By Neal Pollack
The tarot-card readers started showing up almost immediately after Don Selle opened his coffeehouse on Jarvis and Greenview.
The first came five years ago. “This girl across the street did readings. She charged me $35 and gave me a two-hour analysis. She was wonderful. Everything she said was true.” Don quickly forgot most of what she’d told him, but her central prophecy lodged in his noggin: “There is an older woman who will be coming into your life.”
Over the next three years, four more psychics laid out their cards at Don’s Coffee Club, and they all pronounced the same sentence on his future: “There is an older woman who will be coming into your life.”
“This goofy lady who read fortunes came by after that,” Don says. “My friend Amanda, who does readings herself, went crazy for her. She said she was the greatest psychic she had ever met. I brought her in here around Christmas about two years ago. We all gave her 25 bucks. For that I got a three-minute reading. She said, ‘There is an older woman who will be coming into your life.’ Of course, she also told me not to eat tomatoes. And that I’d be moving to Colorado! A big waste of money, this lady. That’s impossible. I hate skiing. Absolutely despise skiing. But then I started thinking that Colorado was where I could find this older woman. I still didn’t want to go.”
By then, Don thought he knew who this mysterious “older woman” might be. He knew her name, but he had never met her. He didn’t know where she lived. Yet he’d been thinking about her, off and on, for more than 40 years. At last the hour of reckoning had arrived–five psychics couldn’t be wrong. Don was ready to find his birth mother.
From the beginning, Don knew he was adopted. When he was growing up, his favorite story was the one about his parents bringing him home from the orphanage. Don’s adoptive parents, William and Amy Selle, told him that he’d come from an Irish father and a Swedish mother. This was a familial requirement; when Amy told her mother, Emma Berquist, that she was planning to adopt, Emma stipulated, “Only if you get a Swedish kid.”
Amy’d had difficulty giving birth to her daughter Sharon, and was unable to have more children. Four years later, with Emma’s restriction in mind, the Selles registered at the Augustana, a Lutheran orphanage housed in a 19th-century mansion at the corner of Lincoln and Dickens. In the summer of 1940, they were offered a baby.
“My mother went to pick the baby up,” Don says. “She held it, but she was one of these ESP women, and it didn’t feel right to her. She rejected the baby, told them she didn’t want it, which really put them on the shit list there. It was totally unheard of. They were down at the bottom of the families from then on. It was a big scandal. They thought she was crazy.”
But a year later William and Amy got another call. It was December 1941, and the Augustana had another baby ready for adoption, a boy with blue eyes and blond hair who certainly looked Swedish. From here, young Don’s favorite part of the story kicked in: “We went to the orphanage and brought you home. Grandma and grandpa were in the backseat of the car. Grandma wouldn’t speak, she was so mad. But we thought you were very, very special.”
Don’s parents brought him to the
southwest-side neighborhood of Brainerd, around 90th and Loomis, and his Swedish-American childhood began. His adoption was well-known. “You’re adopted, you’re adopted,” the other kids would taunt. “Yes,” young Don would say, “but I’m very special. Your parents had no choice. They had to take what they got. My parents picked me like they were going to the store or something.”
Don would return home and ask Amy to tell him, once again, about the time they brought him home from the orphanage. Amy told Don that his birth mother had been 18 years old. She had brown hair and was very small. She couldn’t keep him, for reasons unknown to them.
“What was her name?” Don would ask. “What was her name?”
Amy said she didn’t know.
Don says he had a comfortable and happy childhood. “The way we grew up on the south side, it was like that Father Knows Best stuff. My father, he was unbelievable; he was a scoutmaster, and all the kids wished they had him as a dad. What’s wrong with things nowadays is that they don’t have families like that. And my mother was the one that all the kids could wreck the house on. All my mother wanted was happy children, so she let us run around and destroy everything. One time she was playing cards downstairs, and we were jumping up and down so hard on my bed that the chandelier came crashing down on the table. My sister and I always said we grew up in the original Disneyland, 30 years before it was built.”
Yet Don had strange urges. For instance, he always wanted to be a Catholic. “I loved the Catholic church,” he says. “I used to dress up like a priest as a kid every time I saw those movies–Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way. All the kids would get dressed up and walk around the streets, the boys as priests, the girls as nuns. Of course, my Lutheran parents went crazy, because they hated Catholics.”
