Halfway down the winding path to picnic shelter No. 5, Glenda Goodman parked her daughter's stroller in the shade. "Okay," Glenda, 22, whispered to her baby. "Are you ready to go meet your aunt? I guess she's your great aunt?" Glenda wasn't ready. All morning, at the Tarpon Springs restaurant where she works, and during the hourlong drive to Lettuce Lake Park in Tampa, Glenda had been rehearsing questions in her mind: What was my mom like? How did she meet my dad? Why didn't they ever get married?
Ever since she could remember, Glenda had longed to know someone from her mom's family, someone who knew her parents before they got sick and desperate and died of AIDS.
But now that she was about to meet her mom's sister, Glenda wasn't sure how she felt, or what to say.
On the way to the picnic shelter, she practiced more questions for Aunt Reta:
When my parents died, why didn't you take me in?
And why did it take you 20 years to track me down?
• • •
From 1990 through 1993, this newspaper chronicled Glenda's parents as they struggled with AIDS. Her dad, Jerry Goodman, learned he had the disease in September 1989. Her mom, Jennifer Cupp, was diagnosed a couple months later.
By then, Jennifer was four months pregnant.
Glenda's mom was one of the first women to speak publicly about having the disease. When Glenda was four months old, their story was on the cover of People magazine. At the time, baby Glenda tested positive for HIV.
Jennifer died in April 1993, and the Times' last story ran a month later. Glenda was 3 by then, and completely healthy; her mother's antibodies had filtered through her system and she had been pronounced AIDS-free.
Glenda's memories begin when she moved to New Port Richey to live with Carla and Harold Dunn. She isn't sure how her mom knew them. She only knows that when her mom was sick, the Dunns agreed to raise "little Glenda."
Though the Dunns never formally adopted Glenda, she calls them Mom and Dad. (The Dunns did not return repeated calls for this story.)
Glenda grew up in a big home, an only child. She took ballet lessons. On weekends, she rode horses in Thonotosassa with her mom's best friend, for whom she was named: Aunt Glenda.
Her adoptive mom didn't like to talk about her real mom, whom she knew only after she got sick. But sometimes Aunt Glenda told her stories: Her mom was a secretary. She adored birds. Near the end, she hurt people who were trying to help.
Jennifer had told the Times that Glenda "means more to me than anything in the world." But Glenda wanted more than quotes from an old newspaper. She wanted to know if her mother had wanted her, if she'd really loved her.
The pieces she had of her parents offered few clues. She kept them in a small Rubbermaid container in her closet: a photo of her dad as a teenager, another of her young mom with a parrot. A folder with the stories from Times.
"I never had a baby book, never had anything to hold onto from her, like clothes or jewelry," Glenda said. "There's no note from my mom. No words."
• • •
Glenda was 8 the first time she tried to draw her "real family tree"; 10 when she started telling friends she was adopted; 21 when she determined to visit her birth parents' graves.
She looked up their obituaries online and learned they were buried at Hillsboro Memorial Gardens in Brandon. She went to Publix and bought two big bunches of flowers, then drove 90 minutes.
At the cemetery, she walked around for an hour, searching for her parents' names. She started to panic. What could have happened to them? Finally, she asked someone in the office, who gave her their grave number.
Near the front of the cemetery, at the edge of one row, she found the site. But there was nothing there.
How could that be? She asked her adoptive mom. No one even bought them a headstone?
Her adoptive mom suggested that her mom's sister, Reta, might know the answer. But Glenda couldn't find her Aunt Reta. She thought she must have died.
In the spring of 2011, Glenda called the Times trying to find the reporter who had written about her parents. Maybe the reporter could help her figure out words for a headstone. Or whether Aunt Reta was still alive.
That reporter, Sheryl James, left the newspaper years ago. So the questions came to me. But even with the help of Times researchers, I couldn't unearth anything about Reta Taylor.
Then, just before Thanksgiving, a colleague answered a call in the newsroom. Reta Taylor was on the phone. She said she was dying. She needed to find her long-lost niece.
My colleague transferred the call to me. She didn't know I had been in contact with Glenda; she just thought I'd be interested in Reta's story.
Reta told me she was desperate to find Glenda. She had a gift she needed to give her.
• • •
Glenda lives with her boyfriend and her daughter Avery, 8 months, in an apartment in Tarpon Springs. A week ago Saturday, she dressed Avery in a pink onesie, gathered her courage and drove to Lettuce Lake Park.
The park was packed with hundreds of people throwing baseballs and Frisbees in the December sun. Glenda pushed her daughter's stroller slowly down the path.
At the turn to the shelter, a thin woman with long, honey-colored hair sprang out. "Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god! You must be Glenda!" the woman shouted. "I'm your Aunt Reta! Oh my god!"
Glenda submitted to her embrace and forced a smile.
"Oh, look at you. I see Jennifer all through you. Oh, look at her!" cried Reta Taylor, 63, crouching to see Glenda's baby. "Oh, look at me. I can't stop crying! This is just so wonderful. So amazing. Oh, these are for you."
Reta raced to the picnic table, where two big boxes were wrapped in snowman paper. On the top of each was a red velvet bow with gold bells. "Your Christmas presents!"
Glenda stood, staring. "Those are for me? We just met ... this is ... weird."
"Merry Christmas, Honey," said Aunt Reta. "Merry, merry Christmas. Oh, I can't believe I finally found you. I can't believe you're really here. Now, go ahead, open your gifts."
Glenda hesitated, then tore off the shiny paper. "Premium tomatoes," read the battered box top.
Reta said, "You have no idea what those boxes have been through."
