BRUNSWICK, Maine — Doris Petre hasn’t seen her brother in 80 years, but soon she will lay eyes on him once again. Petre was born in a shanty town in Tampa, Fla., where the sides of buildings were made of piano crates, she said Wednesday as she began a story of loss and heartache that may finally conclude with a happy ending still in the making.
Sitting in her living room, having treated a reporter to coffee and cookies, 84-year-old Petre explained that not long after her birth, her family moved north to Connecticut. The Great Depression had taken hold of the country and “we were very poor,” Petre recalls. At least the family had one another — that is until the day her mother, who fell ill, went to stay with an aunt on her father’s side of the family. She remembers she didn’t want to leave her mother, but despite her protests, an uncle loaded Petre into his car and demanded she be quiet. So she was.
That was the last time Petre remembers seeing her mother, who died around 1931. She doesn’t know exactly when or why. It may have been a stroke, a cousin told Petre later. But as children, “We were kept in the dark,” Petre said. “Nobody told us anything,” and in those days, “you didn’t ask questions.”
Whatever the cause, her mother’s death put the 4-year-old on a new path littered at points with pain, fear and for many years, shrouded in mystery regarding the brother taken away from her.
After her mother’s death, Petre went to live near Tulland, Conn., with the same aunt who had cared for her mother. Though strict, the woman took good care of her. But Petre had an older half-brother who was only 7 when their mother died. Named Richard, the boy went to live with their maternal grandmother in Connecticut. It was the last time Petre ever saw him.
“It was like he disappeared,” Petre said, thinking back to whether anyone ever spoke of Richard.
She stayed with the aunt until she was about 6. That’s when Petre’s father showed up at the house one day while she was home alone and, without taking any clothes or telling her aunt, took her home with him. He had remarried and took Petre to Boston where the couple lived in a tenement.
It was a bad situation, Petre said. Her stepmother treated her badly and her father was a truck driver so he wasn’t around to protect her. One cold day she ran away from home, slept beneath newspapers behind a tenement building and wandered the streets the next day until police took her home. The trio moved back to Connecticut and after Petre ran away a second time, the court system let her live with her aunt again.
“After that, my life was better,” she said.
But what happened to the brother she remembers vividly making faces at her to quell her crying one day? His name was Richard Watrous, the youngest of four boys her mother had with her first husband. Petre used to look at the tiny picture of him in her family’s album and wonder where he was. Family members never spoke of him and she believes they carried some guilt for letting the boy go. Every time she got closer to him, “My aunt put a stop to it.” There was a mutual dislike between her father’s and mother’s families.
Armed with little information to ever launch a fruitful search, Petre didn’t give up and recently told her half sister she wanted to find him “before I kick the bucket.” Her sister enlisted help from a friend and located with the Internet an address for a Richard Watrous in Connecticut.
Petre took a chance and wrote a letter to this Richard Watrous. The letter was received, it so happens, by her brother’s son, Richard Watrous Jr., who passed the letter on to his father. Petre realized that even if her brother got the letter, he could choose to ignore it. But a couple of days later, she received a phone call from the long-lost sibling. This was about six months ago now, she estimates.
Her life was no picnic, but having read the June 11 letter from Richard addressed “Dear Sis” explaining what happened to him after their mother died, she opines, “He had it rougher.” When her grandmother couldn’t handle the four brothers, the state of Connecticut stepped in after his father died, and sent him at age 9 to a work farm in Waterford, Conn., as free labor. “It wasn’t all that great,” he wrote. “I went into the Navy at 18.”
On Wednesday, Petre showed off recent pictures of Richard with his wife, Betty. Soon they will celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary. Richard also sent her a black-and-white photograph of the couple when he was about 30, wearing a dashing peacoat with the collar flipped up.
“I told him, ‘You were a hunk,’” she said of the photo, snapped in the early 1950s.
The brother and sister will meet face-to-face in early December, if all goes as planned. Petre’s son will pick her up and drive her to the Watrous’ home in Groton, Conn.
Petre wonders how she will act when they meet for the first time in eight decades. Her brother is “very gentle,” despite the hardships in his life, she said, and is religious. He felt alone growing up and couldn’t wait to marry and have a family. He has five children.
After leaving the Navy, he worked for 36 years on atomic submarines in Groton and has experienced some medical problems caused by the radiation exposure.
She hopes he might remember more about their mother, whom she still knows so little about — including where she was buried in Connecticut, because Petre would like to visit her burial site. It turned out, she and her brother for years were still living in the same state, and Petre passed near his home in Groton many times on the highway traveling to Cape Cod.
“I’m dying to know more about my mother,” and her family history, Petre said. She’s anxious to learn anything about her grandmother as well. Did her mother ever have a father in the picture? Was she really half Native American?
Already, long-lost brother and sister are loosening up, she said. The mother of seven children and grandmother of 19 grandchildren, Petre said, “I obviously missed him,” and remembers him treating her well. She kept a photo of them as children, he with his arm around her and a woman standing behind them whom she believes is their mother.
Eighty years is a long time to wait to be reunited with her brother. To finally have found him and talk to him for the first time by phone conjures emotions Petre struggles to put into words, which certainly include excitement.
“You can’t wait to talk to and see them,” Petre said. “You get tongue-tied.”
Whatever emotions may surge through her as she travels south to meet her long-lost brother, “I look at it like I’m supposed to meet him again.”
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