Kevin Cullen

An old secret blooms into joy

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By Kevin Cullen
Globe Staff / December 19, 2010

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When Catherine Jackson was 9 years old, her mother Josephine died, and it left a hole in her heart you could drive a truck through.

By the time she was a teenager, Catherine began looking for something, anything, to fill in the blanks about a mother who died so young.

Josephine had grown up in Dublin, where they called her Josie. She was a beautiful, adventurous, independent young woman, and she lived in England and Australia before moving to and marrying in Boston.

Catherine was still in her teens when she wrote her mother’s brother in Dublin, Uncle Billy, Josie’s only living relative, but he never wrote back.

Catherine wrote to a friend of her mother’s in Australia, and the friend wrote back with a story: Josie fell in love with a man in Australia, but it was a star-crossed romance. She was Catholic, he was Protestant, and at that time the idea of marriage was just not on.

And so Josie left in 1968 to start over again in America.

Seven years ago, now married and with two kids of her own, Catherine got more serious about knowing her mother’s story. She took up genealogy and posted a request for information on a genealogical website. A few months later, an e-mail arrived from New Zealand. It was from Bernadette Leatherback, or Bernie, Josie’s childhood neighbor in Dublin. Bernie filled in a few blanks but seemed to be holding back. Catherine kept looking.

Four months ago, to celebrate her 40th birthday, Catherine’s husband Glen took her and their two kids to Ireland. He drove her to her mother’s childhood house on Kylemore Drive in Ballyfermot, a working-class neighborhood in Dublin, and encouraged her to knock on a neighbor’s door.

Mrs. Phipps answered and couldn’t have been nicer. Sure, she knew Josie and Uncle Billy, but Uncle Billy had died years ago. Mrs. Daly, another neighbor, came outside.

“We’ll get Bernie, so we will, because she knew your mother,’’ Mrs. Daly said.

“Bernie?’’ Catherine said. “You mean Bernie from New Zealand?’’

“Yes,’’ Mrs. Daly said. “She’s home on holiday.’’

But they couldn’t find Bernie. Three days later, Catherine got an e-mail from Bernie, saying she was going back to New Zealand but would get in touch.

Three weeks later, she called. They talked for an hour and suddenly Bernie sounded serious.

“Catherine,’’ Bernie said. “There’s something I have to tell you. Something I probably should have told you before.’’

Twelve years earlier, Bernie said, another woman showed up on Kylemore Drive and started knocking on doors.

“She said Josie was her mum,’’ Bernie said.

It was a good thing Catherine was sitting down, because she would have fallen over.

“I think,’’ Bernie said, “you have a sister.’’

Josie had gotten pregnant, and she wasn’t married, and in Ireland, in 1957, it was scandalous. She was sent to a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manchester, England, and gave birth to a baby girl and named her Philomena, after the patron saint of babies.

An English couple adopted Philomena and renamed her Susan. Josie left England with a shattered heart that would break some more in Australia.

All those years that Catherine Jackson was sitting in her house in Massachusetts, using a computer to look for her mother, Susan Garlick was 3,000 miles away, across an ocean, doing the same in England.

“The neighbors in Dublin told me that my mother had moved to Boston and married and had a daughter, and so at that point, I was done,’’ Susan Garlick said. “I was happy my mum had been able to start a new life and have a family, and I had no intention of intruding on that new life and that new family.’’

Catherine Jackson had other plans. She started combing adoption agencies in England. But then Bernie came through again, forwarding Susan’s address in England.

Catherine was relieved when the call went to an answering machine.

“I was recently informed that your mother was my mother, too,’’ Catherine said.

When Susan got home and listened to her answering machine, she found herself staring in the mirror above the telephone, amazed at what she was hearing.

Her husband David saw her face and assumed the worst.

“Has anyone died?’’ he asked.

“No,’’ Susan replied, turning to him. “Quite the contrary.’’

The first trans-Atlantic phone call between the sisters lasted more than two hours. Their birthdays are one day, and 13 years, apart.

Catherine e-mailed her a photograph of their mother.

“I never had a picture of my mum,’’ Susan said.

Catherine mailed Susan an Irish knit hat that their mother had made.

Catherine’s 9-year-old daughter Caroline looks like Susan did at that age.

Susan and Catherine talk to or e-mail each other every day. They are trying to figure out when and where they’ll meet in person. Could be Raynham, where the Jacksons live, or it could be England.

They both think there are too many coincidences for this to be coincidence. They believe their mother, somewhere, somehow, orchestrated the whole thing.

“Wherever our mother is, and I know she’s around, she’s finally happy,’’ Susan said.

Stigma fades. Secrets die. But love endures.

They are sisters. They are family. They went looking for their mother and found each other.

Kevin Cullen can be reached at

Susan Garlick Susan Garlick