NORTH SHORE – Pam Drolet and Heller Shoop may have played tennis on adjacent courts at the Newburyport Tennis Center. They had mutual friends whose children attended the Page School in West Newbury.
Pam lives with her husband in Amesbury. Heller had also lived in Amesbury on a street called Pamela Lane, before she moved to nearby Byfield, less than 9 miles apart.
“The universe was giving us all kinds of signs,” Heller said last week.
But until two years ago, Pam and Heller had no idea they were sisters – technically half-sisters, the daughters of the same beautiful, vivacious woman, Gretchen Pifer Shoop, who lived most of her life outside of Toledo, Ohio.
Neither knew that her half-sister lived nearby on the North Shore of Boston. Or that each had taken up tennis and played regularly on the same courts with some of the same players.
For her Christmas present in 2019, Melanie, Pam’s soon-to-be daughter-in-law, surprised her with a file folder that contained the results of her extensive search for Pam’s birth family on Ancestory.com and 23&Me.com.
“Melanie is an excellent Internet researcher,” Pam said.
In that folder Pam, 62, learned for the first time the name of her birth mother and that she died in Byfield several years ago. More than 50 years ago, Gretchen had married David Shoop and lived in Ohio where she gave birth to a son, Hans, followed by Heller.
Strangely, Hans, 61, lived an hour and a half away on the south shore in Wrentham. Even more of a shock was that her half-sister, Heller, 55, lived in Byfield.
“I was overwhelmed,” Pam said.
So were other members of their separate, but now intertwined families, including brother Hans. Just as surprised were their friends including many at the tennis club. Joni Stone, an instructor and frequent player, told The Town Common about the story in a note that said, “Thanks to 23 and Me, they are now buddies and play regularly together.”
Kelly Ouellet, a club manager, said she has known Pam and Heller for years. “Who knew they were sisters?”
Gretchen Shoop, the focal point of this story, met Mitch Johnson in college while rehearsing for a production of the play, Finian’s Rainbow. She became pregnant at 19 and gave birth in Detroit, MI. She gave the baby up for adoption.
Throughout her life, Gretchen never told any family members or friends that she had another child. Briefly Gretchen lived in New York City, where it was said she trained to be a dancer.
When she did return to Ohio, she met and married David on June 17, 1960. They were married for 48 years, until David died in 2008.
“A rare beauty inside and out, she was an immense talent who worked extensively in theater, modeling and interior and event design,” read her obituary. “Throughout the 1960s, she acted in numerous productions produced by the Cleveland Playhouse, the Toledo Repertoire Theatre and the Village Players. Gretchen was also a fashion model for many area events and businesses, on the runway and in print. In the 1970s, under the stage name ‘Jensen Moore’, she was the resident actress in various Summer Star Theatre productions where she shared the stage with the many well-known performers, including Van Johnson, Buddy Ebsen, John Forsythe, and Pat Paulsen. In the 1980s, Gretchen became the Fashion Director for the Lion Store, had a stint as a radio show host, was lead designer for several major Toledo area events and also a chair on the Board of Directors for the Make A Wish Foundation.”
Pam knew only that she had been born in Detroit and was adopted by Diz and Ginny Dehn, whom she described as “devoted parents.” They gave her adopted sister, Patty, and her a very happy childhood while moving frequently with the Navy to live and travel in Europe, the United Kingdom and the U.S, she said.
She graduated from Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Virginia and moved to Massachusetts to work in the insurance industry. She liked the Boston area and never left, although she could have lived anywhere. She married and had her son, Tyler.
Pam only became curious about her birth family after her adopted parents died. When she began searching for her birth mother, the state of Michigan was no help. By law, all adoption records in that state are sealed.
Heller grew up outside of Toledo, Ohio, and graduated from Hiram College. Following friends who had moved to New England, she settled initially in New Hampshire where she began her career in human services. Soon, she moved to Amesbury, and then to Byfield. She is the executive director at MAB Community Services in Brookline.
To bolster her stymied search, Pam registered her information on the adoption and ancestry web sites. Thanks to records of individual DNA, the web sites found a match with Peter Pifer, who was listed as a cousin, but is actually a half-brother of Gretchen.
When Melanie presented Pam the findings in that treasured file folder, Pam was so blown away she sat on the information until the next August, uncertain how to proceed.
Last week in an interview with the sisters, Pam said she was afraid to call Heller or knock on her front door. So, Pam first sent Heller a message on Facebook. But Heller did not see the message until later.
When there was no response on FaceBook, Pam mailed her half-sister a handwritten letter.
It took Heller a week after reading the letter “to get up the courage” to send Pam an email, which Pam still keeps.
“It was amazing,” Pam said. “I couldn’t stop crying.”
For Heller, it all seemed “magical.”
The two sisters talked by phone for a long time. They agreed to have dinner together. Pam’s son and fiancé joined them.
Hans, a lighting designer for rock musicians including Todd Rundgren and Blondie, joined the new expanded family for their first family celebration last Christmas. The family, including Mitch Johnson, also celebrated Tyler and Melanie Drolet’s wedding.
“Everything seemed to come full circle when Hans, his wife, Karen, Heller, her partner, Greta Schaefer, my birth father, Mitch, and my adopted sister, Patty, all joined us for Tyler and Melanie’s wedding because it was Melanie who made it all possible,” Pam wrote.
The sisters are now planning trips together to meet and reunite with other family members.
Pam and Heller play tennis together now every week as a doubles team at the club. “Most of the time we win,” Heller said. “We have a good rhythm together.”
When Gretchen became ill with cancer, Heller and her partner, Greta, moved her to live with them in Byfield so she could undergo treatment for her disease. She died in June 2015, unaware she was only a few miles away from her daughter, Pam.
Asked how she felt about finding her half-sister, Heller said, “I just felt it was meant to be. It all makes sense.” Her comment was echoed by Pam.
Heller said she knew her mother suffered from “a deep sadness” that her daughter could not explain. Connecting with Pam helped Heller understand the emotional pain her mother must have endured, knowing she had a daughter that was not part of the family.
Now she is.