As Don grew up, cultural factors emerged that made him want to seek out his real identity. All the Swedish people he knew drank their coffee through a sugar cube lodged between their front teeth. He never could understand it and had no desire to do it himself. Trivialities drove him crazy. He sometimes felt the whole world was absurdly off-kilter, a feeling that would haunt him well into adulthood.
“My family went crazy for melons, especially my father. I remember going on trips. We would go every summer around Lake Michigan. My father was a great camper. We’d drive around the lake and camp, and they would sit and eat melons like they were the most unbelievable food. I hated them. Always. I hate melons, cantaloupe. Still do. I thought to myself, if I didn’t know I was adopted, I would think something was funny here. My father, my mother, and my sister would just sit there and go into ecstasy over this horrible shit. I never tasted anything so crappy in all my life. And I’d just sit there and say, ‘Oh, what the hell is going on?’ ‘Eat your cantaloupe. Eat your cantaloupe.’ ‘I don’t like it. I hate it.’ And they loved it. They’d be gnawing like beavers at the rind. I mean, isn’t that enough to wonder?”
One summer when Don was a teenager, his parents took a trip to Sweden. After they left, Don tore through the house, searching for his adoption papers. He found an unlocked black box at the bottom of his parents’ closet. Inside were the papers, which revealed his birth mother’s name. Betty Jane Mansfield. She had named him Francis Michael Mansfield. His birth father’s name wasn’t given.
When the Selles returned from Sweden, Don kept quiet. His mother, he says, was “too in the clouds.” She couldn’t handle bad news; if gossip started at family gatherings, a whisper would rise in the air: “Don’t tell Amy.” Don didn’t say anything. “It was too weird,” he says. He didn’t want to hurt his mother.
Don tried to find his birth mother once, in the mid-60s. Accompanied by a few friends, he went down to City Hall to obtain a copy of his adoption records. But he was told he had no right to the information: it was locked up, and his birth parents would have kept him if they had wanted him around. All records were forever sealed by law. Adoption was still a dark secret in America.
“I just let it be. I never thought about it anymore,” Don says. “I thought, well, if my parents die, maybe I’ll look again.”
Legal guidelines for relations between adoptees and their birth parents go back to the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest written set of laws. Contemporary rules regulating adoption searches range from the somewhat severe to the extremely relaxed–Scotland threw open all adoption records in 1935, and England did the same in 1975. In the U.S., only three states–Alaska, Kansas, and Tennessee–allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates. All other states mandate the falsifying or permanent sealing of that information. There are proposals floating around the Illinois statehouse to throw open adoption records, but they don’t, at the moment, appear close to passing.
Laws regulating adoption-record searches have, however, been liberalized in the last 20 years. Since 1985, the Illinois Department of Public Health has run a mutual-consent registry for adoptees and birth parents. Adoptees are allowed access to all “non-identifying information,” meaning all vital data about a birth parent except name, address, and telephone number. This “identifying” information can be given out to the adoptee or birth parent only with the written consent of the other party. If Don, for instance, had tried to find Betty Jane Mansfield when he first discovered her name in the late 1950s, it would have been almost impossible. But years later, when Don was finally ready, so was the world. It seemed he’d waited long enough.
Don had led a varied life. He attended Augustana College, a private Lutheran school in Rock Island, did social work at
a home for “goofy” boys, worked as a
waiter in fancy restaurants near Clark and Diversey and in Houston, served some time in the import-export business, and spent a disastrous six months in San Francisco. He’d operated a number of businesses–a hot dog stand, a thrift store, a video rental outlet, and a bookstore. In the mid-60s he was the co-owner of a magazine shop in Maywood that was frequented by folksinger John Prine, who at the time was a postman. Prine subsequently wrote a song about the shop called “Going to the Bookstore.” It brought Don no fame whatsoever.
One day in the fall of 1992, when Don was 51 years old, he found himself getting off at the Jarvis el stop to look for an apartment. He thought he’d walk toward the lake and see what he could find. He hadn’t gone a block when he came across a red brick apartment building, circa 1910, with several empty storefronts on the ground level. He saw a For Rent sign and went to the laundromat next door to make the call. The storefront was so cheap he took it immediately. He also rented a one-bedroom apartment upstairs and began to think about what to put in the store.
