CLEARWATER — Janet Tombow said she grew up subjected to frequent and severe beatings from her stepmother.
When the girl threatened to tell her birth mother, the woman replied: "Your mother didn't want you or love you."
Decades would pass before Ms. Tombow learned that her birth mother had spent years trying to contact her. Ms. Tombow described the abuse and her recovery in her autobiography, Stolen But Not Lost.
Ms. Tombow, who spent the last few years writing and speaking publicly about her recovery from childhood trauma, died June 29 at Morton Plant Hospital of a rare disorder marked by an inflammation of the blood vessels that supply the lungs. She was 67.
"She was like two people," said Sally Hamilton, 66, a friend of 40 years and former co-worker at Automatic Data Processing (ADP), where Ms. Tombow had risen to a corporate vice president. "She was a very strong and assertive executive."
The woman others didn't see was still living in the Covina, Calif., home through her 20s and 30s with her father and stepmother. When her father left the home in 1982, Ms. Tombow stayed with her stepmother until her death in 1996.
In 1992, Ms. Tombow sought medical help for migraine headaches. A neurologist, stumped by negative test results, referred her to a therapist. She wrote about that first session with the counselor.
Beverly asked: "What is it that makes you mad?" "People who abuse animals and kids," I was quick to reply. "Do you have examples of either?" she inquired. That opened a "Pandora's box" about my life.
In the first hour, the therapist told Ms. Tombow she needed to find her birth mother.
She asked her stepmother about any correspondence from her birth mother. She blithely acknowledged that she and her husband tore up those letters along with all the pictures of the past. Ms. Tombow didn't pursue it any further.
During therapy, she read about codependency, in which children from troubled homes learn to take care of others, often to their own detriment.
Indeed, Ms. Tombow cared for her stepmother until the end, despite the brutal beatings she endured as a child — which included being forced to eat her own vomit, being locked outside naked and being tied up and stomped.
The year after her stepmother died, Ms. Tombow began searching for her birth mother, whom she had not seen since she was 5. She didn't even know her last name.
She contacted the Social Security Administration for help. Through adoption papers retrieved from a safety deposit box, she learned that her mother might have married someone named Wallace.
She added Norma Wallace to the search list.
Over the next month, Ms. Tombow searched, without computers, and made more than 250 cold calls to people she hoped would turn out to be her mother.
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Then she hit pay dirt. Through an extended family member, Ms. Tombow learned her mother lived in Clearwater.
"This is Janet Tombow," she told the 71-year-old the woman who answered the phone, "and I think I'm your daughter."
Now the moment had come. What would she say? Gently, she said, "Hi Sweetheart, how are you?"
In the conversations that followed, Ms. Tombow learned that upon her parents' divorce, her father had kidnapped her. Norma Wallace had hired a lawyer, without success. Eventually she gave up hope.
"Mother's Day and your birthday were the hardest days of the year for me," Wallace told her daughter.
They met at Tampa International Airport on Feb. 21, 1997. For the first time in 45 years, mother and daughter hugged.
They visited New York City together, then flew to Europe. They took a Mediterranean cruise from Rome to Barcelona.
She later moved into her mother's Clearwater condominium.
They filled it with photo albums, keepsakes and souvenirs from their travels until Wallace's death in 2010.
Ms. Tombow wrote her autobiography in 2012.
But none of the memories or mementoes matter like the touch of Mom's love in my life and how it filled my heart completely … forever.