It's a story that spans almost 100 years; a tragedy that eventually turns to beauty and reconciliation; a story of one woman's determination; the power of prayer – and forgiveness...
The Waiting is one of those incredibly poignant books that affects you deeply in a forever, life-changing way. And, almost unbelievably, it is a true story.
In 1928 a young 16-year-old farm girl called Minka was raped while on a rare outing – a picnic. She had no idea what had happened to her – she just knew she hurt. When the resulting baby was about to arrive she had to leave home in order to have her in secret then give her up. Minka then had to learn to live with an even deeper hurt...
For almost 80 years Minka faced hardships and troubles with dignity and perseverance, but the underlying pang of heartache and loss meant she never gave up praying, pleading, that she would one day see her daughter, her 'Betty Jane', again.
On Betty Jane's 77th birthday Minka, now in her nineties, prayed for a miracle and, on the very same day, unbeknown to her, her daughter's sealed adoption records were being released to Betty Jane, now known as Ruth.
When The Waiting's author, Cathy LaGrow, first heard about her grandmother's terrible ordeal, she could hardly believe it was all true. But after seeing decades' worth of letters from Minka asking for news of her baby she realised how desperately her grandmother had needed to find 'Betty Jane'. So she looked on with eager interest as her grandmother and newly discovered cousin organised the first reunion, which took place in 2006.
Christian Today spoke to Cathy about the journey her family have been on, what it was like for the three generations to finally be reunited and what they have all learned from their grandmother's incredible life, which sadly ended this June.
What a story! It must have been so emotional to write – and even more poignant and remarkable now. You obviously felt it was a story that needed to be widely told so how did you convince your grandmother to give her permission for her story to be published (and the rest of the family)?
It was very emotional to write! I love my Grandma so much...there were many times when I'd be working on a passage with tears in my eyes, feeling her pain. Once the reunion happened, Grandma was always keen to share the story...however, she did struggle with my including the difficult details. She is by nature a private person. I definitely was determined to honour her wishes – there are things I left out at her request – but I helped her realise that the hard parts of stories are often what people can relate to most.
How did you go about the researching and writing processes once you had the go ahead? How much was Minka involved?
The historical research I could do on my own, on the computer and at the library, but, of course, I needed to get all the specific details of her story from Grandma. It was tricky, as she lived 1,000 miles from me and had no computer. I had to send batches of questions, pages at a time, through the postal service, and she would write down her answers and mail them back to me. But I also spent two or three long weekends in person with her, and sat listening to her talk for hours, and I recorded all of that.
You are the daughter of Minka's second daughter Dianna. What did it feel like for you and your mum when you first found out about the secret your grandmother had been carrying around for decades?
We were completely shocked. I had recently had my first baby, when I learned Grandma's secret, and I would often sit nursing him and just cry, thinking about Grandma having to give up her baby. Mom was happy for Grandma – she said she'd never seen her mother so happy – and she was tickled to finally have a sister, although of course they live far apart and are busy with their own lives.
In the book you describe the reunion and subsequent meetings and it seems as if everyone in the family clicked immediately. Was there really no awkwardness between any of you? What do you put that down to if not?
Honestly, it was as though we'd known each other our whole lives – completely effortless – and each one of us had that same impression. I suppose it's probably a combination of science (a bond on the natural level that is largely inexplicable), Grandma's prayers, our mutual affection for Grandma and perhaps the fact that we all had similar backgrounds and family values.
Your narrative reveals that Minka had a pretty tough childhood and, even after marrying her sweetheart, continued to live a life of hardship when he didn't turn out to be the husband she had hoped for. What would you say was the source of her deep strength?
Grandma was (I'm having a hard time referring to her in the past tense!) the most extraordinarily strong person I've ever known, and I held that opinion even before I learned the extent of her story. She was born with an astonishing constitution, and learned from childhood to "just do what must be done," without complaining. But of course, as she was going through these hard times, she developed a personal relationship with, and faith in, God, which only grew stronger up until the day she died.
What qualities in your grandmother have you admired the most and still seek to emulate?
Her strength and her faith. In June, my brothers and I flew to California to say goodbye to her (she died one week later). The day after I got home I attended my youngest son's kindergarten graduation, and at one point in the ceremony, with my thoughts still on Grandma's dying, I just lost it. I fled to the bathroom and could not stop sobbing. I finally reminded myself, "You are Minka's granddaughter – get it together." And that phrase immediately worked. I know I'll be using that for the rest of my life. Her blood flows in my veins, and that's an amazing legacy.
In this multi-layered story there must have been a need for each of you to work through the acceptance of the facts and then offer forgiveness and reconciliation. How important do you think forgiveness and faith has been to each of you?
Forgiveness can be a tough place to reach! Grandma was beautifully able to forgive the man who assaulted her after she got her darling daughter back, but it took so long. Faith is a common thread running through all our families, and it's central to many of our lives.
It is amazing to read how similar Ruth and Minka were and also to discover the strong work ethic and faith they passed down through their respective families. Has meeting your long-lost family and seeing how similar they are to you all given you any new revelation on understanding and parenting your own children?
It's striking how many of Grandma's characteristics are present in her long-lost daughter's family. They are all hard-working, resilient, very grounded and dedicated to the work that's in front of them. Some days, when being a mommy of little guys gets tough, I think about my Grandma, or her daughter (who had SIX children), and it makes my life seem a little easier!
How did your grandmother, and your mother, feel when they read through the finished book for the first time?
My mom was very supportive of the process, and helped with a lot of the memories from her childhood. Many of the details of her mother's childhood were previously unknown to her, and she loved reading the final product. I was so nervous about what Grandma's reaction would be. She had very strong opinions and was very protective of her story – wanting to make sure it was accurate. She read the manuscript before I turned it in to the publisher, and she only corrected three errors. Then, when I had the book in my hands (before it released in stores), I flew to California and gave her a copy. What a treat it was to show her the beautiful finished book, and show her that I'd dedicated it to her. That was her first chance to read the chapters about Ruth's childhood, and I loved that I was able to give her a glimpse into her daughter's life, which she'd longed for through all those years. Up until the week the book released, Grandma still lived alone (at 102), but that very week an MRI revealed a tumor in her throat, and she failed quickly. She died less than six weeks later. Grandma would never have left something undone – I really think she was holding on so strongly so that she could see the book. She loved it.
It must have been so special to all be reunited and spend some precious time together before Minka passed away. What is your enduring memory of this period?
The most special thing about writing this book, to me, was the chance to really get to know my Grandma. I'd 'known' her my whole life, but I'd never stopped to think about her as a child, or as a young woman. I never wondered (or asked) what her entire life had been like. She just really came alive to me through this process, and I will be forever grateful that I had that chance for discovery.
You are a writer, but this was your debut novel. What plans do you have next?
I will probably start working on some fiction this Fall, once my boys (they're eight and five years old) are back in school. The last 2½ years were so gruelling, working on the book – this summer is a chance for me to catch my breath and spend lots of time with my kids. I have tons of story ideas swirling in my head. I may work on something from the same time period, early 20th century, since I've been immersed in so much research about it. But I have modern story ideas too, so who knows.
The Waiting is published by Tyndale Momentum, priced £13.49.