Reunion brings beginning to family seeking closure

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 22, 2001

Caroline McKinney hugs her grandmother, Helen Peterson, for the first time Sunday at the Jackson International Airport. Looking on is Peterson’s daughter, Shirley Bishop, who had not seen her mother in 60 years.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN

[10/22/01]All Shirley Bishop had was a black and white photograph from 1939, when her mother, Helen, was 17.

She was sitting on the porch in Washington, D.C., holding Bishop’s older sister, Betty Helen, who was an infant. Her mother was only 17, already married to her father for three years. In three years, she’d be gone.

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“She left when my (younger) brother was just an infant,” Bishop said.

The marriage just didn’t work out. In its wake, there were no memories of Helen; only three young children and the black and white photograph.

Nearly 60 years later, Shirley Bishop was reunited Sunday with her mother, when Helen Peterson got off a plane at Jackson International Airport with Bishop’s daughter, Penny Adair, at her side.

After five years of searching, Adair, who lives in Michigan, located her grandmother in Omaha, Neb., and took the first steps to reunite the family torn apart so long ago. Adair flew to St. Louis, where she met the 79-year-old Peterson and joined her for the flight to Mississippi.

“It’s still a shock,” Bishop said, amidst the conversations of catching up going on in her house in Vicksburg. “I always watch “Unsolved Mysteries” and said, One of these day’s I’ll find her. I almost gave up. Penny told me not to give up.”

After years of searching and numerous wrong leads, Adair found an address for a Helen Peterson at an apartment complex in Omaha. She said it was going to be her last phone call, having exhausted all her leads throughout the years. When she called, Dennis Baker answered the phone. She had no idea Baker was Peterson’s partner of 34 years.

“When I called Dennis that night, it was the last call I was going to make,” she said. That was Aug. 14, her father’s birthday. “I was talking to Dennis and he was asking a lot of questions. He said he’d check the apartments to see if a Helen was there, and call back. He called back after a few minutes and said, The search is over. You’ve found your grandmother.'” Peterson actually was sitting in the room beside him when the call came.

Adair had been looking for a Helen born in 1920, who would have been 18 at the time she married her grandfather. Yet it wasn’t until Bishop stumbled upon her father’s divorce papers that she realized something was amiss. “It said Born in 1922, married in 1938,” Shirley said.

“That’s why I couldn’t find her, because she changed her birth date,” Adair said, making her 18 when she married, instead of the 16 she actually was.

Why Peterson left Bishop’s father remains a mystery. Perhaps because she was too young for Frank Boone, who was 14 years her senior. It’s a situation Peterson won’t discuss; neither did Boone, who died in 1978. Regardless, she said she is thrilled to finally find one of the three children she left so long ago.

“It’s kind of wild,” Peterson said. “I haven’t seen them since they were babies. I didn’t think I’d would ever see them again.”

Bishop’s sister, Betty Helen, didn’t live to meet her mother. She died of cancer in 1995. Shirley’s younger brother, David Boone, who lives in California, didn’t make the trip. Other grandchildren and great-grandchildren have come to welcome Peterson back to the family and start the process of getting to know one another.

“I’m real excited for my mom,” said Caroline Bishop McKinney, Bishop’s daughter and Adair’s sister. “They were looking for closure. Now they found a beginning.”