DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
BURNET — Gail Lange and Sondra Holtzer sat in Francesco’s restaurant in Marble Falls on a January evening, watching the door as people walked through. The two sisters were waiting for someone — someone they hadn’t seen in several decades. Each time the door opened, their hearts jumped a bit.
Is this her? What about her? After more than six decades, Gail and Sondra doubted they would recognize the woman they were waiting to see. After all, the last time they saw her, the woman was 8, Holtzter 6 and Lange 4.
“I was nervous,” Lange said. “I — we — didn’t know what to expect. What was her life like?”
Sondra and Gail admitted they felt some guilt. Sixty years ago, their lives took a turn that led them to great childhoods and wonderful lives, but they wondered if the woman for whom they were waiting could say the same thing. They hoped, but they didn’t know.
Then a woman, who looked much younger than her 72 years, stepped into the restaurant. She knew right away who Gail and Sondra were.
A NEW FAMILY
In 1951 or 1952, Gail and Sondra lived in the San Antonio area with their family — a mom, a dad and at least two other siblings, an older brother and sister. But because of abuse, officials removed Gail and Sondra from the home. Gail was 4 at the time, and Sondra was 6.
“We went to stay in an orphanage in Round Rock,” Sondra said. Lutheran Social Services ran the orphanage. At the time, they knew they had a brother and a sister, but social services didn’t remove them, possibly because they couldn’t find the two.
“They were already parceled out to other relatives at that time,” Gail explained. “So (officials) may not have known where they were or who they were with.”
All Gail and Sondra knew was the two of them were together. Living in the orphanage took them out of the abusive situation, but it left them facing an unknown future. How long would they stay there? Would somebody adopt them?
In 1954, Norman and Julia Holtzer of Llano did just that. The couple took the two sisters home. It was the start of a wonderful life, the two women explained.
“We had what I think was a magical life,” Gail said.
After their adoption, the two sisters experienced a world of firsts. A first Christmas. A first of family dinners. A first of family activities. A first family Easter. Those were things they never really had with their birth parents because of the abuse and rocky living conditions.
With their adoptive parents showing them love and support, Gail and Sondra grew up in Llano as happy children. Though they thought a bit about from where they had come, they didn’t ponder on it very long. After all, what could they do? They were just children.
As children do, Gail and Sondra grew up. They chased careers, lives and families. But they never really looked back to those first few years of their lives. When they did, they wondered about their birth family — especially any siblings, hoping they ended up with “magical” lives as well.
“But we didn’t really know how to look for them,” Sondra said.
Around Christmas of 2014, Sondra approached Gail with a question.
“She asked me if I was interested in tracing our birth family,” Gail said.
Gail admitted she was a bit apprehensive at first. After all, more than 60 years had come and gone. She figured it was possible any siblings had passed away. It wasn’t as if they were trying to fill a gap in their lives.
“Our adoptive parents were wonderful, and we loved them and they loved us,” Sondra said. “But, I just, well, kind of wanted to know.”
Gail agreed. But neither really knew where to start. Sondra, however, mentioned the idea to Charles Harger, a member of her church and somebody for whom she pet sits. Charles, who loves doing genealogy research, told her he would help.
The Holtzers had kept all the adoption records and other information that Gail and Sondra turned over to Charles.
Then he went to work.
“I’m not sure we were expecting anything,” Gail said. After all, the last time they had seen any of their birth family was 63 years ago. They could be scattered across the country or around the world. They could be dead. They could be impossible to find. The sisters hoped but didn’t pin all their hopes on the search.
Two weeks after turning Charles loose on the search, he approached them with a question that would possibly change their lives.
“Do you want to meet your sister?” he asked.
How do you answer that after 63 years? They agreed to the search, but part of them never thought Charles would find anything. Now, they had a decision. On the surface, it might seem quite simple. Of course they wanted to meet their sister. Sondra didn’t hesitate much. Gail, however, felt some apprehension, even guilt.
“What had her life been like,” Gail said. “I hoped it had been as magical as ours, but we didn’t know.”
“We had been blessed with wonderful parents,” Sondra said. “I hoped her life had been just as wonderful. But what if it hadn’t? What would she think of us?”
Even with those lingering doubts, Gail and Sondra said “yes” to the meeting. And with their blessing, Charles set the wheels in motion that led the two sisters to Francesco’s on Jan. 17, waiting for the door to open.