He started by going to junk shops. He bought couches, wicker chairs, and ottomans. He bought a lot of old tables and many cases of chipped china. He’d decided to open a coffeehouse, and his mother had always served coffee on real china. That’s what Swedes did–why shouldn’t he? Over the next six months, the building’s janitor would hang an eight-section wallpaper mural of palm trees on the back wall. “In the 60s, all the doctor’s offices, if you went to a psychiatrist’s or a dentist’s, all had them in their reception areas,” Don says. “It looked like South Pacific or whatever. Casablanca.”
Don bought an old record player and unearthed hundreds of old record albums from the 40s and 50s by the likes of Doris Day and Louis Prima. He arranged for a coffee supplier, called his coffee “Casablanca Roast,” and figured he’d probably have to sell some desserts as well. To cut costs, he decided to buy a bunch of cakes from Jewel and not tell anybody, figuring his coffee would be so strong that people would be too high to know the difference. He would call the place Don’s Coffee Club.
“Everyone told me I was nuts. The music, no one would listen to it. I got no encouragement whatsoever. Even the landlord told me I could get my lease back; I wasn’t going to make it here. This guy, he lived across the street, he greeted me with ‘Hello, you’re crazy. There’s no traffic on this block; this is a terrible neighborhood.’ That’s all I got for the whole six months from everybody.”
But when Don’s Coffee Club opened on May 1, 1993, it was an immediate sensation. The neighborhood had exactly the right mix of old cranks and young bohemians, and within a month Don’s was full every night. The place looked like it had traveled through time from 1955–not some kitschy Ed Debevic’s version of the 50s but the real thing. Don’s appeared as though it had been waiting for decades to be released from its time capsule.
All the while, Betty Jane Mansfield was in the back of Don’s mind. He’s a big fan of daytime television, particularly soap operas, and he began to encounter episodes of Oprah and Donahue in which adopted children were reunited with their birth mothers. They were always hugging and crying and exclaiming how they never thought they’d see each other again. Don thought it would be nice if that would happen to him.
Amy Selle was killed in a car accident in 1979. Don’s father, who remarried, passed away in 1992. Once the psychics began coming into the coffeehouse, he knew it was time.
“The first or second summer I was open, I got all hot on it. I even called one of those 800 numbers. It cost me $29. I didn’t get anywhere. They asked me the person I was looking for. I said Betty Jane Mansfield. And where was she born? I knew that from the adoption papers. Cleveland, Ohio. How old do you think she would be? I said I figured 73 now. They did hook me up with some woman who lived in a suburb of Cleveland. Betty Mansfield. I called her. It took me a whole day. I thought, what was I gonna say? I said, this is her, I bet it’s her. I got her on the phone. I could tell it was an old lady. I just said, ‘I’m looking for Betty Jane.’ She said, ‘My middle name isn’t Jane.’ I thought, well, maybe she’s lying. I kept thinking maybe it was her, and she didn’t want to say. I didn’t tell her what I was looking for. I just said Betty Jane who was born in Cleveland but lived in Chicago. She said, ‘Well, that’s not me.’ I kept thinking maybe it was but she didn’t want to say anything. We hung up. For years I thought maybe I did talk to her.”
Don’s regular customers are uncommonly devoted and will do just about anything for him, from taking him shopping to doing his taxes. If he’s working alone and things get busy, regulars will often wipe tables, make coffee, take orders, or do dishes. Sometimes Don gets so stressed out that his circuits overload. He shoots upstairs to his apartment, hands waving, exclaiming, “Oh, I can’t take this anymore!” At such moments, it’s up to the regulars to run the place.
Brian Maloy started coming to Don’s in 1996. He was studying criminal justice at Governors State University and working part-time at Heritage Investigations, a detective agency. One slow evening at the cafe, Don noticed Maloy doing homework and pulled up a chair. They talked about detective work for a while, and Maloy said that if Don ever needed anything done he’d be glad to help.
“You know,” Don said, “I’d kind of like to find my real mother.”
Maloy interviewed him on the spot. Don knew his birth mother’s name. He also knew where he was born, because he’d gotten a copy of his original birth certificate.
Back in 1993, Don needed the exact time of his birth to get his horoscope done by one of the psychics. He knew his birth name, so he went to City Hall to get a certificate for Francis Michael Mansfield. The clerk told him that would be impossible. But Don had lived in Chicago all his life and knew how to steer around its bureaucratic ways. He exited the records hall, came in through another door, and went to a different clerk’s window. When the clerk asked Don his name, he said, “Francis Michael Mansfield.” He paid $3 for the copy. The clerk never asked for identification.
