For years Lydia McGilvrey searched for her birth mother. Instead she found a sister, because of the friendship of two young girls.
McGilvrey, 37, was adopted twice, the first time shortly after she was born.
“The mother died of cancer when I was 4 months old,” she said. “When I was 5 months and 5 days old, I went to what I consider my parents, Richard and Vivian Waller.
“My dad was a dentist in Gig Harbor for 35 years. I had the dream life growing up - the cheerleader dating the football star.”
She worked for Waller until he retired, then for another dentist and is now an administrative assistant and sales secretary at Sound Medical Equipment.
Married and divorced twice, she has two children, Ericka Schlueter, 11, and Flynn Griffin McGilvrey, 6.
It was a friendship between Ericka and a fifth-grade classmate, Bethany Halcomb, that brought McGilvrey and her birth family together - but the truth eluded them for a while.
McGilvrey and the classmate’s mother, Tammy Halcomb, became friends.
A year later, they have learned that they are sisters, the daughters of Rose Whittles McMahon Lykstad, a deeply troubled woman who died 20 years ago.
“She had a drug and drinking problem and was epileptic and was not able to work,” said Halcomb, 49, the oldest of Whittles’ five children. “She pretty much lived from bar to bar and man to man.”
It was McGilvrey who hired Karen M. King, an adoption-search consultant based in Renton and approved by the state to examine sealed records and act as a confidential intermediary between the people involved.
McGilvrey had always wondered about her origins.
“It was always there. I would pass people in the mall, and if they were the right age and looked a little like me, I’d want to walk up to them and say ‘Excuse me, but did you adopt a daughter out 18 years ago?”’
She never had an inkling her new friend in this hamlet on Carr Inlet west of Tacoma was really her sister. And in July, the Halcombs moved to Olympia and they drifted apart.
Then on Dec. 18, McGilvrey learned her sister’s name and called her. Only after they had been on the phone a while - and Bethany began to eavesdrop - did they realize they already knew each other.
Like the mothers, who could hardly wait to meet again as sisters, the two girls were excited to see each other as cousins.
Still, a week before Christmas, with boxes of decorations and rolls of wrapping paper all over their living rooms, the women wanted a neutral meeting place. They also wanted to tell their story, so they settled on the lobby of the News Tribune in Tacoma.
Halcomb brought photographs of her grown children, most of her 20 grandchildren and many of the 18 cousins Lydia didn’t know she had.
She wiped away tears as she began telling her sister about their mother, starting with her own birth.
“We ended up in The Seattle Times,” she said.
Her father, 17, was driving Whittles, 15, to a hospital in Seattle when their car broke down. Police picked them up, loaded them into a paddy wagon and were racing to the hospital when another car hit them head-on.
“They found mother in a ditch,” Halcomb said, “but they got her to the hospital.”
Her parents split up when she was 6 months old. By the time she saw her mother again, 16 years later, Whittles was a wreck. Records show she had at least three husbands and never got a divorce. No father is listed on Lydia’s birth certificate.
Thirty years ago, Halcomb said, one of her aunts would take her to bars, get drunk and talk about matters no one else mentioned. That’s how she learned that her mother had a daughter at age 28 and put the baby up for adoption.
“I thought about trying to find her,” Halcomb said. “Basically I prayed, ‘God, if there’s a sister out there, could you bring her to me?’ “
By 1976, with four children of her own, she had lost count of the times she responded to her troubled mother’s calls for help in the middle of the night. That Christmas Eve, one of her aunts invited the whole family to a party. As the evening ended, she realized her mother had managed to stay sober.
“I went over and hugged her and said ‘Mama, I’m really proud of you.’ We went home, and in the middle of the night she called. She said ‘Sis, you need to come get me.’
“It was Christmas Eve and I had four children at home, and I had gone so many times before. I opted to let this one slide, and I disconnected the phone.
“At 8:30 Christmas morning the phone rang. It was one of my aunts saying ‘Tammy, your mother is dead,’ ” she said.
Whittles’ body had been found in an apartment she shared with her boyfriend. No charges were ever filed in her death.
“Christmas has been hard,” Halcomb said. “Generally I get through it fairly well, but this year was harder.”
Until last week.
“I guess what I thought was mother had been taken from me on Christmas. I’ve always felt that loss,” Tammy said. “It’s as if the Lord gave me Lydia, not as a replacement, but she’s a part of Mom. It’s almost like a special gift to me.”