First of two parts
Bill thought he knew his family. The Popps are a close-knit, longtime Alaska clan who talk and text and gather often at Bill's East Anchorage home. But one Sunday last March, everything Bill thought he knew about his family changed. All it took was one random Google search.
Bill, who is the president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., and his wife, Nicole, were having a conversation with his daughter over Skype. Someone brought up that his mother, Mary Lou, had a birthday coming up. How old was she going to be? Nicole said 75. Bill, in the mood to tease his wife, disagreed. Seventy-seven, he said, even though he knew Nicole was right. Nicole got frustrated. She typed Bill's mother's birthday and her maiden name, "Mary Louise Heuermann" into Google. What appeared made her gasp.
"The next thing I know," Bill said, "Nicole comes up with the laptop and she sticks it in front of me and says: 'You need to look at this.' "
It was a posting on Adoption.com, created in 2002, for a birth mother looking for her daughter. The birth mother's name was Mary Louise Heuermann. Her birth date was the same as his mother's. The baby had been born in Wyoming. That's where his mother grew up. The birth father's name, John Lockhart, was Bill's father's name. The listing said the baby had been born on April 23, 1961, two years after Bill was born.
Bill couldn't process it.
"It made zero sense," he said.
"IS THERE SOMETHING I NEED TO KNOW?"
Bill never knew his biological father. His parents divorced shortly after his birth and his mother remarried Ken Popp years later. Ken adopted Bill when Bill was 10. His father agreed to give up his parental rights at that time. He didn't want to pay child support, Bill said.
"My life, my world as I know it, is I have a younger brother and a younger sister. The brother is 10 years younger, the sister is 12 years younger and there's nobody in between."
Bill clicked a link on the Adoption.com listing to contact the poster. It brought up a phone number in Vilseck, Germany. Bill's sister, Kristin, had been stationed there years before with her husband who was in the Army. Bill dug up her phone number from that time. It matched the number on the listing. There was also an email address. Bill decided to send a message. Maybe, he thought, it was all some kind of joke.
"I sent an email to the link saying, 'Hi my name is Bill Popp,' or words to that effect. 'I think I'm a relative and would you please contact me.' "
Later that day, Bill had plans to meet with his family, including his sister, at the West High swimming pool for his nephew's birthday party. When he got there, he pulled his brother, Jeff, aside and told him what he'd found. Jeff was dumbfounded. Kristin arrived late, just as the cake was being served. Bill cornered her.
"Is there something I need to know?" he asked.
The color drained from her face. She nodded.
"IT JUST CAME OUT"
Kristin and Bill met later at Bill's house, and Kristin let go of a secret she'd been guarding for 26 years.
Kristin was 13 or 14 years old, she said, when she was watching television with Mary Lou. It was a talk show, maybe Montel Williams. The subject: mothers who gave up children for adoption.
"There was one of the birth moms saying, 'You know, I didn't want to give you up, this was not my choice,' " Kristin said. "And being 13, 14, whatever, it was like I couldn't quite comprehend, you know, if you didn't want to give up your baby, why would you do it."
First, Kristin thought that. Then she said it out loud.
"I was like, 'Why would you do it? Nobody can make you give up your child," she said.
Her mother began to weep.
"I had to," Mary Lou told her daughter.
"I don't think she ever intended to tell me," Kristin said recently. "It just came out, and once it was out she couldn't take it back."
After that, Mary Lou told Kristin a story she'd been keeping secret since she was in her mid-20s. She made Kristin promise never to tell. Kristin didn't. For decades.
"It's not my story to tell," Kristin said in a recent interview.
Several years later, in 2002, Mary Lou agreed that Kristin could create the Adoption.com post. Nearly a decade passed. Kristin almost forgot about it. Then she got the email from her brother Bill.
After telling Bill what she knew, Kristin called their mother. The next day, through tears at Bill's kitchen table, Mary Lou revealed a family secret and left him and his brother speechless.
THE SEVERING MOMENT
Bill told me the story this fall, and last week 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 where the clocks chime on the hour. I asked her to start at the beginning.
She grew up in Buffalo, in northern Wyoming, she said, 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, she said. He hid his liquor in her perfume bottles and tucked it the back of her closet. He stayed at the bar to all hours, she said. 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," she said.
He woke up angry, she said. She woke up with him punching her in the stomach. She was seven months pregnant.
"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," she said.
Within hours, she was in labor. Two days later, Bill was born. He weighed less than 4 pounds. Her husband was in the bar when Bill came into the world, she said.
"He came up to the hospital and ... he says, 'How are you?' I said, 'I'm fine.' I said, 'Have you seen the baby?' He says, 'Nah.' I said, 'Well, is he all right?' Because I knew he was, you know, premature. He turned around looked at me and said, 'Who gives a damn?' "
That, she said, was "the severing moment."
"I didn't want to have anything to do with him," she 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, she said. They said she was an embarrassment.
"(Divorce) wasn't done. You fought it through. You didn't give up," Mary Lou told me.
"You were supposed to put up with a drunk."
"THAT'S MY CHILD"
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.
"I was foolish, and he kept saying, 'Let's get married again. Let's get married again.' I was dumb. Naive," she said. "Then we found out I was pregnant."
John told her he wanted nothing to do with the baby, or with Bill, who was a toddler. She kept the pregnancy a secret until Christmas Day. Her parents were livid, she said. She planned to have the baby, 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,' " she said.
She tried to keep the identity of the father a secret, but her father found out it was John. He said things to her then that no father should ever say to a daughter, she told me.
"You can't imagine how different it was when I was going through this," she said. "You just didn't do these things."
If she refused to give up the baby, her parents threatened, they would go to court and have both children taken from her.
"I knew they would," she said. "They had that kind of pull."
She felt she had to choose between giving up one child or losing both of them, she told me.
"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 keep him," she 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. When she heard it cry, she said, there was only one thought in her mind: "I don't want to give her up. I do not want to. That's my child."
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, she said. Her siblings noticed it but Mary Lou never let on where it came from. When she was able, she took Bill and moved to Arizona, where she met Ken Popp, who she would later marry.
Longing for her daughter ate at her over all those years, Mary Lou told me. She thought about her every day, every time she saw a girl who would be her daughter's age. Holidays, her daughter's birthday, all of it burned.
"It was like a cancer. I had an itch and I couldn't scratch it," she said. "There was nothing I could do."
"DO YOU WANT TO FIND HER?"
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.
"It was like something had just blown through our lives," Bill said.
Bill always idolized his grandparents.
"My grandfather was this epic rancher, you know, rode horses, tough as nails, even in his older days," Bill said. "Grandma was this woman of serene calm and grace."
Knowing what they'd put his mother through, "it just rips my heart out, there's no other way to describe it," he said. He didn't know how to feel. He looked at his mother across the table.
"Do you want to find her?" he asked.
Mary Lou's face filled with anguish.
"I'd like to meet her once before I die," she said.
"I'm on it," he said.
Tomorrow: The Popp family embraces a lost sister and daughter who'd already come far closer to them than they ever expected. (Read Part 2 here)
This column is part of a collaboration with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Listen for a companion radio story on KSKA 91.1 at the end of December.