The certificate said Don had been born at Booth Salvation Army Hospital, 5040 N. Pulaski. That was a good enough place for Maloy to start. He began his search, free of charge. “It was the first case that I really took personally,” Maloy says. “It wasn’t really business. I like Don and I wanted to help him out. I was a rookie, but I’d found people before. If I told you how many things I did, you could write a book on it. I didn’t think it was gonna be that hard. I’d found people before.”
But the hospital was no longer there. Maloy was going to have to work harder than he’d thought. He began going around to restaurants in the area and interviewing old people, trying to find out something about Booth Hospital. He went to different hospitals, churches, and adoption agencies, looking for someone who knew about this place that no longer existed. He interviewed dozens of people, but no one could help him. Finally, he stumbled across a secretary at Sacred Heart Lutheran Hospital who told him that Booth had been a hospital for unmarried pregnant women. About Betty Jane Mansfield, she knew nothing; thousands of women had given birth at Booth Hospital over the years.
Don assumed that Betty Jane had gotten married at some point, but Maloy began looking for Mansfields nonetheless. He checked property deeds, death records, cemeteries. He used Internet phone directories to locate all Mansfields in the area of Cleveland. He looked up pharmacies, because he figured a woman in her 70s would require prescription medicine. He talked to quite a few Betty Jane Mansfields on the phone. He also talked to a lot of Betty J. Mansfields. None of them was Don’s mom.
Maloy was busy with school and his part-time job at the agency, but the search for Betty Jane Mansfield became his obsession. “Adoption cases are the hardest traces, because there’s no trail except from the past,” Maloy says. “The trail I initially went on was from the time she was born until the time she had the baby, and maybe a little bit afterward. When you’re looking for people, they’re creatures of habit. If they like soccer, you’ll see them at a soccer game. That’s the way people are–they return to what they know, a behavorial trail, a psychological trail, or at least a fiscal trail. But in her case, Betty’s, I had to climb back into the past to find out what it was like to live in those days….I based it off her situation. If you had a baby out of wedlock, the parents sent you off because it was a disgrace to the family. I kind of put myself in her place and her family’s place. That was a big thing. I had to get a feel of what it was like to live in that situation. I developed an idea of what it was like to live in the past, a kind of bond with those days. That’s one reason I like Don, because he brings you back to the past.”
Booth Hospital was opened in the early 1900s by the Salvation Army, which had been operating homes for unwed mothers since 1890. Most of the residents were teenage girls who were sent there to have their babies in secret. They often arrived two or three months before their babies were born. The majority of Booth babies were born on-site, but if there were complications mothers could be transferred to a proper hospital, usually West Suburban in Oak Park. It wasn’t uncommon for mothers’ high schools to arrange for tutors to help finish the courses they were missing. The final grades were listed on the mothers’ transcripts without ever mentioning Booth
Hospital. The girls never had to give out their last names. While at Booth, Betty Mansfield was more than likely known only as “Betty M.”
When Booth closed in the early 1980s, its records were retained. The building was turned into offices, while the hospital’s
files were transferred to the Salvation Army’s Department of Missing Persons in Des Plaines.
Maloy’s research led him to a woman named Astrid Steinsland, who kept the adoption records for nine Salvation Army hospitals in eight states. When Steinsland took over that job two and a half years ago, the Salvation Army didn’t do adoption searches. But she was determined to be the first searcher, and no one stopped her. She began looking diligently for birth mothers, as well as publishing a quarterly newsletter called Booth Connections, which features pictures of reunited mothers and children. She considered these searches her mission from God. “I look at it like a ministry, not a job,” she says. “The hours are long and a lot of work, and if I look at it like a job, I get tired. If I look at it like a ministry, it’s fine.”
Once he’d gotten in touch with Steinsland, Maloy figured finding Betty Jane Mansfield would be easy. He has access to numerous databases–if he has a birth date or social security number, he says, locating a person is “a snap.” Steinsland had some paperwork for Don to fill out. He paid her $50. She said it would take six weeks, at most, to find Betty Jane. She had all the records right there on microfiche.
Steinsland located Betty Jane’s file card, and sent Don a letter to let him know. But when she went to the microfiche, no record existed of Betty Jane Mansfield’s stay at Booth. “It very easily could have been lost in the transfer,” Steinsland says. “There were thousands and thousands of records.”
