Time was running out on terminally ill Perth woman Janet Buttel’s search for her missing brothers when a twist of fate helped her reconnect with her last surviving sibling 4,000 kilometres away.
- A long sibling separation has ended with a cancer patient reconnecting with her last brother on the other side of the country
- For almost seven decades, Janet Buttel wondered what happened to her younger brothers Lawrence and Maxwell
- After seeing a social media post and calling the ABC, a reader helps put the siblings back in touch
Ms Buttel’s family was shattered in 1951 when her mother, Vera Turner, died during surgery in Ballarat, western Victoria.
Their father, George Turner, unable to look after their five children, moved with Janet, his only daughter, to Western Australia, leaving the boys behind.
Ms Buttel, 73, connected with her twin and older brother as an adult, but for almost seven decades she wondered what happened to her two younger brothers, Lawrence and Maxwell.
Now, she knows.
‘I never thought I’d see the day when I’d find her’
It was a Saturday morning in central Queensland when 69-year-old Lawrence Rodgers (formerly Turner) received an unexpected call — the sister he never knew was desperately searching for him.
“I knew I had a sister, but I never thought I’d see the day when I’d find her,” Mr Rodgers said.
Adopted by the Rodgers family, Lawrence grew up on a small dairy farm in south-west Victoria, not far from Max, the other missing Turner son, who was taken in by the Hallyburton family.
“I learnt as a young boy that I was adopted but that didn’t matter. As a kid you don’t worry, you’re part of a family and they accepted me,” Mr Rodgers said.
Max and Lawrence were adopted by two sisters who were distantly related to their mother.
They had spent their childhood holidays together on the family farms in Colac and Stonyford.
“It was always a comforting thought to know I’ve got a brother but, as for the rest of them, we didn’t know anything other than that there were three of them,” he said.
“I was very happy and so was Max, to think that we had each other.”
Mr Hallyburton died in 2016, but it was his half sister, Dulcie Varney, who told Mr Rodgers about the family search.
“She said to me, ‘Lawrie you have a sister who’s trying to find you’. I just couldn’t believe it, it was just so awesome and emotional,” he said.
Mr Rodgers had been in Perth, where Ms Buttel lives, visiting his own son when the original story about her search was published.
Two days later when the connection was made, he was at home in Dysart, north-west of Rockhampton.
Mr Rodgers said his first call to Janet was incredibly emotional.
“I said to her, ‘How you going sister?’. She was just overawed. She couldn’t believe it,” he said.
“I was lucky to get a word in, she was so excited. I was hanging on to the end of the phone and Janet was going 50 to the dozen.”
Mr Rodgers said he hoped the discovery gave Ms Buttel some comfort as she underwent chemotherapy.
“I have found someone I thought was already dead and gone. I have a sister — I don’t know for how long — but it’s so good to think there’s two of us,” he said.
“She said to me: ‘You thought you were the only one going didn’t you?’ And I said: ‘Well by the look of it, it’s you and me again’, and it was just like having Max.”
Mr Rodgers said there had been a brief communication with Janet’s twin brother in the past.
However when an arrangement to meet fell through at the last minute, the youngest brothers decided to leave the past behind.
‘It’s been a beautiful, magical thing’
Ms Buttel was heading out the door to have her hair shaved off, due to the chemotherapy, when she took the call from her youngest brother.
“He just rang and he was there. I wasn’t expecting anything. We couldn’t believe it was really happening,” she said.
“It’s been a beautiful, magical thing. It’s like a fairy tale.”
Ms Buttel said the reason she had never been able to find the two youngest brothers was because their names were changed when they were adopted.
“All my life I’ve been waiting for this. All my life I’ve been trying but nothing’s come of it,” she said.
Ms Buttel said she was sad she never had the opportunity to meet Max but was thrilled Lawrence was alive.
“Now I’m saying to my brothers upstairs: ‘You leave me alone. You’re not having me because I haven’t finished here yet, so don’t get any ideas’,” she said.
