Local family reunites with long-lost sisterWORTHINGTON — Growing up, Marjorie “Midge” Dodgen Starling was big sister to her three younger siblings. But she knew that there was another sister, one older than she, out there somewhere in the world.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Growing up, Marjorie “Midge” Dodgen Starling was big sister to her three younger siblings. But she knew that there was another sister, one older than she, out there somewhere in the world.
“I’ve known it for a lot of years,” said Midge. “I don’t ever remember not knowing. Mom didn’t have a lot back then and couldn’t take care of her, and so she gave her up.”
The baby was born and left with foster parents when Midge’s mother, Bonnie, was visiting in Georgia — far from southwest Minnesota where the Dodgen kids grew up. Bonnie had intended to go back and retrieve her first-born child, but economic circumstances made that difficult.
While her mother was alive, Starling was reluctant to search for her unknown sibling.
“She wasn’t sure if she wanted me to,” Midge said. “I think she was afraid of being rejected. But Mom has passed, and the four of us kids here, we just wanted to know.”
Once she started to look, the sister wasn’t hard to find.
“I was at my youngest daughter’s house, and we were playing around on the computer,” Midge related. “We got finished with what we were doing, and she said, ‘Why don’t we look for your sister?’ In a half hour, we found her on the adoption registry.”
The sister’s name is now Virginia Grace Stewart, and she lives in Pleasant Grove, Ala.
“She didn’t find out that she was adopted until her parents were both gone,” Midge explained. “Then she finally got some information and put it on the adoption registry, but she didn’t know who to look for, and she wouldn’t have found us anyway, because she had the name spelled wrong. But I knew the name she was given at birth, and her adopted parents kept that name. I didn’t know that she was married, didn’t know what her married name would be, but I did know her adopted father’s last name. I put the name out there, and there she was.”
So Midge wrote her newfound sister a letter and waited for a reply. It came at an unexpected — but very appropriate — moment.
“A couple of weeks or a month later, I was at the cemetery visiting mom’s grave, and she called while I was out there,” said Midge. “We were on the phone for probably 45 minutes. She wanted to make sure this was legit, make sure I was who I said I was. I gave her enough information so she knew I was the real deal. We’ve been writing and Facebooking ever since.”
And finally, after waiting a lifetime to meet her big sister, Midge met Virginia face-to-face on Friday.
“It’s a wonderful Christmas present,” said Midge. “She decided herself that we needed to meet, and it was easier for her and her husband and daughter to fly up here to the Twin Cities than for all of us and our families to go down there.”
The extended Dodgen clan gathered for a family reunion over the weekend at the Atrium High-Rise in Worthington. When Virginia and her family pulled up to the building, they initially weren’t sure they were at the right place.
“My daughter said, “Oh, we’re at the right place, Mom. There’s a whole bunch of people with their noses pressed up against the window and they’re jumping up and down,’” Virginia said.
The early years of Virginia’s life were spent in West Point, Ga.; when she was in the third grade, the family moved to Birmingham, Ala., where she and husband Richard continue to live. Her mother worked in a textile mill, and her father was a security guard.
When she was a teenager, Virginia asked her mother if she was adopted, but her mother’s response put an end to any doubts about her heritage.
“All she said was why would I ask such a silly question,” Virginia recalled, “and the way she said it, I never thought about it again.”
But later in her life, Virginia put the missing pieces together and came to the conclusion that the parents she knew were not her birth parents. “I didn’t know until I was 50 years old, and I figured it out for myself,” she said. “No one told me. By the time I figured it out, my adopted parents were both deceased.”
The trigger came when her own daughter, Ginger Boggan, was expecting her first baby.
“I realized that not once did my parents ever talk about my mom’s pregnancy, my birth or bringing me home from the hospital,” Virginia said. “And the youngest picture they had of me was at 3 months old. So I met with my father’s brother and asked him point blank if I was adopted.”
At first, her uncle was still reluctant to give away the family secret — which had been well kept since Virginia came to live with her adopted parents in 1947. They didn’t formally adopt her until 1953, when Virginia was 6 years old.
“Turns out, all my aunts, uncles and cousins knew, but nobody told me,” said Virginia. “They felt obligated to obey my parents’ wishes.”
Once she knew the truth, Virginia requested a copy of her adoption petition, and she put her name and information on the national adoption registry, hoping that somebody was looking for her. Ginger also wrote to some Georgia families with names that were similar to what was on the adoption petition, but had no luck in locating Virginia’s birth family. But it was understandable that their sleuthing had no results — the name of Virginia’s birth mother was wrong on the adoption petition. It said the mother’s name was Bonnie Dodgins — not Dodgen.
“I don’t know if I ever expected to hear anything,” said Virginia about putting her name on the adoption registry. “I just put it out there for the world to see. And I would never have looked outside of the South. I would have stayed in the George-Alabama-South Carolina area. I would never have dreamed my family was in Minnesota.”
Fourteen years after she learned the truth and put her name on the registry, Virginia received the letter from Midge. The Stewarts’ lives had already been in turmoil due to tornado damage where they lived, and they returned home from a forced evacuation to find the missive in the mailbox. It took a while for the information to sink in, and Virginia was skeptical that these people in Minnesota were really her longed-for kin.
“Richard said that I went to bed one day as an only child and woke up the next day and had siblings,” Virginia repeated.
In recent months, Virginia has talked on the phone to each of her siblings: Midge, who lives in Worthington; Chuck, who lives in the Twin Cities area; Larry, now living in Hitterdal, near Moorhead; and Ann Kirlin of Avoca. They’ve also exchanged letters and emails. Before the Stewarts arrived in Worthington on Friday night, however, Chuck was the only one she’d met in person.
“When Midge called and said they’d found her, I was probably only 15 miles away from where they lived,” Chuck said. “But I figured it would be too much of a shock to show up on her doorstep.”
On a return trucking trip to Alabama, Chuck did get to meet his new older sister face-to-face and brought her some photos of her birth family.
For the weekend reunion, Virginia came armed with her own photo album, telling the story of her life from 3 months old to the present.
The Dodgens were prepared with pictures of their mother and the answers to the questions that have plagued Virginia throughout her life. At Virginia’s request, each person donned a nametag so she could keep all these new relations straight.
“There are rhymes and reasons for everything,” said Virginia about how her life played out. “My parents couldn’t have children, and I think I completed their lives. … It was what it was supposed to be.”