Because the Salvation Army never ran its own adoption agency, Booth Hospital had to arrange for outside parties to handle the proceedings. Don told Steinsland that he’d been adopted from Augustana Lutheran orphanage. Steinsland got on the phone and began calling around to find out who handled the adoptions for Augustana. “I always find out where to get the records,” she says. “There’s always somebody who can help you and tell you where they are.”
Her detective work led her to Lutheran Social Services in Peoria, where a woman named Mary Wake said she did indeed
have Betty Jane Mansfield’s adoption records on file.
Wake had become an expert at tracking down people by doing her own genealogical research. She traced her family tree back to the 1600s. Thirty years ago, she had given up a daughter for adoption. When she discovered medical information that she wanted to give to her daughter’s adoptive parents, she learned the agency that handled her case, Lutheran Social Services, wouldn’t help her get in touch with them. She used her research skills to contact the parents on her own, and in 1987 they agreed to a mother-and-child reunion. Wake found this experience deeply moving, so she went to Lutheran Social Services and demanded a job.
With the opening up of adoption records, many agencies were hiring investigators to help locate parents and their children. Before then, a lot of adoptees took their cases to private detectives or handled matters on their own. The agencies thought it would be better to act as intermediaries. “We don’t try to control the situation,” Wake says. “We try to get everybody to get their feet back on the ground before they have a reunion. There were a lot of haphazard reunions before, and people can get hurt. I am 100 percent in favor of search. I think it’s a very healing process for both the adoptee and the birth mom. But it needs to be handled carefully.”
The search for Betty Jane Mansfield had been going on for several months, and Don was beginning to grow restless. Wake was encouraging, but not overly so. She told him that sometimes, with no information other than a name, a birth mother can be found within two or three days. Don had a lot of information compared with other searchers. But Wake warned him that sometimes a lot of information ends up leading to nothing at all.
She started with the basics. Betty Jane had a lot of siblings listed in her file, all named Mansfield. Wake pulled hundreds of Mansfields off an Internet phone directory and an Internet death index. Hundreds of letters went out to Mansfields all over the country, with no results. Wake found more Mansfields, but no matter how many letters she sent out, she had no luck. No one had heard of this particular Betty Jane Mansfield.
Several more months passed, and Don grew despondent. Business at the Coffee Club had declined, almost in direct correlation to Don’s darker mood. He eliminated smoking last September, even though he knew that at least 70 percent of his clientele smoked. Some nights, fewer than five people would come in. Even Saturdays became ghost nights. Don started closing earlier and earlier, retreating to his apartment upstairs to listen to talk radio until dawn or to watch videotapes of his favorite soap opera, All My Children, and his new favorite television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He seriously considered closing the coffeehouse and moving to Miami Beach.
Miami Beach was Don’s dream city, the paradise at the end of his road. Every year since he’d opened the Coffee Club, Don would close up for several days and fly down to Miami, where he’d stay at a fancy art deco hotel in South Beach. Often he would return home after two or three days, saying it had been too hot, too rainy, or too crowded for his taste. Nevertheless, he maintained that Miami Beach was the most fabulous place on earth, and he’d bring home dozens of postcards to prove it. He hoped, only half joking, that Betty Jane Mansfield was a rich widow with a Miami condo just itching to live with a long-lost relative.
Mary Wake couldn’t devote her entire life to finding Betty Jane Mansfield. She had dozens of searches going on at once. Yet every few weeks or so, she’d come up with a new idea and send out a new batch of letters. One night last December, it struck her that she should look through death records on the Internet for Betty Jane’s parents, both of whom were named on the adoption forms. Within minutes, Wake had found Betty Jane’s mother’s death certificate. Then she turned to an obituary index from Chicago newspapers. Sure enough, under survivors there was a daughter listed. Betty Jane Breuer. (Breuer is not her real name.)
There was no Betty Jane Breuer on Switchboard, an Internet phone directory. So Wake ran Betty Jane Breuer through an independent database service, which listed her as living in Columbus, Indiana. A search of the Columbus phone directory uncovered nothing. Wake says that as a “last-ditch” effort, she logged on to Switchboard, pulled a half dozen midwestern Breuers, and sent out letters.
One of those letters arrived at the home of Joe Breuer, in Mason City, Iowa. He called Wake a few days after that.
“That’s my mother you’re talking about,” he said. “What do you want with her?”
Illinois law prohibited Wake from telling him–if Breuer’s mother were Don’s mom, then Wake couldn’t give out identifying information without her permission.
