In an Oak Brook instant, 86 years of separation vanish

Taken away from each other at ages 2 and 3, women learn it's never too late to find your sister

Friday afternoon. An Oak Brook hotel.

Annette Brown is waiting for her sister.

She has waited most of her life, really, but Friday's wait is different. It comes with an appointment.

Any minute now, Annette's sister Betty will walk in, and they will see each other for the first time since Annette was 3 years old and Betty was 2.

"Long, long time," Annette says.

Since 1926. Eighty-six years. Long, long time.

Time when they might have been each other's friends, rivals, confidantes, witnesses, all the things sisters can be, years when, instead, they existed only in each other's yearnings.

On the night before this meeting, Annette felt such a strain in her heart, such a shaking, such a mix of sadness and fear and elation, that she popped a nitroglycerin pill just to calm down.

"Don't tell me I'm gonna drop dead now," she thought.

1923. Chicago's West Side.

Two 19-year-olds, Anna and Morris, have a baby. They call her Annette.

Thirteen months later, after they marry, they have another baby and name her Florence, who was later called Betty.

Anna is Catholic, from a family that speaks Bohemian at home. Morris is Jewish, from a family that speaks Yiddish. It is not a socially acceptable match.

No one alive today knows if religion plays a part in their decision to give up their children, to divide them. All that is known is that Morris' parents bring Betty into their home and Anna's parents take Annette into theirs, and each girl is raised as if the other didn't exist.

When Annette is 9, her mother remarries and she goes to live in her mother's new household, where she remains, with three new little sisters, even after her mother dies at 38. She is happy there, but always feels the shadow of something missing and untold.

"What happened to your father?" kids sometimes ask. She has no idea. She's never even seen his photo.

"He died in World War I," she lies.

Once, when she is 7, her grandmother tells her that she has a sister, Florence, but offers no further detail. When she asks her mother about Florence, her mother says, "When you get older, I'll tell you," but her mother never does.

In the late 1940s, she puts an ad in the Chicago Tribune, in search of her father, hoping to find her sister too. A lawyer responds.

"What do you want? Money?"

No, she says. She's just had her first baby, a son, and wants him to meet his grandfather.

There is no money. There is no meeting.

In the decades that follow, Annette thinks about her lost sister. What does she look like? Has she married? Had kids? Is she alive? One of her sons searches public documents but, as he will discover later, names have been changed, and he finds no clues.

Annette grows old, still hoping to see her sister before she dies.

2012. Vermont.

Norrine Williams is using her retirement time to dig into her ancestry on the Internet. She's been thinking about her mother-in-law, Betty, who lives in New Jersey, and who'd spent her life lamenting, "Why did my mother leave me?"

Norrine knows some things about Betty:

Betty grew up on Chicago's West Side, moved to LA at 13 or so, and always felt slightly out of place in her family. At the age of 8, she opened a trunk, where she found papers that revealed to her that she was adopted, that her parents were really her grandparents. When she asked questions, she learned that one of her brothers, who was rarely around, was really her father.

Sometimes Betty overheard conversations among her many aunts, uncles and cousins, whispers that made her wonder, "Do I have a sister?"¿

If she did, no one ever said so to her face.

So now, all these years later, her daughter-in-law Norrine, sitting in her home office in Vermont, digs through Internet sources, scouring the Chicago census from the late 1800s on into the early 1900s, cobbling together clues.

She finds an elderly woman in Villa Park who appears to be Betty's aunt, someone, perhaps the last living person, who would know the whole truth.

Norrine writes a letter to the aunt. Six weeks later, the letter comes back. Wrong address.

She finds a more recent address and asks one of Betty's sons to drop by when he's in Chicago in October. He does. Nobody home.

Norinne writes another letter, asking for information. The aunt's granddaughter responds.

Nobody was home that day because the aunt had just died.

But yes. Yes. Betty has a sister. She is alive. Her name is Annette.

Sunday, three weeks ago. Freeport, Ill., and Sparta, N.J.

Betty Williams is in her apartment at a senior citizen complex when one of her sons comes over with his wife and daughter. They all pull out cellphones.

"What's going on?" Betty says.

"Sit still, Mom."

Annette Brown is home in Freeport, where she lives with one of her sons. The phone rings.

And then they're crying. Annette, Betty, all the relations listening on speaker phone, everybody's crying.

"Hi, Florence," says Annette. "This is Annette, your sister."

"I don't believe it," says Betty.

"Believe it. I'm here. I'm Annette. I saw you when you were a baby."

Every day since then, Betty, 88, and Annette, 89, have talked by phone, piecing together the lost 86 years.

They trade stories. Of Betty's days in the Navy, as a nurse, as a pingpong champ who married a sailor who thought, wrongly, that he could beat her at the game. Of Annette's marriage to a Marine, their time on an Iowa farm and running a tavern.

They talk about Annette's four children and Betty's six. They talk of losing their husbands; 20 years ago for Annette, 21 for Betty.

Through their kids, they email photos. Betty sees a photo of her mother for the first time. Annette finally sees her father. They see their first photos of each other.

They talk about why parents would do this to their children. It was a different time, they know. But even so.

Friday afternoon. An Oak Brook hotel.

A small woman in black pants and a cream-colored sweater walks into the room. She pauses. Across the carpet stands a small woman in black pants and a black-and-white-striped top.

They have both feared this moment as much as they've hoped for it, though Annette says she doesn't know why because they're just two little old ladies, right?

And then they're hugging, clinging to each other, weeping.

"It came true, didn't it?" Betty says, holding on to her sister's small bones, so much like her own small bones.

"I never thought I'd see you, Betty," says Annette.

They let go, sit down side by side. Photos are pulled out, more stories exchanged.

"You're diabetic?" Betty says to Annette. "So was your father."

Annette keeps reaching for Betty's hand. Betty keeps saying, "Wow."

"I have a sister," says Betty, "a living sister, and nobody can take her away again."

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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