When Lewes resident Roni Lavache lived in New York, on some days she would take the train into Grand Central Station and just sit there, looking at people going about their day, wondering if she might see her mother.
“All my life I wondered what she looked like,” she said. “I'd look at people to see if I could find her.”
Adopted at 17 months, Roni has no memories of a family she has been searching for her entire life. She discovered her mother died in 1972, but she knew she still had siblings somewhere out there.
This holiday season, after 65 years of searching, her family includes four children and three grandchildren – and in what seems like a heartbeat a new-found sister.
"Miracles really can happen," she said.
For a dream that took decades to come true, actually meeting her sister has happened quite fast. It all started with a phone call from her daughter, Katie, who had received an email from a woman claiming to be her mother's sister.
"They all know how important it was to me to find this person," Roni said.
Just days later, Roni was united with her long-lost biological sister.
For Denise Conte, 61, of Huntington, Long Island, the connection came while searching ancestry.com. As a teenager, Denise learned she had been adopted; then, like Roni, she began a mission to discover her roots. After years of searching, she caught a break and found some biological cousins through her mother's death certificate at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York. From them, she was able to learn a little about her family.
Through her relatives, she pulled together vague information about Roni, who nearly 20 years earlier had found an aunt and uncle in Florida. The only thing they could remember about Roni, however, was that her last name was French.
Roni, using her last name as part of her ancestry.com username, created a post on the website saying she was searching for her biological family; as it happened, Denise saw the name and made the connection. Then the whirlwind began.
"I left a message on Facebook. I tried to friend her on Facebook. She of course doesn't know who I am, so she's not going answer me back, which I wouldn't do either," she said.
Denise next found Roni's daughter and tried her.
"I know if my daughter got this message, she would be on the phone in five minutes," she said.
And she was. Within minutes, Denise said, she saw Roni and her daughter had both accepted her friend requests on Facebook and after decades of searching, the wheels were finally in motion.
“That's when I knew everyone had talked to each other,” she said.
Just a few minutes later, she got the phone call.
“I look at the caller ID, I see the 302 area code,” Denise said. “I had been on the phone with my neighbor, and I said, 'My sister is calling me. I have to go.'”
Big Irish-Catholic family
The women descend from the McManus family, who lived in the Chelsea section of downtown Manhattan in New York City. Their mother, Veronica, was one of 10 children; her life was not easy, the sisters suspect, as their grandmother Bridget Tully McManus was widowed at a young age.
"To make ends meet she made bathtub gin and sold it to the dockworkers to raise her children," Denise said, laughing and wondering which child she recruited to deliver the gin.
The family lost one brother during World War II, and the older brother and sisters moved out shortly after the war, but Veronica McManus and her younger siblings with Bridget, their mother. Roni and Denise know they have different fathers, for which they believe their mother's tough life is partly to blame.
"I think she was looking for someone to love her and take care of her," Denise said. "She just didn't choose well. She was always left holding the bag, so to speak."
Through their research, they know they have at least two other siblings who were also put up for adoption. Roni connected with her older brother Peter, but it did not go well. They also know there is an older sister named either Patricia or Doreen.
Roni did not know a younger sister existed. During her decades-long research, she never came across Denise in the records.
"I was floored," she said. "She's not the sister I found out about."
Roni and Denise now have a new mission: to find their older sister.
Unfamiliar but familiar
The two women gelled almost immediately, as if they had known each other their entire lives.
"How do you not know someone for so long and then find out you have so much in common?" Denise said.
Both women enjoy a glass of scotch from time to time as well as a piece of pineapple upside-down cake. The have similar personalities, and each lived happy family lives. Like their grandmother, Roni and Denise were both widowed at an early age, each losing their husband to cancer. An empty nest really reinvigorated Roni's search.
“It emphasizes how important it is to connect with family,” she said. “Sometimes you don't realize it when you have it, but you certainly do realize when you don't.”
Neither woman had siblings in their adopted family, which – in both cases – featured an Irish mother and Italian father. Without that sibling connection, each sister felt a strong desire to discover her roots. The two grew up only a half hour apart; Denise's family lived in the Bronx briefly before settling in Queens, while Roni's adopted family was from Westchester County.
The two nearly crossed paths in the past in 1986 during the Statue of Liberty's centennial celebration. The two sisters were only a couple hundred yards away from each other during the festivities, Roni on a boat in the harbor and Denise in Battery Park.
Roni said there has always been a void in her life that only her sister could fill.
“She could've been anything,” Roni said. “She could've been snobby. She could've been not nice. She could've been abrasive. But there was not one awkward moment. She walked in the house, and it was like my best friend of 40 years came in.”
Adoption is important
Both women agree their mother did the right thing by giving them up for adoption. Life would've been tough for a single mother with at least four children in New York City in the '40s and '50s, they said.
“In the end, we probably would've been taken away from her and put into the foster care system,” Denise said.
“Thank God she did what she did because if she had kept us, our lives probably wouldn't have been as nice as they were,” Roni said. “She really did the right thing and the biggest favor of our lives.”
And they hold no hard feelings. Each sister wants to know as much as possible about her mother. Most of the information they've gleaned has been through public records and their biological cousin.
Denise has been to family parties with her biological cousins and now looks forward to taking her newfound sister Roni.
Adoption has been an important part of Roni's life. Before finding Denise, she was already writing a book about adoption and her experiences.
“Now I have a whole bunch more chapters to write,” she said.
Roni's adopted mother was also adopted, and Roni continued the tradition by adopting her daughter, Sarah, from Korea in 1981. She hopes one of her four children will also decide to adopt.
Years to celebrate
While both women are now in their 60s, they agree it's not too late to celebrate their union. They are already planning a trip to Ireland, where they will explore the roots of their family.
“I want to walk through the streets of the town where our grandparents came from and feel our roots there,” Roni said. “Then stand there with [Denise] next to me holding my hand and just say 'God, thank you and thank these two people, our great grandparents, for loving each other because if they had not loved each other, we wouldn't be here.”
Beyond that, they want to get their two families together; families that are already champing at the bit to meet each other. Denise's daughter was so ecstatic about the situation, she made her mother keep the phone line open when she met Roni for the first time.
“I got out of the car, we hugged, we kissed, whatever; all the while, my daughter was on the phone not saying a word and all of a sudden she said, 'I love you, mom. I'll call you later.'”
Roni said it was difficult to say goodbye at the end of their first weekend together, but she knows there are plenty of memories to be made in the future weeks, months and years.
“I'm just so grateful that it wasn't too late,” she said. “This seemed impossible, but here we are. When you look back at all the events that took place leading up to this, you have to believe in God. Something out there just let doors open along the way.”