A dozen people were huddled underneath an awning, but Pam Rider was focused on one person in the crowd: the son she gave up for adoption 27 years ago.
Rider, a Franklin Community High School teacher, had spent years wondering if she shared a physical likeness to her son, Matthew Johnson. She did numerous Internet searches once he turned 18, trying to find him.
With tears streaming down her cheek, Rider hugged Johnson for the first time, and the two had no concerns about the onlookers huddled around them outside of a popular tea room in St. Petersburg, Fla., near where Johnson lives. Rider and her husband traveled there to meet Johnson for the first time during Christmas break.
“I felt like my dream was coming true,” Rider said. “I got to meet my boy.”
The reunited mother and son talked for two hours at the tea room, before spending another two hours at the restaurant next door. During those meetings, Rider noticed the similarities. They have the same dimples when they smile, and both bite their nails when they get nervous.
Rider was a 22-year-old college student at a small religious school in Tennessee when she got pregnant. She didn’t want to get an abortion and knew her parents did not want to help raise a child.
“I wanted the very best for him,” Rider said. “At that point in time (adoption) was the best for him. Did I have regrets? Yeah, a little, because I knew what I was missing after I had my own kids.”
Rider did not get to see Johnson play in youth sports or participate in a school play. She did not get to buy him a bicycle or other toys on his birthday every Oct. 25.
“October 25 was always a horrible day for me, but now it can be a wonderful day,” Rider said. “I can buy him presents.”
Rider went through a closed adoption, which means she did not have a way to contact her son or the family that adopted him. All she knew was that her son was adopted by a couple that lived in Florida named Jack and Linda, and that they named him Matthew.
When he turned 18, Rider contacted the adoption attorney to verify her contact information was correct in case Johnson reached out. During that conversation, the attorney let Johnson’s last name accidentally slip out.
Rider did not immediately try to track down her son, despite knowing his full name. She did write Johnson’s adopted mother, through the adoption agency, requesting a photo. Two months later Rider received a photo, giving her the first glimpse of her grown son.
“I really wanted to be respectful and not forceful,” Rider said. “When I sent the mom a letter I said, ‘I don’t want him back, I’m not trying to invade his home.’ But I kind of wanted to see what he looked like, to see if there was any resemblance.”
A few years later, Rider would type his name into search engines in an attempt to track down Johnson. She didn’t have much information, outside of his age and the fact he lived in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area.
Using a photo that was eight years old, Rider finally found the correct Matthew Johnson in November 2012 on Facebook. She sent him a friend request, and a message asking if he was adopted. Johnson never responded to the friend request because he had no idea who Rider was. And because they were not friends on the social media site, the message was sent to Johnson’s “other” folder on Facebook, which is rarely checked by most people.
Johnson moved into a new apartment in November. On one of his first nights in that apartment, he was laying in bed and browsing Facebook on his phone when he found the message from his birth mother.
“When you see something like that, it’s out of the blue and surreal,” Johnson said.
The stress of moving was enough for that day, so Johnson decided to turn his phone off and go to bed. Johnson had known his entire life he was adopted. He wanted to meet his birth mother in the future but never had specific timeline in mind to reach out to her.
“It’s weird because I was finally getting my life together where I would feel like I’m ready to meet her,” Johnson said. “And then she just appears.”
One day later, almost a year to the date of the message and request being sent, Rider received the Facebook notification she prayed for.
“It said ‘Matthew Johnson accepted your friend request,’ and I about peed my pants,” Rider said. “I always prayed that he would be at my front door, and through Facebook he just kind of rang my bell.”
The two soon began communicating daily through text messages, emails and phone calls. Johnson didn’t hold bad feelings toward his birth mother, but also didn’t have any pressing questions during the first conversations.
“I never had a lot of questions for if I ever met my birth mom because I was so happy with the family that raised me,” Johnson said. “It’s not that I didn’t want to meet her, but between being happy with what I had and not wanting to bring in any extra stresses in my life, I just kind of didn’t have any real questions.”
They still talk on a near-daily basis, whether it be a quick text message or more lengthy phone call. Rider, her husband Steve, and daughter, Nicole, will visit Johnson during Franklin schools’ spring break; Johnson plans to visit here in July.
“I just want to get to know him better,” Rider said. “That’s what relationships are about, building on the good moments and moving forward.”