Originally Published: February 5, 2014 6:01 a.m.
Six-year-old Robyn Tornquist's parents left her in a car while they drank at a bar. The same thing happened to Tornquist's three older siblings, and sister Arlene Stewart, 16, didn't want that for her baby sister. Thus began a separation that lasted 56 years.
Stewart said her parents were alcoholics who would leave her, an older sister and younger brother in the car for hours outside the neighborhood tavern in Tacoma, Wash.
"But the big difference here is we were all together; there were three of us. Robyn was by herself," Stewart, 74, said from her home in Cordes Lakes.
Tornquist said she remembers a policeman knocking on the car window asking if she was OK.
"I said, 'No, I'm cold and I'm hungry,'" she said.
Stewart said she didn't want her little sister living a life of poverty where the water and electricity regularly got turned off and there often wasn't food in the house. She told the judge not to give Robyn back to her parents.
Tornquist spent a year in Remann House for Children. The judge ordered her parents to pay a monthly fee for her care, but when they didn't he severed their rights.
Older sister Marie, 19, with a husband in the military, wanted to adopt Tornquist. So did Stewart, married and pregnant by then.
Eventually, Tornquist's older half-sister, Maxine, from her father's first marriage, adopted her, changing her birth name of Barbara Jean to Robyn Lynn.
Maxine said the older siblings could visit, but that soon stopped. She convinced Tornquist her birth family was bad. Marie tried to maintain contact, but she struggled with alcohol abuse.
"I said, 'No, I have nothing in common with them.' I didn't want to pursue a relationship," Tornquist said.
The parents spent their final 10 years sober, and her mother was relieved to know Tornquist was well cared for. But the siblings found the separation difficult.
"It was especially hard for Marie because she took care of Robyn; she was her second mother," Stewart said, adding that both Marie and their brother, Leonard, passed away before they could meet again.
Tornquist wanted to escape her domineering adoptive mother and alcoholic father, and married at 19. After 31 years, she divorced the husband who was as oppressive as her mother.
"I didn't know any different. As far as I knew, I had a normal raising," she said. "At 50, I divorced and said, 'Nobody's going to walk over me again.'"
In February 2011, Stewart read the obituary of Tornquist's adoptive father. She went to the funeral but Tornquist wasn't there, so she left a note with a relative, thinking it was her last chance to connect with her little sister.
Two weeks later Tornquist called. "As soon as I heard her voice say, 'This is Robyn,' I started crying," Stewart said, and she traveled to Cordes for a visit. "When I first saw her, I could not believe how much she looked like Marie. Marie would have loved that," she said. "And she was short like our brother Leonard. He would have loved that, too."
Every day they find something to marvel over - they are both left-handed - and they've been blessed with "the best husbands," Robyn and Andre for 14 years, and Arlene and Bob for 58.
Three years ago the Stewarts bought the place across the street from the Tornquists, sight unseen.
"Now I can go across the street and have a cup of coffee with my sister," Stewart said, giving Tornquist a heartfelt hug.