By BOBBY PEPPER
TUPELO The identity of her father has never been a mystery to Britt Brigman.
Brigman knew his name and that he was in the U.S. Coast Guard on the Mississippi River when he and her mother had a relationship 23 years ago. She had known all of this while growing up in Fulton, but never felt a desire to connect with the father she'd never met.
All of that changed when Brigman became a mother.
Brigman, 22, realized how important it would be for her children to actually know their maternal grandfather, especially if he were still living.
“When you're young, you kind of have this attitude of I don't need him. I made it 16 years without him and I can make it 16 years more',” said Brigman, a housewife who has lived in Tupelo three years. “Then I had my little boy when I was 18 and then I had my daughter.
“I didn't want to have to answer to them one day if they asked why they didn't have a Poppaw.”
With the help of a friend with Coast Guard ties, Brigman's father was found. And on Brigman's birthday, father and daughter spoke to each other for the first time.
Brigman received a phone call Oct. 13 from her father, Neal True, and the two have been making up for lost time ever since. They speak with each other by phone almost every day, and True drove to Tupelo from his home in east Texas to visit his newfound daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren during the Thanksgiving weekend.
Both are grateful a bond has been formed.
“I basically did it for the kids, but it's been a blessing for me,” Brigman said.
True, 46, said, “It's been wonderful. I can't explain how exuberant I am about it. It's been one of the defining moments of my life.”
Brigman is convinced True didn't realize her mother was carrying a child when they went their separate ways in early 1981. True had been stationed in Greenville with the Coast Guard.
“When my mom was pregnant with me, things didn't work out and he just never knew about the pregnancy,” she said. “So he didn't know anything about it.”
In a telephone interview from his home near Diana, Texas, True said the relationship with Brigman's mother was ending when he was given orders to relocate.
“I got transferred to another duty station and we were kind of on the outs at that time,” he said. “Of course, being a young man and in the service having to go from ship to ship and duty station to duty station, I really didn't think of it. We split and I went on to live my life and really didn't know anything until they called me.”
Brigman received help from Ron Crump, a chief in the Coast Guard and brother-in-law of Brigman's friend, Vicki Crump.
Ron Crump, who is stationed in Louisville, Ky., was visiting relatives in the early fall when Vicki told him about Brigman's attempt to find her father.
With Ron Crump's assistance, True was found.
True, a chef at a members-only dinner club in Longview, Texas., recalls the phone call he received at 6:15 a.m. on Oct. 13 that opened the way to the reunion. The caller told about Brigman, her mother, his Coast Guard stay in Greenville and other information that convinced True he had a child in Mississippi.
“I tell people all the time I walked around for days just going wow',” said True, who also has a 26-year-old son from a previous marriage. “To say knock you over' wouldn't even describe it. It was just a surreal feeling.”
After talking it over with his wife, Kathy, True decided to reach out to his daughter.
Brigman said she was at home when True called. She was stunned when the phone rang and she saw his name on the caller ID.
“To be honest, I really didn't think he'd call,” she said. “But he did.”
They began talking about their lives up to that point. Brigman volunteered to undergo paternity tests, but True said there was no need. He was confident with everything Brigman knew about him she was indeed his daughter.
Brigman later asked her father – for her children's sake – if he wanted to continue their relationship.
“I said if you're not planning on holding up to your responsibilities and going forward with this and stepping up to the plate, tell me now because I really don't want to get my kids involved if this isn't going to grow into something,'” she said.
True said he wanted to, and Brigman was pleased.
“He has been open arms about it from the get-go,” she said. “No questions.”
Face to face
After a month of conversing over the phone, True and Brigman met for the first time Nov. 29 at Brigman's home. True and his wife had driven 9 1/2 hours to see Brigman, her husband Timmy, 3-year-old son Peyton and daughter Brooklyn, who turns 1 in March.
“We had been talking since Oct. 13, so we kinda were in a comfortable enough zone that it wouldn't be too nerve-wracking when we first met,” Brigman said. “Still, it was a very overwhelming feeling. I was too nervous to answer the door. I had my husband to answer it.”
The first night Brigman, True and their spouses went out to eat. They spent most of Saturday sharing stories and taking photos before the Brigmans hosted what Britt called a “Meet My Dad” party. Many relatives and friends were invited to meet True, and the chef treated the guests by cooking dinner.
“We suckered him into cooking for everybody,” Brigman said. “It was the best shrimp I've ever eaten in my life.”
Brigman, True and their families gathered one last time on Sunday before the Trues departed for Texas. Before they said their good-byes, father and daughter committed themselves to building their relationship.
“We had a great time there, and I plan on coming there again Jan. 23,” True said. He added that he and his wife can't wait to have his daughter's family visit their home, located near a lake, this summer for some family fun time.
Brigman said she's excited about being reunited with her father. “He told me he was glad I'm only 22 years old and that he's got at least 30 years to catch up on me,” she said.
True also said the new relationship with his daughter and her family has been a blessing for him and his wife.
“Like I try to tell Britt, there's nothing either one of us can do about what happened in the past,” he said. “But we can certainly go forward from here. That's exactly what we're doing. I love it. I can't explain it any other way.”