"For 71 years, Millie Severine knew she had a sister. But where?"

  • Friday, November 19, 1999 5:00am
  • News

“What were the odds?A thousand to one? A million to one? Ten million to one?Or was it more along the lines of impossible?As Millie Severine of North Whidbey and two of her daughters, Darlene and Carol, stood near the edge of a runway at Oak Harbor Airport Wednesday afternoon, the odds didn’t matter. They nervously shifted their weight from heel to toe and from foot to foot.“It’s just a miracle really,” said Millie.Even the weather was bucking the odds, producing blue sky and billowy white clouds out of what had been nothing but gray rain for many days.Millie’s husband Ken had his video camera pointed to the west.“All I have is a speck so far,” he said.The speck grew larger and pretty soon the sound of the droning Cessna Caravan made the impending miracle all the more real. On board the aircraft was Betty VanSteenburgh of Estes Park, Colo., Millie’s sister — a sister she has not seen in more than 71 years — a sister who had been nothing more than a vague memory until just last month.For Millie it was a dream come true. For Betty it was making a connection to her past. For both women it was finding family neither knew existed even two months ago.What were the odds?Through an amazing course of events involving curiosity, adoption, a mother’s name, the Internet and a lot of luck, the sisters had found each other across dozens of decades, numerous name changes and thousands of miles.“All these little things just fell into place,” said Millie’s daughter Carol Judy of Yakima. “There must be someone upstairs taking care of all this.”Groundwork for the reunion began in June, when Carol placed a notice on an Internet Web site called GenForum. The site is for people to share information on family genealogy. Her sister Darlene Ferguson said this week that it was little more than a whim that led Carol to write the message. It read:I am looking for the sibling of my mother. Her maiden name is Mildred Josephine Bakunas born 6/3/1920 in Minneapolis … Mildred was 8 years old when she lost her mother in 1928, and remembers a possible sister named Betty Lou. She believes her sister was adopted. The sister would have been born around 1925-1927. If you are searching for your sister and two brothers, please respond. Mildred would very much like to find her sister. Thank you. What were the odds?Separated shortly after Betty’s birth in 1928, Millie had no photographs, no letters, no records of any kind. She wasn’t even sure that a sister really existed. All she had was a dim recollection of the name Betty Lou, but that was about it. Carol and Darlene had gotten interested in family history about two years ago and had spent a lot of time trying to trace their mother’s family — a difficult task since Millie had grown up in an Owatonna, Minn. orphanage following her mother’s death at the age of 25. Millie’s mother and father, a Russian immigrant named Joseph Bakunas, had divorced and he had disappeared without a trace into the Central U.S..“When we’d ask our mom what she remembered there was nothing,” Carol said.To complicate matters, a record-keeping error had changed Millie’s last name from Bakunas to Bakumas for most of her time in the orphanage. As a result of the turmoil of her childhood, Millie dismissed any thoughts of a sister for most of her adult life. Betty was adopted as a baby by a couple named Nelson in St. Paul, Minn.. Her adoptive parents changed her name from Betty Lou to Betty Gertrude and didn’t tell her she was adopted until she was 20 years old. Through her entire childhood she had no knowledge whatsoever that her brothers and sister were living nearby. Even with a birth certificate as an adult, she knew little more.TOUCHDOWNThe Cessna cruised past the waiting Millie and her daughters and set down smoothly on the Oak Harbor runway. It turned back toward them and rolled into its tarmac berth. Everyone’s voices got higher as hands waved and excitement mounted.“Is that Betty? Is that her?” The rear door of the craft opened and Betty was the first off. In an instant she and Millie were locked together in an inseparable hug like two old friends.“Oh Millie, Millie, Millie,” was all Betty could say.Moments later the reality of the meeting was just starting to sink in.“It’s still like I’m dreaming,” Millie said.“Well, I’m a big dream,” said Betty, who stands several inches taller than her Whidbey Island sister.“And a good one.” Millie replied.The death of Millie’s brothers in the 1970s left her pretty much alone with her hazy memory of a missing sister. Occasionally she’d make mention of it, but never took any action. It likely wouldn’t have made any difference even if she had said Carol.“Even if we’d gone back to Minneapolis to find adoption records we’d have hit a brick wall because they took Betty Lou to St. Paul for the adoption,” she said.Besides said Millie, getting copies of adoption records was more difficult in the past.“In those days they wouldn’t let you know anything,” she said.In addition, Millie’s own identity had changed. Three marriages had given her three different last names to add to both Bakunas and the misnomer Bakumas.Meanwhile, Betty was also running into similar roadblocks in a search for her past. Since her adoptive parents had no more children, she believed she was an only child. A copy of her birth certificate finally passed on to her by her adoptive father contained incorrect information. When she filled it out, her birth-mother Beulah had mistakenly switched her maiden name and married name, leaving Betty to think her mom was Beulah Thomas instead of Beulah Bakunas.CONTACTIt’s likely that the reunion would have been impossible until recently because the puzzle piece that finally put the two together was the Internet. Carol and Darlene had started to explore online about two years ago. Shortly there after, Betty’s daughter Karen also began working with genealogy on the World Wide Web. Karen’s enthusiasm for family history spread to Betty’s son Mark as well.Carol’s Internet message sat in cyberspace for nearly four months with no response. But in Estes Park events would soon change that. Betty had obtained a court order to get her adoption records and copy of her original birth certificate. It arrived in October with a substantial amount of missing information. For one thing it told her that her father was Henry Brennan. She was amused by the wording of the document.“It said he participated in the conception of Betty Lou,” she said this week. More important than that, it told her her birth-mother was in fact Beulah Bakunas.Betty called her son Mark in California and filled him in. By some twist of fate, Mark went to the same Web site Carol had visited four months earlier and searched for the name Bakunas. When Carol’s message came up, he quickly called his mother.“I said, these people are looking for relatives and it’s me,” she said. Mark encouraged his mother to call Carol who had attached her Yakima phone number to the message.The process almost ended there.“The first thing I thought when the phone rang at 7 o’clock was oh no, a salesman,” Carol said. She said Betty’s initial tone of voice asking for Carol Judy nearly confirmed her feeling that she was trapped in a sales call. A few moments later, however, Carol was overjoyed.“There was no one else at my house when she called so I was just dancing,” she said. “I kept scribbling notes on a little scrap of paper and then on a lot of sticky notes.”The next call Betty made was to Millie — the nearly 80-year-old sister she didn’t know she had only hours before.“I knew it had to be her. I had no doubts at all,” said Millie. Within a couple days they were exchanging photos and e-mail. “I can see a family resemblance and we like a lot of the same things. It’s so exciting.”Plans were quickly made for Betty and her husband Leon to fly to Whidbey for a reunion. Both she and Millie began pulling out decades worth of photographs to review.“I’ve got a whole lot of nephews and nieces to get to know now,” Millie said. “It’s going to be neat to have my own relatives.”Betty feels the same way.“I had no memories because I was such a baby. I now have nothing but admiration for our mother because she had a tough life,” Betty said. “I hope she’s looking down and smiling.”After things settle down a bit, everyone plans to go back to the Internet for more family research.“I’m looking into the Brennan family now,” said Betty referring to the man who “participated” in her conception. “Supposedly he had a boy and a girl.”Darlene said the reunion has only strengthened her interest in genealogy and in beating the odds.“We have lots of information to try to find. With genealogy it’s a never-ending thing,” she said. “But I don’t think anything will top this.””

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