GRANTED IT WAS A SUPER Kmart, vast and impressive, practically a mall unto itself. But to 44-year-old Jeanette Pyden of Marysville, Mich., it meant nothing but long days behind the bakery counter of the Port Huron store, days that sometimes stretched to 16 hours. To make the time more tolerable, she groused and gossiped with her pal Darlene Meadows, 38, who worked just a few feet away in the deli department. For Jeanette the relationship helped to fill a void. Adopted in infancy, she had been raised as an only child and never knew her biological family. And even though she had a husband and two daughters of her own, she had always craved siblings and relished the sisterly banter with girlfriends like Darlene.

Some 4,500 miles away, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Jeanette's daughter Amy Atherton, 24, was on a mission. Longing to find her unknown roots—and anxious to learn whether she or her two small children were at risk for inherited disease—she was searching for her mother's family. Using her computer, Atherton had tapped into Prodigy's Genealogy Bulletin Board, where thousands of people try to find long-lost kin. And on Oct. 1, after months of frustration, she met with success. That night she called her mother with astonishing news: Jeanette had several siblings; they all lived right in the Port Huron area. And that wasn't all. "She told me the woman named Darlene, who works in the deli, happens to be my sister," Jeanette' recalls. "And I was like, 'Darlene is my sister? I go on breaks with her. Oh, my God!' "

But how would she tell Darlene? The next day, Jeanette, conspiring with coworkers, made the revelation a public event. First, Darlene was lured into the Kmart cafeteria. Then, as a dozen employees watched anxiously, Jeanette swept in. Stammering at first, she back-handedly dropped the bombshell. "I said, 'Well, what are you guys staring at—are you waiting for me to introduce you to my little sister?' " Jeanette recalls. "After that, everyone had to leave because they were sobbing so much."

But not Darlene. She was experiencing another emotion: relief. In the previous few weeks, various clues had already led her to conclude that she was working side by side with a sibling. She had always known she had a sister named Jeanette, and her Kmart buddy not only looked like one of her aunts, she laughed like her. The clincher came one day when Jeanette mentioned her birthdate: Sept. 19, 1950. It was exactly the same as that listed for Darlene's sister Jeanette in an aunt's family tree. "There was no doubt in my mind," Darlene says. But she kept silent. Knowing what she did about the family's history, she feared that "if I said something, I might lose my best friend."

For the two half-sisters the tortuous family saga began in 1944 with the marriage of Jeanette's parents, Arnold and Waneta Vanderpool. Over the next several years, the couple divorced, remarried each other and then divorced again. Meanwhile, they had two sons (Billie and Bob), two daughters (Brenda and Jeanette) and some rotten luck: their house burned down.

Faced with financial ruin, the family collapsed altogether. In 1951, Billie, Bob and Brenda were placed in the first of a long string of foster homes. The year-old Jeanette, however, was adopted by a childless Port Huron couple, Jake and Dorothy Tenniswood.

Through the years, after Dorothy divorced Tenniswood and took a second husband, she kept Jeanette's biological family a closely guarded secret. "I don't know what she was afraid of," Jeanette says now. "Maybe it was a feeling that I'd like them more than her."

Meanwhile, Jeanette's biological mother, Waneta, had struggled on. She moved to Brown City, Mich., 40 miles northwest of Port Huron, and in 1954 married William Groat, a factory worker. They had two children, William and Darlene, before the marriage ended and Waneta took Darlene and her brother back to Port Huron to live.

All the while, Waneta was haunted by the family she had lost. Although she occasionally saw her older children, she couldn't penetrate the wall Dorothy had built around Jeanette. One of Darlene's earliest memories is of lying beside her mother in a field at dusk, watching Jeanette, then about 10, play in the distance—and of Waneta breaking down sobbing. Several times Waneta even sent her son Billie to the Tenniswoods' door in failed attempts to get Jeanette to come outside and meet her. Eventually, Dorothy had an attorney draft a letter demanding that Waneta stop disturbing them. "That dotted the it's, crossed the it's and put a period on it," says Darlene. "What are you going to do—say 'I don't care what your wishes are, we're going to disrupt your life'?"

Finally, in 1991, Waneta died, consumed by breast and lung cancer. Two years later, Amy Atherton, the granddaughter she never knew existed, would begin a quest for the family roots. Last summer she moved her search on-line, working at her computer keyboard for hours each night, posting queries and gathering clues—until at last she tracked down Bob Vanderpool, her uncle. Immediately, she called him from Hawaii. "I said, 'Do you recall having a sister named Jeanette?' " says Amy. "And he said, 'Oh, yeah, but I haven't seen her in 40-odd years.' And I said, 'She's my mother.' He flipped."

In recent weeks all the siblings have been reunited, convening at Darlene's house twice to share their stories and memories. One night they gathered around a bonfire in the Meadows' backyard. "It was like something you read about, so calm and peaceful," says Jeanette. "It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I was with my family."

RICHARD JEROME
BRYAN ALEXANDER in Port Huron and STAUEY YOUNG in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Bryan Alexander,
  • Stanley Young.