LIKE NO TIME HAD PASSED
A woman walked into the restaurant. Gail and Sondra didn’t know her from anyone else, but this woman, she knew the two sisters immediately. She stepped up and called them both by their names — not just Gail or Sondra — but by their childhood names. And then, to Gail’s and Sondra’s surprise, she told them both their birthdays.
Nelda Bludau found her two baby sisters. Sixty-three years ago was the last time she’d seen the two, but she recognized them as if it had been just yesterday.
And the guilt and apprehension Gail and Sondra felt before the meeting melted away.
As the three sat down, cried, laughed and talked, it didn’t feel like six decades had come and gone.
“It wasn’t like it had been 63 years since we’d seen her, not even six months,” Gail said. “You know how they say sisters just know each other? Well, that’s what it was like.”
Nelda had one more surprise for her two sisters. After the initial meeting, Nelda introduced Gail and Sondra to their three adult nieces and an adult nephew — her children.
“That was something,” Gail said.
“You know, here we were just three of us,” Sondra said referring to herself, Gail and Gail’s husband as the number of their immediate family. “Our family just grew this one night. We were aunties.”
Nelda’s children didn’t want to miss this reunion or meeting their two long-lost aunts. One of the daughters shared something in common with Sondra — a name. Nelda remembered her two sisters and when her first daughter was born, she named her after Sondra.
As the three sisters talked, Nelda shared her story with Gail and Sondra. The magical life they hoped Nelda enjoyed didn’t manifest itself in her childhood. Instead, they learned Nelda lived a tough, hard life. She and their older brother, John Paul, ended back up with their birth father. This led to unreliable living conditions, often sleeping on the street.
“They were street people,” Gail said. “It was a tough life.”
Sometimes, the only relief the two older siblings found was when they stayed with an aunt or an uncle.
Despite the hard childhood, Nelda grew up to create her own magical life.
“When somebody grows up like that, it’s so hard to get out of it,” Sondra said. “But Nelda, you would never know she had a (childhood) like that. She’s wonderful.”
Gail agreed, pointing out Nelda’s adulthood doesn’t reflect the challenges of her childhood.
“She didn’t let that beat her,” Gail said. “She’s just amazing.”
But like Gail and Sondra, Nelda felt a tinge of guilt before meeting her two sisters. Nelda expressed her regret of not doing more 63 years ago to keep the siblings together.
“She was 8,” Gail said. “What really could she do?”
Over the years, even if she tried to look for the two sisters, Nelda didn’t have anything with which to work. She had no paperwork regarding the adoption or any idea Gail and Sondra went to the Round Rock orphanage.
“We’re just so happy to have her in our lives,” Gail said. “And to be in hers.”
MAKING NEW MEMORIES
After the initial meeting, the three sisters have gotten together again with Nelda coming up from her La Vernia home. During their time together, they talk like sisters do, spending time catching up and looking to the future.
Nelda has helped Gail and Sondra piece together their birth family story. It turns out, their older brother, John Paul, had already passed away. But it was where he is buried, beside their birth mother, that gave the two sister’s another surprise. It turns out John Paul and their mother are buried in the old Burnet cemetery.
And Nelda often made regular trips through Llano — where Gail lives — on her way to Mason to pick up one of her grandchildren.
Gail and Sondra shook their heads at this.
“We could have passed each other on the street, but we wouldn’t have known,” Gail said,
While they missed so much over the years, they don’t dwell on it. Instead Gail, Sondra and Nelda are focusing on the future.
“We have so much to look forward to,” Sondra said.
“We’re going to start making new memories,” Gail said.
Gail and Sondra are getting ready for their first “big” family gathering on Easter, when they’ll go to La Vernia. Nelda’s family plans on making it to meet their two “new” family members. As word spread through Nelda’s family that she had found her two sisters after 63 years, everybody is planning to be at Easter dinner. So instead of just a few people for their annual Easter celebration, Gail and Sondra are looking forward to 30-35 people.
“We’re going to need name tags,” Gail said with a laugh.
“It’s been so amazing,” Sondra said.
And it’s also going to be another year of firsts. It will be the first Easter with their sister and her family. A first summer vacation and family reunion. A first Christmas.
They laughed at the thought of all the Christmas gifts they’ll have to buy.
“We never had this with our (birth) family,” Gail said.
“I’m glad we found her now,” Sondra said. “We’re all still healthy enough to do so much together and start making all these new memories. I just can’t wait.”
Gail became a bit reflective as she thought about the future.
“My thought is Nelda has filled a place in our heart — my heart — that I didn’t even know was empty,” she said.
But now, after 63 years, a sister’s love fills that hole.