It was a mother’s dream that one day, her five children, would somehow find their way to each other. It was a dream that at one point seemed a daunting, if not impossible, task.
It was a dream she wasn’t able to see come true.
Although Renate Bahls Bailey, 67, who died in 2012, was not alive to see it, Feb. 13 brought together all five of her children, some of which didn’t know the others existed a month ago, in Elizabethtown. For the first time in their lives, Marcus Knight, Craig Wilkins, Alice Wheeler, Tanya West-Garrette and Heidi Orsette were able to touch and see each other in the same place, at the same time.
“I regret they weren’t able to find us while my mom was still alive, because I feel like she would be beside herself,” Orsette said. “It would have tickled her pink that all five of us were together, I think she would have been overcome with emotion.”
What makes their story even more compelling is it was more than 50 years in the making.
Up until a month ago. Wheeler, from Cecilia, had no idea how to contact her birth family or if she had any siblings and Wilkins from Lawrenceburg, originally from Millwood in Grayson County, had no idea any of the others existed. They were adopted by local families as infants. Wheeler was adopted by Alma and Adam Ludlow in Cecilia.
“I had a perfect upbringing, Christian home and Craig said the same thing,” Wheeler said. “We both had wholesome, farm lives with great wonderful parents. There were no negatives in our childhood, but there’s this nagging hole that won’t go away. I think it’s something that your adoptive life can’t take the place of, no matter how good it is.”
Wilkins was adopted by Murrell and Pat Wilkins in Grayson County.
“I was adopted at 5-months-old,” he said. “... My parents were great to me. The only thing they were told was the mother was from Germany and the father was stationed at Fort Knox. I never really tried to find out because I had a good life and there was no reason to open that.”
Bailey, an orphan of World War II and German immigrant, had divorced her husband, a U.S, Army soldier who by all accounts abused alcohol and her, with her first child, Knight, in tow.
“When he wasn’t drunk, he’s the love of her life,” West-Garrette said. “She had known him since they were 8 or 9 years old. She came over from Germany for him.”
Bailey and her child came to live with friends in Radcliff. While there, she reunited briefly with her former husband and became pregnant with her second child, Norman (Wilkins).
“A year to the day, they got together and celebrated their divorce anniversary, and that’s how Craig came to be,” West-Garrette said, adding Bailey’s ex-husband came to be stationed at Fort Knox,
Already struggling to put food on the table, Bailey decided to give him up for adoption.
“The thing is, he wasn’t suddenly sober or it’s not that they had repaired the relationship or anything,” West-Garrette said. “He still hadn’t changed his ways and my mom was barely making it with Marcus. Unfortunately, that’s how that decision came into play to give up (Craig) for adoption.”
A few years later, she would meet another soldier. They engaged and Bailey became pregnant with her third child, Melissa (Wheeler). The soldier, who the siblings still are not positive of his name, was sent to Vietnam and they believe he was killed in action.
“They didn’t want to get married until he came back,” West-Garrette said, adding the soldier’s death may have contributed to her decision to give Alice Wheeler up for adoption.
Wheeler, who owns T-Box Tactical in Vine Grove, said her father being a U.S. Army soldier helped her understand why she gravitated toward the military.
“I think I know why now and we laughed about it,” she said. “I just always felt a heartfelt feeling toward it and I think this is why.”
Two men later, one of whom she married, and six years in between, West-Garrette and Orsette arrived to the family.
“First and foremost, we can say Mom did not have the best choice in men,” West-Garrette said, laughing. “At the end of the day, it comes down to that.”
Even though Bailey was not lucky in love, West-Garrette said she never lost hope of finding it.
“She never allowed the setbacks to make her give up on love,” she said. “She was an orphan, the war made her an orphan. She never had an easy life. There’s not a point in her life that you can say she had it easy at all, but at least she never gave up on that hope of love.”
While the family continued to struggle financially with Bailey working as a waitress, they never gave up hope they would one day be reunited.
Decades passed and although the adoptions were open, Bailey and her three children never heard from Norman Alexander or Melissa Alexandra.
“By this time, we had resigned to the fact they didn’t want to be found,” Orsette said.
The family would celebrate Norman’s and Melissa’s birthdays and had looked for them with the rise of the internet and social media, but were never able to find them.
“As far back as I can recall, I knew about the other two children, the people that we knew as Norman Alexander and Melissa Alexandra,” West-Garrette said, adding that Knight’s middle name also is Alexander.
