, 2014

Genetic tests lead to search for her real father

The second in a three-part series.
by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

MONASKON—By the time Cheryl Whittle was 15, she’d lived in a dozen different homes and with several different families. She’d fallen in love with a man six years her senior, had become pregnant, gotten married and lost a child.

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From left, Joe Wilmoth and his wife, Vivian, pose for a family photo with their daughters, Sandi and Cheryl.

It was not a typical childhood by any means, said the retired registered nurse. She often felt unwanted and her father, Joe Wilmoth, always treated her just a little differently than her siblings. Her whole life had been a clue to the family secret Cheryl uncovered three years ago when she convinced her husband, Dickie, and half brother, Milton, to take an online DNA test from 23andMe.

Joe Wilmoth was not her biological father.

“I was not entirely surprised,” said Cheryl, as she spread photos and papers across her dining room table at her waterfront home on the Rappahannock River in upper Lancaster County. “I always felt like something wasn’t quite right.”

Cheryl’s mother, Vivian Tipton of Petersburg, was thin, with shoulder length dark hair and eyes. A photo of her at age 16 shows a stunningly beautiful young woman.

“Momma was very pretty, very pretty,” said Cheryl.

Vivian had married at 16 and had three girls with her husband, Richard Thompson, before he was tragically killed in an accident in 1949. A few months later, Vivian left the girls to be raised by their grandparents. And that’s where Cheryl finds a gap in her mother’s life.

In 1951, Vivian married Joe. They moved to Chester, where Cheryl was born seven months into their marriage on Christmas Eve.

“Momma always told me I was premature,” said Cheryl, “that she’d slipped on some ice and went into labor. But I weighed almost seven pounds, which is pretty big for a premature, seven-month baby.

“Momma also said Daddy took her to the hospital and didn’t come back to see me until he came to get her a week later when she called him. Now, why would you do your wife and child that way? Maybe he had questions about whether I was his or not.”

Cheryl has tried to piece together the puzzle of how her mother and father met and what was happening in her mother’s life at the time.

“When you’re in this situation, you try to find anything possible as a hint, try to find a name, anything. I got my mom’s and dad’s social security numbers and work history,” she said. “They both worked at a tobacco company in Petersburg, but Mom also had a part-time job with a department store on Sycamore Street, Rucker Rosenstock.”

Apparently, Vivian left her job at the department store at the end of March 1951. According to Cheryl’s calculations and genetic testing, if she was delivered at full term, her mother would have conceived her the final week of March or early April.

“Actually when I did it with WebMD, [my conception date] was March 22,” said Cheryl. Coincidentally, Vivian’s birthday was also March 22.

“A couple of things about that department store interest me. Maybe she had gotten to know someone there or someone had attacked her there. For some reason or another, she left that job,” said Cheryl.

Years later, when Cheryl was about to deliver her own child, Vivian took her to Rucker Rosenstock.

“A few weeks before I had the baby, Momma took me to the doctor over in Petersburg and then said, I think we’ll run by Rucker Rosenstock. Now Momma had never taken me there before, but she said maybe we could pick up something nice for the baby, maybe a little christening gown or shawl or something,” said Cheryl. “So we went there and Momma bought me a pretty little christening gown, some booties, a sweater set and a shawl.

“Momma never did stuff like that for me and now as I look back on it I think, wow, it says something. That must have been a hint. Maybe she took me in there because maybe my father worked there and maybe I’d see him or he’d see me. I just don’t know. But we never went there again.”

Growing up

Cheryl’s childhood was unstable, beginning as a toddler when her parents took her to live with friends.

“That couple was very good to me, but I always wondered, why [did my parents] do that. Why give me away?” said Cheryl.

She lived with the couple, who were childhood friends of Joe’s, for two years. Then one day Vivian and Joe returned for her. Her mother was four months pregnant with her sister, Sandi, at the time. Cheryl was told her mother had been ill with tuberculosis while she was living with the couple but she’s always questioned that.

For the next 10 years, Cheryl, Sandi and her parents moved to Florida and back to Virginia, living in several different homes. During that time, Cheryl remembers Joe being very violent towards her mother and her and Sandi.

“Daddy had been in World War II. He was in the military police and had seen a lot of action, so I’m told. When I was doing research on him about ten years ago, before I knew he wasn’t my father, I found out he had received lots of medals.

“But there were many times Daddy acted a little bit strange. One time he took us out in the woods. Momma and Daddy were separated at the time and Momma had come to get us after the weekend. It was storming really bad and Daddy took [Sandi and me] out in the woods and dug holes in the leaves and pulled the leaves over us so Momma and the police couldn’t find us.”

Cheryl now believes her father had post traumatic stress disorder stemming from his military service.

“We even had Daddy hold a gun on us and threaten to kill us.”

Although her father’s actions make sense now, as a child Cheryl was very frightened of him and withdrawn.

In 1963, Cheryl’s family moved to a home in Chester just down the street from Dickie. He was considerably older, but they became sweethearts and Cheryl got pregnant. She was only 14 and Dickie was 20. The two have been married for 47 years and share a wonderful family, but admit how odd it was that her parents would allow their teenage daughter to date such an older man.

The best kept secret

Cheryl’s mother died of cancer when she was only 58. Although Cheryl was a diligent caregiver during her mother’s final years, Vivian never discussed Cheryl’s biological father or the fact that Joe wasn’t. Cheryl wonders why her mother never felt the need to unburden herself of the secret.

Joe too is deceased, along with Cheryl’s grandparents, aunts and uncles. Almost everyone who could shed some light on Cheryl’s lineage is gone, leaving her with so many questions and no one to ask.

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