BALTIMORE — From the time she was a child, Nikki Royster knew she had a sister. The knowledge followed her like a shadow through life.
“It’s always in the back of your head that there’s somebody out there,” she said.
Placed in foster care after birth in Baltimore in 1970, Royster, 51, was adopted when she was a baby. The Baltimore County adoption agency had mentioned the existence of a sister to Royster’s parents but offered scant other details.
Royster, who now lives in Connecticut, began searching for her sister in earnest 20 years ago. She reached out to Maryland’s Department of Human Resources, which maintains adoption records, hoping to get a copy of her birth certificate and any other information she could find. But she came up short.
”Everything’s sealed,” she said. “My identity was taken from me the day I was born.”
In Maryland, birth certificates for adoptions were sealed from 1947 until 2000 and require a court order to be opened.
After years of back-and-forth, Royster said she learned from a Baltimore County social worker only that her mother was deceased. The news devastated her. But she remained determined to find her sister.
Royster’s life changed with the spread of at-home DNA testing and Ancestry.com. She spat in a tube and filled out some paperwork, knowing that in doing so, she was opening a “can of worms.”
Ancestry.com revealed her closest matches, although not her birth parents. Royster sent messages out to all of them: “I’m looking for information on my birth family.”
A few responded. The wife of one relative — an amateur genealogist who she met through the website — offered help building a family tree.
“My husband and my son showed up as matches — distant matches,” said Mary Jo Newman, who lives in Harford County. “I was glad to try to help her.”
After months of searching and eliminating other potential DNA matches, they determined the identity of Royster’s birth mother: Peggy Anne Fishbaugh.
Newman said she is “100% sure” that Fishbaugh is the right match.
“She matched everything in the nonidentifying information in her adoption papers” — including age and hair color, she said. “Everything fit.”
Royster wanted to find out if there was an obituary in the local newspaper. She called The Baltimore Sun newsroom.
“I just want to find my sister,” she told the reporter who answered the phone in 2019.
A quick glance in the archives turned up a news article that mentioned Fishbaugh in August 1972. The headline: “Police hunt for clues in 5 area murders.”
Fishbaugh’s death at 25 “baffled” Baltimore County police, according to the story. Her “badly battered” body had been found near Liberty Dam, but it wasn’t clear what happened. Two young teens riding horses had come across her body along a trail nearby. The trail, according to the article, was considered a “lovers lane.”
It wasn’t long before a new name turned up, in an obituary in the Carroll County Times. Fishbaugh’s daughter: Tammy.
According to Newman, Fishbaugh’s father, Charles W., died of alcoholism in April 1975, while her mother, Florence, died of heart disease and alcoholism in 1974. Fishbaugh’s brother died the same year.
Tammy Brown, 53, was raised in Reisterstown by her great-aunt and great-uncle.
“No one ever talked about my mom,” she said. “Ever.”
She eventually discovered the truth of what had happened through an obituary for her mother she found in a family photo album.
But, she said, “no one ever said anything about me having a sister.”
As a teenager, Brown said she partied in the park near where her mother had been found.
Brown began using alcohol and other drugs at age 12. Pregnant with her oldest daughter, she left home at 16, but remained in the insular community of Reisterstown. Her substance use worsened.
“My addiction was not pretty at all,” she said.
In her 20s, she developed suspicions about who could have been involved in her mother’s death, and started asking around. One night in 1986, someone held a gun to her head and told her to stop asking questions. She gave up the search.
Brown finally got clean in 2007, following a suicide attempt.
“You hear ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired,’” she said. That’s where she was. She moved to the Eastern Shore and now works at a rehab center near Salisbury.
In 2019 came her first Facebook message from Royster.
“God has perfect timing,” said Brown, sipping coffee at a table with her sister in a Baltimore food hall. “If she would have looked for me 20 years ago, it would have been a different chick.”
A few weeks after their first phone call, Royster and her husband drove down to Salisbury to meet Brown. On the drive down, Royster felt sick to her stomach.
“What if she doesn’t like us?” she asked her husband. “I’m a lot.”
Her fears dissolved once Brown opened the door. They reveled in their similarities, the way they held a cigarette the same way, the fact that they both happened to dye their hair a similar shade of purple red.
“My husband says we walk alike,” Royster said.
When they met up to go to dinner, both women found they were dressed in similar black clothes.
Royster’s son and Brown’s daughters “hit it off from the jump,” said Brown, and bonded over their love of anime. “It’s really cool to be able to have this for them.”
Brown said she is open to having her DNA tested to learn more about her own past. Though she has her father’s name on her birth certificate, “I don’t know who the man is.”
She doesn’t know whether she and Royster have the same father.
The two still have so many questions about their mother. Royster wonders: “Why didn’t she keep me?”
And: How did Peggy Anne Fishbaugh die? Baltimore County Police never found an answer.
In late March, Royster came down once again to visit her sister in Salisbury. They drove to the hilly Lorraine Park cemetery in Woodlawn where their mother is buried. It was cold and quiet, the sound of the wind whirring through the naked trees.
Brown located the headstone, embedded in a patch of yellow grass. She placed her arm around Royster while they both cried. It was, they said, the first time all three had been together.