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Photo leads woman into life of adopted sister's sibling

Sunday, July 15, 2001

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Worn out from a hectic Father's Day weekend, Jacqueline Szafranski almost didn't bother to unfold the day-old Sunday newspaper stacked in her sunroom.

But as she was about to toss away a still-unread section, a photograph of a woman with curly, strawberry-blond hair made her catch her breath. Something about that woman's hair and the set of her eyes reminded Szafranski of her adopted sister, Nancy Lee Ashbaugh, who'd died six months earlier when fire tore through her Sharpsburg apartment building.

Jacqueline Szafranski holds a portrait of her adopted sister, Nancy Ashbaugh, who died in a fire in Sharpsburg last year. Last week, Szafranski met her sister's sister after reading a newspaper story about Sandra "Susie" Carman's search for her siblings. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

Intrigued, Szafranski sat down and began to read the story of Sandra "Susie" Carman, a West Virginia woman who'd been adopted as an infant and was searching for seven older siblings she'd never met. Moments later, Szafranski's screams brought her alarmed husband running from the other side of the house.

"I found Nancy's sister," she shouted before dissolving into sobs. "I know this woman is Nancy's sister."

Three weeks later, Szafranski and Carman would embrace in the living room of Szafranski's Shaler home, drawn together by love and longing for the dead woman they both now call sister.

Strangers until last weekend, Carman and Szafranski have forged a new relationship out of their mutual loss, out of one woman's yearning to hear the story of Ashbaugh's life and the other woman's need to tell it.

"Susie is my sister's sister. How could I not welcome her?" Szafranski, 58, said after she and her husband, Stanley, spent two days getting acquainted and swapping stories with Carman, 50, and her husband, Buddy.

"Susie doesn't have any family, and we understand what she's lost. So I'll be her sister now, and we'll be her family."

'The Seven Waifs'

The photograph and story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on June 17 that captured Szafranski's attention detailed Carman's 35-year quest to find seven older brothers and sisters who, in 1950, were abandoned in a filthy Pittsburgh apartment by their mother, Marian Frances Sanders.

A half-century ago, the discovery of the starving, sick Sanders children, ages 3 months to 7 years old, was front-page news in Pittsburgh, where newspapers dubbed the children "The Seven Waifs." Months later, the story hit the papers again after Marian Sanders was arrested in Lima, Ohio, and brought back to Pittsburgh to be jailed.

The oldest Sanders boys, Bobby, 7, and Luther Jr., 6, were taken in and raised in Texas by relatives of their father. The other five -- including the oldest girl, Nancy Lee, 5 -- went to foster homes before disappearing into adoptive families.

Marian Sanders, who was pregnant when she was arrested, was in the Allegheny County Workhouse when she gave birth to Carman on Dec.12, 1950. Sanders gave her baby to an Ohio couple for whom she'd worked; Carman grew up believing she was the daughter of that couple, learning the truth when she was 16.

Since then, Carman has written hundreds of letters, searched court documents in several states and pored over fading newspapers and genealogy rosters in search of her siblings. She tracked down her two oldest brothers, only to learn they'd died a few months before.

Their deaths, and the death last year of her biological mother, spurred Carman to step up her search for her remaining five siblings. She contacted the Post-Gazette in the hope that her siblings might have been adopted by Pittsburgh families and might still live in the region.

A day after her story was published, Szafranski read it and was stopped cold by references to the Sanders family. She remembered the "Seven Waifs" case, and she knew her parents, Lilyen and the late Robert C. Ashbaugh Sr., had adopted one of those children, Nancy Lee.

"By the time I got to the third paragraph, I was crying," Szafranski said.

Szafranski knew she had to contact Carman immediately. But she also knew that Carman would be devastated to learn that Nancy Lee Ashbaugh, 55, was one of four people who died Jan. 25 when a fire swept through her apartment building at 705-707 Main St. in Sharpsburg.

Another tenant of that building, Michael A. Mullen, 43, has been ordered to stand trial on involuntary manslaughter and other charges in that fire. Investigators say the fire began in Mullen's apartment, where he had been getting high by smoking marijuana and inhaling fumes of highly flammable lacquer thinner.

"I agonized over what to say [to Carman]. I didn't want to bring her this bad news right away, but I couldn't get her hopes up, either," Szafranski said. "I just felt so bad that they never had the opportunity to meet."

She finally composed an e-mail and sent it to Carman's address. Carman dialed Szafranski's number the next day.

"I cried and cried," Carman said. "I didn't find my brothers until six months after they died, and I couldn't understand why the same thing happened with Nancy. I've prayed and prayed about it, and I had to find out as much as I could about her."

Tears and tales

Szafranski told Carman that Ashbaugh, too, had longed to someday find her lost siblings. In the last two years of her life, Ashbaugh had raised the subject several times with Szafranski, only to decide against it because she didn't want to upset or offend her adoptive mother.

In the three weeks after the story appeared, Szafranski and Carman spent hours on the phone, sent more e-mails and exchanged photographs before arranging to meet last weekend. The Carmans drove from their home near Charleston, W.Va., to Pittsburgh because they wanted to see where Ashbaugh grew up, lived and died, and to meet her relatives and friends.

Carman was jittery and on the verge of tears last weekend, clutching the boxes of records and letters she'd gathered during her search. Szafranski was calm but curious and a little melancholy, wishing that Ashbaugh had lived to attend the reunion.

From their first nervous hug, both women felt at ease with each other. Stan Szafranski, too, embraced Carman and told her how much she looked like Ashbaugh.

"I was crying from the beginning. It really hit me when [Szafranski] brought her pictures out," Carman said.

More tears flowed through the afternoon and the next day as the two couples sat in the Szafranski's airy sunroom and took turns telling the stories of their lives.

Carman told of growing up in Ohio and West Virginia, and of believing until she was in her teens that her biological mother was instead her aunt. Piece by piece, she displayed the records, newspaper clippings and scraps of information she'd collected over the years while searching for her Sanders relatives.

Szafranski told of being 10 and an only child when her parents, mistakenly believing they were unable to conceive another biological child, decided to adopt. Steered by social workers to an Oakland orphanage in 1952, the Ashbaughs brought home 7-year-old Nancy -- the last of the Sanders children still in foster care.

Szafranski didn't have many childhood pictures of Ashbaugh to show because many of her family's mementos were lost in a 1964 fire that destroyed her parents' home nearby on Saxonburg Boulevard. More photos and keepsakes were lost in 1986, when Little Pine Creek flooded and filled her parents' house with water to the second floor.

But Ashbaugh's red hair and grin were visible in the Szafranskis' wedding portraits and other photos that survived or were taken after the flood. Whether dressed formally for family occasions or making goofy faces in candid shots, there was no hint in her cheery face of the withdrawn, traumatized child who'd become Szafranski's little sister nearly 50 years ago.

Ashbaugh had told Szafranski that she remembered being abandoned by her biological mother, then being placed with her siblings in a now-defunct foster home run by Sadie Bright on Spencer Lane in Shaler. One by one, her younger siblings were adopted. For two years, she moved alone among other foster homes, where at least two administrators abused her.

One foster mother held her hand over a gas stove, burning and scarring her, because she hadn't mopped a floor thoroughly. Another foster mother ground a spike-heeled shoe into her tiny foot to punish her for another infraction.

Carman cringed as Szafranski recalled how Ashbaugh initially stole and hoarded food, told outrageous lies and balked when others tried to hug her. By the time Ashbaugh was adopted, she so distrusted women that, for years, she resisted her adoptive mother's efforts to develop a relationship.

"She came with baggage. She and I bonded right away, and she adored my father, but the first five years or so were hard for Nancy and my mother," Szafranski said. "It took years, but my mother kept with it. By the end of Nancy's life, she and my mother were fast friends, just exceptionally close."

Remembering Nancy

Szafranski's mother, her younger brother, Robert Ashbaugh Jr. of West Deer, and other relatives also welcomed Carman, calling up their own memories to help her conjure an image of the sister she'd never known.

They told of how Ashbaugh pushed herself to graduate from Connelley Technical Institute in 1964, even though her early education had been so spotty that she'd had to repeat grades and hated school.

They smiled when they recalled Ashbaugh's strong Catholic faith and frequent attendance at Madonna of Jerusalem Parish, her willingness to romp with her six nephews and their children, and her fondness for country singer Garth Brooks and the color green. They told of her interest in learning to surf the Internet, of her passion for saving endangered seals and of her collections of seal and angel figurines and porcelain dolls that lined her cozy apartment.

Several days each week, Ashbaugh visited her invalid mother and helped to shop and care for her. Each Saturday, she had her hair styled, then dropped in at Szafranski's house for a cup of tea and a chat.

For about 30 years, Ashbaugh was employed at Pennsylvania Container, a corrugated-box factory, where she'd worked her way up to better posts and overcome her shyness to become a respected voice in her union. When she died, relatives recalled, the plant shut down her shift so that co-workers could join the crowd of friends that packed her wake and mourned at her funeral.

"In a way, going over all she meant to us has stirred up the anger again," said Szafranski, who remains furious that more serious second-degree murder, aggravated assault and felony arson charges were dismissed against Mullen at his preliminary hearing in February.

"Susie is another innocent victim here because she's been robbed of knowing her sister. And not only are we missing Nancy, but now Nancy is missing out on all of this."

Talking about Ashbaugh's death and visiting the fire scene were wrenching for both women, but Carman said she felt compelled to retrace every step of her sister's life. She said she planned to accompany Szafranski to court when Mullen stands trial.

"I know now that I had a wonderful sister to be very proud of. In a way, [finding Ashbaugh's family] has been real hard because it reminds me of what I've missed out on and what I've lost," Carman said.

"But when we got ready to leave, [the Szafranskis] hugged us and told us they'd adopted us. They said, 'You're our family now.' I never had that before, and I feel so blessed by it."

For Szafranski, the fledgling friendship with Carman is helping to soothe her grief and to keep fresh her memories of her sister. Carman is a couple of inches taller and a more enthusiastic cook than Ashbaugh was, but she has the same quick smile, easygoing demeanor and religious faith that Szafranski loved and admired.

Carman and Szafranski have planned another weekend visit at Carman's home and will search together for Carman's remaining blood siblings. Pennsylvania law generally bars access to adoption records, but the women hope to trace the other children by researching the Bright foster home where Ashbaugh and the other children stayed before they were separated.

"Finding Susie is bringing us a lot of closure on Nancy's behalf. Susie and I already have a bond between us because of Nancy," Szafranski said. "Nancy and I had talked about looking for her siblings, but that was something we never finished. Doing it now with Susie is something I can do for Nancy."

Anyone with information about the siblings of Carman and Ashbaugh can contact Carman by writing in care of Box 96, Winifrede, WV 25214 or by sending e-mail to

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