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Forty-eight years after giving my daughter up for adoption a TV show found her again for me - Jan 07, 2013








    Reunited: Brenda Rhensius and Joanne Dickson

Brenda Rhensius' fruitless search ended when she contacted ITV1 show Long Lost Family and a few months later Joanne had been found

When unmarried teenage mum Brenda Rhensius handed over her only daughter Joanne for adoption she never gave up hope that the two would one day be reunited.

Over the coming years she married, had a son, and developed a hugely successful career, becoming the first female director of a merchant bank in Europe. Yet Joanne was never far from her thoughts.

Even when she moved to South Africa six years ago she still wondered where Joanne was and what she was doing with her life. But after 48 years apart she assumed that either Joanne was untraceable or didn’t want to be found.

So it was with complete astonishment that Brenda discovered last year that not only was Joanne alive and well and keen to meet her, but – by incredible coincidence – was now living in South Africa, too.

“I couldn’t believe she had been found, let alone that we had both ended up living thousands of miles away in the same country,” Brenda says.

“When we finally met it was so emotional. All I could say was, ‘You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful’, and gave her a great big hug. There was no screaming or crying, we just sat down and started talking and instantly it was as if those 48 years apart had just faded away. Until that day I’d always felt a part of me was missing, but meeting her made me feel whole again.”

Brenda, from Warrington, Cheshire, had begun searching for Joanne the minute her daughter turned 18. But after 30 fruitless years she had run out of hope and ideas.

Then last year came a breakthrough. She contacted the ITV1 show Long Lost Family, hosted by Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell, after hearing they were looking for people who needed help tracking down their loved ones for a new series.

Joanne and family
          Joanne and family Loving: Joanne with her adoptive parents

Just a few months later she was given the news she had waited to hear for so long – Joanne had been found. She was working as an English teacher in Durban and living with her magazine publisher husband Tony Dickson and her adoptive mum Edna. Her adoptive father Geoff had died ten years previously.

Brenda, 68, says: “Over the years I just had to believe Joanne was happy and well, but I didn’t know she was, I didn’t even know she was alive.

“Every year on her birthday my insides felt like they were being ripped out and that never went away, even after 48 years.

“I just stayed in bed that day; I couldn’t do anything. I had a ‘precious’ box, which contained one or two photographs of her and I would sit and gaze at them. But her last birthday was quite different.

“I woke up in the morning and thought, ‘I can phone Joanne today’. I called her and we laughed and it was like instant healing. All that pain had gone.”

Brenda became pregnant with Joanne when she was 19. It was 1963 and knowing her factory worker parents were embarrassed, she went away to a mother and baby unit in Manchester, where babies were born then went on to be adopted.

LONG LOST FAMILY on ITV 1 Pictured: Brenda Rhensius and Joanne Dickson with Brenda's son Jason
        Family: Brenda with Joanne and son Jason

“My parents felt it was the right thing and actually I thought it would be the best thing for my baby too – there was a huge stigma on illegitimate children and I thought her only chance was to grow up with a mum and a dad,” Brenda recalls.

She spent the following six weeks with her daughter at the unit. “It was hard. We were only allowed to feed and change our children – not play with them – and I was always getting into trouble for going back into the nursery to cuddle her and tickle her feet... things that mothers would normally do.”

When the day of the adoption came Brenda was driven to the Methodist Adoption Society and told to wait in a room with Joanne. Her adoptive parents were in another room.

“A nurse came in and said, ‘Joanne’s new parents are here’. She took her off me and walked out and that was it – it was horrible and so brutal,” Brenda says. “I could hear her new mother squeal with delight through the walls and I felt so bereft.” Brenda struggled with the loss of her daughter and shortly afterwards was found wandering the streets of the Manchester suburb she knew Joanne had moved to, searching for her in all the prams.

Finding it too painful to stay in the area, the following year she moved to Jersey and tried to start afresh. She married quickly, had a son Jason and threw herself into her work.

Brenda and baby Joanne
           Mum: Brenda with baby Joanne

“I gave my all to my career to try to forget my pain over Joanne,” she says. “But it didn’t work. After losing her I shut down emotionally and didn’t let people get too close. I stayed that way until I met her again.” Joanne meanwhile was enjoying a happy childhood with her mum Ursula, a buyer for a chemical company, and her engineer dad Geoff.

At 30, she emigrated to South Africa and at the same time put up a post on Friends Reunited asking if anyone knew of Brenda Parr – Brenda’s maiden name – but when no one came forward she gave up the hunt.

“I always knew I was adopted but it never worried me because I had really loving adoptive parents,” she says. “Of course I was curious over the years, but I didn’t want to upset my mum and also I assumed that Brenda must be married and have children. I thought if I did track her down her husband might not even know she had an adopted child. I was perfectly happy with my life and so I didn’t see any reason to upset hers.”

Brenda meanwhile was doing everything she could to find Joanne, firing off letters to the Salvation Army and Norcap, a charity for adults affected by adoption.

She also put her name down on a national register for people searching for relatives. Then last year, by now living in Cape Town, she applied to Long Lost Family... and was thrilled when her search was taken on.

Joanne was traced and the two women were finally reunited in November – 48 years after Brenda had last set eyes on her. To their amazement they found they had huge amounts in common. “She has a three-legged dog called Tripod and I had a cat called Tripod,” Brenda laughs.

“We’re both animal mad and we have the same silly sense of humour.”

Joanne too was shocked at their similarities. She says: “I like drama and singing and I’m very outgoing but my adoptive parents were very shy, quiet, gentle people – I always felt totally different to them.

“Brenda is much more like me. We actually found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences and we have the same mannerisms – we both talk with our hands and we both waffle!

“And there were some incredible coincidences. The fact that we both ended up in South Africa was the biggest one.

“We both had ‘Beware of the Snakes’ signs on our garages – not many people have those. We both have dogs. And although there are hundreds of different ‘Beware of the Dog’ signs, we had identical ones.”

Since they were reunited Brenda has moved back to Jersey, but the two women Skype each other every week and plan to meet up again in June.

“We are incredibly close and although I call her Brenda I do see her as a second mum,” Joanne says. “There was a hole in my life and I don’t think I even knew I had that hole until it was filled. Now everything makes sense – I know where I came from and it’s fantastic having this whole new family.”

Both Brenda and Joanne’s families have been delighted at the reunion, too, particularly Brenda’s son Jason, 45, a trainee accountant.

Brenda says: “I’m so grateful to Long Lost Family for reuniting us – the show has changed my life and it couldn’t have turned out better. I was always prepared for the fact that if I did find Joanne, she might slap my face because she might think I just didn’t want her.

“Now we are great buddies and the sadness at being apart for 48 years has gone. It just shows you should never give up hope. My family is complete.”

By Sue Crawford


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