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Making up for lost hugs

Lugoff man meets sister, 71, for first time in their lives

Posted: May 21, 2018 4:42 p.m.
Updated: May 22, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

Bob Snell, 74, of Lugoff, hugs his sister, Carla Sauders, 71, of Port Orange, Fla., on a couch at his home on Wednesday. The siblings met for the first time ever on May 14 -- Carla’s birthday -- after finding each other on March 31 thanks to DNA testing through Ancestry.com. Carla came up from Florida to meet Bob, his wife, Brenda, and their large family, including her and Bob’s 91-year-old mother, who gave her up for adoption in 1947.

March 31 and May 14 will be dates Bob Snell and Carla Sauders won’t soon forget.

The former is the day Bob emailed Carla; the latter is the day Carla arrived at Bob’s house in Lugoff. It was also her birthday.

She turned 71 and her birthday present to herself was to visit Bob, her older brother, for the very first time in their lives.

Carla returned to her home in Port Orange, Fla., on Thursday, but on Wednesday, they were still sitting close to one another on a couch, hugging often, both amazed that they were finally together.

Carla also met their 91-year-old mother, Dene (pronounced “Dean,” short for Eldene), for the first time since being given up for adoption in 1947.

Birthplace: Iowa

Bob and Carla’s story starts on the Iowa banks of the Mississippi River bordering Illinois with Bob’s birth in 1944 in Muscatine. The family soon moved to Buffalo, about 20 miles away; the town is considered a suburb of Davenport, just a little further up the Mississippi.

“We lived in a boxcar,” Bob said, “that had been converted to be like a trailer or mobile home. There were 10 of us.”

After living in the boxcar for a while, they moved again, this time to a house with his grandmother, who worked for Oscar Mayer in Davenport.

Bob had a younger brother, Aaron, born in 1945, who unfortunately died in a freak boating accident a number of years ago on Lake Powell, a reservoir straddling the Utah/Arizona border.

“Dad was married three times. I have three half-sisters -- two in Arkansas and one in Mississippi -- and two half-brothers,” Bob said.

In 1963, Bob ended up stationed at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter. One day, he visited Goodale State Park in Kershaw County and met the young woman who would become his wife: Brenda Haynes, whose family has been in Kershaw County for many generations.

The two married and stayed in Kershaw County; Bob is the owner of the Antique Barn Mall in downtown Camden.
He has scores of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, along with Brenda’s family, which is also large.

Carla, on the other hand, grew up only knowing only a few other people including her (adoptive) mother and father, and an aunt.

Carla also moved away from Iowa, in her case to Florida in 1963. There, she met a man named James Sauders. Amazingly, they eloped in, of all places, Edgefield, only about 85 miles away from Bob, in 1966.

“We came the week before and stayed at the Heart of Aiken Motel,” Carla said, but got married at a Presbyterian church in Edgefield.

But it would be another 20 years or so before Bob would learn he even had a sister.

Searching

He couldn’t remember exactly what year, but sometime in the 1980s, Bob’s brother, Aaron, said their Uncle Robert had told him they had a sister.

“I called my Mom and the only thing she would say was, ‘I’ve never done anything I’m ashamed of,’” Bob said.

Later on, Dene -- who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease -- moved to Lugoff to live with Bob and Brenda. She now resides in a nursing home.

“On her medical records, it said she had four children. I only knew of two (himself and Aaron) and Mom claimed that she had two that didn’t make it,” Bob said. “I spoke to my stepmother and she said my dad, ‘Rusty’ (who died in 1994), told her that Mom had a boy, but that it wasn’t his, so maybe we have another half-brother somewhere.”

With what little information he had, Bob started looking for his sister, something he said is hard to do on your own. He got a little bit further when one of his aunts, Sally, came to visit last year.

Sally, who lives in Denver, confirmed for Bob that his mother had put a baby girl up for adoption.

“She said that someone in Chicago had told her mom and dad were going through a divorce and she decided to give the baby up,” Bob said.

“He sued her for divorce and she didn’t even show up in court,” he said, adding that Aunt Sally told her his grandfather unsuccessfully “tried to get the baby back.”

