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Sisters united

Donuts fell onto the floor as Connie Kuhn opened the freezer door. She and her sister, Mary Salem, picked them up quickly as they laughed hysterically in order to abide by the five-second rule.

Connie blew on the donuts in hopes they would still be edible. Their laughter filled the kitchen, and it was evident that they had the same laugh, but after all, they are sisters.

But the two siblings, spanned by a seven-year age difference, were never able to giggle over such comedic acts when they were growing up, as they were given up for adoption as infants and raised by different parents over 1,200 miles apart.

They were united 27 years ago after searching for their birth parents for over 12 years, never knowing they would also find each other. It’s one of the many stories heard of families reuniting after being adopted.

Their birth parents, Clifford and Virginia, were college students in Dubuque, Iowa, and fell in love, but never married. Virginia became pregnant and gave birth to Connie in 1934 at Mercy Hospital in Cedar Rapids, where Virginia was allowed to live for three months before giving birth and helped the nuns by doing secretarial work.

At that time, and through the 1960s, having a child out of wedlock was shunned by society. Young women who became pregnant either married the father in a “shotgun wedding” or they were sent away to a home for unwed mothers, where their baby was born and then released for adoption.

“My aunt (Virginia’s sister) was a nurse at the hospital in Cedar Rapids,” Connie shared, “and from the hospital, my aunt called a couple (Madge and Frank), who adopted me at the age of 3 days old.”

She was raised by her new parents in Iowa with her brother, who was also adopted through the same hospital. Both she and her brother were told that they were adopted early in life. Raised in a good home, Connie said that she knew some day she would search for her biological parents.

Connie and her husband, Jack, have been married for 58 years and still live in Cedar Rapids. They have owned a cabin on Lake Ada north of Pine River for 40 years, and they spend their summers at the lake during their retirement years. The couple raised three children and have nine grandchildren.

With a judge’s order, Connie was able to have her birth record opened and learned her birth mother’s name and that she lived in Dubuque, 73 miles from Cedar Rapids.

After searching for over five years, Connie called Virginia in 1976, who at first denied that she was Connie’s birth mother.

“But then she said she was and told me that she and my father never married,” said Connie. “There were a couple of phone conversations with her. She gave me my father’s name (Clifford), and she also wrote me a letter and said that my birth was a secret, and no one knew about it. She also said that she didn’t want to meet me, so there was nothing else I could do.”

After several more years, Connie did discover that Clifford lived not far from San Diego where Connie and Jack’s daughter lived. She wrote him a letter, but there was no reply. She sent the second letter by certified mail which he did accept, and she followed up by calling him.

In 1990, she and Jack went to California to visit their daughter, which also included meeting her father.

“It was a good visit,” Connie recalled. “We talked about his family, and I got a lot of history. It was very satisfying and put that part of my life to rest for me.”

But Connie still didn’t know that she had a sister, Mary Salem.

About six years after Connie’s birth, Clifford and Virgina met again, and she became pregnant once again. Virginia left Dubuque and went to New Hampshire to live with her sister where she gave birth to Mary Theresa in 1941 at the Infant Asylum of Our Ladies of Perpetual Health in Manchester for unwed mothers.

Mary stayed in an orphanage until the age of f5 months when she was adopted by Bob and Tina, who adopted two other children also. The family lived in Bradford, Mass., where she and her husband, Phil, still live today after 51 years of marriage. They have four children and five grandchildren.

Mary and her siblings were also told early in life that they were adopted, and in 1972, she began her search for her birth parents with the help of an adoption group who did searches for birth parents and siblings.

“I was able to find out my last name, and a judge allowed me to view my birth records where I learned of Virginia who lived in Dubuque,” Mary explained. After numerous phone calls to everyone with the same last name, Mary obtained her birth mother’s address and sent her a letter with a picture of herself.

“Before every call to her, I prayed. It was God’s will whether we met or not,” she said.

She and Phil drove to Iowa in August 1986 where she met her birth mother. “It was a beautiful meeting for several hours,” Mary added, “But then she became nervous and told me that she gave birth to another girl seven years before me and that she was my full-blooded sister. She told me that Connie had contacted her 10 years before, and she gave me a piece of paper with Connie’s name and address on it.”

Not only had Mary found her birth mother, but she learned she had a sister who lived not far from Dubuque. Mary called Connie, and Connie’s son answered the phone saying that Connie was out and he would have her return the call.

Connie remembers that when she returned home, her son was sitting on the kitchen counter and said that some Mary called and it was regarding adoption.

Surprised at this news, Connie said, “Oh my god! My family found me, and they want my body parts! But then I decided not to share them as my kids may need them.”

About two hours and two glasses of wine later, Mary nervously answered the phone and heard her sister’s voice for the first time. She came right out and told Connie that they were sisters. Not quite believing the voice on the phone, Connie verified the family names with Mary, and the call ended one hour later.

The new-found sisters met the next day at a convenience store parking lot in Cedar Rapids. They had supper together that evening and began to learn about each other.

There are several similarities in their lives. They were both raised Catholic, both took piano lessons, and they each took dance lessons.

“I had only one dance lesson,” Mary admitted, “because my underpants showed under my dance outfit so I didn’t want to take lessons.”

Both sisters were stay-at-home moms until their children got older.

Another talent they share is that they are both accomplished artists. Connie prefers painting with acrylics, and her favorite subjects include chickens, roosters and landscapes that she paints on pot lids, trays, antiques and the usual canvas.

Mary prefers oil painting, tole painting and also likes to draw and do some crafts. Another surprise – they each have daughters who are artistic!

Both sisters travel to visit each other, with Mary and Phil staying for two weeks nearly every summer at the Kuhn’s cabin. During their stay in Minnesota, Connie and Mary take part in the annual Arts Off 84 Art Crawl held every Labor Day weekend between Pine River and Longville.

Two years after the sisters met, they went to visit Virginia, the first time for Connie to meet her birth mother. They brought gifts for her with Connie giving her a small box that she painted that had a false bottom in it which held a photo of the sisters. Mary gave her a floral theorem painting that is created with stencils and is a popular art in the New England states.

Virginia did marry eventually, and she and her husband had a son and daughter. Connie and Mary went to the business that their half-brother owned. They spoke with him and had their photo taken with him, but they never told him they were related.

“We felt that we had no reason to tell him,” Connie explained. “We felt we didn’t want to disrupt his life.” They have not met their half-sister. Virginia died in 2005 at the age of 90.

Mary never met Clifford, but she did speak with him on the phone and received a letter from him. He lived to be in his late 80s, and as a full time military man, he was buried at sea.

Looking back at their search for their birth parents, Connie said, “I’m very satisfied with the search and that I met both of my (birth) parents. My life became more authentic. But I would have never traded them for my (adoptive) parents.”

Mary agreed with her sister. “I needed to know who I was like, and I found out. We were put where we were supposed to be. I feel very blessed that Connie and I have gotten together.”

According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute organized in 1996, more adopted persons are searching for their birth families. Compared to Connie and Mary’s long search without the Internet, many websites are now available to help adoptees with their search, and state laws are being changed to regulate access to adoption records. Adoption reunions can lead to new and happy relationships and some may not, but most adoptees who find their birth families report that the truth has filled the void in their lives.

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