Gerda Cole, 98, knew little about her only child apart from the name she gave her at birth. She wasn’t even sure if “Sonya” stuck.
“I felt it was only fair to her,” said Cole, explaining that she was in a miserable marriage that was falling apart and couldn’t afford to care for a child on her own. Cole is an only child, and though her mother managed to survive World War II, her father was killed by the Nazis.
As a teenage refugee, Cole had no money, no job, and was still adjusting to a new country. She didn’t think she had the means to give her daughter the life she deserved.
“It was hard,” Cole said from her retirement home in Toronto, where she has lived since 1990. “If I had been in a better position, I would have tried.”
Over the years, she wondered many times what became of her daughter, but a condition of the adoption was that she would have no communication with her. Cole was also wary about disturbing Sonya’s life. Perhaps, she thought, her daughter didn’t want to be found.
Eight decades later, she learned that was not at all the case. Just in time for Cole’s 98th birthday, her 79-year-old daughter, Sonya Grist, traveled from England to Toronto to meet her long-lost mother.
Their connection, they both said, was instant.
“We just clicked,” said Cole, who despite trying to get pregnant during subsequent marriages, wasn’t able to have another child.
The tearful reunion, which took place at Cole’s retirement home on May 7, was many months in the making. It started about a year ago when Grist’s son, Stephen Grist, sought to verify his Austrian roots for the sake of securing European citizenship, as he was considering leaving England.
“I was looking at it from a very transactional perspective,” Stephen Grist said, explaining that he initially was not interested in tracking down his maternal grandmother.
But that changed when he learned more about his lineage.
Around the time his mother was born, England was only accepting a limited number of Jewish refugees. His grandmother entered the country in 1939 as part of a rescue effort called Kindertransport, which brought mostly Jewish minors from German-annexed territories — including Austria — to Britain, and other nations that were willing to accept them.
“I would spend an hour a night going down these rabbit holes and finding out remarkable information along the way,” said Grist, 55, who searched various genealogical sites to piece together information about his mother’s birth family.
He knew his grandparents’ names, which were written on his mother’s birth certificate, along with their approximate dates of birth. With that limited information, he was able to piece together some details about their lives — including that his grandmother, Cole, was married five times. Grist also uncovered information about his mother’s birth father, Hans Kessler, who remained in England until his death in 2001.
The one thing he failed to find was Cole’s death certificate — which he needed to send to the Austrian Embassy.
Eventually, Grist found someone on Facebook who he believed could be Cole’s stepson from her third marriage. He was right.
He introduced himself and explained that he needed a copy of Cole’s death certificate. The stepson responded: “You won’t find her death certificate, because she’s still alive.”
Grist was floored.
“It had never occurred to us that my grandmother would still be alive,” he said.
Grist knew he needed to tell his mother, but he waited about two weeks before he found the right moment.
“My first reaction was I want to go and see her,” said Sonya Grist, who grew up in England, where she still lives and works as a tour guide. “I was thrilled.”
Grist — whose husband died in 2004 — had not had luck searching for her birthparents in the past.
She was eager to meet her birth mom, but she knew a reunion would require Cole to also be onboard. When Cole’s stepson contacted her, she had some reservations about reconnecting with her daughter. It brought up a chapter from so many decades ago, an event that had caused her a great deal of despair.
The Grist family understood.
“It’s a big piece of information,” said Stephen Grist. “It took some time for Gerda to come around to seeing that this incident in her past had come back to her.”
Before long, though, the promise of meeting her daughter became stronger than her desire to push down her sadness from the past.
“I made so many mistakes, and yet she went looking for me and she found me,” Cole said. “It was incredible.”
Grist, for her part, “completely understood why she gave me up,” she said. “I bear no malice, no grudges, no nothing.”
They agreed on an in-person reunion in May — as they could celebrate Cole’s 98th birthday, as well as Mother’s Day, together.
On May 6, Grist — who has three children and seven grandchildren — traveled from London to Toronto with her son. The next day they went to meet Cole at Revera Kennedy Lodge Long Term Care Home. Staff there were instrumental in planning the reunion.
“Revera was honored to host Gerda Cole’s 98th birthday party and witness her beautiful reunion with her daughter and grandson. It was a touching celebration of life, love and the human spirit,” said Wendy Gilmour, senior vice president of long-term care at Revera.
In honor of Cole’s birthday, staff decorated the recreation room, and Cole wore her favorite color, blue, as well as a sash and crown.
When Sonya Grist entered the room, she was shaking.
“My stomach was in a knot,” she said. “It was a bit of a shock to the system.”
But as she embraced her mother for the first time, “there was an immediate bond,” she said. “I haven’t come down to earth yet.”
The feeling was mutual: “She is a little bit of me,” Cole said between tears. Seeing her daughter again, “was definitely the best thing that has happened to me.”
They spent the weekend asking each other endless questions.
“Gerda is a remarkable person,” said Stephen Grist, who learned that his grandmother earned three university degrees after moving from England to Canada in 1965 with her third husband. “She has led such an interesting life.”
“I often thought of my father’s words that no matter what calamities may befall a person, no one can take away what is in their minds,” Cole said.
She worked as an accountant, and maintained a part-time job at Burger King to make extra money to travel — her greatest passion. She has a deep interest in archaeology and volunteered at several archaeological sites in Israel and Cyprus.
The mother and daughter discovered many similarities, including their love of travel and learning new languages.
“We have a great deal in common,” said Cole, adding that she was filled with overwhelming pride when she met her daughter. “She is fantastic.”
Both women agreed that their gathering was too brief. The Grists are hoping to travel to Toronto again soon, this time with their entire extended family.
“I would love to join their family,” Cole said. “Let’s face it: 98 is close to 100. I don’t have too much time left.”
“At this point,” she continued, “there is nothing more I would like than to be together.”