For 30 years, they’ve been apart — 30 Christmases, 30 News Year’s, Easters and birthdays, through marriages and divorces, the death of a son, a husband and brother.
All missed because of a rift the sisters won’t talk about, except to hint with gestures and generalities that a third party in the family came between them. Whatever it was stuck, and they didn’t speak for three decades.
Then a couple of years ago, Joyce Rogers started trying to track down her sister, Judi Mott. Joyce lived in Massachusetts, and she thought Judi was still out East somewhere.
But Judi had moved, following her husband Jim, a retired Navy Seabee, to various military posts and then a sequence of New Hampshire towns — 24 houses in all — until they finally settled in Rantoul.
It was a place they’d never heard of until a day eight years ago, watching “Oprah” of all things, they learned about Generations of Hope. The award-winning program offers senior citizens inexpensive housing if they act as grandparents to foster children placed with families there.
It struck a chord with the Motts, who had been foster parents to a half-dozen children in New Hampshire — the “toughest of the tough,” as Jim Mott put it.
So they moved, and became part of the community, donning reindeer hats to run an annual toy giveaway for families who can’t afford a Christmas on their own.
They did it with gusto, in honor of their son Jim, who died 15 years ago at age 30 of a massive heart infection.
He had complained of not feeling well a few days before that Christmas, but the doctor sent him home. Judi took care of him all Christmas Day, then insisted the hospital admit him. He had open-heart surgery, but it was too late.
For six terrible months, Judi mourned. Then she woke up one day and said, “I’ve got to get on with my life,” and asked God to show her how. The Motts pledged to honor their son’s memory every Christmas by giving away toys to kids.
Joyce missed all of that, just as Judi missed the death of her younger brother last year from cancer. He was 56 — 12 years younger than Judi and eight years younger than Joyce.
But in the meantime, Joyce’s fruitless efforts to track down her sister had found new life.
Through the Internet, she had discovered her sister’s former address in New Hampshire. Then, on Classmates.com, Joyce found a Judi Mott in Rantoul. “That can’t be her,” Joyce thought.
So she typed Judi’s and Jim’s names into a Google search, and up popped their photo on Generations of Hope’s website. Joyce found their address and mailed a birthday card.
It arrived Aug. 30. Judi opened it and said, “Who is Joyce Rogers?” Unbeknownst to her, Joyce had remarried after her husband died.
But Jim took one look at the card, recognized the handwriting and said, “It’s your sister!” He raced upstairs and pulled out an old card from Joyce, just to compare. Judi couldn’t believe it.
Jim had been hoping for years to get the sisters back together, and he told his wife to write back. Two weeks later, she sent a card. Then Joyce asked Judi to friend her on Facebook.
That led to e-mails and phone calls, and after a month or so Joyce decided to visit. Judi had told her about the holiday toy giveaway, so Joyce booked a flight for Dec. 12.
Unfortunately, that was the same day a blizzard swept through central Illinois. She landed safely at the Bloomington airport — after almost missing her connection in Atlanta because her plane had to be de-iced twice before leaving Manchester, N.H.
But Judi and Jim couldn’t make it there to pick her up. They drove halfway and had to turn back.
They called Joyce just as she got to baggage claim. She started to cry. She had planned for so long what to say and do when she finally saw her sister again, and now she was stuck in the middle of Illinois, alone. She booked a room at the Holiday Inn and waited.
When Jim and Judi showed up at 6:30 a.m. the next day, there were no tears. She’d done that already, and everybody was in a hurry to get to the toy giveaway. It was “hug, hug, kiss, kiss, let’s have breakfast and hit the road,” Joyce said.
Joyce was chief elf to Judi’s Santa at the holiday giveaway, running errands and helping shoppers. She loved seeing her sister in action, proud of what she had organized.
“It’s so much more meaningful than coming here and going shopping and out to dinner,” she said.
When they got some quiet time, they talked about everything they’d missed: Judi’s son, Joyce’s husband, the shock of their brother’s death.
“My biggest regret is she didn’t get to know him as an adult,” Joyce said.
But the best part was filling in the blanks of each other’s childhood memories — “things we never had the chance to discuss as adults,” Joyce said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
Joyce stayed until Dec. 19, and the sisters plan another reunion in July in Massachusetts, where Joyce is career services director for Boston University’s College of Communications.
Of course, the sisters still bicker, good-naturedly. They both clearly like to be in charge, which was evident at the toy giveaway.
“I just want things a certain way,” Judi said.
“I’m so surprised,” Joyce replied.
But for Judi, that was the best thing about the reunion — “just how much we are alike, and how much we have in common and how comfortable we are together. And how the love is still there.”
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Photos: Joyce Rogers, left, and Judi Mott share a hug during the Holiday Bureau giveaway in Rantoul on Dec. 16 (top). Rogers helps Lillian Santillan, center, and Laura Grandy of Fisher pick out presents for the children of a family whose house had just burned down (bottom). Vanda Bidwell/ The News Gazette