At 32, Pat Moran was a steady, capable woman with a good job, a strong marriage and an empty feeling about someone very important in her life _ her father whom she hadn't seen since she was 4 years old.
Her search for him began last year from her home in Clearwater. She had one major piece of evidence: his birth certificate.
The quest carried her to Virginia, then to New Jersey and a driver license bureau in Trenton, and finally, last month, to previously unknown relatives in Monroeville. They were in touch with her father.
"I was with Uncle Bobby when he called my father. He didn't spill the beans. All he said was, "Eddie, are you sitting down? I've got somebody who wants to talk to you.'
"Then he put me on the phone, and I said, "Hi, Daddy, this is your daughter.'
"It got real quiet on the phone. He was sort of stunned. He said, "What .
. who .
. Is this my little girl? Is this Patty Ann?'
There is an odd twist to the story. Pat's father, Edward DeVault, whom she had last seen 28 years ago when the family had lived in Norfolk, Va., had moved to Brandon a few months earlier. During the last part of her search, he had been living only an hour or so from Pat's office at A.
J. Travel Mart in Clearwater.
The young family that had lived in Norfolk consisted of DeVault, then a seaman in the U.S. Navy, his three children and his wife who was carrying the couple's fourth child.
One day, while her husband was on duty, the pregnant young woman took her three children and went off to her parents' house in Virginia Beach.
As far as Pat knows, her father never went after his wife and children, never tried to bring them back.
And her mother never talked to the children about her father, never explained why she went away. She still hasn't explained.
"She went to work," says Pat, "and my grandmother took care of us. After awhile my mother married again and had two more children."
Pat's search turned up people, not motives. Perhaps she will never find motives.
It is not the closest-knit of families. For "personal reasons," Pat has not spoken with her mother for five years. Two other DeVault children are planning visits to their father "when they can arrange time off from work," Pat says. The fourth child, a brother, is in the Navy and hasn't been informed. "We've kind of lost track of him."
The original phone conversation from the New Jersey relatives' house was Jan. 6. Four days later, Pat and her husband, Pete, were in Brandon to meet DeVault.
Father and daughter had agreed to rendezvous in a Wal-Mart parking lot, then go on to DeVault's house.
"He pulled up in his pickup truck and looked at me out of the window," Pat says. "Then he got out and we ran together.
"It took such a long time to find him," she adds, "but it was worth it."
They went to DeVault's home and Pat met her new stepmother. "She invited me to come over any time." She also encountered an agreeable surprise: her new half-brother, Clinton, 14.
The following day the DeVaults drove to Pat's home and had another nice visit. Mostly they sat around looking at family pictures.
DeVault is 55 now, a mason by trade. He is not delighted when a stranger asks why he never tried to bring back his wife and children.
"She went away _ it was her decision," he says briefly. "And I was in the service, and never got in contact."
"My dad and I have to develop the closeness we missed," says Pat. "But it's been wonderful."
With a big smile, she adds: "I'll keep him."