Blood strangers: How one woman found family with help from the Carolina Room

Sue Abbate smiles with her mother, Terry, after finding her parents through genealogical research support from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library's Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room.

September was Family History Month, but the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room offers access to historical and genealogical resources all year long. In celebration of discovering family ties, Carolina Room staff interviewed Sue Abbate, a family history researcher, who used Carolina Room librarians and resources to find her birth parents. 

“It was a major moment in my life. It was like these invisible puzzle pieces finally shifted and started to fit together.”  

Sue (left) with her mother, Terry (right).

How the story begins
Sue was adopted as a newborn by John and Mary Ann through Catholic Social Services. She had a wonderful childhood, growing up in a small town in Arizona, but always had a deep curiosity about her biological parents. She often wondered: Who did she look like? Where did her sense of humor come from? Did she share any of the same mannerisms with someone else? She remembers writing a letter to the adoption agency once when she was in high school, but never sent it. 

Sue’s curiosity intensified as she married and had children of her own. “I couldn’t imagine having my daughter and not taking her home,” Sue explained. "Me and my friends sometimes share birth stories [from each pregnancy], which made me really want to know more about my own birth story.”  With both of her adoptive parents having passed away years ago, Sue felt free to one day see if she could find her birth mom. 

A DNA discovery
In December 2017, Sue’s youngest daughter, Amanda, almost 16, encouraged her to send in a 23andMe DNA test to get more information on their medical history. “We sent our tests in but I didn’t expect anything other than the basic stuff, like our ethnic identities, medical information and other types of results.”  Sue remembers not thinking much about the adoption angle, as it didn’t cross her mind that she might actually find her birth parents. 

Shortly after receiving the results online that March, they were contacted by Dana who said they were related by blood. Sue was excited that they had found a family member only hours after the results had been posted. “We were so surprised that someone reached out to us so quickly. Dana knew we were related, but she didn’t know how.  I was a mystery to her.” According to the DNA, Dana could tell that they were second cousins on Sue’s father’s side. Dana investigated our new relationship that weekend, and determined that her mom’s cousin, Joe, was Sue’s birth father.  Dana shared Sue’s contact information with Joe, who then contacted Sue. “I never thought I would know who my birth dad was. Maybe I would somehow find my birth mom, but not him.”  

Sue and Joe had a long conversation about his life and family. Sue learned that she was one of 10 kids (7 biological and 3 step). Joe had been married three times. Sue also learned that her biological mother’s name is Terry. Joe explained that their relationship hadn’t been serious and that he left to serve in Vietnam shortly after Terry found out she was pregnant. The two of them hadn’t kept in contact. 

But, wait. There's...more  
After getting Terry’s name from Joe, Sue said “I immediately started to search online for her. I even messaged a few people on Facebook with the same last name. I posted online about my excitement about this new chapter in my life.” It was at that moment that the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room’s Senior Librarian, Shelia Bumgarner, became part of Sue’s story:  

“Helping Sue locate her birth Mom, Terry, was one of the biggest highlights of my career. Armed with only a name, location and birth year, I started my search. I remembered that Sue said Terry was Catholic, so when came across a Catholic High School Annual in, I immediately clicked on the resource. When I saw the photo of Terry, my jaw dropped-- it was like staring at a young Sue with bigger hair. This finding led me to conduct more genealogical research, tracing Terry’s family back for several generations. I also found Terry’s current phone number and addressI called Sue to share my findings and we were both so happy and close to tears. I am so happy for Sue. It was a perfect ending to hear that she spoke to her birth mother that night. I really felt chuffed for a few days. All of my experience and knowledge had come into play to connect two people separated by time and circumstances. 

Shelia also found the obituary of Terry’s mother, which mentioned Terry’s children’s names as survivors. “All of a sudden I had a mother and more half-siblings!” Sue excitedly explained. She said she felt “an adrenaline rush and overwhelming excitement, followed by anxiety and a strange mix of emotions.” 

Mamma mia! 
Sue turned to Facebook again to see if she could connect with any of her half-siblings on her mother’s side. She found Rachel and decided to message her for Terry’s number. Sue didn’t tell Rachel who she was— she wanted to keep the matter between her and Terry, in case Rachel didn’t know. Little did she know, Terry had told Rachel, and her son, Matt, about Sue just a few months earlier. When Rachel called Terry to tell her about Sue contacting her, she said “Mom, your other daughter is trying to get in touch with you.” Terry called Sue on the phone that night and Sue remembers being speechless several times. 

Over the course of the next few months, Sue got to meet both Joe and Terry, Rachel and Matt. Connections were made, relationships were started and some questions were answered. Joe and Sue’s older daughter, Emily, share a love of engineering. Joe and Sue have the same sense of humor. Sue learned about family she never thought she would ever meet. Sue immediately felt a strong connection with Terry. 

A meeting between Terry and Sue.

When Shelia found an online photo of Terry from high school, Sue saw an uncanny resemblance to a photo of herself taken at the same age.  When they met, Sue remembers “We had lunch and we kept catching ourselves staring at each other. We are so similar that I know exactly what I’m going to look like when I’m 70.”    

Terry's high school photo (left) and a picture from Sue's passport (right).

When asked what her first moments were like with her biological mother, she replied, “That hug healed me to my core.” Sue explained how she had always felt a sense of holding back to protect herself from the unknown. “I don’t know if I felt abandoned, like other adoptees feel. I knew [Terry] did the best she could by making the most loving choice in giving me up for adoption.”  

Pieces to peace
Sue is over the moon that her biological parents were willing to meet her and answer questions that she’s had her entire life. “Do you start with the now? Do you start with what happened before? How do you navigate? It’s definitely a dance.”   

The adoption agency had a fire that destroyed Sue’s birth records, so the DNA test through 23andMe was her only chance at finding her family. “It was truly life changing. Genealogy is such a great way to learn about history based on your own family’s history.”    

Sue’s greatest hope is to learn more about who she is, where she came from and where these new relationships with her biological family will go. “It’s bizarre and comforting at the same time. It's like we are blood strangers. We share DNA, but what do we talk about?” 

New and emerging family ties.

Sue summarized her journey by speaking to how blessed she felt when Shelia saw her Facebook post. “It moved me how librarians in the Carolina Room were so excited to work with me. Having that support was incredible. It was more than just help. Shelia went above and beyond to help me find the answers, and family, I never thought I’d have.”