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DNA testing connects adopted Ballston Spa woman, 95, with half-nieces

DNA testing connects adopted Ballston Spa woman, 95, with half-nieces

She learns about birth mother in process
DNA testing connects adopted Ballston Spa woman, 95, with half-nieces
Elizabeth "Betty" Nicolella (center) with half-nieces Joann Wheatley Dickinson (left) and Lynn Wheatley Skelly.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

Laura Mae Bradway held her infant daughter only a few times.

It was 1922. Laura Mae was about 18 and unmarried.

Her family decided the baby should begin life at St. Margaret's, a nursing center for children in Albany.

Hugh and Anna Teeling soon adopted the little girl. They named the child Elizabeth and raised her in West Milton and Ballston Spa.

Elizabeth "Betty" Nicolella knows some of these facts about her life. She recently learned others, thanks to DNA tests that allowed her to meet relatives she never knew existed. The result has been new BFFs (best friends forever).

In November, Nicolella, 95, met her half-nieces Joann Wheatley Dickinson, 67, of Latham, and Lynn Wheatley Skelly, 63, of Cohoes. The women talked for hours at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Clifton Park, and the half-nieces noticed family resemblances in their new aunt. Nicolella learned all about Laura Mae, who family members believe is Nicolella's birth mother.

Nicolella loved her first family.

NICOLELLA96Bradway.jpg

Pictured: Laura Mae Bradway, Elizabeth "Betty" Nicolella's birth mother. (Provided)

"My mother was soft-spoken — never mean or anything," she said earlier this month during a reunion with her newfound friends at her apartment in Doubleday Woods. "My father was a little tougher, but he was good. He was a hard-working man."

Hugh Teeling was employed at a Ballston Spa knitting mill. The Teelings decided to adopt because Anna failed to carry three previous babies to term. Elizabeth was their first child; they would soon raise five others.

Nicolella said she never thought she was adopted until another youngster taunted her by saying, "They got you out of a home."

Her mother told her the kid was talking crazy, but Nicolella later learned the truth.

"I used to clean houses for people when I was a kid," she said. "I was probably 14 or 15, and I cleaned for this woman and said I was adopted. She said, 'Even if you were, you have a lovely family. Don't worry about.' That's how it was; I just let it go."

And she did, at least for a little while. Nicolella tried to retrieve records from St. Margaret's but was told the records for 1922 had been lost.

"We have no name, clue or any written record anywhere of Mom's family," said Nicolella's daughter, Suzanne Steiner, of Flagler Beach, Florida.

Steiner decided to try DNA testing in 2016. Working through saliva samples, Nicolella was linked to people considered probable DNA matches. Steiner also worked with a professional who specialized in ancestry cases.

Dickinson became a possible match when she was linked to a man who had been placed high on Nicolella's DNA list.

Steiner contacted Dickinson and said she suspected they might be related. Dickinson took the DNA test — Steiner's treat — and Dickinson and Nicolella were matches.

"I wish we knew before," Dickinson said. "I wish this had come this far when my mom was still alive because I don't think my mother ever knew she had a half-sister."

Dickinson's mother, Emma Clark Wheatley, was Laura Mae's first daughter.

"She had my mother out of wedlock when she was 16, then apparently she got pregnant for Betty," Dickinson said. "My grandmother's father didn't like Betty's father, Betty's boyfriend, so he made Laura Mae give up Betty. That's what we figure happened."

Dickinson said Laura Mae, who lived her entire life in the Hudson Falls area, later married James Clark. The couple raised four boys together.

"So you have four half-brothers," Dickinson told Nicolella. "There's only one still alive; his name is Ken. I haven't been in contact with him since I was a child."

Dickinson and Skelly both said Laura Mae kept some secrets. As young girls, they didn't know if Laura Mae was married or divorced.

"Every Sunday, we'd go to Gran's house," Skelly said. "There was never a man around."

Laura Mae Bradway Clark, an accomplished quilter, died in a traffic accident April 1, 1977, on Route 9 at East High Street. She was 73. State police said Clark had been visiting her husband at Benedict Memorial Hospital in Ballston Spa and was returning home to Hudson Falls at the time of the crash.

Nicolella is trying to find members of her birth father's family. She still has people to meet — Joann and Lynn have two sisters and a brother.

"I'm just so interested in hearing about everything," said Nicolella, who was married to Pasquale Nicolella for nearly 50 years. The couple raised three children; Pasquale died in 1994.

Nicolella knows what she would have done, had she met Laura Mae earlier in life.

"I'd probably hug her and start crying," she said. "I told a high school teacher once that I did meet my mother, when she asked about being adopted. I told her I had met my mother — in a train station.

"I told her I went to see her in New York City," Nicolella added. "The teacher believed me. To this day, that lie haunts me. I don't know why I did it."

Reach Daily Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124, wilkin@dailygazette.com or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.

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