ST. JOHN TWP. — In January, Jody Ruble-Castle signed up for Ancestry.com on a whim.
The 55-year-old — who lives in Tampa, Florida — always wanted to learn more about her family’s history since she had been given up for adoption at birth from a Hammond hospital. Plus, membership costs were at a discounted rate, so she spit in a tube and sent off her DNA.
In a few weeks, she received her “shocking” results.
“I was solely looking for nationality,” said Ruble-Castle, who is of Polish descent. “And then I learned I had a sister.”
Ruble-Castle found herself confused. Her birth mother, Helen Wierzbicki, had led her to believe she was an only child when they spoke on the phone almost 25 years ago. But that was a lie.
Ruble-Castle said she always had a lingering suspicion that she wasn’t alone in the world, which is why she had contacted Wierzbicki, a Whiting native, once her adoptive parents died.
Five years after that phone call, Wierzbicki passed away, taking the truth with her.
“She didn’t want to be found ever, and I think that’s why she was misleading,” she said. “So, I closed the door — chapter ended. It confirmed I didn’t have any sisters or brothers. … But it all came out.”
Only children no more
Fran Whiddon joined Ancestry.com a year and a half ago in hopes of learning more about her ethnic background. The price had dropped, so the 70-year-old thought, “Why not?”
Whiddon, who lives in Cedar Bluff, Alabama, had been adopted into a South Bend family following her at-home birth in Northwest Indiana, causing her to know almost nothing about her true heritage.
Her skin tanned so well, Whiddon thought she might be Greek. But the genealogy site revealed her true origin lay much farther north in Poland, nearly 1,000 miles away from where she guessed. And in January, it would reveal even more than that, just as it did for Ruble-Castle.
Despite being born 18 years apart, Whiddon and Ruble-Castle were full-blooded sisters.
“It’s surreal,” said Whiddon, who always thought she was an only child.
A week later, Jennifer Tomsovic came into the picture.
The 53-year-old who lives in St. John Township recently had joined MyHeritage, another genealogy site after receiving a free subscription via Facebook. It was a last-ditch effort to see if she could find any information about her birth family, particularly her alleged siblings.
Her adoptive parents were told that Tomsovic was the last of eight children, who were all given up by the same woman, Wierzbicki, during a 20-period to Catholic Family Services.
Tomsovic said she always wondered about her siblings and wanted to find them, but she had no success. Eventually, she lost hope that she would ever know them.
“I thought since I was the baby, they couldn’t afford me, they gave me up for adoption, and none of the siblings would be looking. But they all thought they were single siblings,” Tomsovic said. “I tried all these years to open records to search. I went back to the original lawyer who handled the adoption. … I hit a dead wall year after year after year, so you give up. I finally gave up.”
Because Ruble-Castle and Whiddon weren’t members of MyHeritage, Tomsovic didn’t have the opportunity to connect with them directly. Luckily, Ruble-Castle’s daughter had sent her DNA to the site for analysis, creating a match between the two that flagged Tomsovic as her full-fledged aunt.
The long-lost sisters made plans to meet face to face in February, cementing their newfound relationship with matching metal bracelets. The meeting diminished any skepticism Tomsovic had.
“DNA doesn’t lie,” the 53-year-old said.
During this time, the sisters also learned they had a brother, 64-year-old Craig Dubczak, living in Hawaii. His daughter had been signed up, allowing them all to connect.
Four of the eight siblings were still unknown, but that number would become a bit smaller in June.
‘Don’t hang up’
At first, Tami Harris thought she was being scammed.
“One day, I get a phone call that says, ‘Don’t hang up ... I’m your sister,’” Harris recalled. “Yeah, right.”
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But it turned out to be true.
Like her sisters, Harris — a self-proclaimed “coupon queen” — is a bargain shopper. It’s the only reason she signed up for Ancestry.com a month ago since the price was cut in half.
All she expected to learn is whether her tan skin, bright blue eyes and light blonde hair were the result of Greek or Italian heritage. She didn’t even have her results back when Ruble-Castle called her and dropped the sibling bombshell.
“I’ve been 70 and an only child, then all of the sudden, bingo,” Harris said. “I have people to love me, and I have a family who are flesh and blood. It’s new learning how to be a sibling.”
Another sister, Sandra, was discovered just before Harris. But she died at 32 years old. Her daughter signed up for Ancestry.com, allowing the family to learn about their fifth sister who would’ve been 60.
All of the siblings were the product of a love affair between Wierzbicki and Joseph Burba, who died 26 years ago. The two never married and Wierzbicki kept her pregnancy a secret.
They learned of their father’s identity after speaking with local family members. A granddaughter of his would later take a DNA test, confirming Burba’s parentage.
Out of 500 alleles, only 50 were different for the siblings, Harris said. The resemblance is striking.
“Now, we look like somebody, and before, we never did,” Harris said. “It’s like we’re cloned or something.”
“You can tell blood,” Tomsovic added. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get used to it.”
Tomsovic, whose adoptive parents are the only ones still alive, said they were overjoyed to learn the siblings had found one another. Plus, it meant they had even more children to love.
A Region reunion
Whiddon and Ruble-Castle planned to visit Tomsovic’s home in St. John Township near the end of July. Harris — “the new kid on the block” — would decide to join them once she came into the picture, receiving her own matching silver bracelet when she arrived.
Fortunately, the week they chose was Whiting’s Pierogi Festival, which allowed them to don babushkas and aprons in celebration of their Polish ancestry. Now, each has a pierogi charm on her bracelet.
“On a bad day, I’m turning this into a calzone,” Tomsovic said with a laugh, her sisters joining in.
During their week together in the Region, the sisters couldn’t help wondering all of the times they might have met or been in the same place and never knew it.
“There’s so many coincidences, we still can’t get over it,” Ruble-Castle said. “It’s so surreal that this is even happening. … Our lives will never be the same, in a good way.”
They’ve also found themselves trying to make up for lost time by doing the things that sisters do — facials, pedicures, simultaneous crying, makeovers and hogging the bathroom — in hopes of playing “catch-up.”
But Ruble-Castle said they recognize there are things they will never be able to make up for. Although, it won’t stop them from trying.
‘Life’s too short’
Despite being forced to live the majority of their lives apart, the sisters foster zero resentment for their birth mother and her decision. Instead, they just want to soak up as much time together as possible.
“We just want to hold each other and never let go,” Ruble-Castle said. “It’s just been the biggest blessing.”
“Life’s too short,” Harris added. “There’s a reason all of this happened the way it did.”
Harris said they also encourage any person — adopted or not — to take a DNA test, especially since they still don’t know the identity of two of their siblings, who they speculate are male “because guys just don’t do this.”
Although, Tomsovic said their brother Craig would prefer more sisters.
“We check our Ancestry accounts every day to see if we find another one,” Ruble-Castle said. “If there’s others of us out there, we’d really like to find them.”
“It would complete us,” Harris added.