Maureen Miles set out to find
the father she never knew but
found a brother instead.
On the third day of the New Year, Maureen Miles opened a letter she had waited 50 years to receive. It was from The Salvation Army Missing Persons & Booth Records.
Dear Ms. Miles: I am happy to inform you that our colleagues in England recently had contact with your half-brother Chris Miles. Chris was pleased to learn you were searching for him and would like to have contact with you.
She screamed. She blinked. The words blurred as tears welled in her eyes. She finally had the link she needed.
Flashback five decades. Maureen was a college student in England in the 1950s when she received a similar letter from The Salvation Army. But the news was very different. They were sorry to report that her father, Dennis William Miles, did not wish to have contact with his only daughter.
Oh well, his loss, she thought at the time with typical teenage bravado. But as life unfolded with its attendant ups and downs, she couldn't shake the question mark that loomed over her.
For years, Maureen, now 72, had searched for information about her father. Her mother refused to discuss him, so Maureen looked for family notices, news announcements and, with the emergence of the Internet, she searched online, but her attempts were mostly dead ends, until the letter arrived.
And so it happened, on an unseasonably warm Sunday last January, she sat at her dining room table with a glass of water, giddy with nervous excitement, and met her half-brother for the first time.
Dennis Miles married Vera Brooks, the only daughter of country club owners near London in 1938. On their wedding day, the smiling bride clutched a large bouquet and stood with her groom as they posed for a photo in front of a trellis. He was 5'6", with brown hair and brown eyes, and boyish good looks suited to his 21 years. She was 17.
The young couple moved to Hendon, a suburb of North London, where Dennis worked as a butcher's assistant. In April 1943, five years after the wedding photo was taken, Maureen was born at Queen Mary's Maternity Hospital Freeland House. Her father was serving in the British Army and soon after her birth, he headed to war.
The casualties of World War II are most often measured in lives lost, but wars can also change people in ways that can't be quantified or explained. Who knows what goes on in the minds of young men sent to war? Who knows what Dennis Miles was thinking when he left his wife and baby daughter behind?
Maureen had only one explanation for what her father did next, as recounted by her mother, Vera, in a rare moment of sharing: He went off to war, met a woman and never came back.
Growing up, Maureen would stare at the image of her parents on their wedding day and wonder what happened.
In Maureen's baby book (called a "progress book" in England), an entry Vera wrote on her child's first birthday notes that she stood unsupported for the first time near a rocking horse that was a gift from her father. It was the last connection Maureen would have to him.
Life goes on
By 1950, Maureen's mother had married an American serviceman and the couple moved to College Park. Maureen stayed behind to finish school at St. Joseph's Convent in London before joining her mother and stepfather in Georgia.
The fear that she might never return to England spurred her first search for her father. Not knowing where to start, she contacted the Salvation Army to ask for help. An international resource for finding lost family members, the Salvation Army Missing Persons program receives thousands of inquiries and reunites hundreds of family members a year.
The reply came back just before Maureen left for the States.
"He didn't want to know (about me)," she said, her voice dropping slightly.
Moving to Georgia was a big adjustment. Compared to London, College Park was a rural town. Maureen had suitcases full of winter clothes and was met with 80-degree weather. When she saw a cardinal for the first time, she thought it was someone's pet. "I had never seen a beautiful bird flying around free," she said.
She got a job working part-time at an optical store where she struck up a friendship with a man who worked for another company in the building. He was 12 years older, but a relationship blossomed. The two were married and the following year they had a son. He was 13 when his father died. Maureen had just received her American citizenship, but she longed for home, so she voted for Jimmy Carter and hightailed it back to England.
Maureen remarried, this time to an Englishman 10 years her senior, and had a daughter. Six years later they divorced.
"It was a sense of failure for me," she said. "Not having a strong father figure, a male person, in my life obviously did more damage than I had thought."
All her life, Maureen blamed herself for her father's absence.
"What did I do? Why did he not want to know me? Why did he leave?" she said, voicing the thoughts that would run through her head.
One day she watched a documentary on Marilyn Monroe. "I identified very strongly with her. Because of her abandonment issues as a child she was seeking a father figure for love and acceptance. That is what I did, and I built a wall around myself using humor to fend off any serious relationships."
The search begins
After much deliberation, Maureen returned to the States to start fresh. She worked as a real estate agent and raised her children with help from her mother. In 1991, Vera was diagnosed with terminal cancer and Maureen moved into her house to care for her.
For 15 weeks, her mother battled lung, liver and bone cancer while Maureen shuttled her back and forth to appointments at Southern Regional Medical Center for tests and chemotherapy. When her mom was in low spirits, Maureen would draw flowers on the chalkboard in her hospital room and put the names of family members in the flowers to cheer her up.
