Charles Peterson Jr. cannot remember his mother's face or that day 23 years ago when he was carried off.
He hears she's a big woman, even taller than his father, the 6-foot-2 machinist who hoisted the 2-year-old boy onto his back and walked down a dirt road in Arkansas never to return. But Peterson could not pick her out of a crowd or describe for you the power of her embrace.
She has lived in his thoughts for years, though. As he shuttled from foster home to group home to a tempestuous life with his father and back to foster home, he would wonder about what happened to the woman who waited in vain for her son and her husband in the heat of August.
"All my life I just wanted to know my mother," said Peterson,who is 25 and lives in Ferndale. "I went though a lot of problems inlife knowing something was missing."
By the time you read this, Peterson will have found it.
When he opened his door to a reporter last week, Peterson was anticipating a two-hour weekend flight to Memphis, Tenn. From there, he and his sister, whom he has not seen in 23years, would drive together across the Mississippi River into Newport, Ark. There he would walk into the open arms of Hazel Cherry.
And at last, they will share a family Christmas.
"I'm just so excited," said Ms. Cherry, in a telephone interview. "I'm nervous and don'tknow what to do."
She has thought of him often, wondering what hemight be like. She pictured him growing up as a tall man, "kind of quiet. I've just drawn all kinds of pictures of him in my mind."
The 6-foot-6 Peterson was a boy riding his father's shoulders when lastshe saw him on a late afternoon in August 1968. The boy's father, Charles Peterson Sr., lifted Charles onto his back for a piggy-back ride and walked down the dirt road outside their home south of Brinkley,Ark.
"I'm standing there waiting on him to come back," Ms. Cherrysaid. "He never did come back with him."
She called the police toreport them missing. She tried tracking her husband down through people who knew him, through members of his family.
"I just never wasable to get in touch with him," she said. "It worried me real badly.. . . I always used a phrase my Mom did, 'The Lord doesn't make anything he doesn't mean to provide for.' "
Peterson recalled that when he was 10 years old and living with a foster family in Baltimore, his father called his mother and handed him the telephone receiver. They talked for a little while. They would not talk again for 15 years.
"I had tried to keep in touch," Ms. Cherry said. But "he was in and out of foster homes. One family he was with, they didn't want me to keep in touch. . . . I didn't know where he was. His dad's family, I could never get any answers from them."
Peterson said he was told his father left his mother because he was not getting along with his in-laws, with whom they were living at the time.
Charles Sr. hitchhiked with the boy back to his home state of Maryland. Charles Sr. -- who has suffered for years with mental illness -- could not care for his son. Father and son lived together for a while when Peterson was a teen-ager, but Peterson said his father would beat him at the slightest provocation. He left his father and went to live with an aunt.
The Christmas reunion is happening thanks to Peterson's sister, Jacqulene Statewright, who lives with her husband and three children in Sacramento, Calif.
She had an idea months ago about tracking down her older brother, the brother she heard about but hadn't seen since she was an infant. She knew their father had left with him more than 20 years ago and was living near Baltimore. She knew her father was related to the Pack family, also living around Baltimore. But that's all she knew. She and her husband, Dennis, started making phone calls.
"There was always a hunger to find them," said Statewright, 24, who lives with her husband and three children in Sacramento, Calif."It took about three days."
She found one of her father's relatives, Claude Pack, in Pasadena, who told her where to reach her brother.
On a Saturday morning in September, the phone rang in Peterson'shome on Green Acres Road. At first, Peterson could not imagine who this woman was on the other end of the line. An old girlfriend, he thought at first. It was his sister.
"It was just overwhelming to hear my brother on the other end of the phone," Statewright said. "We were just, like, crying on the phone."
She told him where he could reach his mother. He calledher. They talked about every day things, nothing too heavy, Peterson said.
"Basically, how was things, how was her life going," Peterson said. They have talked several times since.
"I just want to know that he's all right," said Ms. Cherry, whois45 years old and works at a corn chip plant in Newport, Ark.
Peterson said he planned to spend five days in Arkansas, with his half-brothers, his grandparents, his sister and his mother.
"Mostly I want to be around her," said Peterson. "I just want to hug her, to call her mother.
"I've never been around someone who was my flesh-born mother."