Minka Disbrow

Update January 2, 2012 – To those of you who have made your way here from the AP article that went viral today…thank you so much for your interest in this story. My sweet Grandma (though very savvy) has no computer, but we are keeping her informed of all the interest and comments. She is more than thrilled that her story is touching so many people. Feel free to “share” on FB, Twitter…wherever. God bless you!

This summer, we visited my maternal grandmother in California. After a motel mishap left us stranded, I called Grandma and asked if we could “crash” at her small apartment near the ocean. When we drove up at dusk, a few hours later, Grandma was just coming back from the grocery store, where she’d gone to stock up on food supplies for us.

Her place was as neat as a pin, as it has been for as far back as I can remember. That night, after I’d tucked all my boys in bed, I went into the living room to keep Grandma company. I sat down with a book. Grandma was filling out a word puzzle with a ballpoint pen.

“I like to do something like this before I go to bed,” Grandma said. “It helps me unwind.” About 45 minutes later I sleepily called it quits, leaving Grandma sitting in a small circle of lamplight, still working on her puzzle.

Sometimes I think this woman will outlive us all.

********

Grandma was born in South Dakota, to a Dutch couple who had emigrated to the U.S. only months earlier. When she was three years old, her father left one day to go swimming with friends. That night when the neighbors came hurrying up the lane, Grandma’s mother, who spoke little English and was still in confinement after the birth of her third baby, struggled out to the front porch to meet them. More than eight decades later, Grandma sat at my dining room table recounting the story in minute detail, down to the lantern that had swung from her mother’s hand, spilling its soft light into the dark night air.

Her father had drowned.

Grandma spent the rest of her childhood working on farms, wherever her mother could find odd jobs. She and her siblings picked crops in the fields, milked cows, and hauled water, wood, and coal. After eighth grade, Grandma was told that high school was only for “city kids who had nothing else to do,” and with that, her formal education was over.

In time, Grandma married a dark, handsome young man and soon after, war broke out and he left to join the Air Force as a pilot. Later, Grandma gave birth to a girl and a boy, and then watched as a knot of cruelty blossomed inside her soldier husband. Eventually Grandma left him but she never got a divorce, and never remarried. She went on, supporting herself by working as a typist and a cook.

Like many women of the early 20th century, Grandma was exceedingly frugal, eating little and saving everything. When my brothers and I were children, we’d nudge each other when we saw her tucking spare packets of restaurant saltines in her purse, or extra rolls wrapped in napkins. But more than once over the years, after learning I’d cried over having nothing nice to wear to school, Grandma bought stacks of new clothing for me. She crocheted outfits for my dolls, and when I begged for curls for my stick-straight hair, it was Grandma who gave me my first permanent, sitting at the Formica table in our little kitchen.

Five years ago, my immediate family was completely stunned to learn a portion of Grandma’s story that she’d kept hidden from all of us, all these years.

********

When she was sixteen years old, while walking in the woods by a lake, Grandma had been accosted by three strangers and raped. Nine months later when she gave birth to a little girl, the baby was quickly taken from her and placed for adoption. For years afterward, Grandma wrote letters to the adoption agency, filling hundreds of pages, begging for word of her baby. She received little information, but Grandma never stopped praying that someday she’d learn what had happened to her daughter.

Decades passed, a lifetime passed, and she never whispered a word of it to any of us.

And then one day in 2006, the phone rang in Grandma’s little apartment, and a few weeks later, she was holding in her arms the daughter she’d given up seventy-seven years earlier. Her first words were: “You’re as wonderful as I’d thought you’d be.”

That daughter was now a grandmother herself, many times over. Among her six children are professors, soldiers, technicians, and an astronaut who has flown on four space missions. Their reunion with Grandma, and the bond that has developed between them, has been one of the greatest joys of all our lives.

********

Crime, war, abuse, tragedy, illnesses – all of these and more have been part of my Grandma’s long life. She watched her immediate family struggle with addictions and diseases, and years ago she buried her husband, her younger sister, and her only son. In her seventies, when she was left with a young granddaughter to raise, she came out of retirement and worked as a cashier for another thirteen years.

But if this woman has spent a day of her life feeling sorry for herself, I have not borne witness to it. As long as I’ve known her, she has insisted that God is faithful and good, that her life is good.

In any event, she’s much too busy to feel sorry for herself. As I write this, Grandma’s activities include volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center and hosting a weekly Bible study in her home. She spends hours on the phone praying with people, and when friends are in need, she rakes their yards, vacuums their floors, fixes them food. She does all the maintenance and yard work for her apartment complex. She never misses church on Sundays. In her spare time, she travels the country visiting old and new family members. She will fly here to Oregon in two weeks, to celebrate her birthday.