“Well, I’m from Lutheran welfare,” Wake said.
As Don described the conversation later: “He said, ‘So how do I know you’re on the up-and-up?’ She said, ‘I can assure you that Lutheran welfare is not a shyster outfit.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ Mary said, ‘Is your mother in good health?’ He said, ‘Yes, she’s 76 years old, she’s in very good health, but I just don’t feel right about it.'”
Joe Breuer refused to tell Wake where his mother was; he repeatedly plugged her for the reason behind her call.
“All I could say,” Wake says, “was that it had something to do with someone his mother had known in Chicago in 1941.”
A few minutes after Wake got off the phone with Joe Breuer, Don called her.
“You just talked to my brother, didn’t you?” he said.
“It was like he had ESP,” Wake says. “I would make a contact with someone, and within 24 hours Don would call and say, ‘Mary, what’s going on?’ It was just amazing to me.”
She told Don what had happened, and he begged her to keep on Joe Breuer for information about Betty Jane. Wake called Breuer two more times, and sent him three more letters, and still got no response. They could only wait for him to tell his mother.
Don was still a mess. Things had improved slightly at the Coffee Club, as he’d hired a voodoo priestess to dispel any bad spirits that might have gathered during his black months. The fact that he’d reinstated smoking probably also helped business. But as the winter progressed and Joe Breuer refused to budge, Don began to grow more gloomy, and business again declined. Don talked about closing the Coffee Club again, and for once his regulars took him seriously. The life seemed to have leaked from the place–and from Don. His only solace was caring for a family of raccoons who’d started nesting on the roof and in an adjacent tree. Don’s raccoon stewardship had progressed to the point where he would come off the el with groceries and the raccoons would prance down the sidewalk to greet him, jumping all over his legs, begging for food. Don would retreat upstairs to brood and ponder Miami Beach.
On Friday, February 27, Mary Wake got a phone call from Betty Jane Breuer. She and her daughter Vicki had gone to visit her son Joe in Mason City, and he’d told her that someone from Lutheran Social Services was looking for her.
“What did she want?” Betty asked.
“She said to tell you that it had something to do with someone you’d known in Chicago in 1941.”
Betty was shocked. “She didn’t expect to get that kind of a phone call,” Wake says. “Betty took my name and home phone number and said she’d have to get back to me. She said her kids didn’t know.”
On Sunday, March 1, Betty called Wake at home. She’d told her kids about Don, and they were thrilled. She said she was ready to talk to Don himself.
That afternoon, Don was swimming at the Sovereign Pool and Health Club, a neighborhood gym located in a residential hotel on Granville. “It all came on me in the pool that it was going to happen that day,” he says, “that I was going to hear from Mary Wake. I had this spooky feeling. But then I said to myself: Why are you getting this feeling? It’s Sunday. She doesn’t work Sundays. But it just was overwhelming, the feeling. I ran back home with my groceries, and I checked my messages. ‘Don, it’s Mary Wake. I just talked to your mother. It looks very good. Call me immediately.'”
Wake already had Don’s consent form in hand. In order for them to communicate legally, she faxed a form to Joe Breuer’s home for Betty to fill out. Within an hour she had Betty’s form as well. She called Don with the number in Mason City, and faxed Betty a form with Don’s name, address, and phone number. Contact was made.
“Now you call,” she said to Don.
“I think I paced around a lot,” Don says. “When something really hits you that you’ve wanted for so long, sometimes you don’t want it.”
Finally he steeled himself and called Mason City. Joe Breuer answered the phone.
“This is Don Selle, from Chicago.”
There was a long silence.
“Well, I guess this is what you call a Kodak moment,” Breuer said.
They both laughed.
“You know what?” said Breuer. “There’s someone here who wants to talk to you.”
Betty Jane Mansfield was born in 1923 in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother and father already had ten sons at the time. Three years later, Betty’s mother died while giving birth to her sister, Mary Ellen. She had an uncle in Chicago named Frank Mansfield, who had no kids of his own, and he and his wife agreed to adopt Betty to take some of the burden off her father.
Betty’s birth family was Irish Catholic, but her uncle had married a Swede named Frieda, who raised Betty as a Lutheran. Betty had a happy, comfortable childhood, but she never felt entirely comfortable with her mother’s Swedish ways. In particular, she recalls being disturbed by her habit of drinking coffee through a sugar cube lodged between the front teeth. Her adoptive parents would argue all the time about who was superior, the Swedes or the Irish. Frieda would say that the Swedes were the first to make education compulsory and that the Irish were terrific drunks. Frank would counter that the Swedes were even bigger drunks than the Irish and had the highest suicide rate in Europe. Betty stayed out of these debates.
