The sand between your toes, the chilling crash of gentle waves rushing your legs — these are familiar feelings to many visitors to Prince Edward Island.
But for one large chosen family, these visits and feelings have become a cherished 15-year tradition that help hold them together.
“The sand and the water — I like the sound of the waves. You can even hear it at night when we’re going to sleep,” said Olivia McKenzie, one of several adopted girls around the age of 15 who help make up the family.
Most of them live in Nova Scotia. Each summer they make the trip to P.E.I. to spend time together, and reflect on the long journey that got them from China to this point.
The daughters of these families call themselves “the sisterhood,” though they’re unrelated.
The P.E.I. gatherings attract not just the core group of five, when other commitments don’t get in the way, but close friends from British Columbia too.
Charlotte, Ava, Sadie, Emily and Olivia were all placed for adoption at the Guiping Social Welfare Institute, in Guiping in southern China.
“The sisterhood amongst us, versus others, is that we don’t live together but we have that same connection and relationship that you would with your other siblings,” Ava Andrecyk told CBC News.
‘A special moment’
All the parents met through the same adoption agency in Halifax in 2004. They attended meetings together to learn how the adoption process would work.
Outside the meetings, the parents’ relationships flourished.
You can tell I still get very emotional about it, because it was life-changing for all of us to finally be together.— Leanne Andrecyk
“That’s where we kind of got to know each other,” said Maria Carty. “We went on a camping trip together that summer and kind of cemented our friendship and the idea that we wanted to stay connected.”
It would be two years before they would meet their daughters in China, and that time of bonding turned them from friends to family.
“Over that two-year time period, we became the best of friends. Certainly our chosen family,” said Leanne Andrecyk, one of the moms.
In 2006, the parents travelled to the Lottery Hotel in Nanning — a city just over 200 kilometres west of Guiping — and finally laid eyes on their new daughters.
“It was a bit of a crazy scene, to see all of these adults waiting eagerly for their children,” Carty said.”It’s a special moment.”
In that room, seeing all the tears as her friends embraced their 11-month-old daughters, Andrecyk knew they couldn’t separate the girls when they all came back home to Canada.
“I still get very emotional about it, because it was life-changing for all of us to finally be together. It just took us a long time to find each other, and here we are,” she said. “It was important for us to keep them together and, lo and behold, the parents developed a friendship that went well beyond being friends.”
And so they started their tradition. In 2008, they would go to Prince Edward Island, to Carty’s husband’s family cottage, on a special retreat.
‘They’re there for you’
Walking along Chelton Beach, a scenic 15-minute drive northwest from the Confederation Bridge, the sisters laugh as they and the families try to get a jumping-on-the-beach photo just right.
It’s harder than it looks, but that’s the vibe when they’re together.
“If we were busy all throughout the year, the summer was where everyone could gather together and just let loose,” said Ava.
Not every family can make it each year — Charlotte had a commitment this summer — but everyone does their best to get to the Island. Sometimes they are joined by other families from British Columbia they met through the adoption process. This year, two other daughters, Caity and Lily, made the trip from B.C. to P.E.I.
They’re proud and happy they’ve been able to stay so close after so many years.
“There’s a lot of groups that have adopted, but ours have stayed really tight-knit and more of a close family,” said Olivia. “We do all the same things that regular sisters do. We share clothes and makeup, and we’re constantly chatting online or over the phone, [as well as] seeing everyone in person.”
“They’re people you can go to for anything, and although we don’t, like, live together, they’re like any other brothers, sisters and stuff — because you can go to them for like advice and support,” Ava said.
“On your down days, your up days, they’re there for you.”
‘I just can’t see us losing that bond’
In the cottage are many mementoes that trace the story of the sisterhood: framed photos of the kids in the iconic pigtails of Anne of Green Gables; a large vase of collected sea glass, filled to the brim; a passage by Jose Chaves pinned alongside photos of the daughters when they were no taller than a fence post.
It reads: “For her the ocean was more than a dream, it was a place she needed to find herself.”
The cottage isn’t just a getaway. When they’re together, it’s a home.
“Whatever their families end up being when they’re adults, maybe they will bring their families here to enjoy it long after we’re gone,” Andrecyk said.
“As we get older and go through school and start to get married, and maybe all those milestones, [will] we still keep in touch? I think we definitely will,” Olivia said.
“We’ve just made so many memories when we were younger, I just can’t see us losing that bond.”