- Associated Press - Saturday, April 26, 2014

FLORENCE, S.C. (AP) - When Pamela Garner recently went in for her shift cooking at 301 Drive In she had no idea that before she punched out she’d be calling the day one of the absolute best in her life.

But after the lunch rush slowed down enough for her to take a break, she got the best surprise birthday present she said she could dream of: for the first time ever she got to meet her half-sister, who didn’t even know she existed for years.

“I’m so happy,” she said. “I’m so shocked and so excited. She got me good. I’m just so happy.”

Yolanda Wingate, 45, drove down to Florence from Winchester, N.Y., with her young daughters and fiancé for a family vacation in Myrtle Beach and made plans to meet her 50-year-old half-sister, Garner, later this week. But the family left early and once they neared Florence she decided to surprise her sister.

Yolanda was so excited to come she couldn’t wait for Wednesday, the sooner the better for her,” said Wingate’s fiance Jerry Diaz.

Wingate grew up thinking that she was the eldest of her late father, Willy Wingate’s three daughters. It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that a cousin said that her father had a child before marrying her late mother.

But her father was in failing health and it was something she wasn’t totally sure was true. When she asked her father he wouldn’t confirm or deny it. Eventually, after the deaths of her parents and grandparents, she was able to get a trusted aunt to confirm.

It was confusing to her to have been so close with her father, but having him keep her half-sister a secret. But she coped with the news and her grief over his death and kept on living. It wasn’t until recently when going through old boxes that she rediscovered Garner’s number and “I didn’t have a lot of feeling about it I just felt drawn to just give her a call. It was just a pull and I think my dad had something to do with it.”

“When we talked at first it was hard to hear her call my father her father it just turned some things upside down,” she said. “When she said my father was even on her birth certificate something in me felt bent. I don’t know why, because she’s in no way at fault, but it’s hard to accept. Because growing up you’re thinking ‘I’m the oldest,’ well no you’re really not. And ‘I have two sisters,’ and no you really don’t. It’s just been an adjustment. But now we have an open dialogue.”

On the flip side, that first call was one Garner had waited for most of her life. Garner, who lives in Timmonsville where both she and her father were born, found out about Wingate and her two younger sisters as a teenager and wanted to meet them and get to know them. But Garner’s mother had not wanted Willy Wingate around when she was young, and Wingate’s mother didn’t want her family to be involved with her husband’s first child so Garner was kept a secret.

Garner kept hope alive though, following the achievements and movements of Wingate from afar, cherishing a photograph of her half-sister her father once sent, and even attending his funeral in the late 1990s. But she knew that introducing herself then would likely upset her father’s widow and other daughters, so she waited.

“I wanted so bad to say something to them, but I knew that their mother, she didn’t like me or want me around them. It was real hard. But I seen them and I said ‘ooh that’s my sister.’ I was hoping they’d recognize me but they didn’t know.”

Garner said she always believed that God would bring them together in the right time.

That faith was vindicated when the two met for the first time.

Before meeting her half-sister Wingate was worried about what to talk about, and how they’d get along, but she also had questions about all kinds of things.

“What things does she like? What do you like to do and where do you go and what do you eat? Do we have any similarities to each other? I mean what kind of music do you listen to? Do you part your hair to the right or left? Do we even look alike?”

She also was toying with the idea of talking about a DNA test, just because it’s a difficult thing to fully digest having a long lost sibling.

But at 301 Drive In, with a huge grin on her own face, Wingate was mesmerized by Garner’s face.

“You look just like my grandmother and a lot like my Aunt Vinita, I mean. that’s my grandmother’s face,” Wingate said to Garner. “It’s the eyes and the lips, the little lips, I mean, you are undeniably a Wingate. Your face just is so much like hers, I feel like I’m going back to the (Timmonsville) farm at 12 years old when we would visit her and being under the pecan tree with our feet in the dirt. Looking at your face is bringing back the good part of my life.”

Wingate got to introduce her daughters and brag on how great they’re doing in elementary school and Garner flipped through photos on her phone from her youngest of two daughters’ graduation from Virginia Tech. They even joked about borrowing each other’s clothes.

Wingate said she knew she’d have to talk with Yolanda first, and is so excited that now the door is open for a relationship with her and there’s a possibility her other two half-sisters will follow suit.

“I always wanted this day to come; I always wanted to get to know them and love them like sisters,” Garner said. “That’s all I ever wanted.”

___

Information from: Morning News, http://www.scnow.com

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