Summer is here, even occasionally in Southeast Alaska, and, for many, that means family reunions. Hazel Shorty was, on July 9, reunited with her daughter, April Poore, after 36 years apart. It was a tearful reunion as family members, happy to be together again, also recalled the heartache that accompanied this separation.
Family is important to Hazel Shorty, whose husband John Shorty, sister Donna James, sister Nellie Sharclane and brother-in-law Victor McKinley accompanied her, along with April Poore and her daughter Jazmine, to share their experiences and emotions for this story.
The story begins when Hazel was just 14-years-old. She grew up in Hoonah and her education had been limited. She moved to Juneau and then Anchorage, where she had a baby that came as a surprise. She wanted to keep the baby, but was young and confused. During that year, a lot happened; including a runaway attempt by Hazel and the death of her mother. At a children’s services home in Anchorage, without any family to help her, Hazel signed papers she couldn’t read that put her daughter up for adoption.
“I had signed papers I didn’t know what they were,” Hazel said, “I didn’t have family members around to explain.”
“I was hurt when I found out she was adopted out,” Nellie said of her niece. She had helped to care for her while living in Homer.
Nobody felt more regret or sadness than Hazel, who said she wrote letters and sent gifts and cards almost every day when she thought she had found an avenue to contact her daughter.
Hazel’s husband for more than 20 years, John, said she was always talking about hoping to see her daughter again someday.
“When I married my wife, she always talked about how she wanted to reunite with her daughter. They didn’t know how to reach her, but I told her ‘don’t give up.’” John said.
April grew up in Maybee, Mich., considered a village with a population of only 505 in the 2000 census, before moving to Ann Arbor, Mich.
“It wasn’t easy.” April said of her life growing up.
She always knew she was adopted, but she didn’t know anything about her birth family and she said her foster mother had only negative things to say.
“You won’t like your family,” April quoted her foster mother as saying.
Though April suspects her foster mother kept her mother’s correspondence from her longer than she should have, she finally received the box of letters, cards and gifts when she was 25. They thought April should have received them when she was 18.
“I was writing letters every day while I was growing up, apologizing.” Hazel said.
When Hazel talks much about the adoption and the consequences of that decision, which wasn’t wholly hers, tears well up in her eyes.
When April was an infant and Hazel’s mom was taking care of her, Hazel ran away.
“I guess I was scared of responsibility because nobody told me how I was supposed to have the baby and all that.”
She said she regrets running and she regrets signing the papers she couldn’t read.
John leaned over to offer comfort. He tells her she didn’t really have a choice.
“You were only 14. You were just a baby. A baby having a baby.” John said.
“It hurts thinking about it,” Hazel said, wiping tears from her eyes. About half the eyes at the table teared up at one point.
Donna received an email message from April in the spring of 2001, she said. She immediately called Hazel.
“I stopped cleaning and just forgot about my cleaning for the day.” Hazel said.
Up to that point unnecessary in her life, Hazel created an email address that day, which she used to correspond with her long-lost daughter nearly every day.
For many years, Hazel was discouraged at never receiving a response from her daughter, but with the consistent optimism of her husband and support of her family, she continued to hope for that day. She admits to watching shows like Maury, which frequently and dramatically reunited long-separated families or sweethearts, and wishing it would happen for her.
And now, after so many years, April has returned to her home state, not just for a visit, but to live in Juneau.
“I still can’t believe it myself, I feel like I’m waking up in a dream,” Hazel said, adding “I won’t ask anybody to pinch me,” while shooting a teasing glance at her husband.
April says she owes her return to Juneau to her fiance, Perry Wilks, who saved and planned for the cross-country trip with April and their daughter, Jazmine.
“My fiance had a lot to do with it, he knew I wanted to come back to Alaska and saved up.” April said.
They drove 4,682 miles and met Hazel and other family members at the ferry terminal.
“When (April) came in, Hazel had tears, but you couldn’t tell because of the rain. It looked like rivers.” John said.
Hazel said she was shocked April, her fiance and daughter would want to move to Juneau, but April, and even her teenage daughter Jazmine, are happy about the change.
“Having a loving family — It’s amazing.” April said.
April, Jazmine and Perry will be a part of a large family, including Hazel’s two sons and, with John, two daughters.
April’s fiance was in the military for eight years and neither have family in Michigan, though he remains for the time being, as do April’s older two children. April described Ann Arbor as being too big, too loud and too dangerous.
“Juneau is peaceful.” she said.
In addition to the experience of having a larger family, April and Jazmine are learning about Juneau’s community and Tlingit culture.
Some of the experiences so far involve fishing and the subsequent eating of fish. Lots of fish.
“After I had a full day of fish — fish for breakfast, for lunch, dinner — I was like, “nuh uh, I’m taking a break.” Jazmine said.
April said they would only have fish maybe once a month back in Michigan. And sometimes that was fish sticks.
Next month they will visit Hoonah, so April can see where her mother and her birth father grew up.
And eventually, they will have to try “stink eggs” John said mischievously, describing them as fermented salmon roe and as something you have to grow up with to like.
For now, April and Jazmine say they are settling in well. Jazmine will start at Juneau-Douglas High School in the fall and April’s fiance will join them in Juneau in a few months with the rest of their belongings, including the box of correspondence from Hazel.
For April, losing touch with someone and finding them again was more than a one-time shot. Not only did she reunite with her birth mother, when her fiance, her high school sweetheart, did a tour of duty in Iraq, they lost touch for years.
“But we found each other again. On Facebook.” she said.
April attributes it all to love.
“If you believe in love… if it is truly there like ours was, it will find you.”
• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.