MADAWASKA — Gary Skillings’ life has all the elements of a good mystery novel: A mother’s mysterious pregnancy, family intrigue, DNA research and the discovery of long-lost relatives thousands of miles away.
Skillings, 57, grew up happily in Scarborough after being adopted as an infant from St. Andre Home, then operated by the Good Shepherd Sisters of Quebec in Biddeford.
“I was born at this Catholic home for unwed mothers,” Skillings said by phone from his home in Jupiter, Fla. “I was raised in a really blue-collar-type home (and) they always told me I was adopted but never told me about my mother.”
For his part, Skillings was content to leave it at that, but his older sister — also adopted from St. Andre — was curious about her biological mother.
“She went back to the nuns at St. Andre’s and through them, and with the blessing of her biological mother, was introduced to her at age 22,” he said. “I just never had that huge of a desire to do that.”
But after a while, and at his sister’s steady urgings, Skillings, a commercial pilot for American Airlines, decided to visit St. Andre and see what he could learn about his mother.
“When I was 21, I went to talk to this nun and she said, ‘I know who your mother is,’ and she told me her first name is Aline,” Skillings said. “She allegedly met with my mother, who told her she was not interested in meeting me. That was kind of a heartbreaker, but I honored her wish.”
The years passed and when Maine unsealed adoption records in 2008, Skillings decided to renew his quest.
“I got a copy of my original birth certificate and found out my mother’s name was Aline Mary Cote,” he said. “That was the first time I knew her name.”
The search hit a dead end until three years ago when, again at his sister’s urgings, he submitted a sample of his DNA — his genetic code — to 23andMe, an online site that uses DNA to help people trace their ancestry.
“I never checked back with the site,” he said. “But this past spring, I finally checked and there was a message from a Samantha Cote from Hartford, telling me we were second cousins.”
Skillings had just hit the genetic lottery.
“That is a really big deal,” he said. “I mean, we are all related, if you go back far enough — but if you discover a second cousin, relations really start getting fine-tuned and that gets one’s attention.”
Skillings contacted Cote and asked her if there were any Aline Mary Cotes in her family.
“She made some calls and finds out there was an Aline M. Cote who fit the age,” he said. “I said to Samantha, ‘Somebody who is alive knows this woman and that she went away and had a child.’”
Eventually, Cote made contact with a woman who turned out to be Skillings’ first cousin, Merine Bolduc of Lewiston, and who knew about Aline’s pregnancy, but had vowed to keep it a secret.
“But when Samantha called her, she confirmed the whole thing,” Skillings said. “That was it — I knew this woman was my mother, and even if I had 1 percent doubt, it was taken away when she said she was aware that at age 21, I had tried to contact my mother.”
Skillings next made contact with another first cousin, Linda Cote Dube of Madawaska.
If the DNA match to Samantha Cote was the genetic lottery, finding Dube was the genetic Powerball.
“I could not have found a better person,” Skillings said. “She is a genealogy guru who has 10,000-plus index cards with every Cote she ever researched.”
Not only is Dube his second cousin, but she knew Aline Cote personally and as a girl, had visited her in Lewiston.
Aline Cote was originally from Grand Isle, but moved to Lewiston as a young woman to share an apartment with her twin sister and an older sister.
“We called them the three spinsters,” Dube said. “They all had jobs in a textile mill where they made linens.”
At the time, the sisters’ uncle was the sheriff in Lewiston. According to what Dube has learned, the uncle one day delivered a pregnant and unmarried Aline, then 34 years old, to the nuns at St. Andre.
“She had a baby boy on Oct. 31, 1957,” Dube said. “She was apparently going out with a guy for a long time before that, but after the baby was born, the relationship ended.”
No one knows if that man was Skillings’ father, whose identity remains a mystery.
But 10 months after giving birth, according to Dube, Aline Cote was called back to the St. John Valley for an arranged marriage to recently widowed and single father Randolph Soucy, the son of her godparents.
“She was asked to come back to help him out,” Dube said. “She was obedient and did.”
But the marriage was never a happy one and in less than two years, Aline Cote had divorced Soucy and was back in Lewiston.
“She went back, but her two sisters would not take her back into the apartment,” Dube said. “So she lived out her days alone in her own apartment.”
By all accounts, according to Dube, Aline Cote was an active, vivacious and talkative woman who enjoyed spending time at a local piano hall called Luigi’s in Lewiston.
“She was always up and ready to go,” Dube said. “Nothing would stop her (and) she was outspoken like you would not believe and had plenty of boyfriends.”
One of those boyfriends was Henry Martin, and Dube has a photo of Martin as a young man, found among the sisters’ photo collection.
On the back, written to Aline, presumably in Martin’s own hand, are the words, “Joyeax Pacque (Happy Easter), Love Henry, XXX,” and dated March 19, 1957.
“She would have been pregnant with Gary at that time,” Dube points out. “But we don’t know who (Henry Martin) was.”
Skillings learned all this and more when, at Dube’s invitation, he traveled to Madawaska earlier this summer for a reunion organized in under two weeks by Dube.
“Think how awkward that could have been,” Skillings said. “They all could have said, ‘So what, Aline had a child,’ and we already have hundreds of cousins, who cares about one more.”
His reception — typical of the St. John Valley, where extended families are the norm — was the exact opposite.
“They had this reception for me and all these people showed up,” he said. “They were all total strangers to me, yet all related.”
In all, more than 50 cousins, first cousins and second cousins with their own families came to the chicken stew supper Dube put on.
“You know, I was screaming when I found the information that connected Gary to our family,” Dube said. “My husband came running downstairs and I was yelling, ‘I found another cousin!’”
Skillings had never been to northern Maine and said the drive to Madawaska with his wife, Donna, was cathartic.
“When I got there, they took us all over and showed me where my mom was born and the farm my grandfather ran for decades,” he said. “It was amazing.”
Skillings said he is not sure if he will pursue a search for his biological father at this point.
For now, he is happy to bask in the glow of his new-found family.
“When I got (to Madawaska) and met everyone, I told Linda, ‘You are the first blood relations I have ever laid eyes on other than my three children,’” he said. “I feel very blessed to have learned about them all.”