Betty attended a Catholic high school, and soon joined the Catholic church. “My mother was a good Lutheran, but she didn’t get angry because she figured it was in my blood. My uncle and she couldn’t get married in a church because she wouldn’t turn Catholic. Needless to say, she didn’t have much to do with the church. She was there when the priest at the school said to me, ‘Betty Jane, the best thing that could happen to you would be to cross Jeffery Avenue and get killed by a car, because you’d wake up in the arms of Jesus.’ My mother hit him with an umbrella. ‘I knew you were crazy,’ she said. ‘Luther was right.’ He just laughed.”
Betty says her adoptive mother was a fairly liberal, open-minded person. She was also a compulsive gambler who read tea leaves to pick the horses and who every day would hand Betty an envelope full of cash to give to the guy at the corner newsstand on her way to school. In later years, Frieda would travel to opening day at Hialeah and to big-stakes poker tournaments in Arkansas.
Betty was 17 when she told her parents that she was pregnant. She was shocked by her mother’s reaction. “She said there were no illegitimate children in Sweden. The only illegitimate child was mine. That’s the way she felt.” They knew the father, who was from the neighborhood–he was Betty’s childhood sweetheart, in fact–but Frieda refused to accept the pregnancy. “Coming from Sweden, where they swim nude and everything, I would never have believed that she would be like that. But that was the biggest sin, I found out.”
Frieda sent Betty to Booth Hospital, where she carried her baby to term. She named him Michael Francis Mansfield, and then stayed at Booth after the baby was born. “When you had the baby, they kept you in the hospital,” Betty says. “My mother wouldn’t let me keep him. She wouldn’t let me bring him home. She
wouldn’t even come and see him. But I was so sure that I was gonna keep him. I was so sure she’d let me come home. But no. I had no place to go with him. I had him for about three months. Then they kept him and sent him to the orphanage. They took him right away. It took them about three days to get me away from there, because I kept saying, ‘No, I’m not going!’ They tried to take me but I wouldn’t leave.” Her baby was gone.
Betty went to work as a record keeper at South Shore Hospital, and in 1945 she married a south-side Jew named Joe Breuer, who, coincidentally, was also adopted. She and Joe had four children, whom they
raised as neither Jewish nor Catholic, and together they ran an auto parts store at 71st and Stony Island, a little more than four miles from where Don grew up. Betty and Joe had a fun marriage. “He was a great guy,” she says. They hung out together at jazz clubs and were especially friendly with the singer Tony Martin and his wife, dancer Cyd Charrise, whom they often dined with at Chez Paree. It was a varied life, Betty says, never boring. They loved their neighborhood and didn’t want for money. Later, they moved to south-suburban Lansing, and then South Holland. Betty and Joe Jr. ran the store for a short time after Joe’s death in 1976, but they soon closed the business.
Joe Breuer had always known about the baby Betty gave up for adoption, though she never told their children. His best friend, an attorney, often encouraged her to find the boy, but she declined, saying it would be too painful for everyone involved. She figured she’d never see him again. As the years passed, the likelihood of a reunion grew even fainter. Betty lived alone for a while after Joe’s death, then began shuttling among her children’s houses in various Chicago suburbs. In late 1993, Betty moved into a plush retirement home in Evanston, barely ten minutes from where Don was setting up his Coffee Club.
When Betty first heard that a woman from Lutheran Social Services had news about someone she’d known in Chicago in 1941, she had little doubt about who that someone was. Her kids took the news better than she had imagined. “They were real happy. All they said was they’ve got another brother.”
Don and Betty talked on the phone for an hour on Sunday, March 1. They talked about “nothing, really,” Don says, but they desperately wanted to meet each other. When Don found out that Betty lived in Evanston, he was floored.
Betty arrived back in Chicago the next day, and on Tuesday, March 3, Don called her. “Why don’t you come see me?” she asked. They decided to meet for lunch on Thursday, Don’s day off.
