Sorting Out Family Ties

updated 08/21/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/21/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

NOT SINCE THE DAYS OF THE PONY EXPRESS has news traveled so slowly. In fact, it took Philadelphia postal worker James Austin three decades to learn his long-lost sister's whereabouts—and it turned out she had been working next to him for two years.

"I said, 'Is it really you?' " recalls Austin. "She said, 'Yeah, it's me.' " Austin, 33, and Yvette "Cookie" Richardson, 34, met each other at the city's main post office in 1993. Richardson trained Austin in the canceling department, where they worked side by side, but they rarely spoke about their lives. "She was a coworker," he says with a shrug. Says Richardson: "I wasn't going to get personal."

But on June 14, shop steward and office busybody Barrie Bowen hit on the truth. Chatting with Austin about the mother he had never known, Bowen probed and asked her name. When Austin said, "Veronica Potter," Bowen replied, "That's Cookie's mom's name."

"Our Cookie?" Austin asked.

After checking the background details with Richardson, Bowen brought the two face-to-face with the facts. "It was an indescribable feeling," says Richardson, who hugged her brother for several minutes. "The world went away for a second."

Their mother was also elated by the news. She and James Austin Sr., who had never married, separated when the children were small. Austin (now dead) took his son to live with his grandparents in North Philadelphia, while Potter and her daughter, who never knew her father, remained in South Philly. Potter refuses to talk about the details. She's "a really private person," says Richardson. And 30 years ago, illegitimacy "was considered shameful."

A week after the discovery, Austin finally saw his mother again. She and Richardson joined him at his home with his wife, Renee, 31, and his sons, James, 2, and Jared, 4 months. Says Renee: "James's mother was ecstatic about the children." Richardson and Austin have found much in common. Both are knock-kneed, color-blind and like mystery movies. "All your life you say you have a brother somewhere," says Richardson. "Then one day he's less than 100 feet from you." The other thing she's discovered: " I really like having family."

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