It was summertime, the world slow and hot, when I first learned Grandma’s shocking secret. My baby boy was almost three months old. He and I had not yet gotten the hang of breastfeeding, but were getting there. I was exhausted. My brother Grant called with the news.

“Grandma has a long-lost child,” he said. “When Grandma was just 16, she was raped by a stranger and got pregnant. She really loved the baby, but she gave her up for adoption. That was in 1929. She’s always missed her baby. Anyway, that daughter, who’s 77 years old now, just found Grandma. They’re going to be reunited in a few weeks.”


Author Cathy LaGrow (right) with her long-lost aunt, Ruth Lee (left), and grandmother Minka Disbrow.

 

This narrative was interrupted by a great many “What’s?!” from me.

At some point, my brother mentioned that one of our six new cousins was an honest-to-God astronaut who’d been to space four times.

Grandma was now 94. I’d known her all my life. She was dignified, strong, uncomplaining. I could never have imagined this: a monumental secret, a beloved, lost child.

Grandma and her daughter had their joyful reunion that summer. Several years later, after I’d had another baby and waded through another long round of diapers and interrupted nights, one of my new cousins, Brian, suggested that the reunion story would make a great book.

“I’ll put some stuff together,” I told him. “I’ll do some research and writing, and then maybe we’ll find somebody to author the book, and I can turn everything over to them.” Grandma was very healthy, but she’d just turned 100 years old. There was no time to lose.

Grandma was now 94. I’d known her all my life. She was dignified, strong, uncomplaining. I could never have imagined this: a monumental secret, a beloved, lost child.

And so it began. Grandma lived 500 miles away and had no computer, so I typed pages of questions: What were your parents’ full names and birthdates? Why did they come to America? I’d mail off the questions and she’d return them within days, answers printed in her careful penmanship.

With my two small boys tumbling underfoot, it proved impossible for me to work from home. I started driving to the local library on evenings and weekends. Sometimes I’d hurry home at my sons’ bedtime for sweet goodnight kisses. Other times I’d still be at the library when the staff dimmed the lights at closing time.

I pored over details of early 20th-century life on the South Dakotan prairie. I checked ship’s manifests, consulted historical train schedules. I searched through online records: newspaper articles, county graphs, weather bureau statistics. Grandma and I spent two long weekends together, recording hours of conversation.

And I wrote. Paragraph by paragraph, Grandma’s life began to take shape. As I fell more deeply in love with the story, I realized that no other author would take more care of it than I would. Although my credentials consisted of a single published story and a modest blog—which I used mostly to discuss geeky things like particle accelerators and black holes—it became clear that I was going to write this book.

Summer days passed with me tucked away at the library while my guys played at a park, or fished at the river. I tried to ignore the sun beaming gorgeously beyond the windows. At home, laundry piled up. Stacks of research papers sprouted on tables. Last fall, I spent Thanksgiving alone at home, kneeling on the carpet, pages spread around me. As I edited, I ate handfuls of microwave popcorn and tried not to miss my boys, or the turkey they were eating at their grandparents’ house.

When it was time for Grandma to review the bulk of the manuscript, I booked a plane ticket so I could hand-deliver it. She still lived in the same cozy Californian apartment that I’d visited as a child. Back then, I’d always be dashing off to the nearby beach, trailing beach towels and sand buckets.

Now, my nerves jangled. I’d poured my heart into this project for nearly two years, and I’d done it for her. Although I’d taken great pains to be accurate, I wondered if I’d gotten a million things wrong, anyway. What if Grandma had to slash sentences on every page? The publisher had assigned a tight deadline. There wouldn’t be time to start over.

I handed her the chapters, a highlighter, and a pen. “Mark anything that isn’t right, Grandma,” I said, “and I will change it.” She read late into the night. The following morning, she gave the chapters back to me, and I began to flip through. This was the moment of truth. I turned page after page.

Grandma had changed exactly three words. She loved the book. I’d gotten it right.

 

Cathy LaGrow has been married to her high school sweetheart, Dan, for almost 25 years. She is a licensed, nonpracticing U.S. Customs broker and a piano teacher. She lives in Oregon, where she's often found in the kitchen baking or curled up in a chair reading. Cathy's mother is Minka Disbrow's second child, born nearly 18 years after the baby Minka gave up for adoption.

 

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