Knight, West-Garrette and Orsette always was told the other children’s adoptions were open and part of the agreement was for the children to keep their given names.
“From our end, those were their names,” West-Garrette said. “That way they would be able to find (my mom) and she would be able to find them.”
What they couldn’t have known was Wilkins’ and Wheeler’s names were changed when they were adopted making finding their two siblings impossible without the right information.
“We would still been looking for the same Melissa and the same Norman, and we would have never found them, ever,” Orsette said.
Little did they know, Wheeler had been searching for her mother for about 10 years.
Wheeler enlisted the help of friend Bobbie Jo Daugherty of Constantine in Breckinridge County, who she called Mama Bobbie.
Together, the two began to trace Wheelers’ genealogy with the only information she had, her birth name and her mother’s name.
Their search didn’t turn up much.
“The painful thing is when you hear Alice tell her story of when she started her search, Mom was alive,” West-Garrette said. “I’m truly devastated for my mom.”
After some time, Wheeler once again enlisted the help of the 80-year-old Daugherty, who works in the genealogy archives in Breckinridge County Courthouse.
“It was just meant to be this time,” Daugherty said. “Ten years ago, I just didn’t find much information. Within 10 years a lot more information has been put on Ancestry.com and it just fell in place. I’m just tickled to death they found one another.”
That information they found came from Knight, who entered it to help his daughter with a class project.
Then lightning struck. The first piece of the puzzle of Wheeler’s family history that fell in place was finding Wilkins. Daugherty sent him a message on Facebook on behalf of Wheeler.
“I was sitting in the basement one day when Bobbie messaged me,” Wilkins said, adding that Daugherty asked some details and then told him, “‘I think I have found your biological sister.’ And I said, ‘I don’t have a sister,’ because I didn’t think I did.”
Daugherty was insistent that he did, Wilkins said, and Daugherty could sense some hesitation in Wilkins’ response.
“You could tell he was very leery,” she said. “You don’t know. Trying to contact these people, you don’t know if they know they’re adopted. You just don’t know how to go about it. You could tell he was kind of gun shy about the whole deal.”
Wilkins didn’t deny it.
“I did wait a couple days to think about it,” he said, “Then a good friend from Leitchfield, Ricky Rainey, called and said, ‘Craig, I know Alice really well. She’s not up to anything. It is legit. I would have never put you two together as being kin, but I’ve known her longer than I’ve known you. My daughter and her daughter are best friends, so you’re safe. Just go ahead and call them and you all get to know each other because it’s for real.’”
Wheeler said she was amazed to find out how close they lived to each other while growing up.
“Here’s where it gets really crazy,” she said. “He and I are three years apart in age. ... We literally lived probably 20 to 30 miles apart.”
Wheeler said the possibility existed that they could have been at the same ballgames – Hardin County Schools often competed against Grayson County Schools – or in other places at the same time.
After finding Wilkins, Daugherty was able to locate a current address for Knight and wrote him a letter.
“Of course, I wondered if she had the right person,” Knight said of Daugherty’s letter, adding that she included his mother’s name and other details. “The big thing was, we knew Craig and Alice by the names my mother gave them and not by Craig and Alice. Bobbi Jo had put in there that she had found Norman and Melissa, so it couldn’t have been real without those details.
“The letter sat for over a week,” he added, saying he was out of town on business when it arrived. “It was handwritten, because who gets handwritten letters anymore? It was totally out of the blue.”
Although it took Knight a while to respond, he finally called.
“(Bobbie) called and said, ‘I’m talking to your other brother. He’s in Texas,’” Wheeler said. “‘And on top of that, you have two baby sisters.’ And I fell apart and screamed and cried right in the middle of a business meeting.”
Wilkins also was surprised by the revelation.
“She’s the one that drove the whole thing,” Wilkins said about Wheeler. “Of course, I had no clue. I thought I was an only child, probably. To go from me to four more was crazy.”
Knight reached out to his other two sisters to relay the news their mother’s dream had come true. He first sent of a picture saying he found their sister along with Wheeler’s picture followed shortly by a second message about finding their brother with Wilkins’ photo.
West-Garrette said the resemblance between Wheeler and her mother was remarkable.