Oh, regarding her age? Five months after Grandma was born, citizens of Southampton, England gathered to watch the launch of a vessel named the RMS Titanic. That great ship survived less than two weeks. This month, my Grandma turns 100.

Happy Birthday to my beloved grandmother Minka Disbrow, the single most extraordinary person I’ve ever known.

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46 Responses to Minka Disbrow

  1. T. Duhon, LA says:

    This story has today touched my heart deeply. Thank you for sharing her amazing story.
    I read about it first on Huffington Post. Thank you.

  2. Nancy says:

    Your all so amazing! Thank you for inspiring others to keep looking for their loved ones.

  3. Maggie M says:

    Wow! What an amazing and touching story! Thank you for sharing it!

  4. Robert Flanagan says:

    What a beautiful woman! What a wonderful story!

  5. francine says:

    Beautiful, beautiful story…Beyond words could ever express…As I have tears in my eyes typing this, wish I can emulate her…Thank you..

  6. Mel Sinonovich says:

    What a wonderful story! It is so comforting to read about your grandmother Minka, and one can feel the love you have for her. Its amazing how many wonderful people came from such a tragic event in Minka’s life. Minka is a true hero. God Bless you all.

  7. deanpar says:

    on my god…. what a story…. i am so touched…. only a mother can endure things like these… only a mother knows the pain of making a child…only she has the touch and feelings for her child…
    a child might not know how a mother feels….. how much sacrifice she will make for her child….always love your mother,,,,
    thanks for sharing your story to the world….my god bless you and her and i hope this will inspire the world to be good to each other and our families…. always keep your head high ….

  8. sheli novak says:

    JESUS LOVES THIS I KNOW…..Thanks for sharing!

  9. lorian says:

    This is truly inspiring and heart warming. Thank you for sharing this.

  10. Christine Lawson says:

    I read about this story on cafemom.com through The Stir. What a wonderfully, amazing and empowering woman your grandmother is. I too live in Oregon and I believe I have read about this story in The Oregonian. She is the type of woman that I believe many of us hope to emulate as we age. Btw, she looks no older than her early seventies.

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      Thanks for coming by! Yes, this story ran in most of the national newspapers last week, on Tuesday or Wednesday, I believe.

      And you’re right…she doesn’t look anywhere near her age. Or act it! She was here in November and came over to help the great-grandkids decorate Christmas cookies…and she stood most of the time, while she slathered icing on cookies, because she couldn’t be bothered to sit down.

  11. Evangeline says:

    An amazing tribute to of the tireless power of love! God’s love for us is witnessed in Grandma’s story and in her example. When I read that Grandma was coming to Oregon, my first thought was, “I wish I could meet this wonderful woman and her family.” Having only one sister left of my own little family, I am moved to tears by the story’s strength and love embodied by you all; my heart swells remembering the unbreakable bonds of love that even now tie me to those who have already left; my heart is warmed and I am given hope that another such joyful reunion is slated for all of us who believe. Thanks for sharing. May God bless you all.

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      Oh, God bless you, too, Evangeline! I would give you a big hug, if I could. :-)

      I have a feeling some of Grandma’s family members are sitting up in Heaven, wondering what’s taking her so long! She doesn’t act like she’s going to join them any time soon.

  12. What an amazing woman! You are blessed to have her as your grandma. Thanks for sharing this story – I’m sharing it on my FB page.

  13. sarah says:

    Wow what a story from here in england i sat in my chair reading such a fabulous story!!! Your grandmother is a great women and one to be proud off ,I trully am speachless about what your grandmother went through what a curagious women.. Not to burden you all with sadness but joy at the outcome off something horrific for her was a gorgeous daughetr who she finally met and with her came a bigger family one for you all to get to know.. Life is hard but when you sit and see thinsg leik this it reminds you with every dark cloud there is a silver linning.. From me in portsmouth (england) loads off love and a happy birthday toy our grandmother xx

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      Thanks so much for reading & commenting from SO far away! I visited your country back in the 80’s…when this very same Grandma sent me there, as a teenager, so I could have an adventure. :-)

      And yes…we are so enjoying getting to know our “new” family members! It’s been such a blessing, truly.

  14. ginalawson says:

    It’s women lik her that give the rest of us hope. Thank you so much for sharing this xx

  15. Josh says:

    Very touching story- I am glad that your grandmother has lived to see her offspring grow up and have children of their own. I never got to meet 3 of my grandparents- they all passed on before my parents even married, sadly. God does work in mysterious ways; even though there are tragic moments in life, good things do and will happen. I pray that many more people are touched by this story.

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      So sorry you didn’t know your grandparents. :-( One of my Grandpas died right after I was born…the other when I was 7. But I have two extraordinary Grandmas who are both still living (the other one is 97, I think.)

