SCARBOROUGH — Leigh Boughton Small was making dinner for her family one evening in September when her laptop dinged, telling her she had a new email.

She considered checking it later, but something made her stop preparing pasta and read the message that would change her life.

Leigh Boughton Small was about 2 years old in this photo of her with her birth mother, Nguyen Thi Dep, in Vietnam in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy of Leigh Boughton Small

By 9 p.m. Small was on the phone, speaking with her birth mother in Vietnam. The woman she often wondered about, even searched for once, but barely dared to dream she would ever find. The woman who had left her at an orphanage 44 years ago, hoping to save her life in the chaos leading to the fall of Saigon. The woman who had regretted her decision ever since.

“Did you have a happy life?” the woman wanted to know. “Did you have a good life?”

“Yes,” Small responded, her voice certain, her hands trembling.

It was a tentative exchange in a long-fractured relationship that has only just begun to heal. In the last few months, Small, 47, has managed a torrent of emotions and new information. About the birth mother who gave her up in the final days of the Vietnam War. About the American GI who was her birth father.

In November, Small went to Vietnam to meet her birth mother, now 70, and a large extended family. The reunion filled huge gaps in Small’s memory and understanding of who she is and where she comes from. The impact has been overwhelming, pushing a usually confident and composed woman to tears.

“I’m not a mushy-gushy person, but it was like a tsunami,” Small said. “I was crying all the time. I couldn’t get my bearings. It was like I was letting go of 40 years of not knowing.”

CHAOS BEFORE THE FALL

Small’s birth mother, Nguyen Thi Dep, gave her up for adoption in what’s known as Operation Babylift, when more than 3,000 children were airlifted out of South Vietnam in April 1975, days before the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon.

The controversial airlift included children who weren’t orphans but were given up by parents who had worked with or been sympathetic to American forces. The airlift also lacked effective record-keeping, so it was nearly impossible for parents like Nguyen to learn what happened to their children. Some didn’t realize they would never see their children again.

Anxiety over the airlift heightened when the first flight crashed and there was no passenger list to identify 78 children who died. Hundreds of families divided by Operation Babylift continue to search for loved ones through social media and on websites such as vietnambabylift.org. Few have been as fortunate as Small and Nguyen to find each other again.

Friends had urged Nguyen to put her daughter on an airlift, fearing she might be killed as American forces withdrew, Small said. Nguyen spoke English and had worked as a maid and a telephone operator at a U.S. Army installation in Saigon. Small’s birth father, Joseph O’Neal, was a GI who served three tours in Vietnam and played drums in a band that performed for troops.

An undated photo taken in Vietnam of Leigh Boughton Small’s birth parents, Joseph O’Neal, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War, and Nguyen Thi Dep, who reunited with Small in November. Photo courtesy of Leigh Boughton Small

Small’s birth parents developed a relationship when Nguyen sang with O’Neal’s band, Small said. They were together for a couple of years, then lost touch after O’Neal returned to the states for good in 1973, about a year after Small was born. Nguyen sent O’Neal a letter, telling him she had put their daughter up for adoption, but it was returned unopened.

Back then, Small’s name was Nguyen Thi Phuong Mai. She was just 3 years old when her birth mother signed paperwork in a panic and left her at the orphanage, Nguyen told Reuters when the news agency covered the reunion.

In their last moments at the orphanage, Nguyen told Phuong Mai that she had to go wash her face and would be right back. As she walked away, she heard Phuong Mai call out to her, “Mom, don’t leave.” Nguyen told Reuters that she fought the urge to return to her daughter and slipped out a back door.

‘A TYPICAL AMERICAN FAMILY’

Small remembered little of her life before she came to the United States, where she was adopted through Catholic Charities into a middle-class family and grew up mostly content in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

Her adoptive father, Roland Boughton, is a retired Coast Guard officer, and her adoptive mother, Mary Beth Boughton, is a retired teacher and children’s clothing designer. They had two biological children when they adopted Small, then they adopted a boy from the Philippines.

