Michelle Penver was at home in Boynton Beach with her sister, Beverley Bernstein, when the first message from England arrived. It was late March, the day after Easter.
“Hi, I’m Charise, your half-sister.”
“I have a sister, Camille.”
“We have two more sisters. Sandra and Sharon.”
“Dad has a lot to answer for.”
In minutes, the two women discovered they were among six sisters from three mothers, born in Southern England a half century ago, connected by a man they barely knew.
Earlier this year, Michelle had begun plugging the few scraps of names she had into Facebook, slowly locating clues leading to the women on the other side of the Atlantic.
Over the next several days, the sisters chatted on Facebook and on the phone, sharing the details of their lives. They range in age from 47 to 64. Three still live in England. Three are in the U.S.
Even over a grainy video phone connection, they could tell a DNA test would be redundant.
Michelle, Charise Cornell, Sandra Axtell-Brooks and Camille Miller have what they call the “Penver look,” wide, open faces with light eyes, blonde hair and big personalities.
“We’re gutsy,” said Michelle. “Girls without fathers have to be.”
She and Camille wear the same style of diamond ring. Michelle and Sharon Puddick wear the same perfume, Intuition by Estee Lauder, and have the same gap between their second and third toes.
Beverley, the only brunette, and Sharon, the smallest, are the more reticent sisters, the cautious ones unsure about whether uncovering 50-year-old secrets was a good idea.
“I have a feeling that if we lived closer, Sharon and I would be close friends,” said Beverley.
As the six women got to know each other, they realized each sister knew part of the puzzle of their early lives. Together, they unraveled the tangled skein of kinship and lust, of betrayals, abandonments and the complicated web of family that bound them — familiar strangers — together.
“The tears were flowing,” said Michelle. “We couldn’t understand why we didn’t know, why this was a big secret.”
In July, five of the six sisters met for the first time in Brighton, a resort town on the English Channel. For two days, they hardly stopped talking.
After a lifetime of blaming their mother for tearing them away from their father, Michelle and Beverley learned a bitter truth from their sisters.
Not knowing their father, it turns out, was a lucky break.
In small-town England in the late 1950s, divorce was a scandal. Unmarried mothers were scorned outcasts.
But sexy, dark-haired Ann Howard would not be deterred by parochial conventions. She fell hard for Basil Graham Penver, who introduced himself as Barry, when they met at the Blackrock Bathing Pool in Brighton. He was married with two daughters, Sandra and Sharon, which didn’t seem to bother either him or 17-year-old Ann.
“My mother was a bit of a floozie,” said Beverley, who like Michelle, lives in western Boynton Beach. Their mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, lives with Michelle.
Barry, they all agree, was the smoothest of talkers.
“He could charm the knickers off a nun,” said Camille Miller. She’s the fifth daughter, who married a U.S. serviceman and lives in Kentucky.
Barry came from Cornwall, an isolated, lands-end peninsula in Southwest England. It was where he and Ann fled, leaving his first family behind.
“They never married, but there they would have been protected and welcomed,” said Michelle. “The Cornish kept outsiders at bay.”
By the time Michelle was 2 and Beverly was 5, Ann and Barry were finished. In 1965, Ann and the girls emigrated to the U.S., moving frequently around New York City as Ann found and lost jobs, apartments and men.
In the late ’70s, Ann moved to Davie with one of the girls’ stepfathers, where Michelle briefly attended South Broward High School.
Their father remained a question they learned not to ask.
They grew up believing their mother tore them away from him when she moved to the U.S.
However, Beverley retained two confusing early childhood memories she couldn’t reconcile with that yearning.
She reverts suddenly to an English accent.
“When I talk about memories before age 10, when we emigrated, I talk in a British accent,” she said.
She remembers her father holding Michelle, at age 2 or so, over the water from the Prince of Wales pier in Falmouth, Cornwall, threatening to drop her. Around that same time, she recalls walking to school, wishing hard she had been born into another family.
“I never knew until now why I wished that,” she said.
Now, she had sisters to explain it.
Barry had been a serial adulterer who fathered daughters — always daughters — eventually abandoning them all after violently abusing the children and their mothers. He worked for TWA Airlines for a time, but an inability to control his temper meant he was often fired from jobs.
“I remember the beatings, the terror, I remember him beating my mother,” said Camille. “He broke my sister’s nose then wouldn’t give us the vehicle to get her to the doctor. Another time, my sister was hit by a car, and when my mother went with her to the hospital, he stayed home so he could beat me.”
Once, he even forced Camille’s mother to give her away to foster care, she said.
“She had to go to court to get me back,” said Camille. “The two sisters in Florida had no idea of that. They blamed their mother for the breakup. I said, you need to thank your mother for saving you from that kind of childhood.”
Growing up a continent away, Michelle and Beverley knew nothing about their father’s violence. They only knew there was a hole in their lives where a father should have been.
Their mother only mentioned him when Michelle became confrontational and argumentative.
“You’re just like your father,” her mother would say accusingly.
“So, at 16 I tried to find him,” said Michelle.
Each year, they spent summers with their mother’s English relatives.
“Our family must have known we had at least a couple of half-sisters,” said Beverley. “But that’s the English way, you don’t speak about unpleasant, embarrassing things.”
While in Brighton in 1975, Michelle placed an ad in the local newspaper, looking for her dad.
In response, he threatened to sue the newspaper, but finally agreed to a meeting.
The first thing Michelle, who has struggled with her weight, said to him was, “Couldn’t you have been tall and thin?”
By then, he had married twice more. Barry introduced his daughters to his side of her family, but the encounters were awkward.
One family member taunted, “Do you know your parents were never married?”
“I felt odd and out of place after all that time,” said Michelle.
The sisters’ craving for a father took a fairly predictable path while they were still in their teens. Both married much older men.
Michelle was 17 when she married a 47-year-old man, two years younger than her father, but the marriage lasted 34 years, until her husband died.
“I finally had stability,” said Michelle.
Beverley married a man 20 years older, also at 17.
The two sisters and their growing families — one son for Michelle, two sons and a daughter for Beverley — lived for decades in Westchester County, New York, before moving to Boynton Beach. Beverley moved down in 1993; Michelle followed in 2001.
Michelle persisted in trying to know the father she thought she missed. She and her husband, Tony, brought him to the States for a visit. Michelle saw him five times, each time trying to compress a lifetime into days or weeks, while he played the role of a doting father.
Never did Barry mention his other daughters, even when, near death in 2005, he called Michelle to say good-bye.
“He never said anything, never came clean,” she said. “My father was a narcissistic bastard. I used to adore him, but now I have a totally different picture of him.”
Nor is the search for sisters finished.
Years ago, one of Barry’s wives intercepted a note while he was working for TWA. They think it was from an Indian or Pakistani woman.
“I’ve had a daughter,” it read. “I’ve named her Rosebud.”
The Penver sisters, newly six strong, may one day be seven.