August 31, 2022

I Knew You Were There: Marie O’Leary Wydra & Megan (Wydra) McKercher

Out-of-wedlock pregnancy was a mortal sin in 1950s Ireland, where unwed pregnant girls were confined to notorious mother-baby homes. Their nuns forced the girls to work 14-hour days and denied them medication to ease the pain of childbirth. When the babies were born, their mothers return to working in hopes to take their children home but the cruel church and Irish government sold the infants to wealthy American and European families.

Marie was one of those children. Adopted into her own hellish nightmare at age two, she never gave up hope that one day, she would meet her birth mother again. Decades later, with her daughter Megan at her side, Marie set out to find her Irish mother. Here is my conversation with Marie and Megan.

Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Benji Block and it’s my honor today to have Marie and Megan with me, a mother/daughter duo who have just authored a new book titled, I Knew You Were There: A Stolen Child’s Search for Her Irish Mother. Marie, Megan, thanks for joining me today here on Author Hour.

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: Thanks for having us.

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Absolutely, thank you.

Benji Block: So this is the type of story that even just in the title is clearly going to catch some attention, “A Stolen Child’s Search for Her Irish Mother.” It’s one thing to live a story like this, it almost feels like it was begging to be a book but I wonder as a mother/daughter duo, how do you come to this, “Okay, we’ve lived the journey, we’ve gone on the search. Now, we actually want to write a book that other people can read.”

Marie, was it you that wanted to do the book? Megan, was it you? I wonder where that conversation started going, “Okay, we need to get this out into the world.”

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: I think it was both. We definitely have pushed also from people who followed our journey in general, when we were searching for Marie’s mother and they weren’t really the ones that were influencing us. They said, “This is a book.” Not only a book, they said, “This is a movie.” But we had to start with the book first.

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Actually, never in my lifetime will I have ever thought that I would be writing a book at all but the encouragement we received in our minds, the miraculousness of everything that transpired and the fact that if one thing hadn’t occurred along the way, this would have never happened — if everything had to have fallen into place. So we felt that – and it has several messages that I’ve always wanted to share with people and so this was our platform.

Benji Block: I love that you both decided to do this together and I’m sure that we’ll get to even somehow this has bonded to two of you. I wonder as you’re working on a project like this, you’re sharing story but, who are you imagining reading this? Like who is the ideal reader, Megan?

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: I think the best part about this story is, even in just our pre-marketing before the book launched, it’s speaking to everybody. Anybody who has children, it’s really resounding with from the abusive asset like, “Oh my God. Marie, I can’t believe like anybody can do this to a child.” It’s speaking to people that have overcome abuse, neglect, anything like that. So really, we kind of were homing in on one market but we thought maybe women, but, really, it’s speaking to everybody, which we’re very excited about.

Benji Block: Yeah, I see how it could resonate with multiple markets and I think I will say, I am glad you didn’t just market it to women. I still get to do interviews with authors that write books to just women but I definitely found myself captivated by this story and so let’s dive into some off the content here, and Marie, we’ll start with you because the book begins with laying out much of your story and I want to read a quote here.

But the book states that, “In Ireland in the 50s, becoming pregnant out of wedlock was considered a mortal sin committed by the whole family and many priests who found out that an unwed girl in their parish was pregnant would abduct her from her home in the middle of the night, take her to a mother and baby home to have the child and ban the rest of the family from taking communion.”

So I couldn’t even, like, it was so hard for me to realize that this is not like far back history. This is recent, this is stuff that you might think maybe happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago but it’s truly appalling to think like this is in our lifetime, in your lifetime. So could you paint us a picture of this practice and ultimately what you ended up being involved in, Marie, not by your choosing, obviously.

How The Journey Started

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Sure. Well, obviously, the part where my mother had me in a mother-baby home was you know, not my story per se but – and I honestly wasn’t aware of a lot of this until we actively started to search and I saw the movie Philomena. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, kind of the opposite of my story but the same story.

A young girl who had a baby out of wedlock and was sent to one of these homes and stayed and worked and was tortured and not given pain medication when she had her baby and only allowed to see her child a half hour a day and then, they brought her to the front lobby when he was two years old and took him from her and made her watch while the family drove away with him.

