This is the time for big family gatherings. And for Bill Popp’s family in Anchorage, those celebrations will be even sweeter this year. Last fall, Popp found out he had a younger sister, who his mom had given up for adoption in 1961. Yesterday, we heard how that family secret was revealed after 50 years. Today, Julia O’Malley tells part two of the story – why Bill’s mom Mary Lou had to put the baby up for adoption.
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In early December, I visited Mary Lou, who is 76, at her Spenard apartment to hear her tell it herself. When I arrived, she was sitting in a recliner in her living room. I asked her to start at the beginning.
She grew up in Buffalo, in northern Wyoming, the daughter of a powerful ranching family in a small town. When she was 17, she met John Lockhart, an older man who worked in the coal fields. They were married shortly after. When she was 25, she became pregnant. By then, John had developed a serious drinking problem. He hid his liquor in her perfume bottles and tucked them in the back of her closet. He stayed at the bar to all hours. She was studying for her degree in teaching.
“John came home one night and he was drunk and he passed out on the floor and I was pregnant and I could not get him hauled back to the bedroom. I just put a blanket over him and let him lay on the floor, I managed to get out of the bed and get around the corner and grabbed my handy little cast iron skillet and I laid him out, well it wasn’t even 12 hours before I went into labor,” Mary Lou said.
Two days later, Bill was born, two months premature. He weighed less than four pounds. Mary Lou says her husband was in the bar when Bill was born.
“He came up to the hospital and I said, ‘Have you seen the baby?’ He says, ‘Nah.’ I said, ‘Well, is he alright?’ Because I knew he was, you know, premature. But he turned around looked at me and said, ‘Who gives a damn?’ And I told him, go home pack your stuff and be out of the house. That was the severing moment. I didn’t want anything to do with him,” Mary Lou said.
They were divorced a few months later. Mary Lou moved back in with her parents in Buffalo. She told them John had a drinking problem, but she was too ashamed to tell them about the night she went into labor. They told her they didn’t believe in divorce, that she was an embarrassment.
“It wasn’t done. You fought it through. You didn’t give up. And you were supposed to put up with a drunk,” Mary Lou said.
The next summer, Mary Lou ran into John in Laramie, where she was going to school. By then, her feelings had softened. She was ashamed of being divorced. She wanted Bill to have a father. John said he’d quit drinking. They started to date.
“He kept saying, ‘Let’s get married again. Let’s get married again.’ And I was dumb. Naive. And then we found out I was pregnant,” Mary Lou said.
John told her he wanted nothing to do with the baby, or with Bill, who was a toddler. Mary Lou kept the pregnancy a secret until Christmas day. She says her parents were livid.
“You can’t imagine how different it was when I was going through this. You just didn’t do these things. And my dad finally figured out who the baby’s father was. Because I wouldn’t tell him. I would not tell him. And I wish he hadn’t figured it out, because the things he said to me no father should ever say to a child,” Mary Lou said.
Mary Lou planned to have the baby and take Bill and get a teaching job somewhere. Her parents wouldn’t have it.
“My father told me, ‘You will go away, you will have this baby, you will put it up for adoption and it will never be discussed again,’” Mary Lou said.
If she refused to give up the baby, her parents threatened, they would go to court and have both children taken from her. Mary Lou didn’t doubt that they would follow through.
She says she felt she had to choose between giving up one child or losing both of them.
“I knew Bill, I didn’t know the other baby, so Bill was my first concern, so I was going to do anything I had to to keep him,” Mary Lou said.
She agreed to her father’s terms. She went to a home for unwed mothers in Denver, where she got a job as a nanny to another divorced woman. At her delivery, doctors took the baby before she could see it. A nurse told her it was a healthy girl. She heard her cry.
“JO: Right after you heard the baby cry, what was going through your mind? MLP: I don’t want to give her up. I do not want to. That’s my child. And it was really tough not seeing her – not having any idea what she looked like.”
Her parents drove up to the hospital to pick her up afterward. On the drive home, no one said a word. For the rest of their lives, there was bitterness between Mary Lou and her parents. Her siblings noticed it but Mary Lou never let on where it came from.
“MLP: So I just didn’t talk about it. I never did. The first person I talked to was Kristen. JO: So what was it like to keep that secret? MLP: Hell on Earth. JO: When was it hardest for you? MLP: Her birthday, Christmas, any of the holidays. It was never far from my mind, for 50 years.”
When she was able, she took Bill and moved to Arizona, where she met Ken Popp, who she would later marry.
After Mary Lou got to the end of the story that day last March, the Popp children sat at the table for a moment, letting it sink it.
Bill says it was like something had just blown through their lives. He looked at his mother across the table.
“So I asked her, mom, what do you want to do? Do you want to find her? So mom thought about it for a second and you could just see the fear in her face, but she finally powered up and said, I’d like to meet her once before I die, I think is how she said it. And I just looked her right in the eye and said, ‘I’m on it,’” Bill said.
The search was easier than Bill imagined. Wyoming has what’s called a “confidential intermediary law” that allows a court to appoint someone to help with adoption searches. Bill filed the proper forms in the spring and an attorney began working on the case in May. The summer passed. Bill was getting impatient. He called for an update in August and heard they were getting close. Then one day in early October, Bill says he was having one of his typically crazy days at work.
“And I’m sitting there in my office and mom calls me up, her first words are, your sisters’ name is Laurella, Laurella V. Miller, but she goes by Brandy. I just… I just got the call from the attorney. And I admit it. I just stopped in my tracks. Had to sit down in my office and I couldn’t even get a word out for the next couple of minutes. Mom just kept babbling in my ear and I don’t remember half of what she said, but I was just crying. It just… I didn’t expect it after 50 years,” Bill said.
Tomorrow we’ll have the story of Brandy’s first phone call with her big brother Bill Popp and her birth mother, Mary Lou.
This story is a collaboration between the Anchorage Daily News and APRN.