It had been 44 years since Alma Sipple had seen the woman, and then only briefly, yet she could not forget her--the no-nonsense brown hair, the rimless glasses, the air of authority. Everything about her said "authority"--and that's why Sipple had handed over her infant daughter. This nice woman was going to take the child to a hospital for a checkup.
Alma Sipple never saw her baby again.
All these years, she has lived with the pain of her loss, with her guilt, with a gnawing need to know if her daughter was alive.
Then, last Dec. 13, scanning the TV dial, Sipple happened on NBC's "Unsolved Mysteries," a program she wasn't in the habit of watching. She sat forward on her chair, transfixed, as Robert Stack told the story of the late Georgia Tann, an infamous Tennessee social worker who'd made a fortune running a black-market baby adoption ring in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.
Sipple recognized Tann immediately--that face, that air of authority. "When they showed her picture," she says, "I let out a scream. I said, 'That's the woman that took Irma!' My husband said I turned white. I felt like going through the television."
Viewers searching for their birth parents, or parents looking for their children, were advised during the show to contact Tennessee's Right to Know, a volunteer agency that reunites families separated by adoption, in Memphis. On Jan. 3, Sipple wrote to the address. Seven months later, with the help of that group and Marilyn Miller, an independent search consultant in Harbor City, Calif., Sipple found her daughter.
In Tennessee, Denny Glad, president of Right to Know, located the adoption records, which gave the names of Irma's adoptive parents. It was a first step. But then she was stymied. The records did not indicate the state in which the parents lived.
That's why, on July 27, Sipple contacted Miller. On Aug. 3, Miller called back with good news. She had the name and address of Sipple's daughter. She was able to tell her that she was a registered nurse, married and living in Cincinnati. But the phone number was unlisted.
That day, Sipple sent a basket of daisies and carnations to her daughter, with a guardedly written message that read, "Please call regarding family matters." Irma--now Sandra Kimbrell--was puzzled; she knew no one in California.
Kimbrell called the California number the next day. She didn't know it, of course, but she was calling a mobile home park in Carson where Alma Sipple and her husband, Steve, live. Returning home, the Sipples picked up the message on the answering machine. "I could feel my blood pressure shoot up," Alma Sipple says.
So now she had a number--but what was she going to say to this woman, a stranger whose life she was about to turn upside down?
She was scared. Would she be rejected?
"Hello, Sandra?" she said. "You know you're adopted?" Yes, she knew. "Well, this is your birth mother . . . "
Her daughter let out such a scream, Sipple says, that she had to hold the telephone at arm's length.
They talked for an hour. Sipple says, "She wanted to know what happened, how, what I looked like, how many brothers and sisters she had."
She also wanted to know, "Mom, where did you get that accent?" (Sipple is a self-described Kentucky "hillbilly," who gives both Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ wall space in her mobile home).
Kimbrell reflects, "At first, it was more than I really could take in. It's one thing when you find your birth mother. It's something else when you hear the circumstances that go with it."
This is the story she heard unfold over the next few days, Alma Sipple's story.
In the spring of 1946, Sipple, then in her early 20s, moved with her infant daughter to Memphis, where her 2-year-old son, Robert, a child of a previous marriage, was staying with friends. Sipple's boyfriend, Julius John Tallos--"Johnny"--had just shipped out to Panama. They planned to be married, by proxy, as soon as possible.
They'd met in Biloxi, where Tallos was stationed with the Air Force and Sipple was working as a bartender. By the time Irma was born--on Aug. 27, 1945--they'd been together about two years.
"We were so crazy about each other, it didn't matter if we were married or not," she recalls. Besides, there had been two marriages that ended in divorce, the first when she was only 14 and had married to get away from her Kentucky home, where there were 17 children and a razor strop was the preferred form of discipline.
In Memphis, Sipple and her two children settled into a an oil-heated one-room apartment, where she shared a pullout sofa with her toddler son and the baby girl--a dimpled child with reddish-blonde hair--slept nearby in her crib.
About six weeks after they'd moved in, a woman from the Tennessee Children's Home Society, an organization with an impeccable reputation for finding homes for orphans, came to the apartment building, saying she was investigating an alleged child-abuse case involving a neighbor.