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During Her Final Semester at Penn State, a Senior Discovers a Long-Lost Cousin

by on May 14, 2018 5:00 AM

“Slow down—slow down!” a voice shouted behind me.

I seemed to hardly touch the ground as my skis flew across a hill of powdery snow. Slicing through the icy air and down the slope in milliseconds, the only coherent thoughts coursing through my mind were the quick pointers I was given just a few minutes prior on the “magic carpet”: bend your knees slightly, lean forward, and fall back onto your butt if you don’t know how else to stop. Considering this was my first time skiing, falling was the only viable option. I had very little coordination when it came to recreational activities; from time to time I still relived the trauma of my awkward teenage years, perpetually toppling over any time I attempted to ice skate, roller blade or ride a bike. I was confident the only way my foray into skiing would end was with me in a heap of crisscrossed skis and poles at the bottom of the bunny hill.

Lo and behold, I wiped out beautifully, falling butt-first and even managing to kick up a flurry of snow as the momentum from my skis spun me in a horizontal pirouette. Moments later, a figure clad in a geometric Marmot jacket hovered over me, his worried (or bemused) expression masked by orange goggles and a neck gaiter. My half-cousin, Allen “Guy” Scherb, crouched down and asked if I was alright. Just as I responded yes, another man sporting a neon green coat skidded to a halt beside us. This was Guy’s father and my half-uncle, David Scherb, who I was meeting for the first time that day.

Boy, did I know how to make a great first impression.

As they tried to coach me to stand back up (a surprisingly difficult task with what were essentially yard sticks attached to my feet), I couldn’t help but reflect on the serendipitous circumstances that led me to this ski resort in western Pennsylvania during my final semester at Penn State.  

A month prior, as I was heading home from class on a cloudy and cold State College morning, I received a text message from my mom asking if I could call her as soon as possible regarding “some interesting news.” Expecting to hear about a new home improvement project or a story from work, I dialed her number and strode briskly down Pollock Road, eager to get back to the warmth of my dorm. However, my pace slowed to a crawl and my mouth hung open in shock as she delivered life-changing news: our little family, comprised of my grandparents, my mom, her brother, her sister and my three cousins, was not as little as we thought.

Hang on, this gets complicated.

Through Ancestry.com, my Uncle Gary found out he, my mother and my Aunt Marla had a half-brother named David. My grandpa (David’s biological father) had no idea David existed, and David did not know who his biological parents were because he was adopted at birth by Edith and Maxwell Scherb. Members from both the Scherb and Selinger families coincidentally received Ancestry.com tests as holiday gifts and made our DNA records available online, and that’s how we were able to find each other. With just a phone call on that fateful February morning, my family tree grew a branch with five new leaves: my Uncle David, his wife Anna, and their three children, Guy, Laura and Julia.

The story gets crazier.

My mom giddily informed me that my cousin Guy went to Penn State as well — and he was my age, also set to graduate in May 2018. At this point, I was surprised I hadn’t caught any flies with how wide my mouth was hanging open. I had been attending college for three and a half years without ever knowing that I had a cousin walking around campus, going to class in the same buildings, tailgating at the same football games, and eating the same overpriced HUB salads.


Erica Salowe and Guy Scherb, skiing at Hidden Valley Resort.

After getting off the phone with my mom, I did what any good Millennial would do and immediately searched for his profile on Facebook. I was stunned at the familial resemblance — aside from having lighter hair and eyes, he looked remarkably like a younger version of my grandpa.

So, how exactly does one reach out to a long-lost cousin for the first time? There certainly wasn’t a manual. On the off chance he hadn’t heard the news yet, I added Guy on Facebook Messenger and said something along the lines of, “I know this is going to sound really weird, but my Uncle Gary just found out your dad is his half-brother through Ancestry.com. We’re first cousins and I go to Penn State too, so if you want to get together to meet just let me know!”

Fortunately, Guy had already heard the news and my impromptu Facebook message didn’t catch him by total surprise. We met the following week at Starbucks, spending at least three hours exchanging family pictures and stories.

