Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rewriting the sins of the father

Family reunion 70 years in the making

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The secret Joseph Knowles spent most of his life hiding from his family finally arrived at James Armstrong Richardson International Airport on Friday evening.

His name is Peter Westcott, from England

When he stepped off the plane, Sheila Cramer greeted him like the long-lost family that he is.

Late last fall in her Fort Rouge home, Sheila first learned about the Second World War family secret Peter represented. A researcher from the genealogical website Canadian Roots contacted Sheila and explained a man from England was searching for information about his father, Joseph Knowles, a long-dead Canadian soldier he never knew. The searcher, Peter Westcott, had spent almost a third of his nearly 70 years searching war graves across Europe for the final resting place of the father his unwed mother told him had been killed in 1944.

The researcher contacted Sheila because her maiden name was Knowles, like the long-dead father the man in England was looking for.

"I agreed" to co-operate, Sheila recalled in an email she sent me last month, "even though I am legally blind and unable to see much of anything. I thought it couldn't hurt."

As it turned out, it would hurt.

Over the phone last fall, the researcher guided Sheila and her magnifying glass to the Canadian Roots website and the photo of the young dark-haired soldier's smiling face. Even with only 10 per cent sight in her right eye Sheila recognized the man in the photo.

He was her father, too.

"Some moments of silence followed," Sheila wrote, "and then I said softly, in wonder, 'I have a brother.' "

A half-brother, actually, because Sheila and Peter had different mothers. The part that would hurt Sheila, and Peter too, was the secrecy around that and how it kept them apart for nearly a lifetime.

Peter wept alone in the dark when he learned the truth.

He wept because the truth was his father hadn't been killed overseas fighting with the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry when Peter was a baby, as his mother had told him. The truth is, in the spring of 1942, Joseph married a lass in Scotland named Alexa. At the same time, and for at least two years after, he carried on a relationship in the south of England with a woman named Freda Westcott; an affair that had started at least eight months earlier judging by the first of more than half a dozen love letters.

"All my love, Joe," was the way he signed that first letter to Freda, dated Dec. 27, 1941. Obviously, Joseph didn't give her all his love.

On March 15, 1944, a boy named Fraser was born in Edinburgh to Joe's wife, Alexa, That was four months after Peter was born to Freda.

By 1946, Joseph, the Canadian solider who was supposed to have died two years earlier, returned to Manitoba to farm and be with his Scottish wife and other son. Sheila was born the following year.

Meanwhile, Peter would grow up believing a war grave would be the only place he would find his father because Freda showed him a telegram confirming Joe's death. Peter now believes his mother knew all along his father hadn't died.

After she died, Peter discovered the photographs his mother had of his father -- including one showing Joe tossing his baby son in the air -- were gone. In their place was a batch of love letters in Joe's now-faded handwriting.

It's as if Freda wanted her son to understand how much affection his mother and father shared when they could. How precious those moments of love were in that time of war.

Freda Westcott died in Devon in 1995. By that time, Joseph Knowles really was dead. He died in 1985. His wife, Alexa, followed in 2004, probably not knowing the truth and certainly not sharing it. Their son Fraser -- Sheila's only known brother at the time -- died in 2007.

Yet, through all that sadness wrapped in secrecy, there is a happy ending.

"I thought I was alone," Sheila said. "And now here was Peter."

As for Peter's search for his father's grave, there isn't one. Joseph Knowles, the farmer who loved to grow roses, had his ashes spread in his rose garden in Carman.

Of course, Peter wasn't really looking for his father's grave, anyway.

He was really searching for family. And a sense of peace.

Now that no one else can be hurt, and secrecy is over, I'm sure Joe and Freda would be overjoyed to know their son has finally found both.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 27, 2013 B1


Updated on Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 8:21 AM CDT: adds photo

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