Sensing she would never have another chance, Maureen gently prodded her mother for information about her father, but nothing could make Vera reveal anything about him.
Her mother was stoic by nature, as were many of her generation, Maureen said. She assumed the experience had been too painful for her mother to recount.
"We danced around it, but she would never come out and tell me anything about him or his parents," Maureen said. "I was sad, and I didn't want to push too hard. I remember thinking it is more important for me not to stress her out than it is for me to know."
Having felt the void of not knowing her father, Maureen didn't want her daughter, to experience that pain. Meg was 4 when her parents' marriage ended and she'd had no contact with her father since. A few years after Vera died, Maureen encouraged Meg to re-connect with her father.
"I felt she was old enough at 16 to make her own decision and her own choice. My mom shut the door on the conversation, and I didn't want to do the same."
Meg traveled to England several times to visit with her father, stepmother and half-sisters, and she kept in touch through letters and phone calls on birthdays and special occasions. Meg's experience demonstrated to Maureen how knowing where you come from can help fill the gaps in your life. Maureen was getting older and decided it was time to finally connect the dots of her past. Together, mother and daughter began searching for information.
They turned to Ancestry.com, but Maureen didn't have enough information about her father to get very far. She considered hiring a private investigator in London, but it cost too much. Facebook wasn't much help either.
While vacationing in England in 2012, Maureen spent some time poking around family records.
Assuming her father was deceased by now, she applied to receive his death certificate. It arrived by mail when she was back home in the U.S. Dennis Miles had a massive heart attack in 1996 while on the green playing lawn bowls. Her father was gone, but from his death certificate she learned his wife's name and address, so Maureen did more sleuthing. She tried contacting his widow, but she, too, had since passed. According to an obituary in the Evening Gazette, Edna Miles died peacefully in 2008. She was lovingly remembered by her son Chris.
Maureen was thrilled. She had a half-brother.
"I've got to find him!" she thought at the time. "I was feeling very driven to locate him, dead or alive, and see where it would go," she said.
Maureen flashed back to 1959 when the Salvation Army had reached out to her father on her behalf. Maybe they could do the same for her half-brother.
She submitted her application knowing it was possibly her last avenue to connect with that side of her family.
Making a connection
Chris Miles, 58, retired from JP Morgan as an information technology engineer. From his home in Dorset, he now runs an online business selling military paraphernalia. He was married for 33 years, has two adult children and enjoys traveling and hunting down antiques at local markets. And just like Maureen, he loves to dance.
When he received a letter from the Salvation Army last December telling him a relative was looking for him, he was mystified.
"I didn't do an awful lot about it," he said. "I have so few relatives left. My parents are dead. My aunts and uncles are gone."
The only person he could imagine trying to get in touch with him was his older brother Ian, who had moved to Florida in 1996 and had been out of touch ever since.
"After two weeks, curiosity got the best of me," Chris said.
He emailed the Salvation Army and received a reply the next day telling him he had a half-sister in the U.S. "I said, "˜I am 58 years old. It can't be.'"
They told him his father had been married before and asked if they could pass his contact information on to Maureen.
The youngest son of Dennis Miles, Chris was a blonde-haired version of his father. They did not get on well when he was young, said Chris. He was good at sports and excelled at ballroom dancing, which his mother loved. They would travel all over the world with his competitions, and he always felt his father and brother resented the time he spent with his mother.
But as Chris got older and started his own family, he and his father grew closer. When Chris and his wife had a baby girl, Dennis Miles was over the moon. Not only was she born on her grandfather's birthday, she was the first girl in the family "” or so they thought. "He made such a fuss over his first granddaughter," said Chris.
Just as he had for Maureen and for his two sons, Dennis Miles gave his granddaughter a special gift on her first birthday, a rocking horse.
The day before Dennis died, Chris spent an hour talking to his father.
"We talked about the past," said Chris. "If ever there was a time for confession, you would think it would be then. But he never gave anything away."
"˜You have Dad's hair'
I have huge news to share, Maureen said.
Just tell me, don't hold me hostage, said Meg, who was calling en route from Florida.
No, it's good.
Did you win the lottery?
Pick me up and I'll tell you at dinner, said Maureen.
She couldn't wait to share the news about finding Chris.
They settled into a booth at Broadway Diner in Fayetteville, and over a meal of gyros and sweet tea, Maureen handed her daughter and son-in-law the letter from the Salvation Army.
Their jaws dropped.
"I had all these questions," said Meg. "Did he have kids? What was my grandfather like?"
The next day, Maureen prepared to meet Chris via Skype video chat.
Small in stature with a head full of wavy gray hair, Maureen laughs easily and is quick with a wry, sometimes self-effacing sense of humor. She is animated and upbeat but in moments of introspection, she speaks slowly, measuring her words carefully.
