One of the four charms on Erica Cowie’s new silver charm bracelet, gifted to her from her newfound relatives, is a tree that signifies her family tree. Another one shows two hearts – one for her and one for her father. A third charm has a dandelion blowing in the wind with the text: “Wishes come true.”

But perhaps the most telling charm of all is the one that displays a compass representing her search.

It’s a search that spanned three decades and resulted in the discovery of large, Portuguese family she never knew she had.

At 38 years old, Cowie has finally found the answer to a lifelong question – who was her biological father?

Ever since she was a child, Cowie said she’s known in her heart that she didn’t share the same DNA as the father who raised her.

“I knew that I looked very different from my family, well from my sisters and my father,” Cowie explained to CTVNews.ca during a phone interview on Thursday. “I would ask questions as a kid like, ‘Why is my hair curly and nobody else’s is?’”

With her darker skin tone and curly hair, Cowie said she was convinced that she had a different father from her two sisters, even though her parents told her otherwise.

When she was 27 years old, Cowie came to a crossroads.

“I was just feeling very stuck and I was at a point in my life where I needed to know either way,” she said. “I needed proof.”

She received the proof she needed when she took a DNA test with the father who had raised her. Cowie’s suspicions were confirmed when the test results came back negative.

For the next decade, the now-married mother of two from Newcastle, Ont. continued to hunt for her biological father. The search involved another paternity test, which ruled out another potential father, research from genealogy experts and appeals to Facebook groups dedicated to finding lost relatives.

Eventually, Cowie came across the website Ancestry.com and decided to submit her DNA for testing through the service. When the results came back, she received a shock of a lifetime – she was Portuguese.

“Well, wasn’t that a shock?” Cowie recalled. “Suddenly, my whole culture had changed.”

When Cowie relayed the surprising news to her mother, she was able to provide her with the name of a man from her past with Portuguese heritage named Paul De Freitas along with two photographs of him.

He was a hairdresser who once worked at a salon in the Pickering Town Centre.

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A stroke of good luck

Now that she had a name and two images, Cowie sought the help of a distant cousin on her mother’s side who was an expert in genealogy. She also joined a few Facebook groups devoted to tracking down lost relatives to find more information about his life.

They were able to narrow down where he lived, his age, his date of birth and they even stumbled upon an old travel document of his from when he was seven years old. Cowie also posted De Freitas’ name and photos in a Facebook group for moms and dads, called Pink and Blue, which has more than 24,000 members.

It was this seemingly innocuous post in that Facebook group that yielded the most promising lead in her decades-long search. Within 24 hours of messaging the group, Cowie received a stunned reply on May 14 from a woman named Vanessa Costa who identified the man in the photos as her uncle.

Cowie said half an hour after her exchange with her newfound cousin, Costa’s mother Cecilia De Freitas called Cowie to arrange a meeting in person.

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The following day at a coffee shop in Scarborough, Cowie met her aunt Cecilia and cousin Vanessa for the first time.

“I was obviously sweating buckets and nervous as anything because anybody that’s in this type of situation is bracing themselves for rejection,” Cowie said. “It was a pretty real feeling.”

To Cowie’s relief, the reception she received from her long-lost relatives was the furthest thing from rejection. They chatted amicably for half an hour before Cowie’s aunt and cousin delivered some difficult news. Cowie’s father, Paul De Freitas, had died suddenly four years ago while living in Hawaii.

“Obviously it was an incredible rollercoaster of emotion because they were so loving and so accepting,” Cowie said.

Although Cowie will never have the chance to meet her biological father, the blow was softened by the realization that she had gained a whole new family – and a large one at that.

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A tearful reunion

Two weeks after that initial meeting, Cowie was invited to a family reunion at her aunt Cecilia’s home in Vaughan, Ont. where she met with her six aunts and uncles and “cousins galore.” One of those cousins, Laura Jacob, whose father was brothers with Cowie’s father, described meeting her new cousin for the first time to CTVNews.ca on Friday.

“It was just like a dream come to reality and we just hugged each other so tight,” said Jacob, adding that it felt like a piece of her uncle had returned.

Perhaps one of the most touching moments unfolded when Cowie was introduced to her 91-year-old grandma Maria Celeste Freitas.

Cowie said her grandmother had been suffering from dementia for the past few years and still needs to be reminded often that her son Paul was gone. Cowie had been warned in advance that her grandma would probably not understand who she was.

“They sort of walked me up to her and she just stared at me and then they said to her in Portuguese ‘This is Paul’s daughter’ and she got it,” Cowie said. “She instantly grabbed me and hugged me and held me so tight and she’s crying her eyes out and she kept pulling away and then looking at me again and then hugging me again and then pulling away.”

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New beginnings

Cowie said she’s seen her new relatives every week since that first family gathering. She said she receives daily phone calls, text messages and WhatsApp messages from her cousins, aunts and uncles.

“It’s a miracle really. I’m 38 years old and I’ve just found half my family,” she said. “Half of a huge, amazing family.”

The grateful new member of the De Freitas family has already attended a second reunion at a park in Mississauga, Ont. on July 9 where she was able to meet more than 100 relatives from her extended family. She was even introduced to another cousin who was also interested in genealogy and had his DNA tested through the same ancestry website as her. It turned out that he was a genetic match to her and their DNA confirmed that Cowie was officially related to the De Freitas family.

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Cowie said there had been a storm earlier on the drive home that evening. As she neared home, the storm cleared and a large rainbow stretched across the sky from side to side and she took a photo of it. She sent that photo to her aunt Cecilia with the words: “Wow. What a perfect ending to a perfect day.”

Her aunt remarked that the rainbow was fitting because her father’s favourite song had been the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow.”

“It’s a very, very happy ending and I couldn’t have imagined it going any better with the exception of being able to actually meet, touch, hold, talk to my dad but maybe one day I’ll get the chance to do that on the other side,” Cowie said.

For now, Cowie said she just hopes that her story will help others in similar situations to keep searching for their lost relatives and encourage them not to lose hope.

“I am 38 years old; who would have thought that I would have found any family members let alone half a family, a huge family?” she said.

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