On a cool day in August, about 30 people were gathered in the front yard of a farm in Pickens, Randolph County, for a late-summer family reunion. While ATVs rumbled in the background, four family members sat in a circle made of lawn chairs, near a large tree in the middle of the yard.
This is the town where the Nestor family grew up in the latter part of the 20th Century. A lot has changed since the Nestor children grew up and left Pickens. Their father, a World War II veteran from the nearby town of St. George, died in the 1970s. The siblings — Don, Deb, Terry and Connie, who died 12 years ago — are older. They’ve moved on to live with their own families in Buckhannon and Pittsburgh. Don, the oldest, is the only one who retained the Nestor family name.
But perhaps the largest difference since their childhood isn’t the kids and grandkids they’ve gained — it’s the sister they met almost 40 years ago, from Austria.
Margaret Bogenhuber grew up some 7,000 miles away in the small town of Obendorf, famously known for the Silent Night Chapel (reportedly the first place the song Silent Night was sung). She lived miles away from the larger city of Salzburg, with her stepfather and her mother, who worked in a chocolate factory.
Her childhood wasn’t always so sweet. A lot of it, she recalled, was spent wondering who her biological father was, and longing for siblings.
Margaret’s daughter Doris translates: “She asked her mother, ‘Can you tell me who is my father?’ And her mother said, ‘Oh no, I don’t tell you, because I don’t think it’s good to damage another family.’ ”
It wasn’t until her wedding day, in 1961, that Margaret’s mother gave her a name and an address for Clinton Nestor in St. George, West Virginia.
Margaret waited a few more years before reaching out. She was in her thirties when she sent her first letter.
She went on to write him dozens more during the years, but they all came back to Austria, unopened.
According to Deb Morgan, maiden name Nestor — Margaret’s half-sister — their father Clinton had a relative who was in charge of the St. George post office. She was the one, Deb said, returning all of the letters without a forwarding address.
Margaret didn’t know this. All she knew were the experiences of other people in Obendorf, who had American fathers, who also had been rebuffed.
“She tore them up, because she thought maybe he wasn’t going to write back,” Deb said. “She thought maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do. Because she said her mother also told her, ‘You don't want to hurt another family.’ ”
“But she did it. She found us, she didn't give up.”
Eighteen years after first getting that St. George address, Margaret finally got a response in 1979. It was from the new postmaster of St. George.
He let Margaret know her father had died a few years earlier. He gave her the address for Clinton’s family in Pickens.
The next letter she wrote, in 1979, has become a sort of family treasure to the Nestors. In fact, the letter is so important to them that half-brother Don Nestor keeps a typed version in a three-ring binder to this day.
“I was told from the postmaster of your town that your husband died several years ago,” Margaret had written. “I’m very sorry about that, since your husband, Clinton Nestor, born on the fourth of April, 1915, was my father. Please don’t be angry with me now, since a child cannot choose their parents.”
“When we got this letter, we all wrote back,” Deb recalled. That includes her, her siblings and her own mother, Clinton’s widow who died years after him.
“We were all excited,” Deb said. “Our mom included. She was very excited to meet Margaret. My mom would say, ‘What did we talk about before Margaret?’ ”
The family spent years writing back and forth, and they even made time for a few expensive long-distance phone calls before meeting in 1980.
As the Nestors learned more about this newfound sister in Austria, Don said they all ended up learning more about their father and a part of his life he kept hidden from them while he was alive.
While he was in Europe, Clinton Nestor recorded his day-to-day life in a journal.
“It starts in March of 1944,” Don said. “And it ends in two years later, when he came home [after] ’45.”
Don said the diary had always been around, but the family didn’t give it much notice until they began corresponding with Margaret.
The entries aren’t too detailed — each day has just a couple sentences to it. But Don said it’s a good glimpse into a time in his father’s life that he kept private from his family.
“For instance, he mentioned about seeing Betty Hutton and Bob Hope in a USO [United Service Organization] show,” Don said. “He mentions staying with people who were kind, and friendly, he has names of people here that were killed in his unit … you get a glimpse of how war is hard on everyone. And the casualties of war on both sides.”
So, after reading the diary, what would Don want to ask his father?
“Did you ever think you would come to this? In your wildest imagination, do you think a bunch of American and Austrian citizens would be siting here, in Pickens?”
In 1980, Margaret and the Nestors finally got to meet, face to face, in West Virginia.
“I think you spent most of your time in Pickens, right?” Deb said to Margaret. “The first time. So we just sat around like this, or played horseshoes, or drank beer (laughter) … A lot like this. Yes.”
The August picnic wasn’t the group's first meeting since 1981. They all had one large visit with all of the siblings present in 2007, before Margaret’s half-sister Connie died of cancer a few months later.
Don and Terry’s families have been to Austria several times. Youngest sister Terry’s son, Will, actually studied abroad in Germany. He said he visited Margaret’s home often after growing up and hearing this story over and over.
“I would say most of us — at least me — I’ve heard this whole thing about 10 times or so? … It’s a very popular family story, at least on the American side.”
Don said his children, his nieces and nephews, all know Margaret as their aunt. They’ve grown up on this story. It has become a family legend.
“The grandchildren. That generation, they’re still family. It’s as close as us. It is.”
The Nestor family has discussed putting their story together in writing to share with future generations.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.