Separated sisters meet after decades
MARIETTA – On Aug. 4, 2012, an excited and nervous Carolyn Canfield of Marietta placed a call to Phoenix resident Donna Silvius.
Not recognizing the phone number nor the name the woman left on her voicemail, Silvius didn’t respond at first.
“I thought, ‘I don’t need insurance,'” Silvius, 74, said with a laugh recently.
But it had taken Canfield, 59, more than three decades to find Silvius and she couldn’t stand to wait much longer. She called back an hour later and, again emphasizing her maiden name of Warner, left a more insistent message.
“I’m going to call you until you call me or the police come to my house and tell me not to call you anymore,” Canfield said.
Four minutes later, her phone rang.
“And all of a sudden,” Canfield recalled with tears welling in her eyes, “there’s a voice at the other end of your phone, and it’s your sister.”
Now, barely a day goes by that the women, both daughters of the late Carl William Warner, a native of Parkersburg who later moved to Marietta, aren’t in communication.
“I’m on the phone all the time,” said Canfield, an advertising sales representative at The Marietta Times. “Every morning before I leave to come to work, I send her a message. And by the time I get to work” Silvius has sent one back.
On March 20, they met in person for the first time, at the Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix.
“It just confirmed everything,” Silvius said. “It brought us closer, I think, to be able to see and touch a sister that you’d never seen before, that you didn’t know you had.”
Silvius was born Donna Sue Warner in 1938 in Parkersburg. About a year later, in a time when divorce was not so common, her mother left her father and Donna never saw him again, nor heard much about him.
But Carl Warner did not forget about his daughter. After serving in World War II, he remarried, and in the 1970s enlisted the aid of his second daughter, Carolyn, to track down the older sister she’d never known. They were unsuccessful, but before he died in 1988, he asked her to continue her search.
“He wanted her to know that he loved her,” Canfield said.
The search became a passion for Canfield, albeit a frustrating one.
“I was getting nowhere,” she said. “I had little tidbits that we’d collected over the years but … nothing connected.”
The trail wasn’t easy to follow.
Silvius’ mother, Ruby Delores Phillips, remarried in Elkins, W.Va., and the family eventually moved to Maryland. When Silvius was 21, the family headed west to Arizona. Before they did, Alby Phillips, the man who raised her and who she will always call “Daddy,” told her the name of her biological father.
“It wasn’t a sad story. It was just surprising,” Silvius said. “I knew I was a Warner, but I didn’t pursue it.”
Silvius, who had no knowledge of her father’s life and family after he and her mother separated, lived in Alaska and California before returning to Arizona more than 30 years ago. She married twice, the name changes further covering tracks she didn’t know anyone was trying to follow.
Canfield’s husband, Cliff, bought his wife a subscription to Ancestry.com for her birthday in February 2012. After several months of searching, she found Ruby and Alby Phillips’ marriage license from Elkins.
Having a surname led to her next step – calling every Phillips she could find listed in Elkins. Finally, she made contact with a niece of Alby Phillips. They talked for about a month, but the woman couldn’t recall Donna’s married name.
One day though, she found a photograph, taken more than 20 years earlier and mailed to her by a cousin, one of Donna’s sisters. On the back were the names of everyone pictured.
“Then I Googled her,” Canfield said. “And bam! There she was, her phone number, her address, everything I needed.”
Although she’d been searching for so long, Canfield said she took a day to think it over. Eventually, she decided it might be important for Silvius, too, to have this connection made.
Silvius admits she was skeptical at first. After all, she didn’t know she had another sister to find.
“Part of me believed her, but there was doubt,” Silvius said.
To back up her claim, Canfield sent documents and photos. The latter sealed the deal.
“Then I see her picture and I think, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re related.’ She’s a … smaller version of me,” Silvius said.
Talking on the phone and spending six days together last month only reinforced what genealogical documents and pictures told them.
“She is a very sensitive, intelligent, outspoken woman. And so am I,” Silvius said, before adding with a chuckle, “Well, I am a relatively intelligent woman.”
During Canfield’s visit to Phoenix, the reunited sisters continued their conversations about their lives, details large and small, and sharing photographs.
“We cried, and we held each other,” Canfield said of that first day. “And then we cried, and then we laughed, and then we held each other.”
The cycle was broken when Silvius’ other two sisters, who Canfield said have welcomed her into the family, came to take them to dinner. They ended up eating a lot, Silvius said, as various members of her family came to visit the newest addition.
“We would find ourselves, all the families that were at all those meals, Carolyn and I were just kind of staring at each other,” she said.
Although they were meeting for the first time, they recognized a lot of what they saw.
“She is the spitting image of my father,” Canfield said. “The more you look at her, the more people you see in her.”
Canfield’s husband and son quickly spotted the resemblances during a video chat.
“My husband said, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s two of you,'” she said.
Canfield admitted she was a little nervous, even after all those phone calls, about going to stay with Silvius. What would she do there? What would they talk about?
It wasn’t a problem.
“It’s not like a friendship. It’s not like I have to tiptoe,” Canfield said.
“I don’t need to know her to love her. She’s my sister.”
Silvius said it wouldn’t have taken sharing a father to get her to like Canfield.
“We would be friends,” she said. “We think alike.”
Silvius said she appreciates the opportunity to see pictures of her father and learn more about him.
People have remarked to Silvius how unfortunate it is that the women went so long without knowing each other, but she’s determined to focus on the positive aspects of their reunion.
“It’s one of the biggest blessings of my life,” she said.
And now they’ve forged a bond that distance cannot break.
“I feel, right now, even though we’re, what, about 1,500, 2,000 miles apart, that she’s very close to me,” Silvius said.
Canfield feels the same. When the women met in the airport, both were emotional, especially Canfield. At one point, she was crying and Silvius put an arm around her encouragingly.
“She said, ‘And now I can be the big sister,'” Canfield said. “And she sure is.”