BLUFFTON, SC — As Karen D'Alba's search for her birth parents stretched on year after year, the Bluffton woman held on to a few close beliefs.
For one, D'Alba always sensed there was something important about the small silver angel pinned to her clothes the day a nun turned her over to her adoptive mother. She kept the charm safe in a velvet box and pinned it to her own children's gowns when they were baptized.
She also had a nagging thought she came from a large family. She had one brother, no nieces or nephews, yet a feeling in her gut that she was still one of many.
But one thing tugged at D'Alba most powerfully.
Though she had little to go on and her methodical searching for her birth parents hit wall after wall, she believed she had to keep looking.
On Wednesday, as she turned 50 years old, D'Alba realized why.
At a birthday celebration on Hilton Head Island, D'Alba met her birth mother, 66-year-old Nancy Spear, for the first time.
She took out her pin, its Hail Mary pendant hanging down like a teardrop, so Spear could see it again. It has been 50 years since Spear, of Blooming Grove, N.Y., picked it out in the hopes of sending a piece of herself along with the daughter she couldn't keep.
Though her parents were loving and supportive, Spear said, that was how things were for young unwed mothers at the time.
Wednesday's reunion provided D'Alba with another validation. They were joined by not only her adoptive parents, Ellie and Tony Schramm of Hilton Head Island; her daughter, Kristina; and grandson, Dominick, but four of Spear's nine other children.
"I knew there were others," D'Alba said Thursday, at her parents' home in Hilton Head Plantation. "I hope this gives (others adopted) the drive, especially baby boomers coming up now, to keep looking. There are strangers out there that want to help you."
"I don't know if they can get as good a result as me," she added, smiling around at a few of her half-siblings.
D'Alba had been searching with renewed energy since Christmas 2012, when her daughter gave her a new computer. She logged onto the adoption database she had used years ago, the Arizona Adoption Registry, and found it had exploded.
Members quickly referred her to a New York forum, where her case caught the eye of one user who calls herself PattyTheSearchAngel. On April 21, Patty sent D'Alba a name: Nancy Spear.
That night, the mother and daughter talked on the phone for the first time. They talked for hours, but D'Alba remembered none of the conversation.
"I was just glad she didn't hang up," D'Alba said. "It was all a blur from there."
Spear, who does not know where D'Alba's birth father is, said she had never wanted to intrude on her daughter's life by contacting her.
"For me, it was just full circle meeting Mr. and Mrs. Schramm and knowing what loving parents she had," Spear said. "I never really realized there was a weight inside of me. It feels like something is off me now."
Now, webs of attempted connections through birth certificates, U.S. Census records and search engines have been replaced by new, more satisfying puzzles, like figuring out exactly how 3-year-old Dominick is related to his new cousins -- or are they second-cousins?
On Saturday, the family will return to New York, with hopes of staying in touch for years to come.
"I'm blessed right now," Spear said.