Thirty-six years ago in New York, a young woman walked into a bar and ordered vodka with an orange-juice chaser from a bartender who reminded her of Robert Goulet. If her life were a movie, that could be the opening scene.
The script calls for a happy ending. It takes place Thursday at Tampa International Airport. The young woman is now a middle-aged woman, and she waits with arms wide open and tears on her cheeks. A younger woman walks into the frame. They hug for a long time.
The director could be forgiven for rendering this scene in slow motion.
The women are mother and daughter.
This is their first meeting in 32 years.
• • •
Back in New York City, in the early '70s, the young woman and the bartender moved in together. She was a flower child who fled Wisconsin to escape her stepfather. She and the bartender were in love, and she had just become pregnant.
The baby was born at 8:50 p.m. Sept. 14, 1972. The birth certificate said the mother was Maxine Emma Lautenbach, age 18, and the father was Richard B. Myer, age 23. They were not married. They named the baby Daliah Michelle Myer.
Mr. Myer did not return a reporter's phone calls Tuesday afternoon, but Maxine says they had a falling-out and she left a few months after Daliah was born, taking the baby with her.
In 1975, she was called back to Wisconsin because cancer was threatening her mother's life. She made an agreement with Myer: he would keep Daliah until she got situated in Wisconsin. But when she went to retrieve the baby, she was rebuffed. She says Myer's mother called police and had them send her away.
Maxine got a lawyer and took the case to court, but she says Myer did not appear. He moved away, and Maxine could never find him after that.
Fresh out of options, Maxine returned to Wisconsin. She daydreamed about snatching her daughter back. Every year she went to the library to comb through the newest New York City phone book in the hope that Myer or one of his relatives had listed a number. Around 1981, she found one. She believes it was for Myer's father.
This is Daliah's mother, she said. Don't hang up. I just want to know if she's alive.
Yes, she's alive, he said. But when she tried to call back the next day, the number had been disconnected.
Years passed. Maxine found a husband and took his last name: Schleisner. They had two children and moved to Tampa. But every year, on Sept. 14, she wept for Daliah's birthday.
Along came the Internet, and Maxine renewed her search. She posted a message on a military Web site, seeking information on Myer. Eventually a man e-mailed her. He knew Myer. He knew Daliah had gotten married, changed her last name and moved to Delaware. Maxine looked up the phone number. But she was afraid.
"I didn't know if he had told her I deserted her," she said.
She called anyway.
"Hi," she said. "I'm Maxine. I'm your mother."
"I know," Daliah said.
They talked for many hours, and the story of Daliah's life poured out. She now had a husband and two children of her own. She had grown up with Myer and a succession of stepmothers, but his mother (her grandmother) had been her primary caregiver.
When she was a little girl, her father had brought her to Florida for a few months to hide from her mother, Daliah said. Her childhood was neither horrible nor especially happy. She was an unruly child. She ran away a lot.
She knew Maxine's name but little else. She knew her father and grandmother hadn't wanted Maxine around, though they were careful not to say anything bad about her. She assumed Maxine had moved on. But she was curious.
"Little things," she said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "What's her favorite thing to eat, what does she watch at 5 o'clock. Little things. What kind of hair spray does she use. Silly things. But it's stuff I want to know."
Now she will. AirTran Airways flight 724 is scheduled to leave Baltimore at 3:21 p.m. Thursday and touch down in Tampa at 5:34. Daliah will be on board. Her mother will be waiting.
Times researchers John Martin and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3416.