A Niskayuna High School alumna has a message to share: she wants everyone who has a brother or sister to pick up the phone, dial a sibling and reconnect. At 48 years old, it’s something she’s done every single day since she spoke to her older brother, Mike, for the first time just last month.
Stacey Engleman-Bertotti was 25 and living in Niskayuna when her mother approached her, wanting to talk. She could tell right away the conversation would be a serious one. What she learned that day shaped the next almost 24 years of her life, creating a sense that something important was missing.
Her mother told Engleman-Bertotti that she had a half-brother, born almost exactly two years before she was, who had been placed with an adoptive family.
“My grandfather had given my mom an option,” she said. “He basically gave her two choices when they found out she was pregnant: ‘Either you go to a home for unwed mothers or you put the baby up for adoption.’ ”
That was the last time Engleman-Bertotti and her mother discussed her half-sibling. But it was far from the last time she thought about it.
“She gave me what little bit of information that she could remember,” Engleman-Bertotti said. She imagines it was a painful subject for her mother, although she never specifically asked because it was clear the topic wasn’t up for discussion.
“I speculate what she thought, but honestly I just know how heartbroken she was because she never wanted the situation to happen. She never wanted him gone,” Engleman-Bertotti said.
After her mother died, six years after their conversation, Engleman-Bertotti finally felt free to talk about the brother she never got to meet, and even to look for him.
“I went to the courts, petitioned, and they basically laughed at me,” she said. “I was just a sibling. There’s got to be extreme reasons for them to open up the birth records.”
At the time, social media was still new, and the Internet still somewhat tough to navigate. There were adoption registry websites online where people who had been adopted posted their personal information, hoping family members who wanted to meet them would recognize some identifying family trait. Engleman-Bertotti scoured them without luck.
All of her close friends and family knew her search was a constant in her life and helped whenever they could. A friend from her high school days in Niskayuna, who had been adopted and successfully located her birth family as an adult, helped make the final connection to her brother.
The friend didn’t make any promises when Engleman-Bertotti handed over the results of more than two decades’ worth of research. It had taken the friend 15 years to locate all of her birth family, so she knew it might not be immediate. But, on Feb. 3, after a snowstorm kept her home from work, she found him.
His name was Mike Ellington. His physical description sounded just like Engleman-Bertotti’s mother. He was the right age, and he even mentioned his mother’s maiden name, which matched Stacey’s mother’s maiden name.
After a flurry of emailing, Engleman-Bertotti received a response. Then she received a phone call. Not even a month later, she was driving to the airport to pick Ellington up, local news crews in tow to commemorate the emotional meeting.
“We just had the most incredible four days together,” Engleman-Bertotti said of her brother’s visit. “We talk at least twice a day now, since he’s been home.”
At first, she was concerned about how her daughters, 8-year-old Megan and 10-year-old Grace, would take the unusual news. But she needn’t have been.
“The coolest thing, and this is just the neatest thing with my kids — I explained to them the whole situation in kid terms. I said, ‘Look, Grandma Betty Lou had a son when she wasn’t married,’ ” Engleman-Bertotti recalled telling the girls. “I said, ‘You know, Grandma Betty Lou gave my brother up for adoption, but she loved him so much.’ ”
Her husband, Jim, and their two daughters attached to Ellington instantly when he visited. The girls were thrilled to have an uncle on their mom’s side, and showered him with birthday gifts and hand-drawn cards sent through the mail when he turned 50 in mid-February.
The family is already planning to invite their newly discovered Uncle Mike on their summer vacation to Myrtle Beach. And as for Engleman-Bertotti, she has a new mission now that she’s found her brother: to share stories of reunited families on a blog or through some other medium.
“I had this feeling. I want to share it with everybody,” she said. “I feel like all of a sudden this is my calling, to help others find their family.”
And as for her own happy story of finally getting to know her brother?
“He’s not getting away ever again,” she said.