The baby was Carla, but she didn’t even know she was adopted until the couple she knew as her parents died. She had always suspected, though.

“I didn’t look like anyone else in the family,” Carla said, pointing out that she has red hair while the rest of her small family did not. “I wasn’t sure until I asked my aunt if I was adopted after they died. She put her head in her hands and said ‘yes.’”

Once she knew the truth, Carla did everything to try to find her birth family.

“I talked to a lawyer in Davenport, I even wrote Oprah,” she said.

The worst part was not being able to look at her own birth records.

“They were sealed and they’re still sealed to this day,” Carla said.

When she and her late husband eloped, one of the things she needed was her official birth certificate. Instead, the only document the state of Iowa would provide her was a “certificate of birth,” which is not the same thing. It listed her adoptive parents’ names and her date of birth, but did not have her baby-sized foot- or handprint.

For a long time, brother and sister kept hitting dead ends.

The last thing Carla tried was a DNA test through Ancestry.com. That revealed an Irish/British heritage and someone listed as a possible cousin, but no parents or siblings.

“I gave up,” she said.

Then Bob sent off a DNA test to Ancestry in February. On March 31, he received an email on his computer at the Antique Barn saying that it had found a DNA match and asking him if he would like to see the results.

He clicked, “Yes.”

On Ancestry.com, he started seeing words like “close family,” “extremely possible” and “sibling or grandparent.”

“Well, I knew all my grandparents were dead, so it had to be a sibling,” Bob said.

At the top of the list of names: Carla, with her email address.

“I get this email on March 31, which would have been my husband’s birthday, and it’s from Bob,” Carla said.

More emails and phone calls followed.

“It all added up,” Carla said, of comparing what Bob knew about their mother with what Carla’s aunt had told her.

A larger family

Convinced, Carla and her boyfriend made the decision to visit Lugoff as soon as possible. They decided to come up on her birthday, May 14, the day after Mother’s Day.

“We wanted to surprise him at the Antique Barn. When we arrived, we asked for him and they said he wasn’t there because he was getting ready for a family reunion,” Carla said. “My boyfriend said, ‘We’re the family!’ And I was so nervous, I said, ‘I’m Bobby’s brother -- I mean, Bobby’s my brother.’”

They left the shop in Camden and headed to the Snell’s house in Lugoff.

“I was still in the shower when Brenda told me they were on the way,” Bob said. “I had been at the shop earlier, but had been working in the garden most of the day.”

Finally, they were together, sister and brother.

May 14 was spent at Bob’s house, learning about each other and hugging each other a lot. They found out that they both have enjoyed fishing, swimming, bowling and playing piano.

In Bob and Brenda’s living room, there is a large collection of family photographs -- which Carla deemed “overwhelming” -- including several with Dene in them when she was younger.

She had auburn hair, just like Carla. And Carla learned something else: “I almost look more like our father.”

The following day, Bob and Brenda took Carla and her boyfriend to Hall’s Restaurant in Lugoff. About 18 members of Bob and Brenda’s family joined them.

“I’m the oldest of 25 grandchildren,” Bob said by way of explanation.

“I was so nervous; it was overwhelming,” Carla said.

Brenda chimed in adding that she and Bob alone have four children, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

“And two of those grandchildren are adopted,” Brenda said.

The other thing Carla got to do May 15 was meet her mother for the very first time.

“I had told her many times I was going to find my sister, find her daughter,” Bob said. “I told her Easter Sunday that I had found Carla, and she started going downhill.”

Luckily, Dene was well enough for visitors May 15.

“We sat on either side of her, and then we took her to the dining room,” Carla said. “She had a hot dog, which is something we learned we all like.”

When they took their mother back to their room, Bob went in with Dene first while Carla hung back in the hallway.

“I asked her, ‘Do you know who that is? That’s your daughter,’” Bob said.

Carla went back into the room.

“Why don’t you give her a hug?” Bob asked Dene.

Dene got up, and gave Carla a hug.

“I love you,” Carla said.

“I love you, too,” her mother replied.

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