I was not aware of any of that until I saw the movie, any of the atrocities that occurred there. So all of that started with my mother and I never knew that and it just changed my whole outlook on the adoption and what I went through because I never really focused on her going through something because you know, I didn’t know that part of the story and it just broke my heart—to think that she went through that.

Benji Block: Yeah, as you learned that, have you come to any knowledge of what maybe prompted that practice or was this just something that you then, you know, kind of found out? Because to me, I know there’s always been some complications in the way that the church thinks about sexuality and obviously, this is a horrible practice and it sounds like even, there was like a church and potentially like a government role there but I wonder if you have learned anything about what prompted this?

Marie O’Leary Wydra: I mean, not really. You know, I believe that the nuns took the thought that this was a mortal sin extremely, extremely, to a whole new level and that you know, every young girl, every girl that walked through those doors was a sinner and she was made to atone for her sins, working and suffering through her labor and having her baby taken away. A terrible practice but I honestly, I believe these nuns felt that this was what they were to do because it was an atrocity against religion, sadly.

Benji Block: So your story really starts to shift. I think you’re not even two yet and then from two to 16, you describe your home in America as an absolute nightmare. Talk about what happens to you that you end up in the States and then the home that you actually land in.

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Well, the couple that adopted me were in their 40s, couldn’t have children of their own and found out that if you went to your home country, my adopted mother was born in Ireland and the adoptive father, his parents were born in Ireland. So they went to their home country and it was pretty much an easy task and not a lot of vetting, according to him in later years when we spoke of it.

He’s basically, as long as you had a boatload of money and you were Catholic, you can get a baby.

Benji Block: Wow. So they adopt you but the nightmare side of it because that would sound like, okay, maybe land in a good family, land in a good situation, maybe it sets you up but that’s actually the opposite of what happened?

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Correct.

Benji Block: Tell me a little bit about your experience there and some of the impact that your stepmom had on your childhood?

Marie O’Leary Wydra: In the beginning, I think we noted that I was very active child and I think along with probably the fact that she was older and not very tolerant, I don’t really know anything about her. They never spoke, they never really talked to us. So I only have my memories of what occurred and how I was treated and my earliest memories are very – it was just every day was the same.

I was being locked in covers, probably because I overwhelmed her with activity, who knows? I don’t know the answer to that. You know, beaten and verbally abused constantly and I don’t remember her ever smiling, except if we were in public, then she would smile but it was just dark. The whole beginnings of my life were just dark, always put somewhere to stay out of the way.

Benji Block: Was it constantly held over your head, the fact that you were adopted or how did you learn of that and then, I wonder where that dream eventually meeting your birth mother came to reality? I love how you speak of that in the book.

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Well, I really didn’t realize. I just thought I was there, was hers and then I went to kindergarten and she had to walk me that day. It was at the top of our street actually and during the course of the day, a little boy said to me, “Who was that lady you were with?” I said, “Well, that’s my mother” and he said, “That’s nobody’s mother, that’s an old lady” and I said, “No, that’s my mother” and then on the way home, I thought, “What?”

So I actually was brave enough when I got home, I can vaguely remember this, where I asked her, “Where’s my mother?” and whoa that was the wrong thing to do but it just set her off and she said, “You know, your mother threw you away, you were disgusting, she didn’t want you and she’s dead and you’ll never find her,” and that clicked in my brain and I thought, “Wait a minute, this isn’t my mother, I have a mother.”

I had started to see that around the neighborhood, when we were allowed out or we saw other families that you know, they were happy and they talked to each other and I thought, “Oh.” So that got in my mind and I thought, “Well, I bet she’s going to come get me when she can” in my childish innocent mind and so from that point on, I lived my life even young like that, I lived my life to be ready to meet my mother and to be doing things that would please her so she wouldn’t think I was fat, ugly, disgusting and all the things that were drilled into my brain.

From Nightmare To Hope

Benji Block: Wow. So then as you come of age, what effects, like, household that you’re living in, being a nightmare but also having this hope? Like, I wonder how that affects your psyche and ultimately, the decision that you made because you’re clearly a mother now. How does it or the way you were raised, impact a way that you’ve chosen to mother?

