Shirley Burhow and Beverly Gillen never knew the other existed until their searches on ancestry.com. After 81 years, the sisters met in Winter Park.
It was a seemingly average Tuesday at Brio Tuscan Grille in Winter Park Village.
Locals flowed in and out of the restaurant as they grabbed lunch, but at one table, something life-changing was happening.
At a large, round table placed toward the front, a family get-together was taking place that was like no other.
As they broke bread and shared smiles, this family, particularly sisters Shirley Burhow and Beverly Gillen, had 81 years of catching up to do.
Burhow, a resident of Winter Park for more than 50 years, sat next to Gillen at the table — surrounded by nieces and nephews who had flown in from her native Akron, Ohio.
“I think it’s been the most wonderful few days of my life,” Burhow said. “I’ve been so happy with Beverly and all my kin folk — all my nephews and nieces — and I just can not explain it. It’s just a wonderful feeling.”
With every word Burhow spoke, a grin shined through, while Gillen returned the gesture herself.
“It’s just awesome — words can not explain the feeling that I have felt with these people sitting at this table,” said Gillen, who had flown into Florida from her current home just outside of Denver, Colorado.
The family reunion itself had been in the works since the two sisters found one another back in October via the website ancestry.com.
Burhow had been on the site for a while before deciding last year to get her DNA tested. She hoped it would lead to better results in finding long-lost family members.
Once the DNA test was put into the site’s system, messages were sent to Gillen regarding the high probability of Burhow being her blood sister. From there, the floodgates opened, as the two not only found one another but also found family from throughout the country.
Included in the discovery was the revelation that the sisters had four other siblings — two sisters and two brothers — though all of them were deceased. But despite not being able to meet their other siblings, Burhow and Gillen were pleased to find out they weren’t the only children.
“I was happy,” Burhow said with a grin. “It’s a hard feeling to explain — I finally found somebody.”
Finding their lost family, and having them around for even just a short time, is the culmination of a journey that Burhow and Gillen have spent the last 60-plus years of their lives trying to accomplish. The search started originally with another goal — finding their biological mother.
Both sisters were given up for adoption as babies — neither knew their parents. At the ages of 20 and 19, without knowing of each other’s existence at the time, Burhow and Gillen set out to find their mother.
The search for their mother, as well as their father, proved difficult, as the path seemed to be littered with roadblocks — with the biggest being the discovery that both of their parents had falsified their names on Burhow’s and Gillen’s birth certificates. Neither are sure why this was the case, but after learning their parents’ identities, the two believe it had to do with privacy — their parents weren’t married at the time of either’s birth.
Gillen learned more to the backstory. Their mother was actually their father’s secretary. This is where Gillen made an important connection between her biological family and her adopted family. As it turns out, her father’s sister had married a friend of her adoptive father.
“We were thinking that my father’s sister knew that our mother was our father’s secretary,” Gillen said. “So his sister knew that the secretary was pregnant and wanted to put her child up for adoption. His sister told her husband, and her husband told my adoptive father and they said, ‘OK, we’ll adopt her.’”
Despite the twists, turns and later discoveries, the two unraveled the mystery and identity of their parents — which not only gave some closure to a long and exhausting journey but also helped lead to the discovery of one another.
“We’re just so happy it happened — it seems like it took a long time, but we’re going to make the most out of it,” Gillen said.
“I wish I could think of everything I feel and explain it,” Burhow said. “I’m so happy to have my sister.”