The moment she laid eyes on the certified letter, Barbara Wishart knew something was up. She didn't recognize the sender's name, address or even the Panhandle postmark: Bonifay, FL.
Like many Floridians living south of the Lake City line, Barbara, a longtime Tampa Bay area resident, had never been there — much less heard of it.
"I said, Bonifay, where's that?" she recalls.
Curious, she began reading the letter and then started breathing fast.
"It was so emotional. There is no describing what went through me."
Barbara, a former mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs in Brooksville, is now 75. She's still physically fit, works privately as a caregiver, and has three grown children. She was widowed in 1969, when her husband died of melanoma. She raised her kids mostly as a single mother, so her work ethic is solid, rooted in practicality and survival. There isn't much that can rattle her, but the unexpected letter with the Bonifay postmark cut right to her heart.
"All these years later," she says, her voice trailing off. "So late in my life. I always wondered if this day would ever come."
• • •
At 17, Barbara could swim like nobody's business. A German immigrant who had arrived in Tampa just one year earlier, she worked briefly as a model in New York and had trained in ballet. So it made sense for her to audition for a job as a mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs, where her sister, Johanna, had already been hired.
The year was 1956. In the decades before Disney, Weeki Wachee, about 45 minutes north of Tampa, was considered a glamorous tourist attraction.
Audiences sat on wooden benches in the little underwater theater and watched, enthralled, as Barbara and other mermaids fed the fish, drank bottles of soda and ate fruit, as if they weren't gliding around in a clear, 74-degree Florida spring, but just coolly going about their day.
At 5 feet 5 1/2 and 110 pounds, Barbara was a natural beauty. She had big brown eyes and long, thick auburn hair. Sometimes she could hear the tourists who pressed close to the glass viewing window saying that they thought it was all fake, an illusion, that she wasn't really wet at all.
On Sunday, her day off, she usually went to her parents' cozy apartment. One Sunday she decided to go instead to the park at the University of Tampa. There, she met a tall young man with gray-blue eyes and dark hair — a sophomore studying business administration. He told her he had a football scholarship and had served in the Navy. After a few dates, Barbara was starry eyed, and it wasn't long before she found out she was pregnant.
Her parents, strict Catholics, insisted that the couple marry. Barbara and the young man moved to Jacksonville, where they lived briefly. A month later, Barbara realized she wasn't in love, moved back to Tampa and filed for divorce.
On Aug. 20, 1957, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl at Tampa General Hospital. The baby weighed 7 pounds, 9 ounces.
She had already decided she would give the baby up for adoption. As was the custom in those days, Barbara never got to hold the baby. All her life she wondered what had happened to the little girl. Every year on Aug. 20, she thought about her.
Now, more than half a century later, she held a letter from the daughter she had given up. It began:
"Dear Barbara, as I write this letter to you, so many emotions flood my mind. I realize that the result of this letter could be life-changing for me — and you. Born in 1957 in a Tampa hospital, I was adopted at birth ... I fully believe you are my birth mother. A woman, throughout my life, whom I often wondered about, but never once resented the decision she made 56 years ago. My life, thus far, has been far better than I probably deserved."
The letter was from Deborah Crutchfield, a piano teacher in Bonifay, a town of about 2,800 that's about 95 miles west of Tallahassee. For 34 years, hundreds of students have sat side by side with Deborah and learned their notes and scales. Lean and willowy, with hazel eyes, short-cropped chestnut hair and a face still beautiful as a pageant queen, Deborah has played piano at just about every wedding and funeral in town and is something of a fixture in Bonifay. Everyone knows her.
At 56, she's now on her third generation of piano students. She has two grown sons who make her proud. Her husband, Charles, works as a diesel mechanic at a Caterpillar dealership.
"When someone is looking for a piano teacher, I'm usually the one they call," she says with a laugh.
Deborah, who grew up in Lutz, and later Brandon, knew "from day one" that she had been adopted but never had any desire to find her birth mother.
"My mom is the mom who raised me, and she was the most wonderful, sweet lady who ever lived," she recalls.
Her parents, Jack and Martha Lee Lucas, were middle aged when they adopted Deborah and Donna, who is 21 months older and has a different biological mother.
