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‘50 years of catching up to do’ for reunited siblings

Submitted photo / Forum News Service From left, Deidre Handtmann, John Blankendaal, Sandy Watkins, Buddine Bullinger and John Maixner line up by age, youngest to oldest, at their sibling reunion in Bismarck earlier this month. It was the first time the five, who were adopted into different homes when they were younger, were all together.

DICKINSON, N.D. — Over the years, John Maixner started to recognize Buddine Bullinger as an employee of the Dickinson Walmart. That was the only connection the pair had — or so they thought.

Now when he sees Bullinger, he’ll know she is his biological sister, separated five decades ago by adoption.

They’re two of five siblings, ranging in age from late 40s to 50s, who reunited this month in Bismarck after living for years without knowing they had birth siblings — let alone four.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Maixner said. “I’d seen Buddine up at Walmart for years and I had no clue.”

At a reunion at youngest sibling Deidre Handtmann’s Bismarck home last weekend, the siblings spent time talking, eating — and noticing what they share.

“Sandy laughs like me, she looks like me, she walks like me,” Handtmann said of Sandy Watkins, a sister living in California.

“All of us girls just giggle the same,” Handtmann said.

“When I was a little girl … I always wanted to look like somebody.”

Handtmann found her birth mother in 1993, and the two shared a strong relationship until her mother’s death this January.

An obituary for the birth mother said reuniting with Handtmann was the highlight of her life.

A friend of Bullinger saw the obituary, and recognized the woman’s name as Bullinger’s birth mother and told her.

Bullinger said she never pursued finding her birth mother because she had a happy life with her adopted family, but when she saw mention of Handtmann, she wanted to get in contact with a sister she never knew about.

“I was like, ‘This is not right,’ ” Handtmann said, “‘This can’t be true.’”

The two sisters determined with swab DNA samples that they were in fact full siblings, and then wanted to find if there were more.

“We were kinda wondering if there were more,” Bullinger said. “We got ahold of the adoption agency and we slowly found one by one, which was just absolutely shocking and so wonderful.”

Further DNA tests showed all five were full siblings.

Because of state laws, the sisters had to contact their siblings through their adoption agency, Catholic Charities North Dakota, but all the other siblings said they wanted to make contact.

The organization keeps all closed adoption files, so it was able to dig up the records of the five siblings, said Carly Gaddie, Catholic Charities North Dakota’s director of pregnancy, parenting and adoption services.

“They found every stinkin’ one of them,” Handtmann said.

Gaddie said Catholic Charities isn’t always able to find all siblings of a family.

“We’re not always this lucky to be able to reunite everyone,” she said.

With more and more people ditching home phone lines for cellphones, and women who marry and change their names, it can be hard to track down long-lost relatives, Gaddie said.

The siblings, whose homes and new families stretch across the country — aside from Watkins in California, brother John Blankendaal is in Tennessee — now talk regularly.

“I was never a phone person, and now I’m always on the phone with my siblings,” Bullinger said.

There’s a lot left to wonder about for the siblings, including what it would have been like had they grown up together.

They don’t know why they were given up for adoption or why their mother never told Handtmann that there were four more children in the family.

Gaddie said adoption agencies in the 1950s and ’60s didn’t place as much of an emphasis on keeping siblings together as they do now.

But they’re not dwelling on that right now.

“We have 50 years of catching up to do,” Handtmann said.