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    Reunited: Purcellville woman finds birth family after 65 years

    Iris Burkart (middle, wearing light blue)met her sister Elisa (in orange),  her brother Daniel (in yellow)  and nephews and nieces Nov. 11 at Elisa’s home in Mayyaguez, Puerto Rico. Courtesy photo
    The mango tree on what was once the property of Gumersindo Guzman overlooking a valley in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico hadn't bloomed in decades. Guzman's son, Daniel, told Iris Burkart of Purcellville that he didn't know why they hadn't cut it down.

    But it started to show green this year – the first green they'd seen on the tree in a long time. A religious man, Daniel Guzman said it was because the Guzmans had found Burkart that year. They had found their missing sister.

    Burkart found her biological family on Oct. 2, 2014, a day that is ingrained in her memory like her birthday and wedding anniversary.

    Since then, she has been working to forge relationships that are 65 years overdo.

    The Guzmans had been looking for Burkart, who disappeared in 1949 when she was 2 years old.

    Burkart grew up in Manhattan, attending good schools and living as the only child of the Ojeda family.

    When her adopted mother, Ernestina Ojeda, died in 1966, Burkart found a lockbox in the family's apartment's master bedroom closet.

    Inside were documents that Burkart assumed were insurance forms. They turned out to be something very different.

    The documents detailed an adoption of a young girl named Santa Iris Guzman Pagan years before from a family in Puerto Rico. The Guzmans waived custody of the young Iris to Isaias and Ernestina Ojeda, who were natives of Puerto Rico and U.S. citizens.

    Daniel Guzman remembers the last time he saw the 2-year-old Iris under that mango tree as he stood, 8 years old, with his father as he gave her up.

    Her own father had left the house with Iris Guzman and returned without her in July 1949. An alcoholic, he gave no explanation and the secret died with him.

    Burkart suspects the adoption may have been less than legal.

    Not only was she dealing with the heartbreak of losing a mother, but the 18-year-old was experiencing a displacement felt by many adoptees.

    “It's always something that's eating at you,” Burkart said.

    While she lived one life, marrying and having children, she would still wonder about the family she never knew.

    Her family refused to give her answers. So she began to look, every so often, for clues.

    Her interest in genealogy spurred her daughter-in-law to buy her a membership to the genealogy site Ancestry.com in June 2014.

    It wasn't long before she had found two distant cousins.

    Little did she know, Mellisa Montes, Burkart's niece, was using the site as well to find her own biological father.

    Sanchez found Burkart on the site and reached out to her.

    On Oct. 2, Burkart received a message from Montes on Ancestry.com.

    Sanchez's grandparents' names matched those of Burkart's biological parents.

    At the time of the discovery, Burkart's husband was downstairs watching the baseball playoffs.

    “ I thought 'he doesn't know what I'm doing,' so I picked up the phone and I dialed [the number],” said Burkart.

    When Montes answered the phone and Burkart said who she was, Montes began crying and asked Burkart to wait.

    Burkart heard her run to another room and call out to who she later learned was one of Burkart's older sisters.

    “Titi, Titi,” she said. “I think I've found your sister.”

    Ever since, Burkart has been looking through old pictures of people who look so much like her and her daughter, learning about a past she missed and connecting with her new-found family.

    It turns out that the family had been looking for their lost sister for 65 years without a clue as to her whereabouts.

    Five nieces had been named Iris as a memorial to the one the family called “the lost sister” in an effort to not forget and never give up looking.

    On Oct. 14, Burkart met her family for the first time in Sunny Isles, Fla.

    “It was one of the highlights of my life,” she said. “It was one of those nights, you just didn't want it to end.”

    She met her sister, Gladys, who was in a hospital in Orlando on dialysis. Gladys died Dec. 16.

    “Everybody says, it's like she waited for me to come so that she could die in peace,” Burkart said just days before Gladys died.

    Burkart learned about the humble lifestyle her biological family led and compared it to her fortunate upbringing in New York City.

    There was a point in the 1960's when Burkart lived just a few miles from her birth mother, Filomena Guzman, who moved to Brooklyn from Puerto Rico in 1963.

    Filomena Guzman died in 2005. In her last days, when she had developed Alzheimer's disease, Burkart's mother carried around a doll that she believed was her lost daughter.

    “She went everywhere with that doll,” Burkart said. “She bathed it, she clothed it, she changed its diaper. Everything. They said they had to bury her with that doll. As a mother myself of four children, I can't imagine the pain and the heartache that she went through missing her baby all those years.”

    “I know she's alive, and I know she's OK,” Filomena Guzman would tell Montes about Burkart.

    Burkart got to see her mother's grave when she traveled to Puerto Rico in November. To honor her memory, the once lost sister and daughter had the simple plot fitted with a gravestone and urns.

    While in Puerto Rico, she met her last remaining brother, Daniel, who took her to see where the house that her father built once stood by the mango tree on the hill.

    Now she talks to her brothers and sisters every day.

    People who see Burkart tell her she has a glow about her. The successful realtor with Century 21 Redwood Realty in Ashburn says it's because she has so much love in her life, the love of a family she didn't know she had and of her family in Virginia.

    “I just feel now so, so blessed, that there's nothing else I want in life right now,” said Burkart. “I've got it all. A wonderful husband, four beautiful children, five grandchildren, a family that has been looking for me for 65 years who has always loved me, never stopped loving me. I'm the luckiest person in the world. I really am.”

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