Isabel (Rae) and husband Geoff Kennedy with the program for the funeral of her Aunty Noala Stow (Wotherspoon).
Isabel (Rae) and husband Geoff Kennedy with the program for the funeral of her Aunty Noala Stow (Wotherspoon). Jacklyn Wagner

Quest to find lost aunt's family

WHILE many of us are curious about our family history, few are as determined as Isabel (Rae) Kennedy to uncover the secrets behind her family's past.

Mrs Kennedy is in Lismore to find the story behind her Aunt Noala's adoption and to fulfil a promise made many years ago.

"I promised I would find out who her parents were," Mrs Kennedy said.

Her aunty Noala Stow (nee Wotherspoon) passed away in April this year, but Mrs Kennedy has not forgotten that promise.

"At her funeral... I said to the family that I would come up to Lismore and I would see what I could find out. My aunty was like another mother to me in many ways, so it's important that I do this."

Adoption support agencies say there are thousands like Mrs Kennedy looking for lost relatives.

However, Lily Arthur from adoption support agency Origins warns the process can be painful.

"You see TV shows where people fall into each other's arms. It's not like that," Ms Arthur said. "A reunion is a traumatic event. You are dragging all the pain and issues of the past into the present."

Mrs Kennedy has very few details to help explain why her aunt was adopted by her grandparents, James and Marjorie (Madge) Wotherspoon, in 1917.

While her aunt became a devoted and "much loved" member of the family, her questions surrounding her birth parents remained.

All Mrs Kennedy knows is that her aunt was born on September 12, 1916 in Lismore.

An adoption certificate dated April 3, 1917, lists the birth mother as Marjorie Annie Mary Cooke of Lismore, and the paper was countersigned by the girl's father, George Isaac Cooke of Lismore.

"Times have changed since then, thank goodness," said Mrs Kennedy.

"But there was so much family stigma back then. What if the neighbours knew? What if the story got out?"

Adoption legislation intro- duced in the 1960s emphasised making a "clean break" from birth parents and encouraged a culture of secrecy around adoptions in order to avoid social stigma.

But it wasn't always that way.

Ms Arthur said her adoption support group was aware of many adoptions from the early 20th Century that were conducted through "private arrangements" where the child was absorbed into the family.

"There were a lot of intra-family adoptions, so a fav- ourite aunt or relative would bring up the child as their own," she said.

In the 1970s a nationwide review of adoption legislation broke down some of the stigma and encouraged parents and children to come forward.

"When the laws changed there was a huge influx of people trying to find their natural families," said Ms Arthur. "People need to know who they are and where they come from. It's at the core of every person's being."

Mrs Kennedy hopes someone with information about the Cooke or Wotherspoon families will come forward.

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