"It was wonderful to have older parents because they were financially established and we never wanted for anything," Deborah says.
When Deborah was in her 20s, Martha Lee Lucas dug out a yellowing newspaper photo of the woman she believed was Deborah's birth mother. It was a picture of a lovely young woman modeling in an ad for the old Maas Brothers Department Store in Tampa.
"She said: 'Debbie, I think this is a picture of your birth mother. I won't be hurt if you try to find her.' "
The adoption had been arranged through a doctor in South Tampa. Deborah speculates the photo came from a family friend — a longtime nurse who worked in the doctor's office.
But she never did look for her birth mother; nor did she ask any questions. "It just proves the interest was never there," she says.
• • •
In May 2012, Martha Lee Lucas died. She was 98. In the months after her death, something motivated Deborah to finally begin searching in earnest. It was not an obsession, she recalls, but more a nagging curiosity, spurred by the realization that she might have biological siblings.
"I believed the chances of finding her would be very slim," she says. "After all, it was a closed adoption and 55 years had passed."
Last summer, Deborah contacted the Florida Adoption Registry Reunion. After a few weeks, she was told that no match had been found. She was then advised by the Florida Department of Children and Families to request what is known as "non-identifying information," a common tool used by adoptees seeking information on birth parents.
Deborah made the request and, in September 2013, received a three-page, single-spaced letter in return. It was full of interesting tidbits snatched from the year she was born. The letter stated that her birth mother was born in Germany, that she had wanted to be a ballet dancer but her parents couldn't afford the training, that a social worker at the time had described her as "one of the most beautiful women" she had ever seen.
Nothing really stood out, except for one small detail: "Your birth mother and her sister swam as mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs."
Deborah did a quick Google search and turned up an old newspaper story about a woman named Barbara Wishart, a German immigrant who performed as a mermaid at Weeki Wachee in the 1950s. The story appeared about a decade ago in the St. Petersburg Times.
"It all just fell in my lap," Deborah recalls. "I couldn't believe it, but I was fully convinced I had found my birth mother."
Deborah continued researching and located an address in North Tampa.
A few days later, Deborah sat down and composed a letter on the computer and printed it out: "I wanted it to be easily read," she explains. "I left the ball in her court. I wasn't begging for a response or posing a threat. I'm 56. I knew her kids were grown and that there would be no feelings of jealousy."
• • •
The letter took nine days to reach Barbara, who had recently moved from a house to an apartment in Northdale. When she opened it and read it, her heart nearly stopped. She felt breathless. She immediately called her son in North Carolina and then her daughters. The first thing she told them was that she was all right — and not to be alarmed. She had told them all long ago about the baby she had given up for adoption, but nothing had prepared her for this moment:
"I always thought: Will our paths cross? But who knew it would happen so late in our lives."
Barbara called Deborah that night.
"It was out of the blue when the phone rang," Deborah recalls. "A woman said, 'This is Barbara.' I had to stop and think. She had a very obvious German accent. Then I knew."
Deborah made the 350-mile drive from Bonifay to Tampa the following weekend. Barbara was waiting on her patio. She instinctively reached out and pulled Deborah into a hug, clinging to her for a long time.
"I walked up not knowing what to expect," Deborah remembers. "One of my friends had said: 'Imagine losing something for 56 years and then finding it.' "
Barbara remembers being taken with "what a beautiful, loving person Deborah is inside and out."
Deborah was struck by the thought that their finding each other "had to be God's timing."
They spent two nights at Barbara's apartment, listened to music — a love they share — and talked.
And talked some more.
It was the first of several short reunions they've managed over the past few months. Deborah calls it the beginning of a new relationship "that will take time to develop."
In the meantime, they call and email regularly.
• • •
Deborah has slowly gotten acquainted with her half siblings — Gregory, 52, Barbara, 49, and Christine, 48. She even visited Gregory during a recent trip to North Carolina.
Last weekend, Barbara met Deborah's son Lucas, 31, for the first time.
But nothing, Barbara says, will ever compare to that very first meeting.
"She came around the corner," Barbara recalls, "and my first thought was 'Oh, my gosh, I finally get to hold my daughter after all these years.' "
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at email@example.com