At age 75, Kearns man finds sister in Michigan
Adoption » It is unclear why the Depression-era family gave up its oldest girl.
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Like many children, Arnold Nikolaisen was not happy to learn he wasn't going to remain an only child.

However, the shock for him was worse than most -- he found out at 75.

Nikolaisen was raised as an only child, never knowing he had an older sister adopted away before he was born.

It was quite a shock to get a call from Traudy Schwenk, who claimed to be his sister. Nikolaisen refused to believe the evidence until a DNA test proved she was telling the truth.

Now the Kearns man is embracing the sister he never knew he had, including paying a visit to her Hesperia, Mich., home. Nikolaisen took his wife, two children and granddaughter to meet Schwenk, and it became immediately clear she was a missing piece of the family.

"It was like my mother-in-law all over again," said Gayle Nikolaisen. Schwenk shared her mother's voice and mannerisms, and even the twinkle in her eyes when laughing.

The family brought several albums full of photographs and a genealogy determined back to the 14th century.

For Schwenk, the discovery provided some closure to the mystery of who she is. Schwenk learned about the adoption when she was 30, while planning a family trip to Germany.

Schwenk needed a copy of her birth certificate to obtain a passport, and her mother wrote to ask for one. Schwenk found the certificate and confronted her mother, who had never planned to tell her of the adoption.

Schwenk found a copy of her adoption papers when cleaning out the house after her mother's death. She hoped to learn more about her birth family, but in the days before Google, finding them was not easy.

She was finally able to track down the family using a public records search at the local library, which lead her to Nikolaisen.

"Even now, I can hardly grasp what's happened," Schwenk said.

For the Nikolaisen family, the discovery has raised more questions than it has answered. Why did the Nikolaisens give their daughter up for adoption, and why did they never tell anyone?

Jennifer Nikolaisen, Arnold's granddaughter, is happy to have a new great aunt, but cannot imagine the stress on her great-grandmother from keeping such a secret. She is sad her great-grandmother never felt she could tell anyone, especially after adoption became more socially accepted in recent years.

Though both Arnold Nikolaisen and Schwenk agree it is difficult not to have their parents in the picture, both believe they know why the couple gave up their first child. It was 1933, the depths of the Great Depression, and most people struggled to feed themselves.

Schwenk believes her parents gave her up thinking she would live a better life.

Schwenk and Nikolaisen hope to solve some of the mystery by getting the original adoption papers, which are currently sealed by a court in Cook County, Ill. Schwenk has retained an attorney in hopes of getting the records and learning more about her birth parents. She holds out hope that her birth mother wrote a letter or some other evidence suggesting why the family was divided.

Since the reunion, the Nikolaisens have stayed in close contact with their long-lost relative. Gayle Nikolaisen talks to her sister-in-law several times a week, and the family hopes to visit again next summer.

Schwenk's initial anger at the situation has cooled. She is not upset she was adopted, but rather that it remained a secret for so many years.

"If you have a kid, tell them, 'We loved you, so we adopted you,' " Schwenk said.

She hopes other families can be open about adoption and allow their children insight into who they are.

Schwenk is making progress.

For her 76th birthday, the Nikolaisens sent her a framed photo of her birth mother and father.

kdrake@sltrib.com