For 53 years, Sue Hall carried a secret—and the pain that went with it—after her sister gave birth to twin daughters, then gave them up for adoption.

Over the decades, the two women, who had moved from the West Coast to Virginia, wondered what the girls were doing on holidays or how they celebrated their birthday in February. For 20 or 30 years after the twins were born, Sue and her sister, Janny, mentioned how they might go about finding them.

But then, they thought the girls might not want to be found, and the women got on with their lives.

Sue and her husband, Jerry, settled in Stafford County, where she was a nurse at Mary Washington Hospital and he worked at the Navy base in Dahlgren. Janny met a man and fell in love, got married and had two children with him. They lived in Virginia Beach.

Sue and Janny stayed close and watched their children grow up together. As careers gave way to retirement, Sue was in her 60s when she decided to tell her daughter, Tracey, about the twins, just in case she were to leave this world suddenly.

That’s just what happened, not to Sue, but to her sister.

Janny took ill in July 2017 with what looked like pleurisy—inflammation of the lungs—then she developed sepsis and was dead in a matter of days.

After everything they’d been through, Sue was devastated by the loss of her sister. It’s still a struggle, she said, and Sue can’t talk about her sister’s death without breaking into tears.

But as so often happens, life gives as it takes away.

WHAT TO DO?

Sue says that young people today can’t imagine what life was like in 1966 for an unmarried woman who got pregnant. Janny was still living at home with her mother; their father had died when the girls were young.

Sue and her husband had two of their three children at that point and offered to raise Janny’s children with them. In the midst of trying to figure out what to do, tragedy struck.

Sue and Janny’s mother died suddenly—with symptoms eerily similar to what would kill Janny at age 72. As Sue and Janny, then 26 and 19, coped with their mother’s loss, there seemed no choice but adoption.

Janny made arrangements with Catholic Charities, insisting that her babies be raised together in a Catholic home.

After the girls were born, Janny “was so happy they let her hold them,” Sue said. “She wasn’t sure they would.”

‘MOM, IT’S THEM’

Fast-forward half a century to Christmas 2018, when one of the most popular holiday gifts was a DNA kit that offers information, not just about a person’s heritage, but also their family connections.

Sue’s Seattle cousin, Buzz Larson, called on Feb. 5, to ask when Janny’s twins were born. (Family on the West Coast knew about the births.) He’d gotten a match from someone born in 1966, and the ancestry site said it was a second or third cousin.

Sue and her husband were going to a Great Lives lecture at the University of Mary Washington, and Sue couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

“I could not wrap my mind around it,” she said.

After the lecture, she got on the phone with her daughter, Tracey, who also had posted her DNA on four databases and had made the same discovery.

“Mom, it’s them,” Tracey said.

Tracey got the name of the twins—Rachelle Gray and Kristelle Harrington—and checked them out on Facebook. She breathlessly told her mother that Rachelle lives in Virginia Beach, the same place as Sue’s other nieces, Lisa Vann and Shannon Nicoll.

“Oh, my God, how can this be?” Sue responded.

Then, she kicked into overdrive.

She didn’t want her nieces to hear the news that they had older twin sisters from anyone but her. The same night Buzz called her, Sue arranged to meet her two younger nieces for dinner in Virginia Beach the next night. Her treat.

By the time she was on the road the next day, Tracey already had reached out to Rachelle and said she was really easy to talk with.

Sue called Rachelle when she neared Richmond and told her she was on her way to Virginia Beach, where she would share the news with Lisa and Shannon. Sue also told Rachelle the restaurant where the group was meeting—and learned later Rachelle had staked out the parking lot.

“That’s exactly what Shannon and Lisa would have done,” Sue said.

‘THEY LOOK JUST LIKE US’

Sue looked so pale at dinner that Lisa worried “she was gonna tell us she had cancer or something.”

Shannon tried to lighten the mood by saying, “What are you gonna do, tell us we have a brother or sister out there looking for us?”

Sue swallowed and said, as a matter of fact, you do. Twin sisters.

She recounted the tale of teen pregnancy, her own mother’s sudden death and that the girls had two older half-sisters who shared their DNA.

Shannon’s teen children sat at the table and said the discovery was the coolest thing they’d ever heard. Lisa cried, first because her mother hadn’t told them, then at the realization of what she must have gone through.

When Lisa checked out the twins on Facebook, it was her time to turn pale.

“They look just like us,” Lisa said, then she discovered that she and Shannon had lots of mutual friends with Rachelle.

When the other twin, Kristelle, flew from Washington state to meet the family, she found the strong family genes extended, not only to her newfound sisters, but also to her newly discovered cousin, Tracey, who lives in North Carolina.

Kristelle and Tracey glanced at each other and said it was like looking in a mirror.

‘WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?’

The story about the two sets of sisters meeting—and all their uncanny connections—has gone nationwide. Michael Strahan interviewed them on “Good Morning America” and noted how much the four sisters looked and laughed alike and how they finished each other’s sentences.

Stories in Virginia Beach newspapers and on CNN point out that Shannon and Rachelle met at a Kenny Chesney concert in 2010, long before they were formally introduced as sisters. Mutual friends wanted them to meet because they looked so much alike.

“I didn’t think that we could really be sisters,” Rachelle thought at the time. “I mean, I was born and adopted in Seattle, clear across the country. What were the chances I’d have siblings in Virginia Beach?”

The quartet of sisters learned about other past connections.

Rachelle and Shannon were teachers in the same Virginia Beach school, though not at the same time.

And, Lisa and Shannon had a close friend, Julie, who grew up across the street from them. She became friends with Rachelle at school and flew to Washington for the wedding of her twin, Kristelle.

Julie posted photos online of Kristelle in her bridal gown, and back home, Lisa and Shannon liked the photos on Facebook, commenting on how beautiful the bride looked.

They had no idea they were talking about their sister.

‘LIKE A MIRACLE’

Kristelle sums up the whole experience with one simple acknowledgement: “We have been blessed.”

She said she and Rachelle had a great childhood with loving parents and two younger brothers. Like most adopted children, the twins wondered about their medical history and birth parents, and who each favored. But Kristelle said she didn’t feel a strong desire to search them out.

All agreed that divine intervention brought them together.

Rachelle told her newfound relatives that “she sometimes wondered how the heck she ended up in Virginia Beach of all places, and that she always had the feeling she was supposed to be there for a reason,” recalled Tracey, Sue’s daughter.

For those who grew up with Janny, like Sue, or were raised by her, like Lisa and Shannon, there’s comfort in the new family connections with Rachelle and Kristelle.

“This is like a miracle,” Sue said. “Janny would think this is fantastic, and all four of [her daughters] would say she orchestrated this, and it was meant to be this way.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

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