Sometimes, talking to Judy Meucci is like talking to two different women at once. There's the smiling mother of two who sits at ease in a high-backed floral wing chair in the living room of her Waterford home and laughs uproariously when one of her Bassett hounds leaps unexpectedly into her lap.
Then, a moment later, there's the woman whose eyes well with tears and who sobs when she describes the pain of losing her 16-year-old daughter several years ago.
It's a pain, Meucci explains through her weeping, that remains unabated and unreconciled because her daughter, Heather, isn't dead. She simply left, abruptly, in the middle of a March night in 2006 to live with another family whose small Christian church she had joined several months earlier.
Meucci and her husband, Gary, fought unsucessfully in court to force Heather to come home. But state law at the time allowed the teenager to leave and Heather was resolute in her desire to remain with the Bansemers, claiming her parents were abusive. At the time, the Bansemers operated a Christian church in a family compound in Colchester.
And so, on an afternoon in May of 2006, Judy Meucci stood on the steps of a New London courthouse and hugged Heather goodbye after losing her battle to bring her daughter home.
She hasn't seen or talked to her since.
In the initial months after Heather left, Judy Meucci went through life in a fog of pain, frustration, anger, despair and confusion.
Her daughter, she says, was never abused and she believes she made the claim to justify leaving home to live with another family.
She was furious for what she still regards as the duplicity of the Bansemers in manipulating Heather into cutting all ties with her family. She was baffled as to why her daughter would do it. And she was devastated by what she described as Heather's abrupt personality shift, from a happy, sweet high schooler into a cold and distant young woman.
She was also heartbroken that Heather had also cut all contact with her younger sister, Chloe, who was 13 at the time.
"That's what troubles me the most," she says, her voice cracking. "I can't grasp how she could just shut us out. I'll never understand it."
She was also devastated that her daughter, who up until that point had shown only the normal angst of a teenage girl, suddenly would accuse her parents of being abusive.
"We were just an average family. We were close."
And she was baffled that while state laws mandated that parents of 16- and 17-year-olds be required to provide their teenage children with the basic necessities of life, those same laws contained no provision requiring children of that age to live at home with their parents. It was that loophole in the law, Meucci says, that allowed Heather to leave.
Still in a roil of emotions surrounding her daughter's departure, Meucci channeled her energies into getting the law changed. That effort gained momentum later in 2006 when newspapers in the state picked up her story and Meucci began hearing from other parents in similar situations. She testified in a hearing before a legislative committee that was taking testimony on a bill, sponsored because of the Meuccis' experience, that would close the loophole, giving law enforcement the authority to return 16- and 17-year-olds to their homes.
Unaccustomed to the political machinations at the state's capital, Meucci was stunned when the legislative session ended that year without lawmakers taking any action on her bill.
Distraught and disheartened, Judy Meucci remained hopeful that Heather might return on her own. She didn't, and in 2008 the legislature finally passed the law. By then, however, it was too late for the Meuccis. Heather had already turned 18 and they couldn't force her to return home.
She's 20 now and the bit of Internet investigating that Judy and Gary Meucci have been able to undertake indicates that Heather married one of the Bansemer's sons when she was 17 and he was 25. She may be living in another family compound in North Carolina and the Meuccis have learned that the couple has two children.
Talking about that, and realizing she has two grandchildren she's never met, sent Judy Meucci into a freshet of tears during a recent interview about her trevails.
In the four years since her daughter left she's coped, in part, by channeling her energies into raising her younger daughter, Chloe, now 18 and a senior at Waterford High School. She also made sure, she says, that she tended her marriage and that she and her husband supported each other during the crisis and afterward.
"They've already taken one of us, I'll be goddamned if they're going to take the rest of us."
Her deep fog of despair began to lift in June of 2007. That's when she and Chloe went to Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks to pick up Gracie, a Bassett hound puppy Judy Meucci had bought as a surprise for the family and which had been flown in to the state.
"We fell madly in love with her," she says, so much so the family got a second Bassett hound puppy about a year later.
The two dogs, she says, have helped mend her heart to some extent and she sheepishly admits there's nothing like the unconditional love of a dog to lift a dispirited soul.
"I swear these two are the reason we're sane today," she says, with Rocky and Gracie at her feet.
She clings to the hope that someday Heather might come to realize all she has left behind and will make some kind of contact with her family.
Maybe it will be a Christmas song on the radio or a television show she used to watch with her family that sparks a fond memory, Meucci says.
She longs for some word from her or of her.
In the meantime, she goes to work everyday and basks in the love of her remaining family and her dogs.
"All of this has been like a physical wound, a physical pain for us," she says. "We'll never get over it. But we're moving on. It's definitely better than it was."