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Against all odds, after 80 years: Gary Drabbels gives his adopted mother a gift money could not buy
Debbie Epping
Antelope Staff
Photo Courtesy of Joan DeHaven
UNK accounts payable manager Joan DeHaven (left), Gary Drabbels (center left), and Susan Roberts (right) are greeted at the Medford Airport in July 2009 by their then 94-year-old great Aunt Marian holding a makeshift sign she put together with cardboard and a flyswatter.

Gary Drabbels stepped off the plane in Medford, Ore., and was greeted by a lively 94-year-old woman holding a makeshift sign constructed with cardboard and a flyswatter. “Hi Gary I’m here,” the sign read.

The woman was Marian Yonan—Gary’s great aunt, the last surviving sibling of his grandmother’s nine siblings. This meeting was a first and a milestone marking the end of his long journey searching for the birth family of his mother, Audrey Drabbels, who had been adopted at birth.

Audrey Drabbels, was born Elizabeth Grace Wood in 1922, and her life was entrusted into the care of the Child Saving Institute of Omaha where the nurses grew to love her and affectionately called her Audrey Rose.

Meanwhile, John and Carrie Perreten, a middle-aged couple living on a farm near Gordon in the northwest corner of Nebraska eagerly awaited the news of their request to adopt a baby girl. Once they received the go-ahead, the couple packed up and made the long trek across Nebraska to finalize the adoption.

A new name

Their daughter was given a new name—“Audrey Grace Perreten,” a new home, loving parents who provided her with the foundation for her Christian faith, and a close relationship with her adopted older sister, Ruth.

“I knew from a very early age that I had been adopted, and as I grew to adulthood there remained with me a curiosity about my birth mother and her family,” Audrey said in a letter she wrote about her adoption story to the Child Saving Institute of Omaha in March of 2006.

Years after Audrey’s parents passed away, she contacted the Child Saving Institute of Omaha for information about her birth parents. Finally, in 1991 she received a non-identifying profile of her mother Ethel Grace Wood: a 19-year-old, 5’2’’, 100-pound high school graduate born in Liverpool, England. Audrey’s mother was unwed at the time of her birth, and her biological father was a married man. In addition, Ethel had nine siblings.

This bare-bones profile left the whereabouts of her birth mother and other potential living family members to her imagination.

The Child Saving Institute was bound by rules and regulations designed to protect the identity of birth families leaving Audrey resigned to the fact that there would always be a “missing link” in her identity.

However, her son Gary, a funeral assistant from Hay Springs set out on his own journey to find the missing branch on his mother’s family tree. The main clue in tracing Audrey’s roots turned out to be her mother’s birthplace—Liverpool, England.

“I concluded that her mother had come to the United States via ship. The Ellis Island Web site contains information on ships (most came through Ellis Island) and tells what ships came and who the people were,” Gary said.

Entering Audrey’s birth mother’s name in the Ellis Island Web site brought a potential match: Wood, Ethel Grace, 17 years and seven months old in 1920—approximately the age Audrey’s mother would have been at the time. One thing didn’t match up—the records showed a family of five. The Child Saving Institute had on record the family consisting of 12.

Gary soon found another family by the name of Wood that came over in a group of seven. Gary put two and two together and concluded it wasn’t a different family, but rather the family came over in two groups.

Gary was able to utilize census records—a vital tool to his search. Gary searched the 1930 census records that had only become public knowledge 70 years later in 2000. By tracing Wood families who had come from Liverpool, England, he soon discovered the family had moved to California shortly after his mother’s birth.

After locating an obituary of Ethel’s sister, Mabel Rodinger, Gary was able to obtain a copy of the death certificate. The informant (a person who is next of kin) was listed as Mabel’s daughter, Doreen Weise of Santa Rosa, Cali.

“So this tells me Doreen’s mother (sister of Ethel) passed away in 1985. What’s the chance of Doreen still living at this address?” Gary said.

Gary wrote a letter to the address explaining he was researching his family’s history and was hoping someone could help him.

A breakthrough
Against all odds, Doreen called and left Gary a message on his answering machine saying she had contacted Ethel’s only living sister—Marian Yonan, and she would be calling him tomorrow.

Jan. 19, 2006. Gary had solved the puzzle: then 91-year-old Marian Yonan of Medford, Ore. was the last surviving child of the Frank and Francis Wood family.

The savvy 91-year-old Yonan welcomed her newfound niece and relatives into her family with open arms and corresponded over the next few years via e-mail, phone calls and letters.

“Tell Audrey I feel like I have known her for a long time, as your letter made me feel that way. I am beginning to appreciate my computer a lot since being able to contact one another so quickly,” Yonan wrote.

Yonan provided further insight into Audrey’s long sought after roots. Audrey’s biological father divorced his wife to marry Audrey’s birth mother. The couple had another daughter, Norma Tardiff, a full blood sister to Audrey.

At the time Norma learned about Audrey, she was brokenhearted from just losing her husband, but later corresponded with Audrey in several letters.

“She was quite upset to hear what I was telling her about Gary’s call and refused to listen to me by hanging up the phone,” Marian wrote.

Audrey wrote her a sister a letter apologizing if she had upset her and enclosed a picture of herself. Norma replied saying Audrey was the spitting image of her mother.

Marian’s nephew had researched the family back to the 1820s and was able to share an ancestry full of seamen and sea captains consigned in the English Navy—one of whom was even knighted by the Queen of England. Ethel’s oldest brother was killed in an accident at sea and was the last English sea captain to ever be buried at sea.

One year too late
Audrey’s birth mother died Ethel Grace Haddock in 1976 and was buried close to Pebble Beach in California. Audrey’s first letter to the Child Saving Institute was in 1977.

Yonan turned 95 on Oct. 5, 2009. She is a great, great, great aunt to Gary’s grand kids. Gary’s mother is now 87-years-old living with her husband and high school sweetheart, Virgil, in a nursing home in Hay Springs. Although her health conditions make it harder for her to remember things these days, the memory of her birth mother will not soon be forgotten.

“Without a doubt, it is the best gift he has ever given me,” Audrey said.

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