• • •
Dusty tissue paper blanketed the top of the tomato box. Glenda pulled it back gingerly, as if she was afraid of what she might find.
Reta was beaming, tears streaming past her smile. Her daughter Heather and Heather's two children looked on.
Glenda pulled out two fat photo albums, a silver-framed portrait of her parents, a letter her dad had written to her mom while he was in jail. A Girl Scout pin, white satin baby shoes.
"Are these mine?" Glenda cried. She grabbed a handful of photos. "Is this my first Christmas? I'm so little. This is crazy. All this stuff was theirs." She slumped onto the picnic bench, buried her face in her hands.
"You were with them. You knew my parents and I didn't ... ." She shook her head. "This is all I have of my mom and dad. Thank you."
Reta wrapped her arms around Glenda. This time, Glenda hugged back.
"The day your mother died, I left the hospital and went straight to her rooming house," Reta said. "It was a horrible place. No one would rent to people with AIDS back then. And by the time I got there, they had already thrown all of your mother's stuff in the Dumpster.
"But I climbed in and fished it all out and cleaned off the garbage. And I kept everything in these boxes, all these years. I moved 12 times since then, and always took them with me because I knew one day I would find Jennifer's baby and give them to her."
• • •
A quilted scrapbook, edged with ivory lace, held pictures of Glenda's parents before she was born. She never knew her dad drove a motorcycle. Or that her mom, a bleached blond in her pictures, was really a brunette who looked just like her.
"That was around the time your mom met your dad," Reta told Glenda. "She was married then, and your dad moved into the apartment upstairs. After that, they were inseparable." Glenda never knew her mom had been married before.
There was Glenda's birth certificate. Her tiny footprints. Her first portrait, red-faced and wrinkled.
"Your mom called you her miracle baby," Reta said. "For seven years, she tried to get pregnant. Then, by the time she knew she was having you, she learned she was sick — and everyone told her to get an abortion. 'You don't want to bring a baby into this world with AIDS,' they said."
Twice, Reta said, Jennifer went to a clinic. Once, she made it as far as the operating table. "But she heard your heartbeat, she heard you hiccup, and she couldn't go through with it," Reta said. "She wanted you so much. She loved you so much. As sick as she was, she would lie on the floor beside you to hold your bottle and read you stories."
She had photos to prove it, pictures of baby Glenda with her mom and dad, from when they were a real family.
"She could barely get out of bed most of the time," Reta said. "But she made you this." From the box, Reta pulled out a calendar: Baby's first year of memories.
Glenda opened it and gasped. Her mom had put stickers on every first:
Sleeps through the night. Rolls over. Holds toy.
"I have a baby book!" she cried.
Deeper in the box, she found pictures of her parents getting married at the hospital, her mom in a blue dress, her dad in a hospital gown, too sick to sit up.
"They got married!"
There was her mom's baptism certificate, from just before she died. "She got baptized?" A beat-up jewelry box, covered in green velvet, was teeming with rhinestone bracelets and gold hoop earrings. "She touched these!" Glenda said. "Now I have something of hers I can wear."
A few minutes later, Glenda found two legal documents. October 10, 1991: Order appointing emergency temporary guardianship for Glenda Goodman to her godmother. "She gave me to my Aunt Glenda first?" Two weeks later, her mom signed another order, giving permanent custody to the Dunns. "I wasn't even 2 then," she said. "I thought I didn't go live with them until I was 3."
"Oh, they brought you to visit her. They were good about that," Reta said. "Even though everyone was scared back then, worried that they might get AIDS, even from a baby."
Glenda glared at her. So that's why none of her real relatives wanted her? They thought — though she had been pronounced healthy — that somehow she might infect them? Her mom's parents were dead. While she was growing up, her dad's mom and brother had called every now and then. But no one from her mom's family had wanted her then — or bothered to check on her since.
"I didn't want to lose you," Reta insisted. "But I was single then, picking tomatoes, with a daughter of my own. I just couldn't afford it!" Reta wrapped her arm around Glenda's shoulders. "Oh it's so great to see you. I'm so glad I finally found you!"
Glenda started packing the pieces of her past back into the box and, without looking up, asked, "Why did it take you 20 years?"
Reta wiped her eyes. "I tried to call that couple who took you in a few times," she said. "After that, I guess, I worried you got sick and I lost you, too. I'm just so, so glad to get to see you and give you all this."
The sun was slipping behind the live oaks. Mosquitoes were swarming around shelter No. 5. Glenda changed her baby's diaper, hugged her newfound cousin and her kids goodbye, and walked out with Aunt Reta, who was lugging the boxes to the car.
Halfway down the winding path to parking lot, Reta stopped. "Can I ask you a favor? Could you drive me to the cemetery sometime? I'd like to go with you to visit your parents' graves. I feel so bad. I never had money to get them a marker."
• • •
That night, after putting her baby to sleep, Glenda opened the second box.
More photos. A plastic rosary. And, at the bottom, a blue spiral notebook filled with two pages of looping purple script.
The first was a will: "I want everything I own to go to my daughter Glenda ... I don't have a lot of stuff. It's funny you don't have much to show for all of your life when you die."
The second was a letter addressed, "Dear Glenda ..." In her dark bedroom, with the Christmas tree lights blinking from the living room, Glenda read the only words she had from her real mom.
"I'm sorry I can't be with you, but I will never leave you. I will always be looking down on you. Please understand I tried to hang on as long as I could. I want you to know that your father and I loved you more than life itself. Our bodies just wouldn't last."
For a while, Glenda held the notebook, re-reading her mom's words, hearing her voice in her head. Then she boxed up everything and went to check on her own daughter. And write her a letter.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825. News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.