When seven siblings and half-siblings of the Phillips clan got together for a Vancouver-to-Alaska cruise this September, it was far from a traditional family reunion.
One of them was a new arrival to the family – at the grand old age of 80 – while the rest were getting to know a brother that most had no inkling of.
Children of late Vancouver businessman Jack Phillips – and now ranging in age from their sixties to their eighties – the majority of the siblings live in the Surrey and White Rock area.
But when they discovered – thanks to recent DNA matches – that Tom Rosebush, of Ajax, Ont., was also fathered by their dad, they didn’t waste any time welcoming into him to the family.
“We could have told him to take a hike – but we didn’t,” said one of the siblings, Joanne McClelland of South Surrey.
“Within four or five days of (learning) about him, we had a cruise lined up.”
While the emotional experience of the cruise was ultimately “exhausting,” she said, all the members of the family have taken something positive away from it.
Among other things, they’ve been struck by similarities between their own life experiences and those of their new brother. And many of Rosebush’s physical characteristics and mannerisms, including a distinctive way of pointing his finger, remind them vividly of their dad.
McClelland’s brother, Ken Phillips of South Surrey, admitted that while he was initially suspicious of a stranger claiming to be part of the family, his skepticism was soon dispelled when a long-time family secret was uncovered, confirming the DNA connection.
For Rosebush – who was adopted at the beginning of the Second World War – connecting with the Phillips clan has been a matter of discovering more about his birth family, McClelland explained.
“He waited until after his (adoptive) parents died before looking into it, out of respect for them” she said. “The Rosebushes were a loving and kind couple and he had a good upbringing. He carved out a great life for himself. Now, we’re just adding to it.”
In a way, the discovery of another sibling is not all that surprising, she and Phillips acknowledge.
“We only found out about our sister (Ruth McPhee of Toronto, now the eldest of the clan at 85) when I was 21 and Joanne was 13,” Phillips said.
But they were aware of her existence when their dad – who passed away in 1993 – and their mother Germaine (Gerry) travelled out to Toronto, in the late 1960s, in what proved to be a successful search for McPhee and her family.
“His first wife kept her away from him for many years,” McClelland said. “We welcomed her as an added bonus to our family.”
But there was no mention at all, while he was alive, of a son he’d fathered in a commonlaw relationship he’d had between his two marriages.
Shortly before their mother died in 2013, however, she’d told McPhee – in strictest confidence – that there had been another child, a boy.
McClelland and Phillips agree that many of the mysteries about Rosebush’s past had to do not only with sealed adoption records, but also the prevailing attitude in the 1930s and 1940s about children born outside of marriage. Because of the passage of time, they add, some remaining questions may never be cleared up entirely.
She and Phillips also agree that the early history of their father – by all accounts a freewheeling business entrepreneur of a grand old Canadian school – didn’t conform with ‘respectable’ norms.
“He was a rounder,” she said. “There was a trail of women he’d left behind him.”
After leaving home when he was 13, and trying his hand at a number of businesses during the Depression, he eventually ended up going into the army in Shiloh, Man., McClelland said.
For reasons now unknown, he had taken his son when the commonlaw relationship ended shortly after the baby was born, and placed him with his own mother in Hastings, Ont. After two years of trying to care for the boy, she had arranged for him to be adopted by the Rosebush family.
Following service in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, the senior Phillips and Gerry, with young Ken and their sister Dianna, came out to B.C. in 1945. When they first hit town, they made ends meet by selling Christmas cards door-to-door, McClelland noted.
Within a few years, Jack Phillips had parlayed such ventures into a successful business, Stylecraft Products, which marketed multiple product lines, and also had its own wholesale store at 6 Avenue and Cambie Street in Vancouver.
“Anything that made money, that’s what he turned his hand to. He had a real entrepreneurial spirit – all of us have had it,” McClelland said.
“Early on, he said to our mom, ‘I’m going to put you in diamonds and Cadillacs.’ And she did have lots of diamonds – and she drove a Cadillac.”
She also recalled their father’s sudden spiritual awakening after attending a revival meeting in Toronto when she was only four, and his subsequent involvement in the Pentecostal Church.
“He didn’t drink, smoke or carouse any more after that,” she said. “He called my mom up and said ‘get ready, you’re getting a new husband.’ I think she was happy about that.”
“You grew up with a much different dad than I did,” Phillips said.
But while their dad’s reformation changed the course of his life, the secret of his other son might have remained uncovered if McClelland hadn’t received a DNA-testing kit for Christmas, and completed it and sent it to Ancestry.ca early this year.
When she asked her niece, Terra – a genealogy buff – to help combine the results with another Ancestry.ca account listing their family tree, they were both surprised to receive an internal message from Rosebush.
He had taken a DNA test for his 80th birthday and the results had shown a higher-than-usual match with McClelland’s DNA – a match that could only occur with a close family relative; such as a grandparent, an uncle or a half-sibling.
While Rosebush had never known any details about his birth parents, he’d heard he was connected to a family named Phillips in some way, McClelland said.
And further confirmation came through entries in Granny Finney’s family Bible, now owned by her brother.
As McClelland put it, “dates, locations and persons started to add up,” and before long, all the siblings – and close to 90 of their family members in B.C. and Ontario – knew for certain they had another brother.
While the Phillips siblings are celebrating one more member, Rosebush is still dealing with the impact on his life, McClelland said.
“He just feels overwhelmingly blessed – there’s so much to think over, it almost boggles his mind,” she said.