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Well, I can remember sitting under the stairs in the basement and she would be screaming and trying to get at me but it was a very small space, she couldn’t get at me and I, even five, six, seven years old, I knew what I wanted to be anything but like her and in the middle of all that, my brother arrived and he was equally as abused, if not more.

She just seemed to take a real dislike to him and that affected me also because I felt you know, I was stronger, I felt — and I tried to protect him in every single way I could but he was very shy. He was very awkward and you know, he just stood there and took whatever she gave and I tried to protect him as much as I could but that affected me greatly, also.

But from that point on, as time was going on, as I was getting a little older, I just decided, “My mom’s going to come and get me, I’m going to try to do good the best I can and then she’ll be happy when she comes to get me and she won’t think I’m disgusting” and that’s kind of how it went for years and years.

I also became angry and in particular, I think in the book I mentioned that I met in second grade a little girl’s mom invited me into her house one morning and that just – I can’t think of a word. It just opened up a new world for me because from that point on, Cathy Miller’s mom was my mom. Not her in particular but that’s who I pictured my mom to be — kind, gentle, generous, loving, loving her babies, I just was living vicariously.

Benji Block: Yeah, yeah.

Marie O’Leary Wydra: You know, through that.

Benji Block: Well, Megan McKercher, let’s have you now jump into this story. We’re going to hit fast forward a bit and I wonder, at what point as you were growing up did you start to learn some of what your mom went through and there’s obviously an age where maybe you know some of the story but you’re not, you know, you’re just in your own little world as a kid. At what age does it start hitting you, like this would be an amazing journey and I want to be a part of my mom’s journey with all of this.

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: So I would say in my late teens, I started getting a little more information. We actually took my grandpa in, which would be my mom’s adoptive father when he got Alzheimer’s and my dad would say little things about her childhood and he even said at one point like, “I can’t believe you took him in after everything” and something in my head flipped a switch like, “What do you mean everything?” you know? Because Marie didn’t talk about any of this.

She really kept it in her heart and really, until we started writing the book, she kept 98 percent of this tucked away. So I would say in my early twenties as our mother and daughter friendship really grew and I graduated college and I was starting to work and started my business and I had the means, that really actually motivated me to do anything I could have to help her get any information past both to—she just wanted to know where she came from.

Did she look like her mother? Did her mom want her? Once that set into my heart, it broke my heart having such a good relationship with her, I couldn’t imagine not knowing my mother.

Benji Block: Wow, I hope one of the main learnings from this book and from your story is also just the power of us sharing what we’ve been through with the next generation and vice-versa. I love that you guys are doing this and have done this together and I love the learning process, Megan, for you getting to learn so much about your mom through this and I think there’s just – there’s not that many stories that are maybe as wild and crazy as this and all the twist and turns.

They’re not going to all turn into books but I do think it’s so important that from the older generation to the kids that we would know our parents and that we would feel fully known and fully seen and I think you guys are modeling that in a very unique way by coming out with this book and so I commend you for that. I want to ask, it is one thing to talk behind closed doors and be like, “Man, it be really cool to go on this journey and try to find her.” It is another thing to be like, “Let’s put a plan in place and let’s do this thing” like where do you even start a search like this Megan? What was the go-to way to begin?

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: Well, we had no clue if I am being very honest. To be candid, we really didn’t know where to start. So we started with a trip, my husband and I and we decided to go back. My husband actually proposed to me in Ireland, so we just always got a special place in our hearts there. So we said, “You know what? She started expressing more and more interest to find her mother” and I said, “Let’s bring Marie with us,” and bring any of the documentation that we were able to gather over the years, which I will say is minimal at this point in time.

What really helped crack our case open, if you want to call it that, is the mother and baby homes were in the press over there because they found mass graves and once that information got leaked and was now in the news, that really opened up everything for us because the government couldn’t lie and Irish Catholic Church couldn’t lie about what happened over there anymore, so a lot of documents started to get unsealed.

The church became more likely to respond to your messages and once we reached out to her home that she came from, which was St. Patrick’s, they sent us a letter finally and that really is what helped launched me into going, “All right, we’re going to do this. We’re going over there.”

Benji Block: I wonder Marie, what your thought process, because it’s been a dream since you’re a kid, but it’s one thing for it to live in your head and then it’s another thing to go, “Oh, I’m actually going to get on a plane. I am going to go over there and I don’t know what’s about to happen.” My dream could either come true theoretically or in some ways, it could be shattered. There is so many different outcomes that could have happened.

