' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Review: Reunion Worth the Wait

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review: Reunion Worth the Wait

Minka, her daughter, and granddaughter
No matter why they lost their baby to adoption, an affair with a married man, teen lovers, a fling with a charming cad at a carnival in Ireland, mothers stories tell of the same inconsolable grief. And so it is with Minka Disbrow, a South Dakota farm girl, the daughter of Dutch immigrants, who was raped and became pregnant at age 16.

Minka's story as told by her granddaughter, Cathy LaGrow with Cinda Coloma in The Waiting, begins in 1928 when Minka joins her friends for a picnic and takes a walk around a nearby lake with a friend. Away from the other
girls, they are sexually assaulted by men they do not know. Minka becomes pregnant although she is unaware of it until her mother notices, knowing nothing about how babies come into the world. Their pastor arranges for Minka to stay at the  Lutheran House of Mercy in Sioux Falls where she delivers her baby whom she names  Betty Jane; she cares for her daughter for five weeks. At the time, mothers typically stayed at maternity homes with their babies until they were physically ready to resume their lives and the babies went to adoptive homes.

Although her baby was conceived in rape, Minka feels a deep love for her child. Before I met other first mothers after my reunion with my surrendered daughter Rebecca, I assumed that mothers who gave birth to children resulting from rape would have less feeling for these children; in fact, they might abhor their children. I soon learned from film maker Sheila Ganz, Bobbi Beavers, Maine representative to the American Adoption Congress, Australian activist Evelyn Robinson, and others who became pregnant from rape that these mothers have the same feelings for their children as other mothers do.

From the birth of her child on Minka, divides her life in two parts: "But to a seventeen-year-old girl in a hospital in Sioux falls, South Dakota, this year would be remembered as the one thing that irrevocably changed her life. Forever after, there would be a split. Her life before May 22, 1929. And her life after." I too compartmentalized my life in this way. Before Rebecca, after Rebecca. I had just turned 24 when Rebecca was born. I often thought that if it was to be be, how fortunate that I had had 23 years free of this pain. I felt for those women who gave up a baby at 16 or 17, who had so little "before" time.

Minka returns to the dairy farm and begins a correspondence with the staff at the Lutheran House of
Mercy which continues for 18 years, asking always about her daughter and telling about her life. She receives polite replies but little information about her daughter, who is adopted by a Lutheran minister and his wife and renamed Ruth.

Several years later, Minka meets a charming man, falls in love, and after a long courtship and separation while he serves during World War II, they marry and have a daughter and a son. The marriage is troubled; her husband suffers form shell shock and becomes alcoholic and abusive. She eventually leaves him and moves to California

Increasingly Minka turns to religion, joining evangelical churches and reading the bible. On May 22, 2006, her daughter's 77th birthday, Minka prays for her daughter as she has each year.
"And then she adds a new prayer.  An impulsive prayer. An unreasonable prayer, one she'd never uttered before.
'Lord, I'd like to see Betty Jane again before I die. I won't bother her or interrupt her life. I just want to see what she looks like.
Please, Lord."
This passage brought tears to my eyes.

At this point in the book, LaGrow takes up Betty Jane's life. She is raised by a loving family, first in Iowa, then in Minnesota, and finally in rural Wisconsin where she remains her entire life. Betty Jane, now Ruth, marries soon after high school and has six children, one of whom becomes the astronaut Mark Lee.

After Ruth has heart surgery in 2005, her second son Brian brings up the lack of a health history for her side of the family and asks her if she had ever thought about researching her adoption records to learn more about her birth family. "'Well, yes,'" she replied "'But I wouldn't know where to begin.'"

Brian offers to help. They learn that Ruth can have copies of Ruth's file from the Lutheran House for Mercy, now Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota, upon obtaining an order from a judge. The judge signs the order on May 22, the same day Minka prays to see her daughter. When Ruth and Brian receive the file, they find the letters Minka had written to the Lutheran House, sixty in all, and a treasure trove of other information. Through the Internet, Brian finds Minka's address and phone number. That evening Ruth and her mother are talking on the phone. The families exchange letters and pictures and on August 18, 2006 they all met a Minka's home in California.

"Never had she felt so complete. She'd carried the loss of her child through the many years until it was simply part of her, an ache she lived with through the decades. ... and now she was given new life, amplified." I remember when I first connected with my 31-year-old daughter Rebecca and had that same feeling of completeness. She too said that after our reunion, she "felt more complete."