      I love when beauty comes out of tragedies. It gives you goosebumps. :-)

  16. cheri says:

    What an amazing and touching story. Your grandmother is a beautiful and strong woman. She had such a hard and difficult life starting out, which could have left her bitter and angry. Instead, she offered up her suffering to God and forged ahead with a good heart and a strong faith. In return, He has blessed her. She is a perfect example that God has a plan for each of us, and that something good can come out of something bad. Your grandmother is an inspiration to all and a living reminder to trust in the Lord.

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      I absolutely agree…beautifully put!

      She is surely an inspiration. I would say I don’t know how someone has that kind of strength…but SHE would tell you it comes from a faithful God.

      Thanks for coming by!

  17. Yolanda Tarr says:

    What a wonderful story..

  18. Ursula Keleher says:

    How blessed you are to have found her. Several years ago, while looking through Ancestry.com, I met my grandmother’s first cousin. My grandmother was a child of immigrants from Norway and Sweden and was the most incredible person, the most important person in my life (other than my parents). My grandmother and her cousin had never met. The two of them were identical, both had wonderful senses of humor, a great love of sports, a strong independent spirit that was inspiring. They both knitted, cooked wonderful Norwegian food, lived alone, being totally independent. Norma lived on a river and fished, clammed and trapped lobsters until she was 98. Meeting her was like being with my grandmother. One of my cousins and I visited her every weekend. We loved being with her, listening to her stories, learning about the family we had never met. The four years we knew her were the best years of our lives.
    You and your family were so lucky to have found her. Treasure every second with her.

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      Your story is so fantastic, I want to eat it with a spoon. Norma needs her own book!

      Those early 20th-century immigrants were sure a hardy, hard-working folk. Amazing.

      (Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing wrong!)

      Thanks for sharing your story. I LOVED it.

  19. What a truly remarkable woman she is. I am very thankful for you to have shared this story of your grandma. She is an inspiration, not only to women, but to survivors everywhere.

  20. Your beautifully written story brought tears to my eyes! It just goes to show that some people have the ability to rise above sad things that happen to them. How wonderful for you that you have this amazing woman in your life!

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      Reading through these comments, I am thinking of the last lines of Ulysses, by Tennyson:

      “and tho’
      We are not now that strength which in old days
      Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
      One equal temper of heroic hearts,
      Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
      To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

      People like my Grandma never yield.

  21. Jenn says:

    What an amazing story and amazing lady! It’s inspiring that in spite of such difficulties she remains so joyful. What a great example, and what a beautiful life. She reminds me of this article (my favorite ever!)-she epitomizes it, actually. She might enjoy it- here’s the link: http://lds.org/ensign/1996/05/finding-joy-in-life?lang=eng

    Thanks for sharing her story- I read it from the AP story- but it’s so much better to read this personal account.

  22. Your family’s story struck a very personal chord with me. I was born to a teenaged mother after being conceived by rape. I too was placed for adoption at birth and have had a wonderful family. At the age of 24, I searched for and found my birthmother, who told me she had wondered every single day about me. I can’t imagine going 77 years with that thought always somewhere in heart and mind. I am so happy for your grandmother and family. I am now a mother through adoption myself, though out of my own experience, we have an open adoption with our daughter’s birthparents instead of the secrets and wondering.

    I wish you and your amazing grandmother all the best.

    • Cathy LaGrow says:

      Sorry I’m just now getting to this, Heather!

      Oh my word…thank you so much for sharing your story. I am SO glad everything turned out so well for you. Adoption is such a wonderful gift…I have a friend who is trying to adopt now…she was ordering a t-shirt that said “Adoption is the new pregnant.” :-)

      Thanks for coming by and sharing. All the best to you and yours, too. XO

  23. Judith Porath says:

    Well, my darling Cats, all these years we have commiserated together about all the weak-kneed Huhn genes that we share. Me thinks now that ye may have a fair streak of the Disbrow as well.
    On secnod thought, I wonder if it is just possible that moving on, even with a faint heart, is not another evidence of the often silent and unseen God who has carried us all these miles. While our ears echoed with our loud complaints of the sure and coming disaster, He has borne us along on feathered wings of safety. Bless you dearest. He feels pleasure when you record the wonders He has wrought. It seems He made you to write so that He is honored and many thirsty souls are soothed. AJ

  24. Alexandria Disbrow says:

    Hello! I know you have no idea who I am, and I hope you don’t find me strange…. But Minka is my grandma also. Her son Don Disbrow is my father. I just so happened to find this blog while I was searching for her ancestry in the Netherlands. I am planning a trip in Dec, and wanted to visit my families’ “hometown”…. I have a sister, also Don’s daughter, Anastastia Disbrow. We went down and celebrated with her for her 100th bday, and also stayed at her house by the beach. What a small world!! I really enjoyed your entry about her. I have read the articles online over and over again about her story, and can’t believe we have such an amazing woman in our lives.

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