Mother Love

from the New York Post

Mom and daughter reunited 77 years after adoption

By Susannah Cahalan

May 11, 2014 | 3:02am


Mom and daughter reunited 77 years after adoption

Minka Disbrow and her daughter, Ruth “Betty Jane” Lee, whom she gave up for adoption in 1929.

Raised by a Lutheran pastor and his wife, Ruth Lee never wanted to learn the identity of her birth parents. She had a happy childhood and never doubted the love showered upon her by her adoptive parents and three brothers.

Blessed with five children herself — one more successful than the next, including NASA astronaut Mark Lee and West Point grad and Army Lt. Col. Brian Lee — her life was too full, too busy to think about her unknown past.

But then, at age 77, she was plagued by a series of health issues. Her children begged her to find medical information about the parents she never knew. Lee reluctantly petitioned for the release of her adoption papers. As her daughter Cathy LaGrow writes in the new book, “The Waiting” (Tyndale), Lee expected to receive about five formulaic pages.

Instead, a 2-pound envelope arrived — stuffed with 200-plus documents about Case No. 359. She let the package sit on her kitchen table before mustering the courage to start reading. There were legal documents, ­official forms from the orphanage, a few photographs. But mostly it was letters.

Pages and pages and pages of handwritten letters, all written by the same woman — her mother.

Minka Disbrow’s only memento of her daughter was a 1929 photo, inscribed “Sweetest little girl in the world – Betty J.”  Minka Disbrow, the daughter of Dutch-immigrant dairy farmers in South Dakota, was the stereotypical Midwest good girl. Shy, quiet and hardworking, she dropped out of school in eighth grade without protest to help her stepfather manage the farm.

Walking in the woods with her best friend one warm afternoon, the real world barreled into her idyllic life. Three men approached the 16-year-old girls; they were separated. Disbrow, who still believed storks delivered babies, was raped by a man in a cowboy hat who called himself “Mack.”

Bloody and sore, Disbrow and her friend returned home.  Neither spoke of what had occurred, but her body spoke for her. Months later, when her belly swelled, her mother pulled her aside and asked whether she had “known” any boys. Disbrow revealed the attack. Only then did her mother explain, pointing to her stomach, that “babies grow here.”

The pastor of her Lutheran church had a solution. To “retain her good character,” the House of Mercy in Sioux Falls would take her in and help her find Lutheran parents to take the child. Disbrow, as always, did as she was told.

On May 22, 1929, Disbrow, 17, gave birth to a beautiful girl she called Betty Jane. When the bundle was lowered into her arms, Disbrow drank in everything about the baby, from her thin lips to her pink cheeks and wisp of blond hair.

It was love at first sight.

“Nothing had prepared her for this. This . . . connection. It was as though this tiny other person shared Minka’s soul,” LaGrow writes. “She had never imagined that she could feel this depth of love for a person she’d just met — like she would throw herself in front of a train to save her.”

Disbrow felt conflicted. Her love was so strong. But she knew life on a farm, as a single woman with no education, was no life for this baby.

Meanwhile, a Lutheran clergyman and his wife desperately wanted a baby girl and contacted the House of Mercy. Disbrow was thrilled by the match. “Did you hear that, sweet girl? You’re going to grow up in a minister’s family,” she cooed to her baby.

On June 27, her family arrived in a dairy truck to collect Disbrow. She kissed her baby one last time.  “This must be what dying feels like,” she thought. “No, “ she reflected later, “Death would probably be kinder than this.”

Heartbroken, Disbrow wrote regularly to the House of Mercy to inquire about Betty Jane.

“Did Reverend come after her all ready and how did they like her and just what did they say about her. And did you dress her up nice?” she wrote in June 1929, days after returning home.


Responses were kind but purposefully vague. Often her letters received no reply.  Her only memento was a black-and-white photo taken before the child was taken away, inscribed with, “Sweetest little girl in the world — Betty J.”

Disbrow kept writing. Every birthday and Christmas, she wrote. She shared news of her own family, but was clearly desperate for any information on Betty Jane.

“Have you heard anything from Betty Jane lately?” she wrote in 1935 after her stepfather’s death. “Can hardly believe she will be six years old in three months. It hurts me so terribly much to think she never could of seen her grandfather.”

When she got married in 1944, she wrote. When she had a baby in 1947, she wrote. For two ­decades, she wrote, penning some 60 letters.

“My little girl is a year old, and needless to say we all love her dearly. She has brought so much joy into all our lives. She has big blue eyes and medium dark hair, looks a lot like Betty did, but Betty Jane was fairer.

“Would appreciate a line from you and if you have any news about Betty I’d surely love to hear how she is,” she wrote in December 1947. 

It was her last letter.

Every year though, she reached for that faded black-and-white photograph and said a prayer for Betty Jane on her birthday. She did the same in 2006 on Betty Jane’s 77th birthday. She prayed that God would finally let her meet her daughter.

One month later in Wisconsin, Ruth Lee read and reread each letter. This woman — her mother — was unrelenting in her love for her. 

“She never forgot about me,” Lee told her son Brian. “There are so many letters!” Given her age, it was more than likely that Disbrow was already dead. But they checked an online White Pages anyway and found:

“Minka Disbrow. Birthdate: November 10, 1911. Age: 94 years.”Not only was she alive, but she had a listed phone number.It took two phone calls before Disbrow answered. Lee was too anxious to make the call herself; she asked Brian to do it for her.


Minka Disbrow and daughter Ruth Lee reunite in 2006.When Brian told Disbrow the story, she was incredulous, worried that she was the victim of some kind of cruel hoax.But then Brian started asking her questions.

“What was my mother’s given name when she was born?” he said.

“Betty Jane,” she responded.

“Where was she born?”

“Sioux Falls, South Dakota.”

“Would you like to speak to Betty Jane?”

Before Disbrow could respond, her legs buckled beneath her and she fell to the floor.

“Hello?” Ruth said. “This is your Betty Jane.” The conversation went by in a haze. They spoke about their children and grandchildren and made arrangements to meet in person. They finally did, two months later, at Disbrow’s home in California.

“I can’t believe her hair is white!” Disbrow, now 102, told The Post.

LaGrow, the book’s author and Disbrow’s granddaughter, describes the women as “two long-lost sisters.” They dress the same — they unwittingly wore matching outfits during their reunion — and they have the same kind blue eyes and no-nonsense personality.

Disbrow sees much of her mother in Ruth Lee — from her small stature to the shape of her nail beds. Though they still live apart — Lee is in Wisconsin; Disbrow in California with her children  — but they stay in touch by phone. Her new grandson Brian, who felt instantly connected to his new grandmother, calls her every week.  He admits he adores “Grandma”.

After their meeting — a reunion 28,000 days in the making — Disbrow finally received one of her own letters:   “We feel so lucky and so fortunate to have found you. God was watching over us and guiding us to this very happy day.”

====Real mommies never forget.  Happy Mother’s Day…


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