When a 4-year-old is literally ripped from her mother's arms with no explanation and no chance for good-byes there is a shadow that stays on her heart for years.
That was Cory Houghton's experience -- until this year. This year she traveled to Panama with her daughter, Lacy, and her niece, Andrea, and saw her mother for the first time in decades.
"I wasn't a woman turning 50, I was my mother's daughter again," she said. "I cannot describe what an overwhelming feeling that was -- and it didn't go away the whole time I was with her."
Houghton's parents met in Panama, where her father was stationed with the Army. They married and had two children and were expecting a third -- Cory -- when they came to the States.
"When military people marry a foreigner and bring them here, the cultural differences are hard to overcome and often -- as was my case -- the spouse is not accepted by the families at home."
Very shortly after bringing his wife, Mary, and their children from Panama, Houghton's father divorced her mother.
"It was very hard on her. She had no family, no support system here and she went into a very deep depression," Houghton said.
But a depressed mother is not what Houghton remembers. She remembers having a wonderful, loving, close family. She has heard that her mother was extraordinary in the care she provided her children, from the few members of her father's family who came to know Mary.
"When I was 4, my father took custody of us. It was my sister's sixth birthday and our mother had made her this beautiful pink cake."
Not long after taking his children from their mother, Houghton's father had her deported.
Later, Houghton learned, when she went back to Panama, her mother had to be hospitalized for depression. "Everything she loved had been taken away from her. She didn't want to live."
A stepmother who had already raised three children of her own raised Houghton, 4, her sister, 6 and brother, 7.
"I think the youngest was a pre-teen at the time. Our father introduced this tall, platinum blond with bright red lipstick as our new mother. I remember being frightened of her and promising myself I was never, ever going to love her. It had to be very difficult for her, too."
Houghton was a grown woman, expecting her second child, when she, her sister and brother decided to bring their mother back to the U.S. They tried to get her to stay with them, but it didn't work out.
"At least she was here to see my daughter born," Houghton said.
After that the siblings talked about going to Panama for years, then her sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 38 or 39. "She lived with me for eight years and suffered and died three years ago. We tried to bring out Mother here again before she died, but there was problems in Panama at the time and she couldn't leave the country."
Last year Houghton and her niece, Andrea, learned Mary Rodriguez-Houghton's health was beginning to fail. "She had become so frail, she could no longer make the half-mile trip to the post office in her village," Houghton said.
Andrea, who lives in Germany, and Houghton, decided they had to go to Panama before it was too late. Mary was going to be 80.
"We spent months trying to figure out when would be the best time to go," Houghton said. "They have monsoons like we do, but they last for months during their winter."
They chose to make the trip this March. Houghton, her niece and her daughter, Lacy, made the journey.
"It was incredible. The family brought my mother to the airport -- all these aunts and uncles and cousins. I went around the corner and saw here and went running to her. She was all I could see."
Houghton's mother and most of her family live in the village of Chepo (chay-po), about 90 minutes south of Panama City. While there, Houghton, Andrea and Lacy stayed with one of the uncles and his wife and walked to her mother's home to visit.
"It was a very simple home by our standards," Houghton said.
That first day, Houghton and her mother spent four hours alone getting to know one another. "It was overwhelming for both of us. Almost unreal. She said to me ‘I feel like I'm in a dream and I'm going to wake up and you'll be gone.' And I felt the same. She was so shy. It was difficult for both of us at first and then very natural, almost like we'd never been apart."
Houghton said that sensation of feeling they had never been apart really spoke to her about the incredible bond between mothers and their children.
She said the most memorable moment of her visit was at the last, when she and her mother slipped away to be alone and say their goodbyes.
"We went into my uncle's back yard and it all came back. The sobbing. The fear when we were taken away. We had all this time reconnecting as mother and daughter. I am turning 50 this year -- this month --and the very best gift I could have had was to see my mother again and connect with a part of myself."
She said during the visit she saw many of her mother's characteristics in herself, as well as in her daughter and niece.
"Our parents are still children, too, growing and learning. If there is a distance between you and your parents, reconnect, tell them ‘I love you. I'm glad I'm a part of you.' No matter how hard it is, a lot of good comes out of it."