A tree for Bernadette

Port Republic woman decorates tree for sister

Friday, Dec. 18, 2009

Some people decorate a Christmas tree thinking merely what colors look nice together.

Darlene Huntsman of Port Republic has a bit more on her mind when she decorates hers.

On Sept. 27, 1986, her sister Bernadette Stevenson Caruso disappeared after leaving her job at a jewelry store in Eastpoint Mall in Dundalk.

Stevenson Caruso was on her way to meet friends, something Huntsman said her then 23-year-old sister rarely did, and was never seen again.

Huntsman, 54, said that Stevenson Caruso was scheduled to testify on charges against her estranged husband, who had been dismissed from the Baltimore County Police Department, for domestic abuse two weeks after her disappearance.

Despite being one of seven siblings, Huntsman said she was always very close to her youngest sister.

"She disappeared at 5 [p.m.] and I spoke to her at 3 o'clock that day," Huntsman said.

Huntsman said the family spent the first Christmas after Stevenson Caruso's disappearance actively looking for her sister; by Christmas of 1987, the family was no longer expecting her to come home.

"I was with her when she bought her ornaments," said Huntsman, who hung onto those ornaments after her sister disappeared.

For the past 22 years they've gone onto a special Christmas tree Huntsman puts together for Stevenson Caruso every Christmas.

"I usually do it with my girls or with my sisters. We have a glass of wine and talk about all the crazy things we did with Bernadette … It doesn't make me sad at all," Huntsman said, explaining, " … It's a link I have to Bernadette even though she's not here. It's something I know she'd appreciate and enjoy."

Huntsman said that despite using all of her sister's ornaments, the tree often features a different theme or color scheme.

She said that one of the earlier themes she used was angels, which Huntsman said she selected once she realized she would not see her sister alive again.

Even so, she said, "We'd like to find Bernadette and lay her to rest."

The annual Christmas tree is just one of the things that the family has done for Stevenson Caruso.

Two and a half years ago they established the Maryland Task Force for the Missing and Unidentified, Adults and Children, along with other families of Maryland's missing persons, law enforcement and representatives from other missing persons networks.

According to a press release, the task force holds public awareness events and brings awareness to the fact that every 30 seconds someone in the U.S. disappears, an average of 850,000 persons per year.

And now, the Christmas tree that Huntsman has decorated for so many years may actually assist the network she set up for her sister.

On a "Bright Holiday Moments" contest on the Web site Brickfish.com, the entry about Bernadette's tree has climbed to sixth place out of about 595 entries, Huntsman said. The deadline to vote in the contest, at http://safetyathome.com/contest/?pbb_qsi=27551785&=ecc_all_PPIMEMAIL, is Dec. 22.

Huntsman said that the contest's reward would be used for the Maryland Task Force for the Missing and Unidentified, Adults and Children.