Lost, Then Found

updated 05/29/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Opening the door of a modest home in upstate Herkimer, N.Y., on May 12, 69-year-old Lois Harrup knew this would be a Mother's Day weekend to remember. "I was a little scared, nervous, didn't know what to expect," she says. But as soon as she entered the house, Florence Lowell, 89, rose slowly out of her chair and stepped unsteadily into a warm embrace. "You see a woman and go, 'Gosh, that's my mother, where has she been?' " says Harrup. "We sat there quite a while holding hands. It was hard to know what to even say or ask."

That tentative beginning would soon give way to laughter, tears of joy and family chatter around the busy kitchen table. After all, Harrup, her mother and her sister Gladys, 68, had some serious catching up to do: The three hadn't been together since 1937. That was the year Herkimer County authorities, having removed them from their parents' custody, sent the girls to New York City's Children's Aid Society, which then placed them in foster homes. Gladys was raised—though never legally adopted—by a couple in Morrisonville, N.Y., near the Canadian border. Meanwhile, Harrup—born Bertha June Preston and nicknamed BJ—appeared in a 1939 LIFE magazine story on children who were up for adoption. Not long after, she was placed in the Union City, N.J., home of Walter and Mary Suhren, who adopted her in 1941, renaming her Lois.

As for the girls' birth mother, Florence was eventually divorced from her abusive, hard-drinking husband, Leroy Preston, a coal-yard worker with whom she'd also had a daughter, Nellie Mae, who died in 1986, and a son, Leroy, now 67. She took up with another coal man, Ralph Lowell, and bore three children by him before they wed in 1946. (Ralph Lowell, 93, now has Alzheimer's and lives in a nursing home.) But even as she built a new life, Florence was tormented by memories of her lost girls. "I set here looking out the window, crying, thinking they're coming," she says sadly. "Never stopped thinking about them. I prayed to the Lord to help me find them."

It would take six decades and some deft detective work before she succeeded. Seven years ago, one of Florence's other daughters, aided by a friendly social worker, tracked down Gladys in Morrisonville. Gladys, in turn, launched her own search, leading her to Harrup, a widow with three children and seven grandchildren who lives in Weeki Wachee, Fla. Their reunion began with shrieks and hugs when Gladys met her sister at Albany International Airport before driving the 70 miles to Herkimer. "I knew it was her, saw it in the eyes," says Gladys. Adds Harrup: "I was going to fall down, it was so emotional."

Once Lois and Gladys were joined by their half sisters Carol Blum, 60, and Esther Rogers, 63 (half brother Donald, 56, came later), Mom could barely contain herself. "I had a helluva spell," says Florence. "Pain in my chest. Everything went loose." Shaking, overcome by seeing her four daughters under one roof, she needed oxygen from a tank. "Life wasn't complete before," she says. "Now it is. I could go dancing!"

Though the sisters clicked at once, connecting with girlish affection, Harrup admits she'll need time to sort out mixed feelings toward her mother and her past. Her lone vivid childhood memory is of her father (who died in the '60s) in a drunken rage, storming into the kitchen and upending the kitchen table. She has had screaming nightmares ever since. "My mom's had a hard life—four kids by 21, a husband with a terrible temper when he got drunk," she says. "I don't blame or resent her. I just wish I could have those years back."

Lois attended Tea-neck High School, worked in Manhattan as a secretary in a publishing firm and moved with her adoptive parents to Florida in the '50s. There she met and married William Harrup Jr. The couple spent nearly a decade on Okinawa, where Bill worked in relief and surplus-food distribution for a church organization. While on Okinawa, the Harrups adopted sisters Deirdre, now 39, and Sabrina, 38. Returning to the U.S., the family—including the couple's biological son Bill, 37—moved around but eventually settled in Bill Harrup's hometown of Riverhead, N.Y., where he taught reading and math. In 1981 he and Lois returned to Florida. Widowed two years ago, she has worked at Wal-Mart since 1990.

For her part, Gladys attended Plattsburgh High School, worked for the phone company and had a daughter, Sandy, now 45, by her first husband. After that marriage ended in divorce, she took in five foster children; in 1969 she wed Byron "Joe" Mosher, a divorced contractor with three daughters. Gladys worked in checkout and in the office at Grand Union for 34 years, until 1993—and spent much of her spare time hunting for her sister. But red tape, sealed case records, changed names and strict adoption-registry laws frustrated her at every turn.

Their biological mother, meanwhile, had all but given up hope. "Grandma was afraid she was going to die before she got to see her daughters," says Charlie Rogers, 62, husband of Florence's daughter Esther. "I told her, 'We will go to the ends of the earth to find them—dead or alive.' " When Florence, a diabetic, was hospitalized with leg ulcers in 1992, the quest became more urgent. Fortunately, Charlie says, he was able to get a social worker familiar with the case to reveal Gladys's whereabouts—only, it turns out, because she had never been legally adopted. After her own Herkimer homecoming on Mother's Day, 1993—"I was emotional"—Gladys got into gear: She placed newspaper ads, contacted search agencies, surfed the Net and wrote to an assemblyman, a judge and two dozen grade schools. Finally, Charlie and Gladys had a hunch: Harrup's last known address, as of 1956—when Lois herself wrote the Children's Aid Society to help find her family—was in Florida.

At that point, Gladys persuaded a Department of Motor Vehicles clerk to send her the names and addresses of all white females with Florida licenses who were born on Aug. 15, 1930. When 231 matches came back, Gladys wrote to each woman seeking clues to one Bertha June Preston, originally of Herkimer, N.Y. Last Valentine's Day a "shocked" Harrup got Gladys's letter, promptly answering her query—and six decades of family prayers.

The sisters began repairing broken ties by revisiting the past. They walked their old neighborhood, shared family photos and made one delighted discovery: "We both love chocolate," says Gladys. A deeper bond: Both are thankful for their adoptive homes. "I had a better life than I would have had with my mother," Gladys admits. Says Harrup: "The Suhrens were good to me. I didn't suffer."

Recently, Harrup took a mortgage on a new mobile home for her lot 60 miles north of Tampa. "Now I know where I can go in the wintertime," Gladys says playfully. Clearly her long-lost sister will welcome the company. "I have wondered for years where my family was," Harrup says. "You ask, 'Where did I belong? Who did I look like? What were my parents' names?'—questions I couldn't answer and that no one else could answer for me. Now I feel I've completed the circle. There's an ending to what I was missing."

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