'I searched for my sister for 30 years, but Covid took her from me'
By Sarah McDermott
In the summer of 1988, Steve Ellis received some shocking news which would reverberate for more than 30 years, and lead to an unexpected friendship.
Steve Ellis was at work, in the London offices of Bella magazine, when the letter arrived. The envelope had a Halifax postmark and Steve recognised the handwriting immediately - it was his mother's.
"Dear Stephen, I haven't been proud of my past, and at times it still hurts very much indeed," the letter began.
"Believe me, nobody knows the anguish I have gone through for many years. People forgave me and him for what we did, and I can tell you the hardest thing is to forgive oneself."
Steve, one of the founding editors of the women's magazine, was 37 and had been raised an only child by his unmarried mother, Dorothy. But in her letter, Dorothy revealed that she had also given birth to another child - a girl born two years after her son.
Steve and his sister both had the same father, Dorothy wrote, but he was married and had a family of his own.
"It was the first time she'd ever mentioned that she'd had another child," Steve says. "It burst a bubble of silence, of something unspoken between mother and son."
"Stephen, do please forgive me for the past, for I can't explain what heartbreak it has been for me," Dorothy wrote. "I love you very much."
Although the letter from his mother had come as a shock, Steve was not surprised to learn that he had a sister. In fact, he had discovered his mother's secret more than 25 years earlier, when he came across a bundle of letters in her bedroom one day.
Among them was a birth certificate for someone called Susan Ellis, born in December 1953 - two years after him.
"I was so surprised - I wasn't the only person in the world," Steve says.
There were letters from the Ashton-under-Lyne Adoption Society there too, which said things like, "We're very sorry for your action," "This is a very sinful act," and "I hope your family forgive you."
Ten-year-old Steve knew what adoption meant, but there were other words he didn't understand, and uncovering his mother's secrets made him feel guilty. Steve never said a word to his mother about what he had found.
The day after receiving her letter, Steve drove to see his mother at her council flat in Halifax. Through tears Dorothy told him how she'd breastfed her baby daughter for 10 weeks and two days at home, before she had been taken away.
"A second 'illegitimate' child, born into a two-bedroom terraced house with seven - sometimes eight - occupants was one too many," Steve says.
At the time he and his mother were living with Dorothy's parents and three or four of her siblings. Steve's grandmother was a cleaner, while his grandfather stoked boilers at a carpet mill. Dorothy didn't have a job and they just couldn't afford another mouth to feed.
Dorothy had lived with a "horrendous burden of guilt", she told him, as well as having to endure the stigma of being an unmarried mother who'd given away one of her children. It had been difficult to find work because many employers wouldn't take on single mothers, and some of Dorothy's friends wouldn't speak to her for years, if at all.
"People crossed the road and refused to talk to her because she'd had an illegitimate child," Steve says. "She was a fallen woman."
Steve had always wondered about Susan. He asked Dorothy if she'd like him to try to find her, and his mother said, "Yes."
Within days Steve was filling out forms at the General Register Office. He contacted solicitors, spoke to a private detective agency and even placed an advert in the Manchester Evening News on a hunch that Susan was living in that area.
"No reply came," Steve says. No matter where he looked he drew a blank.
As the years passed, Steve often found himself wondering if his sister was the stranger passing him in the street. He yearned to find Susan, not just for his own sake, but also for his mother's.
"I can't imagine a day went by without her thinking about her daughter," he says.
"In some ways, it's worse than death. Someone you gave birth to is out there, but you don't know what she looks like, whether her parents were nice or nasty, whether she's been successful. She's there, but she's not."
By 2019 Steve was in his late 60s, and resigned to the fact that he might never find his sister. But during the intervening years, the law had changed to allow intermediary agencies to help trace people separated by adoption before 30 December 2005. When Steve realised this help was available, he contacted one agency and told them everything he could about Susan Ellis. Within a few months a specialist researcher had news.
"My sister was alive," Steve says.
The intermediary warned him they would need to tread carefully - Susan may not even be aware that she had been adopted, they said. They sent a very delicately written letter and waited - but Susan's response was not what Steve had wished for.
"She was very angry and shocked," he says.
Susan - who had been told she'd been placed into care after the death of her birth mother and who had no inkling she had any living relatives - said she needed time to consider her brother's approach.
Steve hoped that Susan would come around and they might finally build a sibling relationship, but when more than five months passed and no word came he began to lose hope.
One sunny April day, just a couple of weeks into the first Covid lockdown in 2020, the intermediary rang. But it wasn't good news. Susan had died three days earlier.
"I sat down in the garden crying," Steve says, "I'd missed out on my sister."
The intermediary told Steve that his sister's husband, Graham, would like to talk to him, and later that evening the two men spoke.
Sarah - whose name had been changed from Susan when she was adopted - had been coming round to the idea of contacting Steve, Graham said, but her health had been deteriorating following a complicated heart bypass operation, and she'd been admitted to hospital.
"As she was getting more ill she was more conciliatory and wanted to make contact," Steve says. "But then her health depreciated to the point where it became too late."
Sarah died in isolation, with Covid-19 listed at the top of her death certificate.
Although in the midst of his own grief, Graham answered Steve's questions about Sarah, and created a picture of the sister Steve had never met. She was bubbly, warm and friendly, Graham said, and she enjoyed life.
"It was 66 years of history condensed into 90 minutes," Steve says, "it was amazing."
Sarah had been brought up by loving adoptive parents - her father was a headmaster, and they lived in a large, detached house.
"There's a wonderful irony there, of these contrasts in her life and mine," Steve says. "I was left in this crowded backstreet hovel in Halifax, while my sister went off to a rather grand life."
After attending a fee-paying school, Sarah spent three years as an officer in the RAF, and later ran her own coffee shop.
A few days later Graham emailed Steve a photograph of Sarah - the first he'd ever seen.
"When it came up on the screen, I broke down," Steve says. "I think it was 60 years of pent-up emotion. It was just the most astonishing feeling, I've never had it before and I've never had it since.
"She came alive, even though she was dead."
Steve and his wife watched Graham standing alone in the crematorium on the day of Sarah's funeral, via a video link from their home. Then the two men spoke by telephone every day, and a bond between them grew.
Eventually Graham invited Steve to come and stay in the house he and Sarah had shared. By spending time with her husband of 25 years, sifting through photographs and visiting places she had been, Steve felt closer to his sister than ever.
He discovered interesting parallels too - they both played piano by ear and loved baking - and when Steve saw some of Sarah's paintings he was struck by how similar her watercolour style was to his own.
"You wouldn't be able to tell whether she'd painted them or I had," he says.
Dorothy, Steve's mother, died two years before Steve found his sister, carrying her guilt to the grave. For Steve there's a sadness that he wasn't able to reassure his mum about how things had turned out for the baby she had to give away.
"It would have been wonderful to let her know that she had gone to kind, loving parents," he says.
Steve is thankful for the relationship with his new-found brother-in-law, who fulfilled Sarah's dying wishes by making possible Steve's "pilgrimage" to learn about his sister.
"I will never get to meet her, I will never get to talk to her, and that will be a source of regret forever," says Steve, who is now 70.
"Yet I've got to know Sarah after her death, because her husband Graham opened his heart and their home to allow me to discover as much as possible about my long-lost sister - an act of amazing generosity."
Listen to Steve Ellis on Life Changing - produced by Thomas Harding-Assinder