In an Oak Brook instant, 86 years of separation vanish

"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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