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Absolutely. I had minimal expectations. At some point when I was in my late 30s, I finally let go of the fact that my mom was going to come and find me and that I had limited means and I knew that I could not do it over the pod search because I had put out a little feelers and a friend of mine at work had tried to hook me up with someone who did this, and I had three little ones, and it just wasn’t something that I thought could actually happen.

But to be honest with you, like I was telling you earlier, that if every little thing didn’t fall into place, we wouldn’t have gone on this journey. The first thing that happened was my friend called and said, “You need to watch the movie, Philomena. It’s your story.” I watched it, I came back and I sobbed the story to Megan and that, to be honest, was the impetus that started everything because I had no idea what my mother had gone through and the both of us are pretty tender-hearted.

We take care of elderly people and Megan is a dynamo and she said, “Look, let’s give this a shot.” So from that point on, things started to happen and it was a three-year period from the time that that happened until, yes, until we actually got to hug her. A three- or four-year period but little things happened along the way. Megan hooked me up with a Facebook page for the St. Patrick’s orphanage that I was from and I watched and saw stories, horrific stories from birth mothers and from children who have been taken away from their moms.

Most of them are negative, so every now and again, there would be a positive one and that positive and Megan also shared those with me and she said the positive ones made her feel like this was worth the try.

Benji Block: I loved that you pointed out miracles and strangers in the book and you do that several times and clearly, we’re telling people go pick up the book. There’s so many parts of this journey, we’re not going to be able to highlight in a 20-to-30-minute conversation but are there some specific people or some specific miracle moments Megan that stand out to you in this process of actually seeing it come to an end in a successful great ending?

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: Well, I will say this, the driver that we got in his car. I was supposed to rent a car and when we landed in Ireland, we were going to hit the ground running and go to the two towns that the DNA test linked us up to, to find cousins and when we were landing, I told her, “You know what? I just don’t think I can drive over there on the other side of the road, on the car” blah-blah-blah.

So Marie was like, “Don’t even worry about it. We’ll get a car when we get to the hotel” and to me, that right there was a defining miracle moment. If I would have been driven, I don’t know if we would have found her, maybe Luke would have just not in that trip but I got in the right car of the right driver, who then set us on our actual journey and connected us to all the right people.

Benji Block: Yeah, it’s so fascinating how there’s just several moments where this thing could have been stopped or detoured and things lined up and I am glad for both of you. I appreciate that you’ve taken time to write this out. I want to talk about the moment that you finally actually get to meet your mom, Marie. Tell me a bit about that and the emotion that you felt in that moment.

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Well, I have goosebumps right now because we got picked up at the airport by my amazing siblings, who welcomed us in and said, “Don’t ever call us half-brother and half-sister. We’re your family” welcomed us right in and so that was very calming on the way there but unfortunately, all the old nagging issues that I had about not feeling good enough and would she not like me, would she think I was disgusting.

The other part of that was, “Oh my god, what am I doing to her. I know this journey. I feel like this journey was led by angels but now I am here, what am I going to do to her?” She is 89 years old and you know, she kept this secret a very, very long time close to her heart and am I going to be hurting her, causing her angst? So that was what I was feeling when I got out of the car in front of her little adorable house and everyone walked ahead of me.

Megan and I, Megan was standing back so she could video and I froze and I ran right into the back where she did and she goes that it hit. What did you say to me?

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: I said, “Oh we’re here. You’re going in right now.” We have come this far; you are not stopping your walkway.

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Well, what also stopped me in my tracks was that on the way to see her, the hour drive from the airport, they had mentioned to me, I had envisioned me walking into her arms and hugging her and you know, but they said, “Now, don’t be surprised. She is the most wonderful mother anyone could ever have. She did everything for us but she’s not very touchy feely and she’s not a hugger.”

So as I am walking up there, I think, “So what am I going to – what should I do?” and you know, but all of that, all of that was for naught because when I walked in the door our eyes locked immediately. She had these beautiful blue eyes. Our eyes locked and I mean, I walked right into her arms and to be honest, we were only together for two and a half days. We never let go of each other the entire time except for the time we left her and give her a nap, to give her a break but we held each other, we looked at each other. I mean, we’re basically soaking 62 years of missing each other in those two days, to be honest.

