A Sister Found Decades-long search ends in reunion for Cumberland man

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jackson, Miss. -- After more than half a century, David Powell has a little sister again.

In a hospital room about 120 miles southeast of the plantation where his impoverished parents gave up 22-month-old Sadie Lee Lucille Powell for adoption, brother and sister met last week for the first time since 1937.

"She was so beautiful, I just couldn't believe it was her," said Mr. Powell, a Cumberland resident whose long search for his sister was detailed in the March 12 issue of Sun Magazine. After a letter from a Mississippi judge finally revealed his sister's adopted name, Mr. Powell, 60, drove the 1,000 miles from Western Maryland to meet the woman christened Catherine Louise Smith by her adoptive parents, but known to everyone as Kitty.

Though it was a joyous reunion, the exuberance was held in check by the setting. Kitty, 59, had been hospitalized four days earlier for depression -- the residual effect of a nervous breakdown she had suffered 19 years ago.

But nothing so temporary as a medical emergency was going to keep Mr. Powell from seeing his sister, from meeting the woman who for years had been only a name and a few wisp-like memories.

"I wish, when they saw each other in the hall, that at that point I could have taken a picture," said Melanie Gousset, Kitty's younger sister, who arranged for the private reunion.

The siblings stared at each. Then they embraced.

"They hugged, and they looked," Mrs. Gousset said. "Kitty said, 'Is it really David?' She just smiled, and at that point she started relaxing."

Their first meeting lasted about 45 minutes.

Kitty -- her family did not want her married name used in this article -- was dressed in an eggplant-colored dress trimmed in pink. She sat on the hospital bed, smiling at her brother and asking questions about other members of her birth family. David, so nervous about making a good first impression that he brought bottle of mouthwash along to the hospital, relished the opportunity to speak about his brothers and older sister. They have all died, but left behind a handful of nieces and nephews Kitty never knew she had.

The siblings engaged in the sort of banter only family members can get away with. When Kitty self-deprecatingly apologized for being fat, David would have none of it. You're only plump, he countered with a smile, I'm the one who's fat.

David paid a second visit in the afternoon and sang for his sister a plaintive, self-written ballad he had recorded for his wife a few years ago to celebrate their 25th anniversary. He had sent Kitty a copy of the tape, and of the 18 songs on it, she immediately chose "The River Will Come, the River Will Go" as her favorite.

The song, a tale of lasting love not diminished by distance or time, left Kitty crying softly.

Mrs. Gousset, who is five years younger than Kitty, stayed behind a few minutes after David left. Kitty's medication was making it hard for her to stay awake, but she clearly didn't want the moment to end.

"She was so relieved that David had come out so well," Mrs. Gousset said. Kitty had feared her brother would resent her for having lived a privileged life, compared to the hard times her brothers and sister had to endure.

Kitty grew up the beautiful, well-heeled daughter of James Oldrum Smith and Hortense Smith. While never rich, the Smiths were firmly entrenched in the aristocracy of the Mississippi Delta, and Kitty enjoyed all the benefits. She had a close group of friends, loving grandparents, a debutante ball when she was 20. She graduated from the Mississippi State College for Women, married and had three children.

Life could not have been more different for William David Powell. He was 3 when he watched his impoverished parents hand over his sister to strangers and walk away. His mother, Pearl, died less than a year later and was buried in an unmarked grave alongside a Mississippi levee.

After her death, David, his older sister Mildred and older brothers Robert and James rarely saw each other. David spent the next decade in and out of state homes, foster homes, relatives' homes and boarding schools. His alcoholic father beat and neglected him during one brief reunion.

Somehow, David managed to finish high school and go on to college, eventually earning a doctorate in English and joining the faculty of a small New Mexico university. Except for occasional visits with Mildred, who had married and moved to Cumberland, he lost contact with his family. He moved in with Mildred in July 1991 after losing his job at the New Mexico university.

The quest begins

It was a Christmas trip to Mildred's home in 1955 that set David on his quest to find his younger sister. But for years, privacy statutes prevented him from seeing documents that might have revealed her fate, and efforts to trace her through agencies that specialized in reuniting families separated by adoption proved a waste of time.

