ELDRIDGE, Iowa-- Michelle Wetzell, who was adopted by an Illinois family when she was 4 days old, wanted to find her birth mother. She didn't know it at the time, but all she had to do was look at the woman sitting behind the receptionist's desk in the hair salon where she worked.
Wetzell remembers telling her co-workers at the Davenport salon that she wanted to meet her biological mother. That was 10 years ago. In February she learned her mother had been a co-worker at the salon, just out of earshot of what Wetzell was telling her co-workers.
"There she was, the whole time," Wetzell said.
She began her search for her biological mother in earnest late last year after a blood test showed she had a high cholesterol level, which raised questions about her family medical history. A doctor told her she needed to look into whether she had a family history of heart disease or other illnesses.
Wetzell went to the agency that handled her adoption and it agreed to facilitate contact between Wetzell and her biological family. A case worker at the agency noticed both women had worked in cosmetology and told Wetzell, who asked for more details.
After they figured out that the mother and daughter had once worked together, the caseworker called Cathy Henzen, 55, of Eldridge, to tell her that her daughter was a former co-worker.
"I was like, 'Oh my gosh,"' Henzen said.
Wetzell and Henzen spoke on the phone that day. A week later they met at a restaurant. They have spoken or met every few days, as they try to determine where the relationship will lead.
"Where does it go from here? I just think that we take it a day at a time," Henzen said.
They have been getting to know each other in the past five months after working together for part of 1996, when they both worked at Hair By Stewarts in Davenport.
"Gosh, Michelle, what if you had come up and we had started talking?" Cathy Henzen said as she sat at her kitchen table with Wetzell recently. "We would have known, I think."
"Absolutely," Wetzell said.
Henzen found out she was pregnant in 1975 at a time when she was getting a divorce and already had two young daughters. She was living in East Moline, Ill., and still sharing an apartment with her husband because they couldn't afford separate homes.
She said she and her husband argued almost every day. She feared her daughters would be harmed by seeing and hearing the fighting. "I couldn't risk bringing another child into this family," Henzen said.
She decided to place her child for adoption. On Feb. 23, 1976, medical staff took the newborn girl away five minutes after she was born.
Michelle Wetzell was adopted by a couple from Prophetstown, Ill., about 45 miles away from Davenport. As Michelle entered school, she began to notice all the ways she was different from the rest of her family. She was outgoing, but struggled in school. Her two siblings were top students, but were reserved.
Michelle said she fantasized about her biological family, imagining that she might fit in better with them. After graduating from high school, Wetzell moved to Davenport, where she attended a cosmetology school and got a job at the salon.
She was one of about a dozen women who worked at the salon. Henzen worked out front greeting customers and scheduling appointments. Henzen's two grown daughters would visit her at work.
"We were envious of her two girls, Carrie and Chrissy. We were like, 'Oh man, we love Cathy so much. We wish our mom was like Cathy,"' Wetzell said.
Wetzell, who moved back to Prophetstown, got married and has a 2-year-old daughter, said she sees similarities between herself and Henzen, who left the salon in 1998 and now works as a receptionist for a trucking company.
Henzen said meeting Wetzell, who works part-time as a bartender in a country club and doing manicures, and seeing how she grew up validates her decision 30 years ago.
"In my heart I believe I did make the right decision," Henzen said.