“It was a typical American family,” Small said. “Church on Sunday. Vacations in the back of a station wagon.”

After some turbulent teen years, Small came to Maine to study sociology at the University of Southern Maine. She worked at Idexx in customer service and Unum as a short-term disability representative. She met her husband, Jeff Small, an advertising company owner who grew up in Cape Elizabeth, at Three Dollar Deweys in Portland’s Old Port. They married, had three kids and settled in an affluent section of Scarborough, and Small became a stay-at-home mom.

Throughout her life, Small had wondered about her birth mother, but the mystery hadn’t plagued her. Or so she thought. Now, after her emotional reunion with Nguyen, she wonders if some of her defiant, sullen teen behavior was rooted in her foggy past.

“It was more a general interest in what happened and how I got here,” Small said. “I never thought about a family I had there. I didn’t realize how much I needed this information. I think I wanted someone to find me, then I’d know I was wanted.”

Vietnamese children look out the windows of a World Airways DC-8 jet as it flies them to the United States during Operation Babylift in April 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. Associated Press File Photo

Nguyen’s experience was much different. For months after she gave up her daughter, she cried every night and thought about what she had done “until it felt like my brain shattered,” she told Reuters. “My father didn’t speak to me for two months.”

Nguyen never married or had other children, Small said. She lives in the same modest house on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. She rides a bicycle to work each day as a janitor in an elementary school.

“She went through a lot,” Small said. “Her life fell apart after the war. She lost her job. She lost everything. She had no idea where I ended up. She waited every day of her life to be reunited with me. It consumed her.”

BIRTH MOTHER NEVER GAVE UP

Still, Nguyen never lost hope that she would find her daughter. She ramped up her efforts in the last decade, writing letters to U.S. officials, sharing the story of her search with newspaper reporters and appearing on Vietnamese TV shows. All of it helped to spread her story across the internet and the globe.

Nguyen Thi Dep works as a switchboard operator, a job she held at a U.S. military installation in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of Leigh Boughton Small

Small also had been looking. She knew she was adopted and half-Vietnamese, but she knew nothing about her parents. She also knew her birth name, hometown and the name of the orphanage where she had been left. She and her adoptive mother went to Vietnam in 2000, but they found nothing more. A few years ago, she submitted DNA to ancestry.com but had found only distant relatives.

Then she got that life-altering email on Sept. 24. Ancestry.com had found a sibling or first cousin. Within moments she got a second email from a woman named Bonnie in North Carolina. “I think I’m your sister,” she wrote. “Your Vietnamese mother is looking for you.”

Small learned that she and Bonnie had the same birth father, Joseph O’Neal, who died in 2011 at age 66. A 30-year-old Vietnamese man who lives in Florida had read a story about Nguyen’s search and found O’Neal’s obituary online. He saw Bonnie’s name among the survivors, tracked her down and told her about Nguyen’s search.

Small has since sketched an image of O’Neal that she hopes to clarify with time. He was married and had a family in the United States while serving in Vietnam. He also had two other daughters, according to his obituary. Born in Illinois, O’Neal had settled in South Carolina, where he worked for metal recycling companies, performed in local bands and enjoyed woodworking, boating and watching NASCAR. Throughout his life, he carried worn photos of Nguyen and their daughter in his wallet.

“I think I get a lot from him,” Small said, noting that she also enjoys boating and watching auto racing. “I’m sad I’ll never get to meet him, but I’m glad to know they had a relationship and it wasn’t just a one-night stand. He was over there for three years, so I can’t imagine what it was like for him or judge him for what he did.”

MEETING FAMILY, SINGING KARAOKE

In November, Small traveled to Vietnam with her husband, Jeff, twin sons Jack and Griffin, 18, and 16-year-old daughter, Audrey, who insisted that the kids go along.

