Mary Kidwell, facing camera, embraces her sister Joan Billings after a more than 70 year separation
Mary Kidwell, right, approaches her sister who she hasn't seen in more than 70 years
Joan Billings, 80, wipes tears of joy after seeing her sister for the first time in more than 70 years
CORFU, NY - Growing up in Toronto in the 1930's, life was not easy for the three Wilkins sisters, Joan, Shirley, and Mary.
Their father, Jack, a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, was away for long stretches of time, during which their mother, Mary, kept up a busy social calendar.
"She was 15 years younger than my father when they got married and my feeling is she wasn't ready to settle down," recalled Shirley Mortellaro, now 78. "She wanted to party all the time."
Joan Billings, 80, recalls how their mother would often lock the girls in a room of their home at night and go out dancing.
"We couldn't even go to the bathroom. We had to pee in little teacups," she said.
Joan was about seven when she also noticed, that when her dad was away, other men came around.
"She had a man in the bedroom, and I went to go in there and she told me to get out," said Joan, recalling once incident of infidelity. "When daddy came home I told him that mommy did bad things in the bedroom. And that's when they fought."
"Where are you going, Mom?"
Their parent's rocky marriage ended abruptly one day in 1940, when their father was due home from another furlough, and their mother, gathered the three girls together.
"My mother came outside and told us to sit on the steps, and says I'm gonna take Mary and get her some new shoes," remembered Billings. "I asked her why she had a big bag with her, and she said she was going to a Chinese laundry, and would be back."
Joan and Shirley sat on the stoop all day, and into the night. "When it got dark Shirley was scared so she was crying and I can remember putting my arm around her to try and comfort her."
Eventually, their father arrived home and found the girls, asking them where their mother had gone.
"We told daddy that she said she was coming back, but she never did," Joan said.
Their dad, having to get back to duty, placed the girls in foster care, telling them their mommy was never coming back, and neither would Mary.
As hard as it was to be separated from their father, mother, and little sister, life was about to get worse. in the care of the farmer's wife they were left with.
Life Without Mary
According to Joan, the woman was cruel. "She used to beat us , to tell you the truth." She said. "we would have to go out into the fields and pull weeds, and if we missed a weed we got a beating. So I used to go behind Shirley and pull her weeds. And one time...she beat Shirley so bad that it made cuts on her."
After two years, Joan and Shirley girls were reunited with their father, who found a new wife, and eventually settled in Orleans County, NY.
"Francis Hawkins her name was," said Shirley. "Oh she was the nicest lady. She was an angel."
Although the Wilkins girls also got some wonderful stepsiblings in the deal, they still missed and wondered often about their little sister.
"Oh, yes, all the time. We prayed that we could see her...I always thought about her, wondering what she looked like where she was," Joan said.
They tried over the years without success to find Mary, with their inquires to Canadian officials fruitless.
"They told me you might just as well stop, because there's no record of her or where she lives or anything," Shirley said.
It didn't dawn on Joan or Shirley, however, that they might have something else in common with Mary, besides blood.
What if she, like they, ended up in the US?
The possibility was not lost, on someone else.
"My grandson, who lives in Florida, has a girlfriend whose mother does investigating for people who are looking for people," explained Shirley. "She told me she never gives up."
"I've been looking for you for a long time".
A year and a half later, in early September, Shirley's phone rang.
"She says guess what? I found Mary. I said what? I can't believe it! Is this really true? She said yes, we found Mary!"
The woman also told Shirley that Mary would be calling her shortly.
"Sure enough, the phone rang about ten minutes later and when I picked up I heard a voice ask, 'Shirley?' I said, 'yes it's me.' She said, this is Mary. I coulda dropped. I was so shocked,..but I was so happy."
"I said, 'I have been looking for you for so long'.... And she says, 'I have been looking for you, for so long'."
Mary then called Joan, who recalls bursting into tears upon hearing her little sister's voice for the first time in 73 years. The sisters talked via telephone a couple of more times before Mary suggested a reunion.
"When I hung up I told her, 'I love you'. She told me that she loved me too," Shirley recalled.
On the Morning September 12th, Mary Wilkins Kidwell, now 77, a widowed mother of four, boarded a Greyhound bus in Columbus Ohio, where she's been living for the past 42 years.
It left out at 10:30 AM, and about 9 hours later, it rolled into Batavia,... a virtual treasure chest on wheels, holding the answers to questions that burned for more than 70 years.
At the convenience store, which doubles as a bus depot, as the sun began to set in the sky, Mary stepped off the bus and into the waiting arms of the sisters, she had not seen since 1940.
"Oh, you're so pretty!" Joan exclaimed to Mary.
Ironically, though Joan and Shirley told us that throughout their long lives, that it was always Joan who was the stoic one, it was she who shed the most tears
"I thought I was a tough old lady," sniffed Joan. "I prayed and prayed and prayed that I'd get to see her before I died. I didn't ever think it would ever happen, you know? It's like a miracle!"
Unlike her older sisters, Mary, who was only four, does not remember that fateful day when her mother took her and left. "I was too young to realize what was really happening," she told WGRZ-TV.
However, even as her mother re-married and they moved from place to place, and Mary grew into womanhood, the separation remained shrouded in mystery
"She didn't tell me anything...she didn't talk about it so I didn't either. I figured maybe she don't want to talk about it."
Mary's mother took the family secrets with her to her grave in 1993.
"Mom never motioned my real father or my sisters, so I didn't mention it either. But inside, I used to think about them a lot."
After her mom died, Mary renewed her search, although she too was looking in Canada.
"I had these two sisters that I wanted to see before I die...I had a family out there and I didn't even know where they were at ."
Mary once even wrote to the producers of America's Most Wanted to try to enlist their help in her search for her long lost sisters.
"They couldn't find them either," she said.
Mary also recalled how her finger trembled a bit, as she went to use the phone to call Shirley.
"That was hard...I just couldn't believe it was happening I guess."
Sisters again, Sisters forever
During the week that she, Joan, and Shirley spent at Shirley's home, the sisters had a lot of catching up to do, and spent much of the time filling each other in on their lives since their separation, swapping photos, sharing secrets, and laughing...just as sisters should.
"They're very kind, they're very loving, and we get along fine," Mary said.
She also has advice for anyone else who becomes separated from his or her family.
"Keep looking," she said. "Keep looking and don't ever stop."
Click on the video player to watch our story from 2 on Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Chief Photojournalist Andy DeSantis. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveMcKinley2