Portrait of (left to right): Minka Debrow, Ruth Lee and Cathy LaGrow taken by Stephen Vosloo. (Tyndale House Publishers Inc.)
It was 1928 and 16-year-old Minka Disbrow’s life changed forever. At a time when she still believed that storks delivered babies, Disbrow was attacked and raped by a stranger.
She hid what had happened from her family and friends — that is, until she realized that her body was changing. It was then that her mother had to explain to her that she was pregnant and to teach her daughter for the first time how babies are made.
Disbrow was sent to live at a young women’s home to hide the situation even from her own sister. She delivered the baby there, naming her Betty Jane. Then, at the guidance of her mother and the family pastor, she gave the child up for adoption.
Keeping the baby and her rape a secret became a habit — one Disbrow continued throughout her life, concealing it even from those closest to her.
Disbrow, then 94, told them about Betty Jane, the baby she had given up 77 years before. She also shared an old black-and-white photo of the child that she had secretly cherished for all those years.
Her granddaughter, Cathy LaGrow, told TheBlaze that for most of her life, she had no idea that her grandmother had been a teen mother who had gone through such a scarring experience.
“It completely shocked us. We never would have imaged anything like that about our grandma,” LaGrow said. “She’s a very dignified, hardworking person … we never imagined that she had this monumental secret.”
In many ways, Disbrow’s decades-long decision not to tell her family about the baby is understandable, LaGrow said. After all, in the world and culture in which she grew up, everything was private with kids being “seen and not heard.”
But despite not speaking about it openly, Disbrow secretly wrote dozens of letters to the House of Mercy adaption agency in the months and years following the adoption. Many of those notes went unanswered, leaving Disbrow wondering how her child was faring.
She didn’t know that Betty Jane had been renamed Ruth Lee, and that she had gone on in her adult years to have a family of her own, with little knowledge of the situation in which she was conceived.
Success and happiness were all Disbrow wanted for her child and that was exactly what Lee was experiencing.
“It was her faith that allowed her to have that hope through all those years … that Betty Jane was having a good life and had a strong family,” LaGrow said of her grandmother.
LaGrow said it was around the time of Lee’s 77th birthday in 2007 that Disbrow once again found herself praying for and wondering about her daughter. At the time, thinking about her own mortality, she told God she’d like to see Lee at least once before dying.
“Less than six weeks later, she got the call from [Lee],” LaGrow told TheBlaze, calling the story of how the two reconnected “stranger than fiction.”
Watch the emotional reunion below:
She had fallen ill with a heart condition and gallbladder issues in 2006. When doctors asked about her family history, she had little information to give.
Knowing she was adopted but not knowing anything about her birth mother, Lee began looking for answers and asked her son Brian to help dig up some of the details.
“I started having a lot of surgeries and so the first thing they want to know is about family history,” Lee told TheBlaze. “I said I was adopted and I don’t know anything about my family medical history.”
After some deep digging, Lee retrieved her adoption files and was totally overwhelmed by what she found inside — loving letters from Disbrow, who spent decades inquiring about her child.
“I was just overwhelmed with looking at all the letters, asking about her little girl and so I tell you, the love that flowed from those letters was like a waterfall of love,” Lee said of her birth mother’s writings.
It wasn’t until that point that Lee learned of the disturbing circumstances surrounding her conception and birth. She had previously assumed that her parents were simply a young couple unable to afford a child, but had no idea her birth was the result of a rape.
“I just started to well up with anger. I thought, ‘Oh my word, back then they even had rapes going on?,” Lee said. “I just could hardly believe it … I felt such anger at what had been done to her.”
She added, ”With everything that happened to her, you realize she could have become very bitter, but it only made her stronger and it made her faith stronger and that’s pretty amazing.”
It was at that point that Lee’s son began to dig even deeper, learning of Disbrow’s married name and whereabouts. After he was able to track down a phone number, Lee was stunned to learn that her mother was 94 years old — and still alive.
She mustered up the courage to pick up the phone and call her birth mother, the two hearing each others’ voices for the very first time.
“I got on the phone and it was a very emotional time. And so she wanted to know if I had any children and I said, ‘Yes, I have six children,’” Lee recalled. “She wanted to know all about the kids and I told her — I went down the line.”
Lee said Disbrow was shocked to learn that one of her grandsons was an astronaut who had been on four missions in space.
From there, a relationship was born, with the two keeping in touch and bringing family members together for the very first time, including Lee’s half-sister Dianna — LaGrow’s mother.
Lee said it was as though she and Disbrow had known one another forever.
“It brings the tears to the eyes,” Lee, now 85, said. ”She gave me the gift of life and she gave me the gift of adoption.”
The two built out a relationship, making up for lost time in the ensuing years.
Disbrow passed away at the age of 102 on June 18, 2014, just days after TheBlaze spoke with her family members about her remarkable remarkable story.
LaGrow’s book, “The Waiting,” published just one month before Disbrow’s death, tells the story of the mother-and-daughter reunion so many decades in the making — perhaps the longest timespan of any mother-daughter reunion in history.
The reunion in 2006 that brought mother and daughter together
“It has a very happy ending and I’ve heard and read about a lot of stories like this and they haven’t turned out so well,” Lee told TheBlaze before her mother’s death. “I’m just very, very thankful and grateful how this one turned out.”