Toni Rosenberg nervously scanned the passengers deplaning and flooding the gate at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport from a late Tuesday afternoon flight.
When a spirited 87-year-old woman with short Irish-red hair rolled toward Rosenberg in a wheelchair, Rosenberg lunged toward her and cradled her in a bundle of warmth and love.
At the ripe age of 72, Rosenberg was hugging her half-sister for the first time.
“You got hair like mommy,” Florence Serino, who flew in from California, said to her. “Oh my God.”
The words brought a swell of tears to Rosenberg’s eyes.
Adopted as a newborn on Jan. 1, 1945, with hardly any paperwork to recount, Rosenberg learned as a young adult that she had a family — and a mysterious history and sense of identity as she puts it — that she’d never met.
Even after Rosenberg, who lives in Boca Raton, learned that her adoptive parents supposedly paid $10,000 to adopt her in an undocumented and illegal exchange, she never gave up looking for her biological family.
Little did she know that some 2,500 miles away, Serino never gave up either.
“Wait,” Rosenberg abruptly said to Serino while they waited for a tote loaded with family photos to roll toward them at baggage claim. “Do we have the same eyes?”
The pair giggled like teenage sisters, with Rosenberg’s family and closest friends watching, occasionally tearing, and snapping photos.
Rosenberg found out as an 18-year-old that she had been adopted after her cousin, Terri Converse, overheard a private conversation between their mothers.
She’d always suspected that was the case. Rosenberg, raised by Jewish parents in New York, had blonde hair and bright blue eyes unlike her parents. And her adoptive mother, Betty Wiener, initially wouldn’t give her a copy of her birth certificate, even when she’d hoped to get a driver’s license.
“I always knew I was different,” Rosenberg said.
In 2002, a year before Rosenberg’s father, Rosenberg’s father, Jack Wiener, had died, he told Rosenberg that he’d given $10,000 to an attorney in exchange for a closed adoption.
Rosenberg calls herself a “black market baby,” a term that refers to adoptions that do not conform to state and federal laws. They often involve payment of large sums of money.
Rosenberg shortly after reached out to a New Jersey-based researcher, Delores Macchione, 63, who also was adopted and found her biological family and offered others a hand in the same pursuit.
Macchione, who has helped some 15 adopted persons discover information about their families, used phone calls, the Internet and Rosenberg’s lengthy, but heavily-redacted birth certificate to track down Rosenberg’s birth name — Eileen Gallon.
“It was a closed adoption,” Macchione said in a phone call from her New Jersey home. “No trace, no nothing. It was a hard thing to talk about at that time.”
In most cases after Macchione finds estranged family members, she said, they refuse to make contact.
“There are a lot of people who don’t want to be bothered,” she said. “That’s why I’m so glad for Toni.”
Rosenberg eventually did a DNA test and got a hit on Ancestry.com; Serino, too, had used the website.
“I’ve prayed since I was a girl that I would find my mother’s children,” Serino said Tuesday.
Serino’s mother, Ilene Gallagher, had an extramarital affair with Rosenberg’s biological father, James Bianco, when Serino was 15, Serino said. The 87-year-old suspects Gallagher had and sold two more children after Rosenberg, based on family accounts.
Serino — who was raised by her father with one brother, both of whom have died — knew right away when the researcher Macchione contacted her six months ago and sent a photo of Rosenberg that she had found her long-lost sister.
“The resemblance between her and my mother,” Serino said, “it was obvious.”
For a long time, Rosenberg worried that she’d never learn about her biological family.
“I was looking for a sense of identity … ” she said. “I’d almost given up hope.”
But as she casually chatted and laughed with her sister Tuesday, complimenting each other’s earrings and sharing stories about their children, grandchildren and, in Serino’s case, great-grandchildren, the nerves had subsided and Rosenberg had slipped into a state of comfort.
By the time they both left the airport, Rosenberg was introducing Serino as “her real sister” in a sing-song voice.
“I’m just happy,” said Rosenberg, who plans to spend the week with Serino at her Boca Raton home. “To know that there was someone out there who wanted to find me, I’m lucky.”