“I knew that my mom had been stressed out over everything,” Audrey said. “I wanted to experience it with her and support her. It was great to explore this whole new country and meet this whole new family she has.”

They spent a few exhilarating and exhausting days visiting with Nguyen and more than 50 extended family members. They hugged and swapped pleasantries and exchanged gifts.

Leigh Boughton Small hugs her birth mother, Nguyen Thi Dep, before leaving Vietnam after their recent reunion. Photo courtesy of Leigh Boughton Small

Small gave Nguyen a silver necklace with a locket containing a photo of her taken recently. Nguyen gave each of her grandchildren a red envelope containing money, which is customary in Asian cultures. She also showed Small a dried bit of her umbilical cord that Nguyen had saved since giving birth – another Asian custom – and a lock of O’Neal’s hair.

At a sweltering backyard gathering, they shared platters of Vietnamese food and sang karaoke. Nguyen delivered a moving rendition of “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which she said was a favorite song. The irony wasn’t lost on Small.

She met aunts, uncles and cousins who made it clear they had never stopped mourning the loss of her in their lives, though for decades she didn’t know they existed. They doted on Small and her family, especially her husband. “You’re so lucky to have him,” they told her. She understood they meant “to take care of you.” Suddenly, Small was aware of the cultural dynamics that influenced her mother’s decision years ago and are still in effect today.

“It’s a whole new dimension to my life,” Small said. “Vietnam was a small part of my life, but (Nguyen’s decision) was a huge part of their life. We had this automatic bond, but really, we were strangers.”

HUMBLED BY HER SACRIFICE

Small left Vietnam with mixed emotions. She and Nguyen had little chance to get to know each other in such a short time, surrounded by so many people. She expects cultural differences, language difficulties and distance will continue to prove challenging.

Nguyen told Reuters that she loves her daughter and was relieved to learn she is alive and has a family of her own now. Small admits she feels something akin to survivor’s guilt, knowing how much Nguyen has suffered in her absence.

“I have a greater appreciation of the horrendous decision she had to make,” Small said. “I don’t want to disappoint her efforts. I want to live up to the devotion that she gave me.”

During their recent reunion in Vietnam, Nguyen Thi Dep shows Leigh Boughton Small a lock of her birth father’s hair that she has kept for more than 40 years. Photo courtesy of Leigh Boughton Small

Small’s husband has been shocked by the reunion’s effect on her.

“I’ve seen an emotional side of Leigh that’s quite different from the rock she has been in our family,” Jeff Small said. “I think it was humbling for her. She had an opportunity to see how fortunate her life has been because of the sacrifice her mother made. We also have a deeper appreciation of who (Leigh) is and how fortunate we are to have her in our lives.”

The story of Small’s reunion with Nguyen has traveled across the internet. People all over the world have contacted Small because they see a glimmer of hope in her experience.

“There are thousands of families out there still waiting to find someone,” Small said. “I feel like a point of light for those people.”

Small said her adoptive parents were excited and grateful for her reunion with Nguyen. Her adoptive father, in particular, told her that he now realizes how much their separation impacted Small throughout her life. Small said she hopes to form deeper relationships with her birth father’s family so she can learn more about them and him.

Small also would like her birth mother to visit her here, though Nguyen has so far declined, she said. Small plans to return to Vietnam in the future, but she doesn’t know when. For the time being, Small is focused on making Nguyen’s life as comfortable as possible and getting to know each other better through calls on the iPhone she gave her, social media and letters.

“That’s where I want to go with it – just to become friends,” Small said. “We can’t start at mother-daughter. We have to become friends first.”

Leigh Boughton Small of Scarborough, fourth from left, and her family, on right side of photo, share a meal with her mother, Nguyen Thi Dep, third from left, and relatives during a recent trip to Vietnam where Small reunited with her birth mother. To Small’s right are her daughter Audrey, sons Jack and Griffin and husband Jeff. Photo courtesy of Leigh Boughton Small


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