There were several eerie similarities between our families. Both Guy and I studied abroad in the spring 2017 semester; he was in Ireland and I was in Scotland. During the same week in May, we unknowingly swapped locations, with him touring Scotland while I visited Ireland. My grandpa also happened to have a condo for a while in Chautauqua, N.Y., that was practically next door to the Scherbs’ summer house. They may have walked past each other on several occasions and never even realized. The craziest coincidence of all (which we found out after my Aunt Marla pieced together our family tree) is that Edith Scherb, David’s adoptive mother, was a distant cousin of the Selinger family.

For the next three months, Guy and I tried our best to make up for lost time by getting to know each other while we still lived in State College. We hung out at least once a week, some days meeting for coffee at Irving’s and other days watching sports with friends at his apartment. One week we went skiing at Hidden Valley Resort, where I met my Uncle David for the first time and made a lasting impression (in the snow).  Then Guy and I took a road trip to visit Uncle David and Aunt Anna in Pittsburgh for Easter weekend, where I was able to tour the Phipps Conservatory and Mount Washington for the first time.

It didn’t take long for me to click with the Scherbs. They were incredibly intelligent, hospitable, and warm people. We had plenty in common, including a love for antiques, history, gardening and birdwatching. We shared plenty of laughs as we exchanged stories about family and pored over baby pictures, scrutinizing photos in search of familial resemblance. While in the beginning we fumbled over technicalities — such as whether I should call David “Half-Uncle David” — by the end of the weekend visit there was no need to dwell on formalities. The Scherbs were family, and no “half” title was necessary.


Pictured (left to right) Erica Salowe, Julia Scherb, Guy Scherb, Anna Scherb, and David Scherb on Mount Washington in Pittsburgh.

The event that culminated the discovery of my long-lost relatives was graduation weekend at Penn State. Guy and I graduated from different colleges within the university, so while we did not walk together, we still made sure to coordinate a family reunion.

After my commencement in the Bryce Jordan Center, the Selingers and the Scherbs congregated at the Penn State Arboretum to enjoy the flowers in bloom before heading to dinner. It was surreal to see my mom meet her half-brother in-person and see the warmth in my grandpa’s eyes as he conversed with his newfound son. The reunion also gave me the chance to meet Laura, Guy’s sister, who was visiting from Chicago. The weather reflected everyone’s high spirits, and the late afternoon sun bathed us in warmth and illuminated the vibrant hues of surrounding tulips and hyacinths. My heart felt full being surrounded by so much family in such a scenic setting.

It was the best graduation day I could have asked for.

Graduating from Penn State is bittersweet for any senior, but my reasons for feeling so may differ from the norm. I am overjoyed that I found out about my long-lost cousin while we were both still in Happy Valley, and that we became such good friends. I’m also happy that we both have bright futures ahead, but it’s a bummer that Guy won’t be a 20-minute walk away anymore. He’s headed to Buffalo to start his career, and I’m interning in Maryland for the summer before traveling abroad to pursue a master’s degree.

Even so, family is forever. I know that graduation will not be the last time I’ll see the Scherbs. Above all, I am grateful that Guy and I serendipitously made the decision to attend Penn State, and because of that I was able to spend my last few months as an undergraduate with an incredible cousin and friend.


After graduation, the Selingers and the Scherbs met at the Arboretum. Pictured left to right: Anna Scherb, David Scherb, Guy Scherb, Millie Selinger, Lawrence Selinger, Karen Selinger-Salowe, Erica Salowe, and Laura Scherb.

 


 

Erica Salowe is a Penn State alumna who graduated in May 2018 with degrees in Public Relations and English. She is on track to begin a master's degree program in global markets at the University of Glasgow in the fall of 2018.

 



Erica Salowe is a Penn State alumna who graduated in May 2018 with degrees in Public Relations and English. She is on track to begin a Masters in Global Markets at the University of Glasgow in the fall of 2018.
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