The kitchen table was loaded with all types of food and desserts. Wine was flowing and gifts were piled around the Christmas tree. A trio of sisters laughed together on the couch. It’s a familiar scene found on Christmas Day in homes across the country, except for one small detail. Up until six months ago, the third sister’s existence had largely been a secret.
Sisters Carole Theusch, 70, and Madeline Batson, 64, hosted their family’s Christmas celebration this year. About 30 relatives showed up at Batson’s house in Wilmington on Tuesday afternoon. Each family member who walked in the door received a quick “Merry Christmas” greeting before being introduced to Theusch and Batson’s special guest.
“This is our sister that we’ve never met,” Madeline said as she introduced Debbie Caldwell to each family member who came in the door.
Debbie, 49, has no memories of their shared father, Milton Harris. Milton left her mother, Rachel, before she was 6 months old.
Debbie was told that her father died in 1981 in a skiing accident, and that the story ended there. She was never told of her other family.
The crooked family tree
Milton Harris married Myrie Virginia Harris in 1942. They had four children – Carole, Madeline, Marie and Wilton.
Carole was 11 years old when her father left.
“I was walking to school and he (Milton Harris) pulled up in his car beside me and said, ‘This is the last time you are going to see me.’ Then he drove off. I cried all the way to school,” Carole said of her father.
Other than a brief visit when their father was living in Chicago, the sisters did not hear from Milton again until they were married and had kids of their own.
Milton had three children with Rachel, his second wife – Debbie and her two older brothers, Russell Bennett and Anthony Harris. The family relocated to Virginia, but Milton left them shortly after. To Debbie’s knowledge, he never reached out to her family again.
Milton married for a third time in Florida and had one more child. He lived out the remainder of his life with this family. Carole and Madeline were told about his third marriage and spent time with this part of their family until their father’s death in 1996.
His multiple marriages resulted in eight Harris siblings.
“There could be more, but we just haven’t found them yet,” Carole said with a laugh. “This is like a soap opera, isn’t it?”
The missing link
Carole’s daughter Tammy Beasley has been working to unpack her family history for the past 20 years. She started with her dad’s side, the Theusch family, and then became curious about her mother’s background and Milton Harris, her grandfather.
After Milton’s death, Tammy reached out to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to learn more about him.
“One member of a veteran’s family is able to collect a packet on them and then the VA directs any other family members to you,” she said. “I asked for the one on Granddaddy and found copies of his marriage license to Rachel and their divorce license and the birth certificates for Debbie and her brothers.”
This was the first time Carole and Madeline learned the names of their half-siblings.
Tammy posted their names to her ever-growing online family tree. She said she searched adoption agencies for the long-lost siblings, but never heard anything.
It would be almost 15 years before Tammy would receive another clue to her family’s history.
In June of this year she received a call from Debbie’s niece Amanda. Amanda had found Tammy’s online family tree while researching her own family history.
“I called my aunt and was like, ‘They found us. They found us,’?” Tammy recalled.
After a lifetime of separation, the siblings were going to have the chance to meet for the first time.
Madeline visited Debbie in Kentucky shortly after they found out about each other.
“We noticed the resemblance immediately. The only difference is our hair color, but as long as I have a relationship with Ms. Clairol, I won’t have any gray hair,” Madeline joked.
“Conversation flowed. It was easy,” Debbie said.
“We were both chatty,” Madeline said. “I guess it’s safe to say that comes from our daddy’s genes.”
After a successful visit, Madeline invited Debbie to spend Christmas with her, and to Madeline’s delight, she accepted.
“I didn’t think she would come. She has a family of her own, but I thought it would be fun to spend Christmas with my new sister,” Madeline said.
“My children had mixed feelings about it because this is the first time I haven’t spent Christmas with them,” Debbie said. “But my children are grown and it’s time for me.”
Madeline’s living room wall hosts an array of old family photos – Milton Harris is pictured in three. In one photo he stands smiling with Madeline and Carole; the other two photos feature him and his third wife. There is no trace of Debbie or of Milton’s marriage to her mother, Rachel. Debbie couldn’t stop staring at the photos of the father she never knew.
“I had just always wondered if he was out there, if he was ever going to come find me. I thought maybe he was out there somewhere watching me, but was afraid to reach out. I just didn’t know,” Debbie said, choking back her emotions.
“… But I really have a whole family now, and it seems like I never had that before.”