For the next two days, Don couldn’t sleep. “I made myself completely sick,” he says. “I thought she wasn’t going to like me. On Thursday, I was there early, like I always am everywhere. I gave my name at the desk, and they said she was waiting for me upstairs. There was a feeling that came on me, because you had to sign in, and then walking, it was all plush, all the beautiful furniture. There are flowers everywhere and couches. I felt like I was interviewing some old retired movie star that no one had seen in years. I went up to the elevator, thinking that when I got up to the fifth floor I’d look around, like you always do, and say, which way is the apartment?”
But Betty was waiting by the elevator. She’d stood for a while, but then couldn’t stop shaking, so she sat down on a couch. “I was so afraid that he wouldn’t like me,” she says.
“The elevator opened,” Don says, “and there was this woman who looked so much like me I almost fell over.”
He nearly dropped the dozen roses he’d brought for her.
“Long time no see,” he said.
They both began to laugh. There weren’t tears like Don had seen on television. Betty invited him into her apartment. She had the television tuned to a CBS soap opera.
“Oh, you don’t watch the right ones,” Don said.
“Why,” asked Betty, “what one do you watch?”
“All My Children.”
“I used to watch that,” Betty said. “But I couldn’t stand that Erica Kane broad anymore.”
They talked for two hours. Betty showed Don pictures of all her children, and grandchildren as well. Then they went to a restaurant that Betty likes. Don ordered fried shrimp, which he didn’t touch, though he did have a bowl of clam chowder. Betty ordered shrimp salad with Thousand Island dressing. She told Don she only liked Thousand Island on her salads. He said that was the only dressing he liked as well.
Betty wrestled with a peel-away butter packet. She tugged and grunted and threw it down on the table in disgust.
“The guy who invented this should be shot,” she said.
“My God, Betty!” Don cried. “That’s exactly what I’ve been saying my entire life! Those exact words!”
“Well, it’s true,” she said. “One out of ten work, and I never get that one.”
“Neither do I!” Don exclaimed. “This is incredible!”
They talked for four more hours. Don was especially surprised to discover that he wasn’t Swedish. He figured out that his mother had deliberately lied to his grandmother all those years ago so she could keep him. His south-side Swedish heritage, around which he’d based his entire Coffee Club shtick, instantly became a kind of practical joke.
“I always liked Irish music,” he said. “But I’ve never known why.”
Don asked Betty if her mother had forced her to drink coffee with a sugar cube between her teeth.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I just drooled all over the place.”
“Yeah,” Don said, “me too.”
On Tuesday, March 10, Don threw a 57th birthday party for himself at Don’s Coffee Club. By this time his discovery was well-known, and the neighborhood showed up in force for an opportunity to meet Don’s mom.
Betty arrived at 7 PM with her daughter Vicki. She was wearing a bright red suit jacket, which matched the bright red sweater Don had worn for the occasion. He introduced her to many of his regular customers, as well as to his three cats and to his family of raccoons, who were hanging around outside looking for scraps.
The cafe was full of smoke, which suited Betty, who puffed away as Don paraded his universe in front of her. He played Tommy Dorsey records and showed Betty a personal letter he had received from Frank Sinatra.
“He’s my very favorite,” Betty said.
There was a full buffet of desserts and a large birthday cake that Don had ordered especially for the occasion. At 7:30 he stood in front of the cake and said, “This is the best birthday I’ve ever had, and I’d like to introduce the woman who made it all possible. My mom.” Betty beamed.
Don and Betty sat in the far corner of the cafe. His friends swirled around them. People continually had to excuse themselves to go cry in the bathroom. One regular stood at the sink, compulsively doing dishes so she wouldn’t break down sobbing.
“Don’t they look alike?” said Vicki. “I can’t believe it. None of the rest of us look anything like her.”
Betty received the regulars like a queen. “It is such a pleasure to meet you,” said one after another. Brian Maloy and Astrid Steinsland were there.
“Boy, you sure have a lot of friends,” Betty said.
“Yeah,” said Don. “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”
They roared with laughter. Don looked out proudly over his Coffee Club. Betty grabbed his hand, he grabbed back, and both held on tight.
“How terrible it would be to come into somebody’s life and then to say, ‘Adios, I’m leaving! Nice meeting you!'” Don said later. “I feel funny even thinking of going to Miami Beach now that I’m with her. She calls me honey now, like, ‘Honey, how are you?’ And her grandkids are fabulous, wonderful. They’re coming to the coffeehouse, hugging me, calling me Uncle Don. Who’d want to leave something like that? It took me forever to find my mother. I’m not going anywhere for a very long time.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Jim Alexander Newberry.