They share a father, a love of quilting and the gift of gab. Besides DNA, the sisters also share dark histories wrought during their formative years. Their childhoods are best described as incredibly sad, which is remarkable given that the sisters were raised by completely different families at opposite ends of the country.
Marti Layne of Lake Havasu City and Jackie O’Brien of central New York state both had the same father. To Marti, he was Billy Williams. Jackie knew him as Michael O’Brien. Why their handsome but unstable father changed his name or whatever became of him is a mystery to both women.
The epilogue to the sisters’ story is that each one moved far beyond their rocky starts in life. Both Marti and Jackie went on to live full lives that include loving marriages, successful children and cherished grandchildren. Both remain engaged in satisfying careers and enjoy rich friendships.
And now, after 50 years, they have found each other.
Making the connection
Marti found Jackie after she submitted a DNA sample to Ancestry.com. A relative had asked Marti to submit the sample in June 2017.
“I thought, ‘Why not?’ Ancestry compares your DNA with others’ DNA, so I thought I could look for relatives. It finds family for you,” Marti said. “And for me, it brought up all these connections. I found four other half-sisters in Canada – we have the same mom – and cousins coming out the yin-yang.”
Her DNA report also led her to Jackie. They have the same father.
“I was in shock. We connected through Facebook and went that route for a while. Then we spoke on the phone. Jackie will be here in Havasu in January for a couple of weeks, so we’ll get to meet for the first time. It’s going to be great,” Marti said.
Marti and Jackie say they share the same deep voice and similar facial features.
Another commonality between them is more troubling.
“She and I are of one father who tried to destroy our lives. But he didn’t (succeed). And now we have each other,” Marti said.
In 1945, Marti was born Patricia Diane Williams in British Columbia, Canada.
She has an older sister, Kathy. A one point, her parents broke up. Later, her mother planned to remarry.
“My dad basically kidnapped me and my sister and took us to Vancouver. He’d decided that no other man was going to raise us,” Marti said.
Marti, 4, never saw her mother again.
She said that in those days in Canada, struggling parents could place their children in the government’s care.
“He told them our mother was an alcoholic and lived with her boyfriend. He dropped us off and I never saw him again,” Marti said. She and Kathy were eventually placed in an orphanage.
Marti and Kathy were adopted by a well-to-do American couple, Leslie and Gail Cleveland. Marti was five and Kathy was six. The Clevelands changed the girls’ names to Martha and Thelma and settled their new daughters into their spacious California home near Los Angeles.
“My mother hated the name ‘Marti,’ but that’s what all my friends called me.
Years later, when they would call the house phone and ask for Marti, my mother would tell them no one resided there by that name,” Marti said.
Gail Cleveland’s mean streak ran deep.
“Gail was Joan Crawford – ‘No more wire hangers!’ When we were first adopted, we asked her if we could call her ‘Mommy.’ She said, ‘No. You’ll call me Mother,’” Marti recalled. “She never once told me that she loved me.”
Marti remembers her adoptive father lovingly, but as an aerospace engineer for the U.S. government, he was frequently absent. Gail Cleveland ruled the roost, even when Leslie was home.
Marti said her sister Kathy protected her from Gail. But she couldn’t protect herself.
“I saw Gail beat my sister with the buckle end of a belt until she had bleeding welts,” Marti said. She suspects that the beatings and poor treatment were born of Gail’s frustrations.
“She was very glamorous. I don’t think she had the kind of life she thought she should have had. Instead, she was a housewife in Covina,” Marti said.
When Marti and her sister each turned 18, they took off. Marti exited through her bedroom window.
“We both ran away. I was so afraid of my mother – you didn’t dare walk out the front door,” she said. “I got married, and when I would see Mother at the grocery store, she’d turn away from me. We didn’t speak after that.”
Jackie was born in Utica, New York in 1953 and had an older sister, Mary.
There was a 10-year age difference between her parents.
“Dad was born in 1919 and Mom was born in 1929. They married in 1952,” Jackie said. Her father was an industrial chimney sweep, cleaning out boilers in factories. Her mother would sometimes whisper to her daughters that their father had two other daughters in Canada, referring to Kathy and Marti.
“Dad was a good-looking, charming Irishman. But when he would drink, he’d get angry and abuse my mom,” Jackie said.
When the marriage disintegrated, their father tried to kidnap Jackie and Mary, as he had done with his Canadian daughters. But Jackie’s grandfather foiled the plan. The girls never saw their father again.
Jackie and Mary went to live with their grandparents. Their grandfather died when Jackie was 8 and the sisters lived in foster homes for a time. In 1965, she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Las Vegas. She was 12.
“They were very religious and there was no joy in that household,” Jackie said of her aunt and uncle. “They were not loving. But they did have horses and I got to be in 4-H.”
Jackie eventually found her way back to the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.
The quilting sisters
Marti is a member of the Havasu Stitchers, a quilting club in Havasu. The club hosts a week-long quilting retreat every January, bringing in nationally-recognized teachers to lead quilting classes.
Jackie will be one of those teachers.
“I’ve been quilting since 2004 and teaching since 2006. I have a knack for it. I mostly teach along the Eastern seaboard,” she said. “This will be my first time teaching in the West,” Jackie said of her January trip to Havasu. Teaching enables Jackie to meet new people all the time, an aspect of the job she truly enjoys. But her January teaching gig will be extra-special because she gets to meet her half-sister Marti for the first time.
“We found each other. I am so sorry it’s so late in life, but you have to be thankful,” Jackie said.
Marti is a Realtor in Havasu but enjoys quilting in her leisure time. However, her spare time in the past few months has been spent tracking down family through the DNA connections.