For more than 20 years, Christmas wasn’t the same for father James Lee Rundell of Johnson City, Tenn. and his daughter Mariah Noel (Rundell) Converse of Laddonia.
The long wait came to an end after a phone call in early December was followed 14 days later by Converse’s mother-in-law Janet Howdeshell, husband Levi, and her two boys traveling more than 12 hours and more than 700 miles to see her father for the first time since she was 3 1/2 years old.
Converse sold her car to get enough money to pay for gas to make the trip to visit her father who had been hospitalized in Tennessee after suffering several strokes.
“I was as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs waiting out at the flag pole until their car pulled up,” Rundell said of the reunion that occurred on December 16. “When she got out of that car it was hard to describe it but it was a dream come true. I couldn’t believe it; it had been 21 years and I had searched and searched for her…I never gave up searching. At Christmas time you couldn’t ask for a better miracle and her middle name Noel goes on. If that is not a miracle for this time of season, I don’t know what is. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
Converse said the reunion was “very emotional, very shocking, and a very happy one.”
An added blessing for her was the opportunity to introduce Rundell’s grandchildren Ashton, age 3, and Alex, age 2, for the very first time.
“He was extremely happy when he found out he had two grandchildren,” she said. “It was awesome because they took to him like they’ve know him for years. They love him to death and it makes me happy that they know mommy has another side of the family.”
Rundell said he was “ecstatic” to know he had grandkids as Converse is his only child.
After the reunion, the family traveled to Pigeon Forge to meet living members of Rundell’s family, including his two brothers. Rundell added that she unfortunately didn’t get to reconnect with one brother who died in 1991, his father who died in 1992, and his mother who died in 2004. Not only did Converse visit Rundell, her family decided to take Rundell home with them to Laddonia where they now reside together as one extended family under the same roof.
“On the car ride (back to Missouri) we were trying to catch up on things and find out what the other one had been doing all of those years and I tell you there’s been a lot of hugging going on,” Rundell said. “Both of us have missed each other so much. All that time, I never forgot her.”
How they reconnected…
The two had not seen each other since Mariah’s mother fled with her from Colorado when she was just 3 1/2 years old.
“Her mother and I had problems,” Rundell said. “I came back one day and they were gone and she was told I abandoned her.”
After 21 years, Rundell, who had previously called Sheriff Departments, made several trips to Colorado, and hired a private investigator during his search, found an old college profile web page of his daughter who attended school in Yoder, Colo., and located an address.
He was using the hospital’s computers to do the online search for his daughter.
He took the listed address and using the free services of peoplesearch.com, saw the address was that of his former inlaws.
He sent a letter to the listed address hoping he might have finally found his daughter.
The letter was received by Converse’s grandparents, who still live at the listed location.
After the letter was forwarded in the mail to her, Converse read it and called her father on the phone on December 2 to talk to him for the first time in 21 years.
“When my dad first sent the letter, my grandparents called me and said you won’t guess who sent you a letter,” Converse said.
“My grandmother asked me if I wanted her to read it over the phone or send it. She opened it and read it over the phone and I just couldn’t believe it. She mailed the letter and then I had an address and a phone number. I didn’t know what to say or what to think.”
When Mariah was taken by her mother many years ago, her last name was changed to her mother’s maiden name of Johnson.
This is what made it difficult for Rundell to locate his daughter for more than two decades.
Rundell talked four hours with his daughter during their first phone call.
“I got a call I’ve been waiting for, for 21 years,” he said.
“I know there was a long hesitation on my end of the phone. I didn’t know how to react.”
Converse then told Rundell of her intentions to go to visit him in Tennessee and invite Rundell to live with her family in Laddonia.