A lifetime apart, sisters reunite: 'I've missed a lot of hugs'

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Suzan hugged Jackie and said she loved her. Jackie said she loved Suzan. They were clasping and crying and Suzan's daughter, Inga, was smiling through tears of her own, and then Jackie reached out and hugged Inga and said she loved her, too.

At a baggage claim carousel at Metro Airport, complete strangers cheered.

Jackie Murphy of Macomb Township was 5 years old the last time she saw her little sister. She was 55 when she gave up hope of ever seeing her again. At 80, she was squeezing Suzan Baekkelund and Suzan was squeezing back, and it was bliss.

Suzan, 76, lives in suburban Nashville. Until three weeks ago, she did not know she had a sister. She did not even know she was adopted. She'd been worrying that when she died, her two children would be adrift with no family but one another.

Now a family reunion that could have fit comfortably in a Ford Focus will take up the  Westland Farmers Market Saturday, a celebration of discovery and DNA tests and two little red-headed girls who've found each other after three-quarters of a century.

"We can have tea parties. We can go shopping," Jackie said as the business of a major airport carried on around them Wednesday night.

"We can do anything," Suzan said.

They can try to make up for lost decades because on a lark, Suzan and Inga ordered tests on sale from Ancestry.com — and then forgot about them, found them on a shelf nine months later, and shipped them off.

Jackie Murphy, 80, left, of Macomb Township, and her sister, Suzan Baekkelund, 76, of Nashville, are overcome with emotion as they meet face to face for the first time in 75 years Wednesday at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

They can marvel about how much Suzan looks like their mother because Jackie's cousin and the cousin's daughter were online putting together a family tree, and they noticed an odd biological connection to a household in Tennessee with a last name straight from Norway.

The sisters had been born into complicated circumstances in Detroit back when Franklin Roosevelt was America's president. Details remain murky, but first there was Jackie, and two years later her brother John, who would die of cancer at 49.

Then there was a tiny girl, but not for long. Her name, soon to be changed, was Sandy.

"All I remember was her in the bassinet," Jackie said. One morning, she simply wasn't there, and Jackie asked her mother, "Where's my baby?"

"The doctor had to come take her away," her mother replied, and that was almost the last she ever said about it.

"There was no father. She couldn't feed three children," Jackie said at the airport as she fidgeted through a delayed arrival. "It was an unselfish thing."

Sisters Jackie Murphy, 80, of Macomb Township, and Suzan Baekkelund, 76, of Nashville, hold a sign that Jackie's daughter Kelli made for the occasion.

Jackie was holding a red rose for Suzan and a pink one for Inga, 40. She had a poster that said, "Sisters Suzan & Jackie Reunited."

The original plan was for the reunion to take place Thursday after Suzan had gone to Lansing in search of public records. Jackie decided that she had waited too long already and tipped off Inga that there would be a welcoming committee.

Knowing there would be pictures taken, Inga cajoled her resistant mother into wearing at least a trace of makeup on the flight: "Oh, you'll feel better if you do."

As they approached carousel No. 6, North Terminal, Inga pointed to the poster.

The makeup didn't stand a chance.

From Ohio to Florida

One of the sisters, as it turned out, spent her career with a cruise line. The other retired from an airline.

Adopted by Lloyd and Bernice Trotter, Suzan was raised an only child, moving from Detroit to Ohio to Traverse City to Grand Rapids. Lloyd was a truck driver who became a trucking consultant, and Bernice had been a librarian.

Jackie Murphy, left, and her sister, Suzan Baekkelund, hug each other, meeting face to face for the first time in 75 years, while, in background, Suzan's daughter, Inga Baekkelund, meets Jackie's son, Richard LeBlanc, at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

They did not have a birth certificate for Suzan, but rather something called a Certificate of Registration dated Dec. 18, 1944, one year and five months after her arrival at Hutzel Hospital.

The gap is unexplained. Was she older than Jackie remembers when she was whisked away, in an adoption assumed to have been arranged by the doctor who delivered her? Did she spend time in a foster home or an orphanage?

Bernice Trotter only said there was a delay with the paperwork. She was equally noncommittal the few times Suzan wondered aloud if she was adopted.

