A love story left untold: Uncovering a father's secret reunites 4 siblings
How Percy Wilson brought shock and joy to his family 20 years after his death
It's a love story Nicholas Sparks himself couldn't have written better.
For months, Gay Wilson of Saint John has been piecing together the untold story her father, Percy Wilson, left behind when he died 20 years ago.
The story starts in London during the Second World War, when Percy fell in love with a woman by the name of Flo.
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During the war, the couple spent time together in London or, if they were apart, exchanged romantic letters.
Together, they had a son, Barry, whom Percy got to spend several months with before returning to New Brunswick.
"This was a love story that unfortunately didn't end well for either one of them," said Wilson in an interview with the CBC's Shift.
I did have some raw feelings about my father, when I thought he up and left this poor woman and this baby.- Gay Wilson, Saint John
Percy's plan was to return to Canada, tie up the loose ends of his Saint John life and bid his family farewell. Then he would make his way back to England to marry Flo and start a new life.
In the meantime, he and Flo would keep writing to each other.
And they did — until her letters stopped. He kept trying but eventually got the message.
"He had assumed … that he was being rejected," said Wilson, who described the letters as loving and caring.
"He was writing letters, and no letters were coming back … I'm sure his heart was broken."
Igniting the fire
But Flo had never stopped writing.
The problem was Percy's mother. She made sure he never saw the letters — a piece of the puzzle Wilson got from a cousin.
"She remembers playing in her grandmother's house, hearing her grandmother talk to a friend saying, 'Another letter from England came,'" Wilson said. "And she threw it in the fireplace.
"The woman was writing him, she did want to be with him. But my grandmother had other ideas."
As soon as I looked at him, I thought 'Oh yeah, he looks like my dad.- Gay Wilson
Eventually, Percy moved on, joining the merchant marine for a while, then getting married and starting a new family. Gay is one of his three children on this side of the Atlantic.
Her father didn't breathe a word to any of them about Flo or their son Barry — an omission Wilson has a hard time wrapping her head around.
"I did have some raw feelings about my father, when I thought he up and left this poor woman and this baby," she said.
"I knew my father well enough to know that he never would've left a child like that, it just wouldn't have happened."
Breaking the silence
For years after Percy died, the story stayed unknown, but then Wilson's nephew started exploring his ancestry and began getting puzzling messages from a Lisa Wilson-Scott on the ancestry.com website dedicated to genetic genealogy.
Lisa, who lives in London, told him online that they likely shared the same grandfather because each had a grandfather called Percy and had similar photos of him, along with his service number from the military.
After several family discussions, Wilson and her two siblings decided to contact Lisa.
And with the help of some cousins, the family slowly brought the family tree to life.
The discoveries along the way didn't come without heartache.
Barry Wilson, Gay's half-brother, didn't want to meet his Canadian relatives — not out of spite but out of concern for their privacy, she said.
"He still said, 'I lived my whole life without them, I don't want to contact them.'"
But as time passed, Barry broke down and called — a conversation Wilson described as nothing short of awkward.
"This person that you don't even know, you've never laid eyes on, you know nothing about him, and yet he's your brother," she said.
Eventually, the phone calls and online messages became a little easier and more frequent.
"He was teasing me like a big brother would, so we just fell into an easy conversation," she said.
Wilson noted a particular bond between Barry and another older brother.
A family reunion
At the end of May, Wilson and her family flew to London to meet Barry, who lives just outside the city.
She described the meeting as "an emotional roller coaster," but the siblings were able to learn about one another and make up for lost time.
"As soon as I looked at him, I thought, 'Oh yeah, he looks like my dad,'" Wilson said.
Flo is still alive but has Alzheimer's disease, said Wilson, who wasn't able to visit her when she was in London.
Flo, too, got married but she never quite moved on from Percy.
"Her life was an open book," Wilson said. "It was my father's life that wasn't so much of an open book."
At first, Flo refused to move out of her London apartment, in case Percy decided to come back.
"She refused to move, thinking he was going to come," Wilson said.
She always kept a photo of Percy at her bedside and shared stories about him with their son, Barry, and the man she eventually married.
"She never took the photograph from her bedside table the whole time," Wilson said. "She had remarried, had another child with a man and never took the photograph down."
Over the years, Flo's heart never grew hard toward Percy.
"I'm sure she felt rejected," Wilson said. "She had nothing but good things to say about him, even though he left her in that predicament."
Her heart may never have fully recovered after the soldier from Saint John left her. Their son, however, can finally pick up the pieces to his.
"For us, it turned out beautifully," Wilson said. "We've got some wonderful new family members we're getting to be very close to."