Not surprising to those of us who have seen first mothers and their separated children together, the similarities between Minka and Ruth were remarkable.
"Brian ... noted how alike mother and daughter were--it was uncanny. Minka and Ruth were both hard workers who loved to serve others and always stayed on top of things. They had good instincts and could peg a person immediately. Although both were frugal, they loved to decorate themselves with jewelry. And during overlapping years, Minka had worked at Kmart and Ruth at Walmart. They even dressed alike, with no prior arrangement."
Minka, Ruth, and their families became close. Minka passed away this June at the age of 102 after a short illness. While the years she had with her lost daughter and her family were precious, they were far too short. Minka and Ruth were apparently unaware of the possibility that they could find each other or even that they should try. Although the search movement began over forty years ago, I've met other mothers unaware of their right to search and of help that is available. Reunions remain in the shadows, something the media portrays as extraordinary. Let's hope that Minka's story encourages others to search. While reunions may bring pain as well as joy, they are, for many of us, preferable to to remaining in the dark.

Author Cathy LaGrow is the daughter of Minka's kept daughter. LaGrow knew nothing about her grandmother's secret and her aunt Ruth until the reunion. Through several years of tireless work, she was able to recreate the events and times, using papers from the Lutheran House file, interviews with the affected people, and research about the places involved, The book reads more like a novel than a biography, engaging the reader in the characters, transmitting their pain, sharing their joy.

Published by a Christian publisher, the book has received many positive reviews on Amazon and in the Christian media. So often, we in the adoption-reform community find ourselves talking only among ourselves. We are pleased that this story has reached a wider audience. It's well-written and an important addition to the historical record of adoption as practiced in 20th century America. --jane   

To Order: 
The Waiting: The True Story of a Lost Child, a Lifetime of Longing, and a Miracle for a Mother Who Never Gave Up brings three generations of this most unusual family together over the course of a century to tell a story of faith that triumphs, forgiveness that sets us free, and love that never forgets.

From FMF:
Philomena, A forced adoption, a lifetime quest, a longing that never waned
Catelynn and Tyler--still grieving over the loss of their daughter


  1. What beautiful women! There is a glow of happiness in Minka's and Ruth's eyes. A completeness. It both breaks my heart and touches it with joy.

    I'll have to pick it up to read. Thank you for reviewing! I just went on a business trip and was able use the plane time to re-read an adoption reunion story from a first mother I connected with via blogging (which I don't do anymore). It's Second Chance Mother by Denise Roessle, and although it isn't quite the same type of beautiful story, I really recommend it. She's a fantastic writer. Since becoming an adoptive mother, I have noticed my very limited free time is often spent reading about adoption (split with general parenting books... I can't tell you the last fiction book I read, and I used to be a voracious reader). I appreciate these book reviews you do because I have found quite a few to read through your recommendations.

    My high school boyfriend's older sister became pregnant at 16 through rape. Her parents were very supportive of her keeping her son, but it was too much for her to handle. My boyfriend's explanation to me was that the baby reminded her of the rape, although she said she loved the baby very much. She decided when he was 6 weeks old to place him for adoption. I met my then boyfriend a year after that and we dated through high school and college. I knew about the baby from him, and his mother talked of her oldest grandson often. She kept in touch with the adoptive parents and got pictures every year which she always showed me with great pride and a few tears. I never once heard his sister mention her oldest child, although I would say we became pretty close, and there always seemed to be a sadness about her. I know from his mother that she did not keep in touch with the APs out of her own choice, and the first time her mother tried to share the pictures with her, she was told to never bring him up again. This was of course long before I knew that much about adoption, but it was so very sad to me. Her son is well over 18 now. I wonder if they ever reunited. This situation has always helped me realize that there is pain in adoption even when it is made as a choice without coercion. The severing of the mother-child bond cannot easily be made without emotional repercussions that reverberate through life.

    1. Thanks, Tiffany,

      I'm so glad to read your remarks. I did review Denise Roessle's excellent book, "Second Chance Mother" when it first came out about three years ago. http://www.firstmotherforum.com/search?q=Second+Chance+Mother.

      I'm always pleased to learn about memoirs by first mothers, adoptees, and adoptive parents. It's therapeutic for those of us involved in adoption and it's the best way the public and law-makers can learn about the complexities of adoption.

    2. Thank you for the link! Nice review- I think you summed up her book perfectly. Your post was about a month before my daughter was born, so just a few short months prior to my starting to read here. I know I read back through most of the old posts when I started reading, but I don't recall this one. Of course, it was connecting with Denise that got me to read her book anyway, so I don't think that post would have made a deep impression even if I did read it back then.

  2. Thank you.... I was beginning to think that all reunions looked like mine - disasters.

  3. Thank you, Jane, for this post. I'm eager to read the book!

  4. Very touching story. So many years apart, and so unlikely that all would be alive and well at that late date..I am glad that at least they got to meet and have a little time together.

  5. What a beautiful, happy ending to what could have been another tragic story. I had never heard this story. Thanks for posting it.

    Side note: A-dad is in the hospital once again so I will be gone for a while. I can read posts but I can't comment very well on my iPod!



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