a reunion trip to Nova Scotia, eventually.

Carole is keen to see the house her father once lived in, where Sheila still lives with her husband, Bruce, all these years later. Sheila jokes they'll just have to stay alive long enough to make it happen. Thankfully, they share a sense of humour, too.