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

March 20, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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