“I say to my mother at night: ‘Well mum, I’ve found the boys for you. I’ve finally found them, so you can rest in peace’ and so can I, eventually.
“I hope it helps a lot of people. Keep searching. Don’t give up.”
The last piece of the puzzle
The last piece of the puzzle in Ms Buttel’s search for her remaining family lay in the memory of a spirited 71-year-old woman in Geelong, Victoria.
Judy Moore was scrolling through social media when she came across the seven-decade story of the divided family.
Ms Moore attended Stonyford Primary School, between Colac and Camperdown, in the 1950s and had a clear memory of a boy named Max Hallyburton, who knew his name to be something else.
“I recall Max saying at school: ‘My real name is Maxwell Phillip Turner.’ Now, I don’t know how many times he would have said it. I don’t know how it would have come up,” she said.
“I remembered it straight away. I was in such a tizz.”
Maxwell Turner (3rd from the left, front row), his adopted sister Yvonne Hallyburton (3rd from the right in the second row) and Judy Moore (right hand side, front row) at Stoneyford Primary School in 1955 (Supplied: Judy Moore)
After calling the ABC in Ballarat, Ms Moore was able to confirm the Max Hallyburton she knew had died.
While some might have left it there, Ms Moore decided to find the three sisters from his adopted family and tracked them down on social media, eventually finding Ms Varney’s number.
“She must have been wondering what on Earth was happening [when I called],” Ms Moore said.
“I was really nervous. I was shaking and sweating. I was thinking: ‘I hope I’m not wrong’.”
Ms Moore arranged to meet Ms Varney at her home near Geelong and, when she arrived another sister, Yvonne Varney, was there too.
“I was worried I’d be told to mind my own business,” she said.
Ms Moore said the turn of events had been thrilling, but was devastated Mr Hallyburton would never meet his sister.
“What a fluke. I don’t know how else you can describe it,” she said.
“It just shows you, get it out there and let people know — the internet and Facebook, my goodness it’s a powerful tool.”
Dulcie Varney, 83, said it was wonderful Ms Moore was able to connect the dots.
“I was excited because I knew I could contact [Max’s] brother and daughter,” she said.
Ms Varney said it was heartbreaking the family had been broken up, but as a young girl she was excited to have a brother.
“We were three girls [and] not understanding a great deal of what was going on, having a little brother sounded like a great idea,” she said.
“When he came to us he was obviously very disturbed and unsettled, he’d been around from pillar to post with his mother’s death — he’d get very angry sometimes and say ‘I’m going home to Ballarat’.
“Then, after a few years, he realised he was loved.”
Ms Varney said she was excited she could help link the remaining siblings.
“[I called Lawrence and] said your sister’s looking for you — I think he nearly swallowed the telephone,” she said.
“I went on to tell him the story as I knew it.”
‘There was always this yearning’
Carlie Hallyburton, 35, Mr Hallyburton’s daughter, said this week had brought a rollercoaster of emotions.
She said as a child she had asked him many questions about his own childhood.
“We would be on these road trips and dad would talk about how his name had been Turner, and would he ever find the other siblings,” she said.
Throughout Ms Hallyburton’s life she said they had searched ancestry websites and Facebook.
“There was always this yearning. He just wanted to know were they alive, were they ok, there was all these questions,” she said.
“We used to joke about going on those TV shows [that find families], but dad was always a bit quiet so in reality he would have been terrified.”
Ms Hallyburton said her father would have been rapt with the outcome.
“I can just imagine him saying, ‘what a bloody ripper, can you believe it?'” she said.
Ms Hallyburton said when he died, she had closed the book.
“I always thought ‘he never found them, how could I?’,” she said.
Ms Hallyburton has now spoken to Ms Buttel on the phone and is planning a visit.
“Talking to Janet was beautiful. We cried and talked and she was so familiar, I got off the phone on such a high,” she said.
“She’s my flesh and blood. [I want to visit] to see my dad in her, to share who he was and his stories so she has a picture of him.”