“People use the term unspeakable joy, but that’s truly what it was,” said West-Garrette of receiving her brother’s messages. “It was like instant tears mixed with being so happy. If you could combine all of that in one split moment ... I definitely didn’t sleep that night.”
West-Garrette said instead of sleeping, she spent the night “stalking” her new-found siblings’ Facebook profiles.
A group was started on Facebook Messenger, where photos of their families, Bailey and other stories were shared.
From looking alike to getting car sick, to their sense of humor and using the same hair products, the similarities were “uncanny,” Wheeler said.
“I spent most of my entire life without any family, other than my own children,” she said, adding that she was orphaned when she was in high school. “It was really emotional that we looked alike and talked alike. It was amazing. I felt so normal.”
After connecting virtually, the group moved fast to try to meet face-to-face, but plans just weren’t falling into place. It was difficult trying to align five adults’ lives, who all have children, grandchildren and jobs, to travel to one place.
West-Garrett and Orsette lived in Michigan; Knight in Texas and Wheeler and Wilkins in Kentucky.
The original plan was to surprise Knight by meeting at his house, but then the stars aligned again for these siblings. Knight was being sent to Louisville on business. It was unusual to be sent there, he said.
“It’s not in my territory and I’ve never done it,” he said. “I called them and told them, ‘Well, you won’t believe it, but I’m going to Louisville.’”
In just about a month’s time, they went from finding each other to meeting in Elizabethtown the day before Valentine’s Day.
For the meeting, they wore heart-themed shirts and local photographer Elaina Janes arranged a reveal to capture their emotions of seeing each other for the first time.
The concept of the shirt was a heart-shaped puzzle, each piece with a sibling’s name and a center heart with no name representing their mother, said West-Garrette, who is now 49. It read “All the pieces found.”
“It’s the perfect shirt,” she said of her design. “It describes the story. I don’t know how to sum it up any better.”
Janes positioned the siblings in a straight line, holding hands, with their eyes closed. They opened them to see each other, in the same spot, together for the first time.
“It’s almost like waiting to see someone that you’ve always wondered about your entire life,” Orsette, 43, said. “Sometimes you start to daydream about what they are doing, what they look like now and then the moment comes and, I can’t explain it. It’s almost like a surreal reveal. It was the culmination of everything you ever wondered about.”
The meeting allowed for a sense of closure and a new beginning at the same time, Knight, 56, said.
“The overall feeling, I would say, is when you have closure for something you’ve been wondering about your entire life basically, it gives you a sense of peace that you didn’t have,” he said. “It just gives you more fullness in your life. You had a sense that a certain part of the family was missing for sometime and now they’re back. It’s a pretty great feeling.”
Although it was a whirlwind trip, “The Fab Found Five,” as they were calling themselves, were able to connect like they weren’t able to do through phone calls and text messages, West-Garrette said.
“In the 24 hours we were down there, I can confidently say, we were able to build an unbreakable bond with Alice and Craig,” she said. “It’s not based on the fact that we have a shared bloodline. It’s oh the fact that we have instant connections to these people on a friendship level. In 24 hours, you’re not going to find out everything. You’re only going to scratch the surface.”
Having multiple siblings is a foreign concept he still is getting used to, Wilkins, 54, said.
“It’s a new adventure for me,” he said, adding his wife is planning trips to visit the siblings at their homes in Texas and Michigan. “All my friends around here in Lawrenceburg and those in Grayson County who have gotten in touch with me are just ecstatic about it. They would say, ‘I always knew you were adopted, but I didn’t know you had a big family,’ and I would say, ‘I didn’t either.’
“At first I thought, ‘Can this really be right?’” he added. “And now, I feel like it is. I feel like it is true. It’s going to change my routine and the way I look at things.”
Daugherty said to have played a role in helping these siblings find each other was a calling.
“Above all I want the Lord to have the praise for this because I feel so humbled that he used me to reunite them,” she said. “It’s a very, very humbling experience. It’s an honor to be able to do that.”
The only regret the siblings mentioned about the experience is not being able to do it sooner or not having their mother there to witness it.
“It had to be very difficult for her,” Wheeler, 52, said of her mother’s decision to give her up. “I have no angst at all. None of us do. We’re all just so blessed and relieved and happy to know each other now. We just regret it didn’t happen sooner.”
Now they can begin to plan the next time they will see each other.
“All those puzzle pieces now know where their spot is and how they connect,” West-Garrette said. “The rest is up to us.”