"Why do you ask?" her mother would reply. Suzan would point out that she was red-haired and didn't look like her brown-haired parents, and the conversation would dwindle off.

"It was a different time," Suzan said. "Now you throw a party. Back then, it wasn't something really talked about, and I just didn't show enough interest."

Suzan moved to Florida at 18 and took a job with Royal Caribbean. Ultimately, she became the social hostess aboard the new Song of Norway, "like Julie on 'The Love Boat.'"

A Baekkelund family portrait from 1980, with parents Arne and Suzan with son Christian, left, and Inga.

Arne Baekkelund was the ship's hotel manager. He was a blond Norwegian who spoke seven languages, won long-distance bicycle races and became a significant figure in the cruise business.

It was an open secret when they began dating, which was against company rules, and maybe a slightly less open secret when they married.

Suzan came ashore when she became pregnant with Christian, now 41, a video game designer with three degrees from M.I.T. Inga, a general manager of hotels for the Hilton brands, followed 18 months later.

"It was one of those great love stories," Inga said. "They were together 38 years."

Then one summer night in 2008, Arne went into his study after dinner to read Norwegian newspapers on his computer. That's where his heart stopped, turning their tight family quartet into a trio.

Christian lives in Austin, Texas, and can't make it to the Saturday introduction to some four dozen new family members. Inga, with her familial red hair, lives with Suzan.

"The one thing we requested for Saturday," Inga said, "is that everyone has to wear name tags."

The former Ethelyn Stevenson, seen here in a family photo taken at the beach, was the mother of Jackie Murphy and Suzan Baekkelund. She raised Jackie and gave her younger sister up for adoption.

A rich life

Jackie will tell you forthrightly that she was the product of a rape.

She's not sure who her brother's father was, or Suzan's. She knows there was a stepfather, Kenneth Van Tassel, who married her mother, the former Ethelyn Stevenson, a few years after the baby vanished.

And, she said, she can vouch for a happy childhood and a rich life, which included a career in operations with Northwest and Delta.

Jackie has three children: Richard LeBlanc, 61, a former Michigan House member who's now the Westland city clerk; Cindy Cottrell, 59, of Ann Arbor, a nursing student; and Kelli Laubscher, 57, of South Lyon, a human resources manager.

Divorced once and widowed once, Jackie has found three decades of stability with retired GM engineer Chuck Papineau. It was Papineau, along with Cindy, who went searching for Jackie's little sister 25 years ago.

In an unguarded moment, Ethelyn had divulged the baby's new last name. Full of confidence, Papineau and Cindy traced the family as far as Ohio, he said — "and then we ran into a brick wall."

Suzan, left, was adopted and became Suzan Trotter, seen in 1949.

T in the last name

In Nashville, Suzan and Inga's reaction was mild curiosity when a checkmark on Ancestry.com suggested they had unknown relatives.

"Not to sound like we're idiots," Inga said, but they're not biologists, either, and the only thing they knew for certain about their extended family was that they didn't have one.

Then, from Jackie's genealogist relatives, came a series of messages on the website, eventually with a question: Is it possible you're adopted?

Things finally sorted out on the phone, with Jackie's cousin as the intermediary. Jackie was suspicious.

"Did your last name start with a T?" she asked.

"It was Trotter," Suzan said, and in Macomb Township, the first round of tears began to flow.

For Jackie, it's been weeks of unfettered joy. Suzan admits that her initial reaction was more complicated.

"I have to continue to honor the parents who raised me," she said, and where Jackie had confirmation — she found her sister! — Suzan's world changed. She was adopted? She has busloads of relatives?

She turned to Inga at one point and said, simply, "I didn't know I needed to be found."

In short order, though, her delight matched her sister's. After years of being guests at the holidays, she's looking forward to serving turkey to Michiganders.

They've talked every day, finding connections, and at the airport, they learned more about each other with every step.

"You have such tiny feet," Suzan said, and Jackie laughed.

Jackie is a shade under 5 feet tall, while Suzan is maybe a shade over. Jackie's hair is determinedly red, while Suzan has let hers go white.

"This moment ...," Jackie said, and then it hit her all over again and she had to stop.

"I've missed a lot of hugs," she said, and she reached out and caught up, just a little.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn