Sisters Feel Joy 'Like 5-Year-Olds' in First Meeting After 56 Years of Not Knowing the Other Existed

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long-lost sisters Diane Ward and Mary McLaughlin who were adopted separately and then reunited 55 years later
long-lost sisters Diane Ward and Mary McLaughlin who were adopted separately and then reunited 55 years later

MyHeritage Long-lost sisters Mary McLaughlin, left, and Diane Ward on the North Carolina beach this month.

For years, Diane Ward and Mary McLaughlin criss-crossed the country and came oh-so-close as they circled each others' orbits.

McLaughlin, living in suburban Detroit during her youth, regularly visited her adoptive family's relatives in suburban Pittsburgh. At the time, Ward was living in suburban Pittsburgh with her own adoptive family while making frequent trips to visit that family's relatives in suburban Detroit. At one point, the two women determined that the homes where each had stayed in Michigan — where their biological mother had given birth to both of them three years apart — were separated by a mere 15 minutes.

"We were basically just crossing back and forth most of our childhood," Ward tells PEOPLE. "I have memories of my aunt going to one of the bakeries in Michigan and getting this certain Boston cream pie. And Mary knows exactly the bakery."

"It's just weird," she continues. "Creepy weird. Because we were just in the same circle the whole time."

Adds McLaughlin: "Maybe we did see each other. Maybe we were even sitting at the same ice cream stand. Who knows?"

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Finally, after some 55 years during which neither knew the other one existed, the sisters met face-to-face for the first time this month.

The reunion was initiated by Ward, 59, who owns a taxi company with her husband in his native U.K. She'd always known that her biological mother had placed her for adoption as an infant, but she had long wondered about her ethnic heritage and where that discovery might lead. As a Christmas present to herself in 2018, she says, Ward purchased access to DNA testing and a genealogy search through

long-lost sisters Diane Ward and Mary McLaughlin who were adopted separately and then reunited 55 years later
long-lost sisters Diane Ward and Mary McLaughlin who were adopted separately and then reunited 55 years later

MyHeritage Sisters Diane Ward, left, and Mary McLaughlin meet face-to-face for the first time at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"When I went looking for family members, I always thought of mother, father — that kind of thing," Ward says. "I never thought of siblings. It just didn't occur to me."

That research came back with a link to a possible cousin — and then that cousin directed Ward to a possible half-sister.

"Oh, I was so excited!" Ward says.

In agreeing to accept contact from Ward through the site, McLaughlin, 56, a former special education teacher who now sells tutoring programs in Paragould, Arkansas, was intrigued but skeptical. "I had been told all along that I was an only child," McLaughlin said.

But her relationship with their biological mother was more complicated. The mother had been attempting to raise McLaughlin, but after dropping the child off with a babysitter one day, the mother simply didn't return, McLaughlin says.

The babysitter and her husband eventually became McLaughlin's legal guardians, while her biological mother remained a peripheral figure in McLaughlin's life before she died from breast cancer when McLaughlin was 26.

"From the time I was about 10, I started reaching out to the White Pages in my community, looking for somebody with the same last name — the paternal last name," McLaughlin says. (The biological mother had not been married to either of the two women's biological fathers.) "So, there's always been a curiosity there, but I never in a million years thought I had a sister."

Ward's surprise outreach gave McLaughlin a new avenue to search. "I was just gobsmacked," McLaughlin says. "And in a great way. But I decided to do the DNA kit myself. She would have been a friend anyway because she's hilarious and we have a good time together, but there were too many weird similarities, and characteristics, and quirks and 'isms' that we share, so that I was like, 'Oh, okay. I think this could be a biological thing.'"

It was, and after McLaughlin's test confirmed it, the two woman's interactions — through social media apps and constant phone calls — only grew.

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"We talked for three hours on the first Zoom call," says Ward. "It was down to, what foods do you like? Where do you like to go? I mean, we have so many mannerisms the same. We have a lot of likes the same. We have the same gestures. Absolutely our favorite food is Mexican. We're both absolute shopaholics. We both have the same very dark sense of humor."

"All of these little things that sisters sit and talk about when they're kids," adds McLaughlin. "We were like 5-year-olds."

"My husband was in the room," McLaughlin says, "and he had seen all of the photos over the years of family members, and he took one look at Diane and he went, 'I see you right there.' I promise you, I was kind of brought to my knees, so to speak, because it was like my grandmother, my great-grandfather, and my mother all staring back at me."

Earlier this month, Ward and her husband, Colin, flew over from their home in Uffculme, U.K., to join McLaughlin, her husband Jack and the couple's adult children for a beachfront vacation in Nag's Head, North Carolina. Meeting each other in person for the first time at the Charlotte airport, "it was surreal," McLaughlin says. "We felt overwhelmed, in a great way."

She adds: "When we got to the beach, we just sat and chatted, and chatted, and chatted, and chatted, and all week long we had uninterrupted goofiness."

Says Ward: "Her daughter rolled her eyes when we met each other and said, 'Oh great. Now there's two of you, one on each continent.' And that wasn't a good thing for her! And I said, 'Be careful. We might find another sister and there'll be three of us.'"

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The discovery has fulfilled both in ways that neither believed possible. Next time, they hope, it will be McLaughlin's turn to cross the pond for a visit, to complement the once or twice daily phone calls that now link the sisters, who are busy catching up on the years together they missed.

"Diane and I both want to always say, we had wonderful childhoods and we are eternally grateful to our adoptive families," says McLaughlin. "And we love them."

long-lost sisters Diane Ward and Mary McLaughlin who were adopted separately and then reunited 55 years later
long-lost sisters Diane Ward and Mary McLaughlin who were adopted separately and then reunited 55 years later

MyHeritage Sisters Diane Ward, left, and Mary McLaughlin

Says Ward: "You don't think it can make your life better, but it made it better. I was always of two minds. It's like, are you going to find this family that's amazing? Or are you going to find this family that's a bunch of axe murderers? You just never know."

"I had a very good upbringing with my adoptive parents," she adds. "They were really good to me. And the more I find out about my birth mother and the struggles that she had, I think, well, I was very lucky in a lot of ways, but I do wish I knew her. And I do wish I had met her. All those things."

"I'm trying now to find my birth father and regardless of what I find, good or bad, I don't regret doing it," she continues. "I think everybody should give it a go. Then you know, good or bad. You don't have to wonder what the answer is for the rest of your life."

Says McLaughlin: "I always tell my kids, when you don't get what you want or what you think you want after a lot of time of prayer or contemplation, God isn't saying to you 'no,' he's saying 'not right now.' And so I feel like Diane was held back from me and it wasn't the universe saying 'no,' it was the universe saying 'not yet.'"

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"I had other things in life to do and to achieve. And yes, I would have loved to have whined to her through two rounds of graduate school and two master's degrees and raising children. I would have loved to have had her by my side," she says. "There were other people there in that place, but during those times I wished I had had a sister, and now I do."

"As we enter the second half of our lives," she says, "now we get to do it together. And it's going to be beautiful."