Mum and daughter reunited 77 years after adoption

Reunited at last: Minka Disbrow and her daughter, Ruth Lee, meeting for the first time after 77 years apart.
Reunited at last: Minka Disbrow and her daughter, Ruth Lee, meeting for the first time after 77 years apart. 

A 102-year-old mother has told of her joy and astonishment at being reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption more than seven decades ago.

Minka Disbrow became pregnant at 16, after she and a friend were raped by strangers while walking in woods near her home in South Dakota in 1928. The teenager still thought that babies were delivered by a stork, and it was only when her mother spotted her swelling figure that she learnt what it meant to be pregnant.  

Abiding by the wishes of her family, she handed the daughter she called Betty Jane to officials from the House of Mercy adoption agency.

Minka Disbrow's only memento of her daughter, a photo from 1929, captioned "Sweetest little girl in the world - Betty J."
Minka Disbrow's only memento of her daughter, a photo from 1929, captioned "Sweetest little girl in the world - Betty J." 

"I loved that baby so much. I wanted what was best," she said. 

But she never forgot about her, over the years writing dozens of letters begging for news from the agency. She knew that her daughter had given to a pastor and his wife, and always hoped she was happy.

“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 giving up her baby.

She wrote every year for her daughter’s birthday, and on Christmases.

“Have you heard anything from Betty Jane lately?” she wrote after her stepfather’s death in 1936. “Can hardly believe she will be six years old in three months. It hurts me so terribly much to think she never could have seen her grandfather.” 

The heartbroken Minka’s only memento of her child was a black and white photo taken of the pair before they had been separated. She captioned it: “Sweetest little girl in the world – Betty J.”

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Eventually, disheartened by the lack of replies, Minka’s letters petered out. She went on to marry and have more children, but her eldest daughter was never far from her mind – or heart. On each of Betty Jane’s birthdays she would hold the black and white photo of her child and pray that they would be reunited.   

Meanwhile, adopted by a Lutheran pastor and renamed Ruth, the little girl had a happy childhood, and was never tempted to seek out her birth mother. She also married and had five children of her own.

It was only when she started to suffer from health problems in her 70s that her own children suggested she research her genetic history by tracing her birth family.

She contacted adoption officials, expecting a few sheets of paper from her decades-old file. Instead, she received a package with more than 60 handwritten letters.

“She never forgot about me,” Ruth told her son Brian. “There are so many letters!”

As she had just turned 77, Ruth guessed that her mother would have probably passed away – so she was shocked to instead find Minka in the phone book. A phone call confirmed that Minka was indeed her birth mother.

Ruth and her mother were soon reunited in 2006. "It was just like we had never parted. Like you were with the family all your life," Minka said. She was thrilled to learn that she had great-grandchildren, and proud to learn that Ruth is the mother of astronaut Mark Lee.

Ruth Lee’s daughter, Cathy LaGrow, has written a book about their reunion called The Waiting. She says the two women are ‘‘like sisters,’’ looking and even dressing alike. Living in different states – Minka lives in California, and Ruth lives in Wisonsin – they talk on the phone often, and visit when they can. 

In an interview with the New York Post, Minka said she still could not take in the fact that her baby was now an old woman herself.

‘‘I can’t believe that her hair is white,’’ she said.

And finally, decades after sending all those letters to the adoption agency, Minka received a letter in return from her daughter’s family.  

“We feel so lucky and so fortunate to have found you,” it said. “God was watching over us and guiding us to this very happy day.”

- The Daily Telegraph with staff writers