Minutes before their scheduled meeting, she put on lipstick and earrings and raced through the house like a schoolgirl preparing for a date.
The line buzzed, and an image popped up of Chris wearing big white headphones. Maureen angled her computer to make her face appear thinner. There floating on her laptop screen, was a younger male version of herself.
"My God," said Chris. "You have Dad's hair and his teeth."
For two hours they talked and marveled at how remarkable it was to discover a sibling they had never known existed.
Photo: Maureen with her mother Vera (left) and her grandmother Rose Brooks at the country club operated by her grandparents in Staffordshire.
Filling in the blanks
Once or twice a week over the next few months, Maureen and Chris chatted via Skype as he filled Maureen in as much as he could on their father.
Dennis and Edna Miles were newlyweds when Dennis landed in the hospital. Just back from the war, he spent almost six years battling either tuberculosis or polio, Chris can't remember which.
When Dennis was released, the couple settled in northern England and he launched a medical supply company. It was a profitable business before an associate allegedly ran off with most of the money, Chris said. Dennis had no choice but to start over. In 1961, he opened a news agency, which he operated until he sold it in the 1970s to WH Smith, the British bookseller.
"My father was a workaholic," said Chris. "He had a tough life. But he was from a generation who never talked about their problems. You never heard them complaining about anything."
Dennis Miles rarely spoke of his life before the war. His and Edna's stories of the past mostly began when they met "” except one story he shared with Chris about one of his greatest regrets.
"He pestered his father for a pair of roller skates," Chris said. "His dad bought them for him and he later found out that those were the last two shillings his dad had in his pocket. He spent the rest of his life trying to feel better about that because he felt so guilty."
Maybe that painful memory is what drove him to work so hard. But what would make him turn his back on his daughter? To Chris, it just didn't add up.
"I have never met anyone who is more family-oriented than Dad. His family and his business were his life," he said. "He was so generous, a better man than I could ever be."
During one of their Skype conversations, Chris held an old photo up to the screen. It was a picture he had found of his father with a woman he didn't recognize. The photo was dated 1939. There, smiling in a canoe with their father, was Maureen's mother. It may have been the only picture her father saved from that time in his life, but for Maureen it was proof that she and her mother were not simply forgotten.
Forging a relationship
Each time she talks to her brother, Maureen feels elated.
"I feel so uplifted and joyous," she said. "He and I are very much alike."
Despite a 14-year age difference, they share childhood memories about growing up in England, like the rag and bone men who would come around collecting household items from their homes or the British singers they listened to as children. But Maureen understands that much of their shared history is general.
Maureen's daughter, Meg, has noticed a change in her mother since she connected with Chris.
"She seems a lot happier," said Meg. "She has two sisters and sometimes those relationships can be difficult. She has been really excited to have a positive male family member in her life."
In May, when they talked about Chris possibly coming for a visit later in the year, Maureen began preparing her guest room.
Then a peculiar thing happened. Maureen didn't hear from Chris for nearly two months. She couldn't reach him on Skype or by phone.
"We went from talking two to three times a week for months, then the line went dead," she said.
At first, those old feelings of abandonment came creeping back. "What did I do?" she thought. Days would go by and she would think about him and wonder how he was doing.
But eventually she shifted her thinking.
"Whatever is going on, he will contact me," she thought.
Then in late June, six weeks since they had last spoken, she tried dialing him up again.
The line buzzed, and this time he answered.
A health scare and turmoil in his personal life had kept him out of touch for a while, he said. He was overwhelmed and unable to fulfill Maureen's requests for more and more information about their father.
"She comes off as a bit of a tough cookie, but I don't think that is the case," Chris said. "I think she is much softer, and I look forward to getting to know that side of her."
He hopes to visit Maureen in the next few months and would like to build a lasting relationship with her — one that transcends the hurts of the past.
"There are still so many questions about our father," said Maureen. "I may just have to be satisfied with what I have for now."
Behind the story
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Nedra Rhone has been with the AJC since 2006, writing lifestyle stories on a range of topics including shopping, fashion, personal finance and entertainment. Since 2012 she been the Bargain Hunter blogger/columnist, telling readers how to save money and spend it wisely. Before joining the AJC, she covered news and education at daily newspapers in New York and California.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream's Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves' National League Division Series.
Personal Journeys is our weekly look at the lives of extraordinary individuals and the stories that define our region and connect our community. The search for family figures prominently in Lost Brother, the tale of AJC videographer Ryon Horne's search for the brother he never knew, and staff writer Craig Schneider's Searching for Uncle Al, which chronicles Schneider's search for answers about the death of his father's brother, a casualty of World War II. You'll find a complete list of Personal Journeys here.