SIDNEY — Families often take shared traits for granted — straight hair, eye color, height, a crooked eyetooth.

Sisters Betty Bickford and Sandra Jane McDougal take nothing for granted.

Bickford is more outgoing, McDougal is quieter.

Spend any time with them and you will hear their identical laughs, see the resemblance in their faces and notice that when they sit at the kitchen table, they both sit with hands clasped, leaning in at just about the same angle.

Although they lived in neighboring Kennebec County towns all their lives, drove on the same roads and knew some of the same people, and even though their sons have been friends for years, they did not meet until two years ago, when McDougal screwed up her courage and knocked on the door of Bickford’s Middle Road home in August 2014.

MISSING PIECES

Bickford never lived with her mother, Helen Elizabeth Robinson. Robinson, she said, had a mental disability and spent her life in group homes around the region. When Bickford was born in 1949, Robinson turned her infant daughter over to her mother, who already had raised 10 children of her own on the family farm in Rome.

Bickford grew up there with her grandparents and two uncles.

“We didn’t have a lot,” she said. Her grandfather had been injured in World War I and received a pension.

Bickford said her grandmother was 56 when she took in her granddaughter. Four years later, her health had declined, and she wasn’t able to take on a baby. Although Bickford was only 4, she knew something was happening, and she said that for as long as she can remember, she knew she had a sibling. “My grandmother told me. I’m glad she told me this is how it was.”

Growing up, going to school in Rome, Bickford wished for her sister, someone to talk to and confide in.

“There are things you just wouldn’t tell your grandmother,” she said. “I wanted someone to keep secrets with.”

McDougal learned in the middle of a childhood spat that she had been adopted.

“I had a very good family growing up,” she said. She had been adopted by Leland and Marian Lofstrom.

“My bratty (adoptive) sister was trying to be mean. I guess she thought I needed to know,” McDougal said. She thinks her sister probably found out by poking through family papers that both McDougal and their older brother were adopted.

Her parents confirmed she and her brother Eddie were adopted.

And that opened a void in her life and left her with the sense that part of her was missing.

PARALLEL LIVES

Bickford and McDougal grew up, married, settled down.

Bickford tried everything she could think of over the years to try to find her sister. She checked Ancestry.com and the state archives.

As a sibling, she had no standing to get access to the sealed adoption records. Information could be disclosed only with the permission of the birth mother, and Bickford said her mother, whom she didn’t see until she was 17, wasn’t interested in giving it.

“She ended up at Pineland Farms,” she said. Pineland Farms in New Gloucester was a facility for the mentally disabled. “She confirmed I had a sibling.”

The baby’s given name was Helen Jane, and that’s the name Bickford was searching under.

At one point, she finagled her sister’s birth date out of someone who was in a position to know what it was but was not in a position to disclose it otherwise.

It was something, but it wasn’t enough.

“I always wondered, ‘Is she right here? Maybe she lives somewhere around here and I don’t know it,'” Bickford said.

McDougal, whose name had been changed to Sandra Jane, took a more measured approach. Although she wanted to know, she didn’t want to hurt her adoptive parents. But nagging in the background was this compelling question: Why did her mother give her away?

At the same time, she wasn’t sure how, after a lifetime of separation, she would be received.

In another of the string of coincidences that have linked the sisters, Bickford graduated from high school with McDougal’s brother, Eddie, but the sisters’ paths never crossed in high school because McDougal started high school the next year.

“He went into the service after high school,” she said. “He had already asked our adoptive aunt for help finding his family.”

But Eddie went to Vietnam, and died there, so he never knew any members of his own biological family.

When Eddie’s biological brother came looking for his family, McDougal said she wanted nothing to do with him, and she avoided him for a long time, even though her adoptive mother encouraged her to meet him. Eventually, McDougal relented, and now she lives near him; but initially she had wondered whether her own biological family would be so welcoming, and she had worried about it.

CLOSING THE CIRCLE

Bickford had spent some time searching for another member of her family — her father, whom she had never met, but she knew he was also her sister’s father.

She knew he was Robert McKay, of Fairfield Center, and she knew he was about 20 years older than her mother.

She tracked down a phone book, saw McKays listed, and although she was very nervous, she started dialing the phone.

“I asked, ‘Do you know a Bob McKay?'” she said.

Bickford had found her uncle, Coleman. He and his wife told her what they could, which wasn’t much because no one knew where Robert McKay was, but they had heard he had a daughter.

In 2011, Maine opened its adoption records, and McDougal got her birth certificate.

From there, a simple Internet search made the connection. She found Robinson’s obituary and the name of her sister, then Betty Ouellette, of Sidney.

McDougal had no trouble finding Bickford’s home. It was just down the road from the home of one of her mothers-in-law she used to visit regularly.

That didn’t make knocking on that door any easier. But by August 2014, McDougal was ready to take the risk.

“I thought she was a saleswoman,” Bickford said earlier this month, seated at her kitchen table only feet from that door.

She invited the woman in, and waited while she stopped to pet Bickford’s dog.

“I asked her if her mother was Helen Robinson and if she was Betty Ouellette. I said, ‘I’m your sister.'”

And in the instant that Bickford wrapped her arms around her sister, the circle closed.

“I feel like the circle of life has been completed,” McDougal said.

“I always felt like something was missing,” Bickford said. “I said to my children that it’s important to connect with your family. I can’t get over the fact that we were so close and so far apart.”

Bickford, now 66, retired from Maine Revenue Services and spends half the year in Florida.

McDougal, now 62, lives in Clinton and works three days a week at Goudreau’s Retirement Inn as a cook.

Since that summer day, they have met members of each other’s families, and they get together when they can.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ


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