By Ariel Wittenberg, The Standard-Times
FAIRHAVEN, Mass. — Helen Fisher, 80, doesn’t remember the last time she saw her sister Mary Ann.
But one day in 1933, 12-year old Mary Ann carried then-infant Fisher into the Salvation Army in Mount Carmel, Penn. and left her there.
It was the height of the Great Depression, and after a period of sleeping in church pews to keep warm, the girls’ parents realized they could no longer care for their 10 children.
Mary Ann and eight other siblings were put into orphanages. Fisher, too young to go with them, was left at the Salvation Army instead.
From there, she was adopted into a family where she was the only child. She didn’t see Mary Ann or the other siblings again, never knowing they existed.
But earlier this month, Fisher (her married name) met Mary Ann’s daughter, Jean Carl, for the first time. She also met another niece, Barbara Garro.
Standing in the community room of McGann Terrace in Fairhaven, Carl held an iPad displaying a picture of Mary Ann up to Fisher’s face.
They could have been twins.
“I look like my sister!” Fisher said with glee.
Eighty years in the making, Fisher’s reunion with Carl and Garro almost didn’t happen.
Mary Ann, who died in 2008, always wondered what happened to Fisher, and would tell Carl stories about the baby Aunt Helen who had been lost.
“We always knew she was out there,” Carl said.
Mary Ann’s daughter Carl, and a few other cousins, even tried to find Fisher a couple of times in the 1990s and early 2000s, “when the Internet wasn’t what it is now,” Carl said. They left postings on message boards, but to no avail.
“We were always praying, I hope Aunt Helen has a good day today,” Garro said. “But we never knew.”
Without any real information, the family made a point of being kind to the Salvation Army, which they knew had taken in the baby.
“But there was always the question of where is our lost Aunt Helen,” Carl said.
Meanwhile, Fisher said Monday, “I never knew I was lost.”
Growing up, she knew she was adopted after being left at the Salvation Army by a sister but was never curious about her birth family, she said.
“I was always happy where I was,” she said.
She became an officer in the Salvation Army, married her high school sweetheart, Jesse, and had four children, never really wondering about her birth family.
But this year Fisher’s friend from church, Marge Osman, took it upon herself to find Fisher’s birth family.
“I would tell her, ‘Marge, knock it off, don’t worry about all that,'” Fisher said. “But what do you know, she found them.”
Osman discovered a posting one of the cousins had left describing an infant being carried into the Salvation Army by her sister in 1933.
Fisher called the poster, another one of Carl’s cousins.
“I said ask for her birth date,” Carl said.
It matched the one Mary Ann had written in the family Bible years before.
In the two months since the discovery, Fisher has been in constant touch with her newfound nieces, Garro and Carl.
The nieces sent Fisher charts explaining her genealogy, complete with photos and life histories of each of her siblings.
They also sent Fisher her mother’s Bible.
“They wanted me to have something from my mother I could hold in my hands,” she said.
All of Fisher’s siblings are dead, including Mary Ann, but in getting to know the nieces, Fisher said she grew to love the whole family.
“I’m really the last of the Mohicans,” she said. “But I went from being an only child to one of 10. It’s very overwhelming.”
As they met for the first time, the three women hugged and kissed like old friends. They exchanged gifts and rifled through folders of old photographs, laughing and telling jokes the whole time.
In March, Fisher and her husband will go to Carl’s home in Pennsylvania to meet even more cousins.
“I feel like we’ve known her forever now,” Garro said. “All we talk about now is Aunt Helen. We’re so excited she found us.”