Published December 25. 2012 4:00AM
New London - Mary Radziwon has not had an easy life. She openly talks about her mental illness, her past addiction to crack cocaine, the mental breakdown she had after her husband left her 19 years ago, and the three daughters she has not seen since they went to live with their father in Arkansas in 1993.
She lives in a one-bedroom apartment in New London with her cat, Gigi, and has been unable to find work since a fire last year damaged the Snow White Laundromat in South Lyme, where she worked for six years.
But despite her struggles, Radziwon has always hoped that she would one day be reunited with her daughters, who were 5, 3 and 13 months old when they moved out of her life.
Then just before Thanksgiving, her youngest daughter, who is now 20, got off a Greyhound bus in New London.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, that's me at her age,''' Radziwon recalled during an interview at her Dell Avenue apartment.
She had not seen Autumn Radziwon, who sat smiling next to her mother on the couch recently, since she was a 1-year-old. Autumn said she grew up thinking her mother didn't want her.
Autumn, who is equally honest about her troubled past - she served time in juvenile detention for making a threat at school and was in trouble during her early high school years - was raised by her father and his second wife, whom she calls 'Mom.' But she said she always wondered about her "real mother." No one talked about the reasons why the children went to live with their father, she said.
"My father always told me they tried to call my mother but she never answered the phone,'' Autumn said. "He said my mother had issues. I always wondered if she wanted to get rid of us. If she missed us."
Two years ago, Mary said her therapist got in touch with her middle daughter through Facebook. Her eldest daughter was not interested in reuniting, Mary said.
She got Autumn's cell number and called and left a message.
Autumn, who had moved to Panama City, Fla., with her father and his third wife when she was a teenager, heard a voice mail message that said, "Hi. It's your mother.''
"I don't remember much else about the call,'' Autumn said. "I didn't know what to think. I'd only heard one side of the story for so long. But this was my mother. I knew she was up here (in Connecticut), but I never thought I would see her."
She said she decided she would be open and listen to what her mother had to say.
The two texted and talked on the phone for nearly two years.
About six months ago, after breaking up with a boyfriend, getting into a car accident and losing her job, Autumn called her mother and asked if the offer to come live with her was real. She arrived in New London with her boyfriend, 27-year-old William Smothers, a few days before Thanksgiving.
Although she didn't tell her father she was going to meet her biological mother, Autumn said when he found out, he told her she was an adult and could make her own decisions.
"He said, 'I hope you find what you're looking for,''' she said.
For now, mother and daughter are getting to know one another. Autumn and Smothers are engaged and looking for work. They want to get their own place but stay close to Mary.
They've already bought a ham for Christmas dinner and a Christmas tree - it's the first one Mary has had in four years. They hope to have enough money to exchange gifts, even if they're small.
"The first night they were here, we were looking at baby pictures, and she started to cry,'' Mary said of her daughter. "I knew then we were going to hit it off."
"It's a completely new life for us. A chance to start over. And I feel OK," Autumn said.
Smothers, who is working temporary jobs with Labor Ready, said he's grateful for all that Mary has done for them.
"I've lived in a lot of places, and this is most comfortable I've ever felt,'' he said.