Filling the empty spaces

Published 7:47 pm Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dona Burke has known from an early age that she was adopted and that she came from Germany.

Her adoptive parents, Birdie and Edward Stover, were stationed in Germany with the U.S. military at that time.

The story she was told by her parents was that their maid was friends with a lady called Kitty, who was expecting a baby, probably fathered by an American GI, who had deserted her upon learning she was pregnant. Thus, she was willing to give the child up for adoption at birth.

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It was a very open adoption.

Her parents allowed the biological mother to visit and regularly see little Dona until she was age 2. At that point, the Stovers were reassigned to the states to live and lost contact with Kitty.

Dona says that although she loved her adoptive parents and had a good life, she always felt an empty space in her heart. She wondered about her natural mother—if she were OK and happy.

Dona grew up near Alma, Ga., but has been a resident of Donalsonville for 25 years or more. She and her husband, Bill Burke, are the parents of two children. Daughter Lauren is married and living in Chattanooga, and Kenneth, age 16, is a student at Grace Christian Academy. Dona is employed as a bookkeeper in the family firm of Burke, Worsham and Harrell, LLC.

“I have always wondered about my mother,” said Dona. “I once registered with an international agency and almost contacted a search angel to try to locate her, but I had heard so many horror stories that I chickened out.”

Luckily, Dona was not the only one wondering. Back in Germany, Kitty also felt that empty space.

Kitty has a 43-year-old daughter, Angela, nicknamed Geli, who told her mother that she would find Dona as a special Mother’s Day gift. As it turns out it only took three days to find her with the help of a search angel named Susan, who is a friend of Geli’s.

Dona’s parents are now deceased, but she has a brother named Edward Lee Stover Jr., retired from the U.S. Air Force and living in Pensacola. Search angel Susan in Germany contacted another search angel in Tallahassee, who located the brother with the same name as the adoptive father.

The first break

On May 14, 2009, Dona and Bill had been out to dinner. Upon their return they found a message on the answering machine from her brother telling them he had received a call inquiring about her.

At first the Burkes were leery, wondering if it was all a hoax, but as they checked it out with Dona’s brother he thought it was a legitimate call. He told Dona the search angel had information she would not and could not have otherwise known.

Thus began a series of phone calls and e-mail messages, all of which had to be translated by search angel Susan, as neither Kitty nor Geli spoke English, and Dona did not speak German.

What Dona began to learn about her mother was that she is now a 74-year-old widow living in East Germany. She also has some health issues.

Although she had somehow escaped from East Germany and was living in West Germany when Dona was born, she later returned to East Germany on a visa when her own mother became ill, taking the infant Geli with her. When the visa ran out she was told if she left East Germany she would have to leave Geli behind, so she stayed. She married a farmer there and has remained a resident for 42 years.

Dona’s husband, Bill told her he believed they needed to go to Germany and meet the family if they were ever going to. But they wondered how to overcome the language barrier. They found that Susan, the search angel, lived a distance from Kitty and could not get off work to come help.

As it happens, Bill has a cousin, Don, who had spent time in Germany and is fluent in the language. He volunteered to go with them and act as interpreter.

The meeting

On Oct. 10, 2009, Bill, Dona and their son, Kenneth, accompanied by cousin Don, landed in Frankfort, Germany, then drove to the very small village of Kohrens-Sahlis, located 30 to 40 miles south of Leipzig.

They stayed in a youth hostel for one week, getting acquainted with the family and touring the area.

When asked how it was to get that first sight of her mother, tears came to Dona’s eyes as she remembered that first meeting. She said she was scared at first. She wondered if they would like her and how would they communicate without speaking the same language.

They found her mother living in a small apartment, next to one occupied by Geli and her family. The Burkes had been delayed in travel and Kitty and Geli were anxiously waiting and looking for them. When they spied them drive up, Geli came running out and hugged Dona.

Dona said, “We were all hugging and crying.”

“The more we get to know each other, it is amazing how much alike we are,” exclaims Dona. She said her husband noticed she and Kitty have the same mannerisms, but beyond that they both love the same detective shows on TV, they both love to read the same kind of books, work puzzles and enjoy dancing. A cousin commented she and her mother, Kitty, had “same face.”

Dona learned Kitty has had a hard life and endured many hardships, including a time spent in jail as a political prisoner after she returned to East Germany. It seems her own brother had turned her in to the police for escaping.

Dona is assured by Geli and the search angel that Kitty is much happier now that she has found Dona.

The two continue to stay in touch by phone. Dona calls her mother once a week. She acknowledges the conversations are short, as each is slowly learning to speak the other’s language. And the e-mails continue with Geli.

Dona is trying to teach herself the German language and would like to find someone here with whom she could practice speaking.

The Burkes found they loved the beauty of the German countryside, the charm of the flower-filled gardens and architecture of the quaint villages. They plan to make another trip, probably in 2011.

“Even though it was only October, it was already cold there. Next time we will go when it is warmer,” adds Dona.