Are we kin? Internet luck uncovers a lost family link

Carolyn Smith Robinson with her brother, Owen, in a May 1944 photograph.

Six P-47 fighters and a B-25 bomber took off from Howard Field in the Panama Canal Zone in the early morning hours of July 18, 1946, for Talara, Peru, the site of a strategic U.S. airbase during World War II.

Bill Robinson.

Around midday, the seven-plane squadron encountered a winter storm over the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Three P-47s were lost that day; one was piloted by my uncle, 1st Lt. Owen Henry Smith.

Uncle Owen left behind a young bride, Audrey, whom he affectionately called “Irish,” and a 9-month old daughter, Sharon Sue.

Audrey and my mother, Owen’s sister, drifted apart in the years after the accident, and they eventually lost touch with one another.

I came along in 1956 — the quintessential Baby Boomer- – and throughout my life I heard stories about this wonderful brother who mysteriously was lost in a fateful post-war mission of unknown purpose. 

Occasionally, my late mother would mention her niece, Sharon, which fueled a nagging wonderment about a cousin I never had the chance to know.

That changed March 23, 2020. 

The confluence of DNA testing, the Internet, a former newspaper reporter’s instincts and an unfathomable stroke of luck produced a this-can’t-be-true movie-script moment.

It began in 2018, when my mother-in-law gifted me an ancestry exploration kit for Christmas. By the following summer, I had built a modest family tree with some missing limbs.

A helpful online research tool I’ve embraced is Find-A-Grave. Thousands of volunteers have registered gravesites around the world, posting photos and in some instances details about the deceased. 

Sandra Tibbs Blake posted pictures she took at Olivet Presbyterian Church Cemetery near her home in New Kent County, Va., east of Richmond. One headstone was shared by John Redwood Christian Jr. and his spouse, Audrey Mae, who died in 1973. She was just 50.

Online records show Audrey Christian’s maiden name was Sisson, the same as my late uncle’s wife. Had Audrey remarried?

I contacted Ms. Blake through Find-A-Grave’s message board and asked if she knew Audrey M. Christian — and more importantly, did she know if Mrs. Christian had a daughter named Sharon. 

A day later, Ms. Blake responded; she and a Sharon Christian were classmates at Highland Springs (Va.) High School.

Could it be?

Ms. Blake volunteered an email address for her classmate’s husband and noted the couple lives in Florida.

On the evening of March 22, I tapped out an email asking if the gentleman’s spouse might be the daughter of my aunt, Audrey Mae Sisson. 

When I opened my email box the next morning, a reply with the subject line “Are we KIN?” was waiting.

It turned out my initial overture missed the mark, slightly.

The woman who responded was unsure if I was a relative on her mother’s side. Then, she mentioned her late father, Owen Henry Smith, who she noted died on a military mission in 1946 and was never found.

He had a sister named Carolyn, she wrote. Indeed, my mother. 

It was a eureka moment, the likes of which I cannot recall experiencing in a 30-plus-year career as a journalist. 

Needless to say, Sharon and I have quickly become e-pen pals — for the time being kept at bay by Covid-19. 

The pandemic can’t recede fast enough for my brother, Thomas Owen, and me. We have a small family that grew exponentially by connecting with a first cousin, the mother of four adult children who didn’t know we existed. 

The three of us are anxious to climb up and sit together on that branch of the Robinson-Smith family tree. 

The current health care crisis has taught us all that life is short and precious.

Bill Robinson is a former Daily Times reporter who is the University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s Public Relations Director.

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