Zezura Ruddell grew up in a happy, close-knit two-parent family. When she was 8, her mom and dad dropped the bombshell. Her mother was actually her stepmother. She was raised by her mother for the first 18 months of her life but for reasons only the family know, the pair were separated. Zezura had no memories of her mother, only a few pictures. At the time, she didn't give it much thought. Her stepmother filled that role.
At the same time, Linda Perez worked as a family counselor. Each time she helped clients heal their dysfunction, she thought about the secret she harbored: a long lost daughter. The evidence was hidden in boxes under the bed. There rested the pictures of a curly-haired blond girl, dressed in a frilly bonnet or crawling on the floor.
On March 22, the daughter's birthday, Perez would buy a card. Sometimes she would even buy a cake.
Over the years each wondered about the other. Each feared the other had ended up in prison or on drugs or worse.
About four years ago, they decided to find each other.
She did it on a whim, changed the way she looked up her AOL profile. Zezura Ruddell plugged in her unusual first name to see if anyone else in the world shared it. About a month before, after giving birth to her own daughter, Ruddell began her search by writing to the New Jersey hospital where she was born in hopes of getting her original birth certificate. The hospital wrote back, saying it needed more information. Ruddell was frustrated.
"I was about to fight with the hospital," she said
The Internet search yielded two hits, and one wasn't hers. She clicked. In huge letters it said, "I'm looking for my daughter, Zezura."
For a few seconds, Ruddell stopped breathing. She called her husband.
"My mother is looking for me," she said.
Could this be the woman Ruddell was separated from when she was 18 months old? Ruddell hastily sent an e-mail and put the woman on her buddy list. The woman asked for some kind of proof that Ruddell was who was she said she was. Ruddell scanned an old picture.
The woman's reply: "I'm sorry. I can't even talk."
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Gradually, the pair started to send e-mails. Ruddell had wanted to tread carefully in case Perez had another family. She didn't. She said she feared doing so would hurt her daughter, so she chose never to have more children. E-mails filled with small talk led to phone calls. The pair won't say what they talked about, only that they wanted to get the difficult conversations out of the way before meeting in person.
Ruddell, 31, says she isn't angry about the separation. Especially now that's she's older, she's able to empathize with Perez, who was just 21 at the time and never married Ruddell's father, a charming, soft-spoken construction worker she met in a disco.
"He was wonderful," Perez recalled. "I was a mess."
Four years came and went, and the women became like girlfriends. Perez talked about her life as a home health aide; Ruddell told Perez about her grandchildren, a 6-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl.
They talked every Wednesday. This year, Ruddell sent Perez a Mother's Day card. Finally they decided to meet. Perez and her husband drove down from New York.
Ruddell was nervous during the drive Thursday to the Sleep Inn near Interstate 75 and County Road 54. Her husband, Patrick, reached for her hand.
What would her mother look like? Could she see herself in her?
They hugged and cried in the hotel lobby. Perez gave Ruddell gave a scrapbook with all the baby pictures and birthday cards and letters to her daughter that once were hidden.
Ruddell shares Perez's dark brown eyes, round face and bright smile that shows off the top row of teeth.
They'll spend this week going to the beach, relaxing over lunches and dinners.
And Ruddell finally learned how she got her first name. It came from a baby shower game. And the Z at the beginning was the last letter of her mother's name.
"I used to tell everybody, 'Oh it's just Greek,' " she said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.