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Father, daughter reunited after 63 years

Father, daughter reunited after 63 years

1 August 2016

Lee and her father share a warm embrace after being reunited in Perth after 63 years.

By Bill Simpson

The tender hug lasted only a few seconds. But it erupted all the emotions of a lifetime unexplained until that one brief moment. It was one of those amazing occasions – so special that it cannot be adequately explained by mere words.

Lee McDonald, aged 66, was being held by a frail father she hadn’t seen since she was an infant. He was the father she didn’t even know existed for at least half her life. They came face to face in her father’s Perth home a few months ago through the impressive work of The Salvation Army’s Family Tracing Service. Lee’s father now has Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, their reunion was not all that Lee had wished. But the few seconds of recognition which ignited the emotion to produce the hug were enough to provide Lee with a precious memory for the rest of her life.

As she showed her aged and ailing father a photograph of herself as a baby, he said: “Oh, Johanne Lee [her birth name]. Where is she?” Lee (the name she now uses), replied: “She is right here, Dad.” “Oh,” he said. And he hugged his daughter. And as quickly as it came, the moment was gone. The memory had passed. Lee was again a stranger in her father’s home. Even so – even so, Lee says, it was one of the most special moments of her life that she will always cherish.

Lee was born in Sydney. She was her parents’ first child. The couple separated when Lee was three. She went with her mother, who remarried two years later. When Lee was six, a brother was born into the family. Home life was not happy. Lee often suspected that she was “in the way”. Her mother changed Lee’s surname to that of her second husband. Lee always believed that the man who was her stepfather was, in fact, her birth father. She never knew the truth until years later.

When Lee was 15, her mother divorced her second husband and married a third. Lee was ordered by her mother to leave the home. Lee didn’t understand. She does now. Lee’s mother had a severe personality disorder. She has seen her mother only once since. She occasionally has contact with her brother. At only 15 years of age, Lee was alone, on the street, with a bag of clothes and some savings. She booked into a hotel and found a job with a legal firm. She was a clever girl. She did well at school and, even though only young, applied common sense to its capacity.

Lee married on her 17th birthday (1967). Eight years later, with an eight-year-old daughter, her marriage was over. She worked hard as an employee and mother, and put herself through university. She worked her way up the chain of experience to become an executive producer at SBS television. Lee is now a clinical psychotherapist in Sydney.

Search begins

In 1985, she married her second husband, Raffi. She still has one daughter, and has added two grandchildren. Life now is much happier than the start she endured. But there was always something missing. She wasn’t sure what it was until around the age of 33, when she needed a full birth certificate for a new job. The certificate revealed – under Father – a name she did not recognise. It was the name of her real (birth) father – not the father her mother had told her she had. It started a search – an unsuccessful search – over many years. But in March last year, Lee’s husband discovered that The Salvation Army had a Family Tracing Service. They made contact. Emma, at the service’s Sydney centre, was engaged as Lee’s case worker.

“The Salvos were great,” Lee says. “It took only from the initial contact in March until June for them to find my father. He was living in Perth. Dad’s partner of the last 30 years contacted me. I went to Perth in July with my daughter [Terri Lee] to meet my Dad. It was wonderful. We had been warned that Dad had Alzheimer’s and that he might not have any memory of me. But I still wanted to see him. “I couldn’t believe it, I am so much like him in personality. I look like him. Maybe that’s why my mother didn’t want to have anything to do with me; why she told me to leave home. I’ve even got some of his illnesses. It’s incredible how much alike we are. Even though he has Alzheimer’s, I could see in our meeting that he is a very loving and lovely man. His partner said that he had always been very much a loving man. She said that he had often spoken before his memory loss of the little girl he once had. That was me. He often talked about me, she said. That is so special for me to know.”

Lee said that meeting her father filled in the blanks in her life. “It felt so good to find that missing part. It has had such a deep meaning for me. It explains why my mother was so negative toward me and why she hasn’t had anything to do with me since she put me out of our home when I was 15.”

Touching moment

Lee recently made a second trip to Perth to see her father. But he was too ill to spend time with her. She hopes to go again soon. Her wish is to spend Christmas with her dad. It would be their first Christmas together in 63 years – since she was three and he 23. Contact has also begun with her father’s 10 children from his second marriage. “It’s early days there, yet,” she says. “The families are spread across the country. We’ll see how that goes.”

Emma from the Family Tracing Service says that under privacy laws, The Salvation Army is not permitted to disclose how it found Lee’s father. “But I can say that it was a great joy for me to bring Lee and her father’s family together, and to know how much it means to her”. In a letter to the Family Tracing service after Lee visited her father for the first time, she wrote: “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for tracing my father for me. It has been a life-long wound, never having seen him since I was a baby. It was so healing to see him and to be held by him, and to have that moment of recognition, which was deeply touching.

“Thank you to you [Emma] and The Salvation Army for this wonderful service. You are making such a huge difference to people’s lives.”

If you need assistance finding a family member, go to for further information.


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