Wayne Thompson is a NZ Herald reporter.

Sisters beat a century of silence

Newly united sisters Merle Coleman (left) and Iris Lonergan found they'd worn the same colours. Photo / Greg Bowker
Newly united sisters Merle Coleman (left) and Iris Lonergan found they'd worn the same colours. Photo / Greg Bowker

It was a secret she kept for 100 years. But a week after her 100th birthday, Iris Lonergan dropped a bombshell on her Auckland family. "I think I was adopted," she said, sparking an unlikely search for any surviving siblings.

Less than three months later, a half-sister Mrs Lonergan had never known, nor heard of, came from Wanganui to see her.

Merle Coleman, 89, wore a red top and black trousers - the same colours as Mrs Lonergan's outfit - for the weekend reunion at Rosedale Village, in Albany. Their mother was never far from their minds as they chatted and laughed.

Mrs Lonergan was born before World War I and lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II, knowing she was adopted but not knowing her birth parents.

Records showed she was given up for adoption in the Waikato town of Cambridge. Why?

The women could only guess that their mother did what many unmarried mothers, afraid of family scandal, felt they had to do in those different times. "Wrong side of the blanket, wasn't it?" said Mrs Lonergan.

Their mother, Bretta Collard, was 26 when Mrs Lonergan was born.

She married at 32 and had two sons and Merle, who said: "Mum never said a thing. No way. I had a very proper mother. An upright mother. She was a strong lady, sensible and capable.

"Growing up, there was no whisper about it. Mum died with her secret. She passed away aged 96 and not a soul ever breathed a word about it.

"I think she would be horrified to hear all this going on."

Mrs Coleman said she knew her mother had worked in Auckland at the Bank of New Zealand as a stenographer-secretary.

"She had a good job but this baby was born in Cambridge.

"We don't know who arranged the adoption. We know nothing."

Turning to Iris and patting her hand, she said: "It wasn't our fault eh?"

The only hint of insight into the regret of the birth mother who gave Mrs Lonergan up is on the adoption certificate. Iris was christened Iris Rosetta. But the first names her birth mother gave her were Enid Merle.

The birth mother named her second daughter Ena Merle.

Mrs Lonergan said her parents once told her she was adopted.

"I remember standing by the kitchen sink. I'd have been 10 or 12. It was never brought up again. You just never thought anything about it."

Asked whether she had thought about her mother, she said:

"I didn't think of her. But I did wonder what my father was like as my children were growing up."

Mrs Lonergan's parents made her work hard as an only child.

"But I was lucky not to be awfully treated."

She married and has two sons, Ray and Ted, and nine grandchildren.

Ray Lonergan made the first call to a shocked Mrs Coleman to tell her she had a 100-year-old sister. His search started with a certificate showing only his mother's date of birth and no other details.

- NZ Herald

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