CUMBERLAND, R.I. (WPRI) — For Sharon Winbush, it was 45 years of daily thoughts about where her only child was.
“Every day,” Winbush said, days before a long-awaited birthday celebration. “There wasn’t a day I didn’t think about her.”
What she didn’t know is that her daughter, who would be named Stefanie Mathey and grow up in Switzerland and Germany, also wondered about her mom.
“I was always asking,” Mathey said. “Why do I look like this? Who am I?”
They didn’t even know each other’s names, making their searches almost impossible, and their reunion in January all the more emotional.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Winbush said through tears as she hugged her daughter for the first time since she was born.
The mystery began to unravel last fall when Mathey’s boyfriend helped her dig up the first clue in Providence Family Court; The birth certificate, with Mathey’s original name and more importantly her mom’s name. Birth certificates from adoptions were sealed in Rhode Island until a law change in 2012.
“I was staring at this paper,” Mathey said, taking a deep breath. “And saying, who am I? Now, I know.”
Mathey would then pen a letter complete with her picture. But she wasn’t sure she was reaching out to the right person.
“Her name at the time was Sharon Lee Buteau and she was about 16,” Mathey wrote in the letter.
At 16, in 1971, Sharon was told she couldn’t keep her baby.
“My parents said ‘what are the neighbors going to say?’” Winbush recalled. “And ‘we can’t raise a baby.’”
She was sent to a home for unwed mothers, holding her daughter, who she named Shawn Marie, every day for about a week. But then she was gone.
“I would regret that for the rest of my life,” Winbush said. “I would hold birthday parties for her, but she wasn’t there. It hurt. You never get over that.”
The daughter wrote that first letter as if her mom was a long lost friend.
“I was scared,” Mathey said. “I didn’t know what was going on. Maybe she had a family. Maybe she had children. Maybe someone else is opening this letter.”
And her mom thought it was from a high school friend until she got to this phrase; “My name was Shawn Marie Buteau.”
“That did it,” Winbush said. “I ran down the halls of my apartment screaming. I was so happy.”
She wrote back.
“Dear Stefanie,” the handwritten letter said. “I have waited for this moment for so long. I am the person you are looking for. I have searched for you for so many years.”
Her daughter knew from the Rhode Island return address that the letter was going to change her life.
“I was standing there shaking,” Mathey said. “I went upstairs, opened it and read it. I was crying. I read it again and again.”
Phone conversations would follow.
“We cried,” Winbush said. “We laughed.”
“The first conversation,” Mathey said. “I told her, my English is not that good. Talk slowly please.”
They laughed together as they remembered that first phone call which would be followed by many others, leading to the reunion in January.
Now, they are together again for what will be their first ever celebration of August 8, 1971.
“My heart was so empty,” Winbush said. “Now, we’re whole. It’s the two halves finally together.”
Mathey nodded her head and smiled.
“Now I know who I am,” she said.
Stefanie lost her adoptive mom earlier this year, and both her fathers have passed away.
So, they both agree, they found each other at the perfect time.