Bettie Miller is the matriarch of a big family. Four children, nine grandchildren, five great-grandchildren - and all their corresponding in-laws and partners – fill the old red brick family home in Eastwood, Sydney with conversation and comfort.
While Bettie may have spent most of her life devoted to family, that wasn’t always the case for a woman who grew up with effectively no idea of where she came from.
Even though she was raised in the sunny suburb of Bondi, sadly, Bettie had a dark childhood. At just nine years old during a scolding from - who she thought was - her mother, Bettie was told that she was adopted. In the same way that a parent would send their child to time out, Bettie’s mother revealed a family secret and used it as some kind of punishment.
Such bullying and bitterness was very much the dynamic in Bettie’s family home. She's still uncertain of whether this was due to the strain of the Depression, or her mother having an undiagnosed mental illness, or perhaps a mix of both. However, when you’ve been told that you’re an outsider, it makes it increasingly difficult to gather information from within.
Despite the life-changing information placed upon her, Bettie says she wasn’t in a position to find out more.
“In those days children didn’t ask questions. You just kept your mouth shut and did what you were told,” she says.
So Bettie accepted the story that her birth mother 'didn’t want her’ and that ‘she was a day-old baby found in a basket on a church step’ and continued to live in an abusive home with a mother who she reflects on sorely as a “terrible person”, “a liar” and “an evil woman”.
Not long after Bettie’s shock discovery, an incident occurred that had her “whisked off” and celebrating her tenth birthday in an orphanage in Newcastle. That was soon to be blessing in disguise however, as she was taken into foster care by a woman Bettie still describes as “a wonderful, lovely person”. Mrs Bath owned a large house in Merewether where she bred and showed Cocker Spaniels. While Bettie and Mrs Bath were not related by blood, this passion and sport evidently ran through their family with Bettie becoming a successful breeder and shower later in life.
“I was in my element with those dogs,” she says. “It was my job on Saturday mornings to polish the silver trophies and cups. I was a part of the family and she [Mrs Bath] treated me like her child.”
Four years later Bettie was called back to Bondi to live with her adoptive family. “I realise now, I was taken back there because I was old enough and able to work,” she recalls. “So when I was back there at fourteen, I was immediately working in a factory that made belts and buckles and I would have to take my pay home and give it to her [adoptive mother] unopened and she would give me a couple of shillings out of the pay packet.”
Finally, at eighteen she was reunited again with Mrs Bath and subsequently, the relationship between her and her adoptive family no longer seemed worthwhile. She was called in to the 'Department of Child Welfare' in Circular Quay and was told that her adoptive family had applied to have the adoption cancelled.
“I jumped at it,” she says. “When the adoption was cancelled, I had to have a new birth certificate and that’s when I found out that my mother’s name was ‘Greenish’, because it was automatic that I reverted back to my birth name - my birth mother’s name. I was so relieved. It was the best news.”
Then an employee of the CSIRO and in the early stages of dating her future husband, eighteen year old Bettie discovered her birth mother’s full name; that she was a mature 37 years old at the time of giving birth; and the mystery of an absent father on her birth certificate.
Amongst the documentation, were also records of Bettie’s baptism which not only showed her birth mother’s consent, but also her attendance. Bettie is recorded as being 15 months old. The supposed one-day-old baby in a basket found on a church step was in fact, under her mother’s guardianship for - at least - over a year of her life.
“I knew I was told so many lies, but until then I don’t think it had really dawned on me all of the things that I just tucked away in the back of my mind."
“I knew I was told so many lies, but until then I don’t think it had really dawned on me all of the things that I just tucked away in the back of my mind. Finding out that my mother had me until I was at least 15 months made me reassess everything I knew.”
The black hole in Bettie’s family tree plagued her from time to time as she worked and raised her children throughout her adult years, “I worried what was behind me medically,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was passing on to my children, so yes, that was something that was in my mind. I’ve got diabetes for example, but I don’t know if that’s hereditary or just age-related.”
But it wasn't until Bettie’s youngest great-grandson was born, the name ‘Greenish’ entered her life again.
A genealogist in Wales named Gloria Greenish had made contact with Bettie online in the hope of contributing to her own family tree. Mrs Greenish was compiling her family history with the intention of writing a book and had traced Bettie, who was her distant cousin through marriage, from documentation of her own ancestor – Bettie’s birth mother, Lucy.
Mrs Greenish’s ancestry efforts gave Bettie a whole host of information about her birth mother - things that would have taken years to discover. The Miller family learned that Lucy Greenish was born in Brisbane to UK immigrants who had strong Flemmish linage. Their original surname had been Anglicised to ‘Greenish’, on account of the different accent and alphabet. Lucy had an older brother, Frank and a younger sister, Dorothy and was the daughter of an insurance broker. The Greenish family migrated to New Zealand where Lucy was raised, went to school and eventually became a governess at Walter Peak Station near Queenstown. Although children seem to have been a large part of Lucy’s life, she is not recorded as having any of her own, aside from Bettie. She didn’t marry until 1945, when she was in 57, 20 years after Bettie was born. Lucy Symes (nee Greenish) passed away in Wanganui, New Zealand in 1976 at 87 years old.
“I was just amazed when I found out all of this,” Bettie laughs, as though the concept is unfathomable. “It was just so so amazing. It was like a whole new world had opened up for me.
“It was just so so amazing. It was like a whole new world had opened up for me."
“I mean, it was a lot of relief in a way. Now I can give my children that background, because not only did I have no knowledge of my background, but neither did they.”
At 89 years old, Bettie saw a photo of her birth mother for the first time. A portrait of Lucy in early 1900s clothing, showed an uncanny resemblance to her estranged daughter, with the same curve where the brows meet the nose. And for the Miller family and to anyone who knows them, it became instantly clear where Bettie’s son Bob had inherited the distinctive gap between his front teeth.
Since obtaining an overwhelming amount of information, the Miller family have continued to explore their family history further and have been determined to find the missing pieces of their ancestral puzzle. While they’ve unveiled local newspaper clippings mentioning the Greenish family and have even visited in Station in New Zealand where Lucy Greenish worked as a governess, disappointingly no one has yet found any information on the identity of Bettie’s birth father.
However, Bettie was recently able to explore her paternal side through DNA testing. Taking an AncestryDNA test gave Bettie the opportunity to analyse the ethnic origins within her genetics. While no definite answers or even major surprises came from Bettie’s results - with the exception of a curious percentage of South Asian sticking out – the large percentage of Bettie’s make-up stemming from the British Isles and Western Europe indicated a few things.
With the background knowledge that Lucy Greenish’s family largely originates from Belgium (thus occupying the Western Europe area), it can be assumed that the dominating percentage of UK genetics comes from Bettie's father. This is not information she could have bet on prior to the test. The AncestryDNA kit also ruled out some pondered theories of why Bettie was adopted. Such as, being the product of an interracial relationship; a social scandal in 1926. Since taking the test, who was once a blank space on a birth certificate, Bettie's biological father is now, most likely, a white male of British colonial heritage.
Bettie proved that it’s never too late to solve the toughest family mysteries. Since uncovering her family secrets, Bettie finally allayed many of the unanswered questions that niggled at her from the moment she was told she was adopted; what did her mother look like, where did they grow up, what were their everyday circumstances, and why was she left on a church step?
Bettie has persevered through her negative experiences and built a life of far happier memories; of family Christmases, pure bred Border Collies and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, trips to family in Bougainville, identical twin grandsons, church, nurturing artistic talents and holding newly born great-grandchildren. And now at 90 years old with her mother's photograph, she adds another chapter to her life story.
Photography by Stuart Miller