Alpha Stai died at 35. Her eight motherless children scattered across two states like shattered glass.
Now, 82 years after their mother’s death, sisters Leona Silvanoff, of Spokane Valley, and Evelyn Armold, of Duluth, Minn., are putting the pieces back together.
“What’s amazing is that it’s happening, after more than 80 years,” said Silvanoff, 84.
The women who met for the first time a couple of months ago said that but for a couple of chance occurrences, the reunion would have been impossible.
Silvanoff was 2, Armold was 8 months when their Tomahawk, Wis., family collapsed under the force of Alpha Stai’s death. Stai, a Norwegian immigrant, had a goiter removed from her neck and died from blood poisoning.
Ole Stai, Silvanoff’s father and also a Norwegian immigrant, didn’t even kid himself about raising the children alone. He worked long hours feeding Wisconsin hardwoods to the saws of a Tomahawk mill. He didn’t have time for children.
Ole Stai was also pushing 60. Alpha was his second wife and he had already raised one family. It’s probably good that he didn’t try, said Armold, whose only keepsake from early childhood is a photo of herself and a twin sister, Edna Beatrice, sitting on a bed with a decaying plaster ceiling overhead.
The babies went first. Evelyn Mildred and her twin sister, Edna Beatrice, were adopted by a Milwaukee chiropractor. The Stai’s five boys, Clarence, Floyd, Kenneth, Melvin and Paul were sent to an orphanage.
Silvanoff moved in with her mother’s younger sister, a woman Silvanoff said she met for the first time at Alpha Stai’s funeral.
“She took me back to Minnesota to live. She already had a family of five. Just took me and that was it,” Silvanoff said.
If it weren’t for the aunt, Silvanoff and Armold never would have connected. Alpha Stai’s younger sister made sure Silvanoff knew the whereabouts of her siblings. She gave Silvanoff the name of her sisters’ adopted father and mentioned his profession.
The information wasn’t much, but it was more than Silvanoff’s brothers received at their orphanage. Edna and Evelyn were unaware they were adopted. They might as well have been on the other side of the world.
There’s a worn road atlas in Silvanoff’s living room and the pages for Wisconsin and Minnesota are dog-eared. The towns where the Stai children scattered are circled in blue ink. The roads between them are long.
Silvanoff was relocated to Hewitt, Minn., 500 miles from Milwaukee, which is where her sisters eventually moved, 375 miles from her brothers in Wittenberg, Wis.
As her brothers turned 18, each made a trip to Hewitt to work on their aunt’s farm before scattering across the country. The boys knew of the farm and of their sister, Silvanoff, though they weren’t able to visit growing up.
It was Kenneth Stai, Silvanoff’s older brother by six years, who taught her the value of family. Kenneth Stai and Silvanoff met on the farm in Hewitt and later wandered west to Spokane looking for work during the Depression.
Kenneth Stai was the one who kept revisiting why the boys weren’t taken in by relatives. In the end, he was the one who suggested finding the twin girls. What he didn’t do was question Silvanoff about the twins’ whereabouts.
“He could have found them earlier if he had talked to his sister (Leona),” said Shirley Stai, Kenneth’s daughter. “He thought one of his other aunts took them to Milwaukee and had them adopted out.”
Silvanoff vaguely remembered her aunt mentioning the chiropractor who adopted her sisters. Following her brother Kenneth’s death, she gave the name to Shirley Stai who wrote the state of Wisconsin about the twins’ birth certificates and posted the information on a genealogy Web site
A nephew in the twins’ adopted family saw Stai’s digital message in a bottle and passed it on to his aunts. Armold decided to respond.
“It was emotional,” Armold said. “I always thought it would be nice to know. Something was said once that our mother had died and that the father had raised the boys and the aunt raised the girls. I said as long as my parents are alive, I’ll never search it out, out of respect for them.”
Like Kenneth Stai, Armold wound up questioning why she and her sister were adopted, if the family took the rest of the kids in, as she mistakenly believed.
Silvanoff, on the other hand, wasn’t sure why finding her sisters mattered so much. After 82 years of separation, and because she wasn’t even 3 years old when her family broke up, Silvanoff was searching for strangers.
But in the last few years, Silvanoff’s husband, Alexandre, had died, as Kenneth did in 1998. She was living with the uncomfortable loneliness of being the last survivor of her generation.
Then Shirley Stai called Silvanoff to say the she wasn’t the last.
“Shirley said, ‘are you sitting down? You need to sit down. As soon as we get off the phone, Evelyn is going to call you.’.” Silvanoff said.
Minutes later, Silvanoff was listening to the deep, throaty voice of her 82-year-old sister on the telephone. There was an ease to the conversation Silvanoff never expected. It was like slipping on an old housecoat.
Their first conversation in 80 years was cut short by a dental appointment Silvanoff had that morning. She hung up the phone and drove, crying all the way to her appointment. She wasn’t sure why, until the receptionist at the dentist office asked if everything was alright.
“No,” Silvanoff said. “Everything is perfect.”
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