Benji Block: Man, yeah. Now, I don’t have dry eyes anymore, so thanks for that.

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Oh god, me either.

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: I knew it was coming.

The Kindness of Strangers

Benji Block: Yeah. I think that is such an interesting part of the story as well is highlighting just how—like you don’t need that much time to then once you see each other feel that level of connection and realize like you both had missed each other for all of these years and I love that you were, man, what a journey. Just what a journey. I want to ask both of you how this whole experience you feel has changed you now I am having some hindsight. So Megan, I’ll start with you, what did you learn? How has this experience changed your life?

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: You know, I have always tried to be kind to people. I always try to do things for people. I go above and beyond because I have been very fortunate and blessed in my life and I have always tried to translate that to other people. I think the thing that really impacted me the most was how none of this would have happened without the kindness of strangers and I truly in my heart believe that.

I do believe there is divine intervention at play but strangers who answered messages, who took calls, who welcomed us into their home, that changed me because I know you should be kind to everybody but actually having these people do it and welcome absolute strangers from another country into their home really, really did something to me.

Benji Block: Yep, that’s definitely highlighted in this book and I think it restores some level of faith in humanity. That’s beautiful the way you choose to tell the story and thank all of those kind strangers. Marie, how about you? Looking back, what sticks out to you about this journey?

Marie O’Leary Wydra: I also feel that the biggest thing I took away was their kindness, the kindness that we were shown by every single person that we came in contact with, how the timing, it was timed up heavenly perfectly I believe. Us meeting her, it was meant to be and I will never forget the gratefulness and the joy to finally be able to look into her eyes, hold her hands and to hear her say she didn’t want me to go and you know, she just kept me in her heart.

I had said the same thing to her. I said all the two of us could really do was keep each other in our hearts even though we’ve never seen each other. I for some reason knew she was there. That kept going back and forth in my mind when we were thinking about the title, to tell you, all I felt her and I have heard this from other adoptees. I felt her pulling for me and –

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: Boy, did she need it.

Marie O’Leary Wydra: And I needed it and so when we met, it was just like, “Ah, it’s you,” and she looked at me and she said, “It’s you” and we just literally barely talked. Honestly, little things, little funny things we found, we saw that we were very much alike in many things, which –

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: They looked so much alike, which the family thought that was hilarious. They said, “You look more than mom than we do.”

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Yeah, there is something and I have read it a lot are about adopted children, they want to know that they were a part of someone and were they like them, did they look like them and probably the most impactful thing that happened of this second part of the book where we were on our journey and there in Ireland was the cousin who called my sister and said, “Hey, I’ve got a lady here, says she’s your, you know, your mom is her mom.”

When I walked up to her, indoor and I had all my documentation with me, I said, “I brought everything with me so you know I am who I say I am” and she goes, “Oh, you don’t need that honey.” She goes, “You look just like our mom” I mean, that meant everything in the world to me and the gentleman that helped us goes, said to me because we didn’t know if she was alive on that day at all.

He said, “If all you ever find out is that you look like you mom and you’ve seen a picture of her, will that be enough for you?” and actually, I didn’t even know I’d get that much. So I am beyond grateful and forever changed by the kindness of all who helped us.

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: We lived a miracle.

Marie O’Leary Wydra: We really did.

Benji Block: Well, the book goes into greater detail on this story but I so appreciate you guys taking time and being here on Author Hour and breaking down some of it. Thanks for the work. Again, the title, I Knew You Were There: A Stolen Child’s Search for Her Irish Mother. Megan, Marie, what are the best ways for people to stay connected? Is there any website around the book or anything like that or just go buy it on Amazon?

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: There is a website, it is iknewyouwerethere.com.

Benji Block: Fantastic.

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: They can follow us on Instagram, we’re actually heading to Ireland tomorrow and we’re going to be posting about our journey there and they can follow us @knewyouwerethere on Instagram.

Benji Block: Perfect. That is wonderful, we hope you have a fantastic trip and thanks for taking time to stop by Author Hour. I consider it an honor to get to chat with both of you.

Megan (Wydra) McKercher: Thank you.

Marie O’Leary Wydra: Thank you, we appreciate it.