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?"