RALEIGH — In her North Raleigh apartment, Deva Buttram opened a wooden cigar box and asked if I could help find her sister – a ghost hidden somewhere in the paperwork.
She showed me a handful of government records, letters turned yellow with age, and black-and-white photographs showing blurry faces dating to World War II. One of these artifacts, she hoped, might turn up the older sibling she never met, the little girl lost to miles and decades.
Her name was Nancy. She’d been the baby doll of the family, Deva the ugly duckling. In 1944, their mother abandoned them both at a Montana boarding house, too poor to take them any further. Deva was just a baby at the time, but she grew up knowing her mother came back for Nancy – not for her.
Seven decades later, Deva called me looking for an end to the story and maybe some clues to its vast 70-year middle. She wanted answers the cigar box could not hold.
“Before we’re both dead,” said Deva, 71.
I met Deva last Monday, when she handed me the scant evidence of her early life.
There’s a birth certificate from Kenmare, N.D., a far-flung town near the Canadian border, from a past so distant that Deva didn’t even have the same name when she lived there. At the time, she was Patricia Ann Gobin, daughter to James and Lorraine Gobin.
Deva never met James Gobin that she knows of. He was off fighting in the war, leaving his teenage wife with a pair of young girls.
Deva’s mother is a bigger mystery. For whatever reason, she packed both girls into the car one day in 1944 and drove west, bound for a new life in Spokane, Wash.
The family never made it. Lorraine got the girls as far as Montana, where she dropped them at the White House Apartments in Kalispell. Leaving children to strangers or in homes for orphans was far more common in those days.
So the Gobin girls became the temporary ward of Artybell Stotts, owner of the boarding house. By all accounts, Artybell was a pistol. Deva showed me the letter Artybell wrote to her daughter in 1944, describing the pair of waifs she’d discovered.
“I have a little baby here 8 months old,” wrote Artybell in a typewritten note rife with errors. “She is the homliest little brat that I ever saw … she is fat and has a round face – has infitago on her face also – not bad – blue eyes … smart as a whip – very active – but is wet all the time.”
Nancy got a more glowing review.
“There is a sister … a beautiful child by the name of Nancy,” Artybell wrote. “She is now just two years old and her Dad is overseas fighting our battles.”
But Artybell didn’t think much of their mother, it seems.
“Her mother has beautiful hair and is very very attractive,” wrote Artybell, “who went beraft ... for no reason at all but that she culd not live alone in a little cabin without a man to love her and perhaps sleep with her as her husband is in the army so that leaves little Pat all alone in this sad cold world.”
The world didn’t stay cold very long.
Artybell persuaded her daughter Mercedes to adopt the fat, bratty girl with a skin condition, and they lived together in Kalispell. Pat’s name changed to Deva, and she grew out of her ugly duckling phase, marrying and moving to New Jersey, then to North Carolina.
She never heard from Nancy or her mother. Forget them, her family said.
“She probably doesn’t know I exist,” said Deva.
I didn’t do anything extraordinary with the papers in Deva’s box. I just ran everybody’s name through Nexis, then again through ancestry.com.
I found a few missing pieces:
Lorraine and James Gobin had another child after the war, but the marriage didn’t last.
Lorraine remarried a man named Vernie and moved to Montana, where she died in 1978.
I found a brother named Rick and a half-brother named Curtiss, both dead.
Attempts to find Nancy
But I couldn’t find Nancy Gobin anywhere.
I called a woman by that name in Portage, Ind. Not her.
I called another woman by that name in Spokane Valley, Wash. Not her.
So I piled up everything I’d found and handed it to Deva with apologies. Nancy would remain a ghost.
Then Deva noticed a name I’d missed near the bottom of her half-brother’s obituary: Nancy Hansen of Paulden, Ariz. I ran her name through Nexis and saw she’d been born in 1942.
So I dialed the number, hopeful.
By now, I’d run the names James and Lorraine Gobin past a dozen people, asked a dozen strangers if they’d ever been to Kalispell. They had all answered like I was a stalker or a salesman. But this woman said yes.
“That’s my mother,” she said.
“This will sound crazy,” I told her. “But I think I found your sister here in Raleigh.”
Her voice caught. This was something she’d been waiting for. The hair on my neck stood up as Nancy Gobin told her story.
“I didn’t find out until my mother died,” she said. “I saw my grandmother’s photo album. That’s when I knew I had a sister. I spoke to some of my relatives and was upset that they never told me about her. They said, ‘Let it be.’ ”
Nancy had a single memory of Deva. She was a baby in a basket on a table, and her mother warned, “Now, don’t wake her. Because she’s asleep.” But as time passed, Nancy dismissed the memory as fiction.
‘Mom did love her’
Lorraine had a rough life, including several mental breakdowns, Nancy explained. She died at 53 in a car crash with a drunk driver. But she never forgot the child she left in Kalispell.
“I can tell you right now,” Nancy said, “Mom did love her. She would tell me, ‘You have no idea what I gave up in my life.’ At the time, I didn’t connect the dots.”
I told Nancy I felt as though I knew her. I had a newspaper clipping from 1942 on my desk, announcing her birth. I had a picture of her mother’s grave. I’d spent a week of my life elbow-deep in her family tree.
Then I gave her Deva’s number and said goodbye.
On Thursday afternoon, Nancy called her sister for the first time. The phone rang in Deva’s apartment, and she went to it feeling a little bit like the little girl from Montana, eager for news from home.
Deva picked up the phone and bridged a lifetime with a single word:
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