SUMMERFIELD — Christina Larson retired this month after a nearly four-decade career in restaurant management.
She has better things to do with her time: gardening, golfing and catching up with the family she didn’t know she had until just a few months ago.
Larson, who lives in Summerfield, was adopted at birth. And like many adopted children, she was curious about her biological family.
With the help of a genetics testing company, Larson, 55, found her half sister, and they first met in September.
“I was afraid that I would be really emotional and really overcome, but I wasn’t,” Larson said recently. “I was at total peace with it at that point because I just knew that only good things were ahead.”
Larson, who was born in 1961 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., always knew she was adopted. Her parents told her she was extra special because they had to work so hard to get her.
She described her adoptive family as middle class. At one point in her childhood, they moved from Fort Lauderdale to Chicago to be closer to family but, after a few years, returned to Florida. She didn’t move to North Carolina until the 1990s, for a job here.
Larson said that while growing up she lived in a great neighborhood, attended a wonderful school, was in the band and played on the golf team.
“Just a great life,” she said.
But she was curious about her medical history and whether she had any siblings. She had been told that her birth parents were teenagers who had given her up because they were too young to get married. But Larson held the romantic notion that they were in love, stayed together and had more kids. She was the only missing link, Larson figured.
Larson’s adoptive mother died in 2011. It was then that she decided to find out more about her biological history. But she said her adoption was closed. She has been unable to find any official paperwork.
So Larson submitted a DNA sample to 23andMe, a genetics company in California. Using a saliva sample provided by customers via a collection kit, 23andMe analyzes DNA and offers people such as Larson information about ancestry, the likelihood of developing various diseases and other traits.
But Larson didn’t get the information she longed for until one day in August. She received an email from the company telling her that she had a half sister.
“I was floored,” she recalled.
Then came denial, followed by thoughts that it was all a scam.
“Then I thought about it,” she said. “I’m like, ‘No, it’s DNA. DNA is science. It doesn’t lie.’ ”
She soon got another notification that assured her it wasn’t a lie. It was from her half sister, Elsa Paolantonio, who had been living just three hours away in Waynesville.
“Could you possibly be the long-lost adopted sister I’ve been looking for my entire life?” Paolantonio’s message said.
“And it just ... it overwhelmed me,” Larson said. “At that moment, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. This is for real.’ ”
Paolantonio, 61, said she didn’t know she had a younger sister until she was a teenager.
She recalls her mother, Joan Rouser, being very sad one day. Paolantonio asked her what was wrong. Rouser confided that her heart was heavy because Paolantonio had a sister that Rouser missed very much.
Paolantonio said her mother shared very little about the daughter she gave up for adoption. She told her she had given birth in Fort Lauderdale and felt that her child had been given to a good family.
And Rouser said that she had always missed her daughter.
Paolantonio said her mother was 29 when she had Larson, not a teenager. And she has no idea why Rouser, who was from Waynesville, went to Fort Lauderdale to give birth. She said that her mother was secretive about some of those details and that they never had deeper conversations about it.
“It seemed to be very hurtful for her,” Paolantonio said.
Like Larson, Paolantonio had a happy childhood. Her mother and grandmother raised her. She showed horses as a child and grew up around lots of female cousins whom she thought of as her sisters.
But she wanted her own sister.
Rouser died of cancer in 2000. Paolantonio said that, during one of their last conversations, her mother told her she hoped her daughters one day would find each other.
Paolantonio had previously tried another company that traces ancestry in her quest to find her sister, but she had no luck. She said she considered 23andMe her last hope. It wasn’t until this past fall that she provided her DNA to the company and finally was connected with Larson.
“Sure enough, that’s where we found each other,” Paolantonio said.
She recalled speaking to Larson within an hour of finding out about her. She told her that their mother had died, that she had a nephew named Eli and a host of first cousins.
Larson is making the adjustment from being part of a small family circle, which includes a brother who also was adopted, to a much bigger one.
“They’ve been very welcoming,” she said of her biological family. “They’ve wanted to get to know me and learn all about me. They kind of look at me like, ‘Oh, wow, you look just like your mother.’ ”
Paolantonio said Larson has their mother’s smile, face shape and “tenderness and softness.” Larson loves to garden just as her mother did.
The sisters’ first meeting, at a restaurant in Asheville in early September, lasted 21/2 hours. Paolantonio gave her sister a strand of Rouser’s pearls. Rouser had asked Paolantonio give them to her sister when she found her.
On the 25-mile drive home from the restaurant, Paolantonio said she stopped to find a restroom where she could sit and collect herself. Normally a calm person, she said she was overwhelmed with emotion and needed some time to come to terms with the reality.
“A dream has come true,” she said recently. “A miracle has happened. Something that I thought would never happen has happened. And I feel like the luckiest woman on the planet.”
The sisters will be doing a lot of catching up, Paolantonio said.
She wants to spend a lot more time in Greensboro. And Paolantonio, a semiretired registered nurse, expects that the golf-loving Larson will be spending a lot more time at her home in Waynesville — she lives on a golf course. Like her sister, Paolantonio gardens and wants Larson to give her pointers.
“I just look forward to getting to know Christina on a much more personal basis,” she said, “and being able to really connect and know what it’s like to have this family connection that we’ve never been able to have till now.”
Larson said she hopes they can travel together. She chose to retire this month from her job as director of operations for LongHorn Steakhouse because she wants to have the time to get acquainted with her extended family.
And she urges others who were adopted to consider the same. Don’t be afraid to seek the truth about yourself, she said.
“It may not be as open and as loving as what we’ve been able to discover,” Larson said. “But I think most everybody has at least questions about their medical history and just the circumstances.”