Last year, in part because Mildred's health was failing, David wrote and published "Sadie Lee, Where Are You?" a 100-page account of his early years. He sent copies to publishers, celebrities and Hollywood agents, hoping to reach Sadie Lee through the media. But the book failed to generate any interest.

Then, on a whim, David sent a letter to a Mississippi judge whose jurisdiction included the county where Sadie Lee had been put up for adoption. Although David didn't realize it at the time, Mississippi judges, at their discretion, are allowed to reveal information concerning adoptive parents. On March 4, an envelope arrived from the judge with the information David Powell had been struggling his entire adult life to find.

Within an hour, David Powell had found his sister. Later the same day he talked to the woman who, until that moment, lived in his memory as only a smiling, giggling playmate.

Loved and protected

Kitty Smith grew up loved and protected. Her mother would give birth to another daughter and two sons, but never wavered in her devotion to her first child. Kitty always knew she had been adopted and that her birth name was Powell -- although she didn't find out until years later that her biological father, Ocie, had tried unsuccessfully to reclaim her shortly after she was adopted.

In some families, an adopted child might have been treated differently. Not in the Smith family, said Mrs. Gousset, who remembers vividly the first -- and last -- time she tried to use the adoption as a weapon against her older sister.

"I must have been 5 or 6 years old," she said from the living room of her home, about 80 miles northeast of Greenville, Miss., where she and Kitty grew up. "We were coming home and fighting, as children do, in the car, and Kitty was getting the best of me. I turned to her and I said, 'Well, you're adopted and I'm not.'

"Mother stopped the car and she looked at all three of her natural children and said, 'Well, that is true, but I got to choose her. I had to take what came with y'all.' So adoption was never again used in a negative way.

That ended it."

At the time they adopted Kitty, both Smiths were working for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture in Greenville (not long after the adoption, Mr. Smith purchased the 300-acre farm where Kitty was raised). They had been married three years and had been told by a doctor they would be unable to have children of their own. Then they read about a quiet, sad-eyed girl who had been abandoned and was being cared for at the local hospital.

Missing her brother

In talking to the hospital staff, they found that the toddler had not spoken since her arrival there. Mr. Smith laid down next to the little girl and played with a stuffed cat he had brought for her. Soon, she uttered her first word: "Kitty."

Her second word must have been heartbreaking for the Smiths. Remembering the older brother she had played with while her parents picked cotton on a plantation in nearby Rochdale, Miss., young Kitty began asking: "Bill?"

But Bill (William David Powell wouldn't start going by his middle name for a few years yet) and the rest of her family were gone. Although Kitty couldn't know it at the time, her birth parents may have saved her life in November 1937, by handing over their 22-month-old daughter to a couple they knew only as fellow cotton pickers on the Rochdale farm.

"They were very poor, had almost nothing, and slept on some hay in one corner of the room with cotton sacks for bedding," the couple wrote in statement detailing what little they knew about the toddler's history. "They had nothing to eat but flour mixed with water and fried. The children had no clothes to mention, the baby girl had no shoes and only one thin garment, so dirty you could not tell what color it was. She was half starved and nearly frozen. I kept hearing her cry and fret and I went in their room and took the child into our room; washed her face and gave her the best we had to eat and a bed to sleep on."

Giving up a daughter

The couple turned the toddler over to a Greenville doctor when it became clear she was too sick to stay with them. That is how she wound up in the local hospital.

The Smiths were aware of all this when they adopted Kitty and would share much of the information with her as she grew up.

Kitty often spoke of her birth family and toyed with the idea of trying to find out more about them. As recently as last summer, she and Mrs. Gousset debated whether to pursue the matter. But Kitty, her sister said, decided against it, fearful that finding her birth family would only leave them hating her and her adoptive family feeling abandoned.

Kitty changed dramatically after her nervous breakdown 19 years ago, Mrs. Gousset said. Once a smiling, effusive woman who loved being around people, she became withdrawn, quiet, reluctant to be out in social situations. She and her husband divorced. Once a talented pianist, she hardly plays anymore.

Maybe David showing up after all these years will help make her sister whole again, Mrs. Gousset said.

At least, it doesn't seem to be hurting her. After David's first visit, Kitty's last words, before she nodded off to sleep, were, "Everything's OK."

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