"To find not only someone who has my same story but a full sister is really amazing." Tammy Makram tells PEOPLE

By Tiare Dunlap
Updated January 26, 2016 08:00 PM
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Credit: Courtesy Liz Kellner & Tammy Makram

Tammy Makram and Liz Kellner were both left in cardboard boxes in Minnesota when they were just days old.

The two women were adopted by loving families and only learned of their origin stories as adults, for each a crushing realization that dampened their hopes of ever finding their biological parents.

Years later, thanks to the combined magic of cyber sleuthing and online DNA registries, the two sisters found each other – and more family than they could ever have dreamed of.

“Never in a million years did I think that any of this would happen – this is so far beyond any of my expectations,” Kellner, 50, tells PEOPLE.

All told, the two women found two additional sisters (one full, one half), five half siblings and both of their birth parents. Still, one connection stands out – the one they have with each other.

“We are the only two who have the same story. We are the two who were left and so our experience of growing up and the way we think and whatever that did to our psyches, that’s something we share,” Kellner explains.

“[Meeting Liz] was the first time anyone could really understand where I was coming from,” Makram, 54, adds. “After all that time not thinking I was going to find anyone, to find not only someone who has my same story but a full sister is really amazing.”

The Search Begins

Kellner says that while she always knew she was adopted, she never asked many questions about her biological mom out of fear it would hurt her parents.

It wasn’t until college that she worked up the nerve to call the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota, the agency through which she was adopted. “I found out that I had been found in a laundry room in an apartment building and that was all they gave me,” Kellner says.

Kellner’s search stalled for decades until a friend gave her a DNA test kit from 23andMe in 2014. “It took me three months before I was willing to do it,” she recalls. “I really didn t think I would find people.”

Kellner says she received notifications about third and fourth cousins, which she brushed off, until one night while on a first date she received an email confirming that she had found an “aunt.”

“I remember just staring at my phone and my date asked, ‘are you ok?’ and I said, ‘I think I just found my family, what does that mean?’ ” she recalls with a laugh.

Over the next day, she and the “aunt,” named Abbie Greene, exchanged messages and figured out that they were actually half-sisters. Because Greene had been formally put up for adoption, she had already found and been in contact with her birth mother and another birth sister who had also been put up for adoption.

A Parallel Journey

A few years after Kellner began looking, Makram visited the same agency in search of clues about her biological family. There, she found a newspaper clipping about a baby girl who had been found in a cardboard box on the steps of Miller hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota on Christmas Eve, 1961.

She went to the Minnesota Historical Society looking for more information and was given more than 100 reels of microfiche containing old newspaper clippings. Makram settled in for what would undoubtedly be a long day of research when she pressed a button to bring up the first reel and was shocked.

“There it was, a picture of a nurse holding me on the front page of the paper on Christmas day,” Makram recalls. “It was a fantastic story for the newspaper but for me it was the first time I knew what my beginnings were.”

The newspaper said that the doctors could tell the baby had been born at home, so Makram knew there was no hope of finding a hospital record including her mother’s name.

“I tried tell my story in the media because that was probably the only way I could maybe reach whoever left me, but no one ever reached out,” she explains.

Like Kellner, Makram took her search to a genealogical database, Ancestry.com, and discovered third and fourth cousins. Makram says she grew hopeless and gave up on the whole thing until she, too, received a message from Abbie.

An Incredible Surprise

Kellner laughs recalling the day she learned of Makram’s existence, “The two sisters had been sending Tammy messages and I was like, ‘Oh my God, should I overwhelm her? She’s going to think we’re a bunch of nutjobs.’ ”

Her mind was changed, however, when she read a post on Makram’s Facebook page about her experience. “I read her story and her words were mine,” she remembers.

While she wouldn t go so far as to call them “nutjobs,” Makram admits to feeling completely overwhelmed by the deluge of long lost family members.

“I mean in one day I had emails from Liz and the two other sisters and they’re all sending me messages like, ‘Look at this, I think you look like me!’ ” she says. “I was at work and trying to meet with people and it was not going well because all I wanted to do was crawl underneath my desk and go, ‘Oh my God, what is happening?!’ ”

When Makram and Kellner met in September, they felt an instant connection.

“Really within the first 24 hours of meeting we were realizing how uncanny it was that we could finish each other’s sentences and order the same things off the menu,” Makram recalls. “Just so many little things that were pretty bizarre considering we spent 50 years apart.”

Both women have 26 year old sons, they were both the oldest siblings in their adoptive families and they catch themselves using the same unusual words.

“I stare at her a lot, I just can’t help it,” Makram continues. “It’s like being twins only we’re a couple years apart.”

The Big Question

While all of the sisters couldn t have been more excited to meet, there was one member of the family who wasn’t too eager to be found – the girls’ mother.

Before meeting Makram, Kellner (who has worked as a researcher) independently found her biological father’s name and phone number. When Kellner called to introduce herself, he threw a wrench into her carefully crafted plan.

“My birth father just kind of laughed and was like, ‘Really?!’ and then he said, ‘Here, do you want to talk to your mother?’ ” Kellner recalls. “As I was saying ‘no’ he handed her the phone and she said ‘No, I don t have any daughters and I didn t have kids and I don t know what you’re talking about.’ ”

Shortly after that call, Kellner traveled to Minnesota to meet her three sisters and her father in person. During that meeting her father suggested that she could meet her mother, but only if she didn t discuss their relation.

Not wanting to go against her birth mother’s wishes, Kellner suggested she and her sisters send their birth mother a bouquet on Mother’s Day simply thanking her for bringing them into the world and giving them up.

“I wanted to send something to her to say thank you for doing the right thing,” Kellner says. “She gave us up. She didn t throw us in a dumpster, I was put somewhere safe, she gave the other two up in a proper manner and whether the situation she was in was bad or good is irrelevant. In that moment, she made the right decision for us and that had to be hard.

The day the bouquet was delivered, Kellner got a response.

“She called me and said that she did indeed have children and she said she was sorry and she actually thanked me for lifting a burden that she had held for 68 years,” she says.

A New Purpose

After Kellner and Makram met, they took a road trip together to meet their biological parents in Tucson, Ariz. It was the first chance the two women had to look their birth mother in the eyes and get the answer they’d been wanting their whole lives: Why did it all happen this way?

Kellner, who describes herself as the “more direct, less touchy feely” one of the two was the one to put it out there. However the answer didn t come.

“Because they are old, our mother does have some dementia and has kept this secret for almost 70 years, it’s hard to tell what is repressed versus what is dementia versus ‘There’s no way in hell I’m going to talk about this,'” Kellner says.

“I think part of the reason she’s so quiet is because of all the guilt and shame that came with all of this that she’s carried for all this time,” Makram adds. “I think she has to understand that we are thankful that we were given up for adoption but we also want to get to know her.”

Even though the two may never get that explanation that so long eluded them, they’ve found plenty of answers from the rest of their family.

“I grew up knowing that my mother, the person who should want you more than anyone, didn t want me,” Kellner says. “And that, as it turns out, sticks in your head. So to now know the story and see all these people who want me in their lives – it makes me much more ok with who I am.”

The sisters talk every day and are planning to bring their families together for a big trip in the spring. In the meantime, they want to tell their story as much as possible to support others facing the difficult choice their mom faced four times.

“We want to make sure people know that there are these safe haven programs where if you do end up in a situation where you have a baby and you for whatever reason cant go through the proper adoption channels and you are scared, you can leave the baby,” Kellner says. “When we were left we are fortunate we were put somewhere safe and we want to make sure that those systems remain in place.”