To anyone casually bypassing the moving walkway at the Fort Myers airport this last October, it might have looked like any other reunion—two women who resembled each other in a long embrace, tears streaming down both pairs of cheeks.
What the anonymous passerby wouldn’t see is that this mother and daughter were holding each other for the first time again after more than 60 years.
Thanks to social media, specifically Facebook and home DNA kits, Laura Brunette of Rice Lake found her birth mother recently after more than 30 years of searching and 60 years since Laura was held in her birth mother’s arms.
“From the time I can remember I’d always known I was adopted, but that was it,” said Laura Brunette sitting at her kitchen table surrounded by old photographs and paperwork. “We didn’t talk about it.”
Brunette’s adopted parents, Lieutenant Colonel Clinton Carlaw and Stella Carlaw were stationed in Germany when Laura was born, Nov. 18, 1958 to Erika Husack, a 19-year-old out of wedlock who was forced to give up her daughter due to her age—German law in 1958.
The Carlaws had adopted Laura’s brother Clint just a couple years before from a German orphanage and another infant girl after that.
The infant girl tragically died of crib death and the Carlaws wanted another baby girl.
“[My birth mother] worked for this chaplain who my father knew,” said Laura. “The chaplain must have told my father that she was going to have a baby. They had just lost this other baby girl. I was born Nov. 18 and my parents had adopted me by January.”
The Carlaws moved back the U.S. when Laura was 4 years old. Then the family was stationed in Indiana, Alaska, Maryland and the Panama Canal. Clinton Carlaw retired as a Colonel in the Army to Shell Lake because he had family there. After graduating from Shell Lake High School, Laura met and married Jerry Brunette and relocated to Rice Lake.
“I had a really good life—a real adventurous life,” said Laura. “I got to see a lot of the world. We deep sea fished, slept out in the woods in Alaska, but deep down there was always that empty feeling.”
When Laura was in her 20s, her father’s daughter from a previous marriage reentered their family’s life.
“They connected really well, and I started feeling kinda put out. It was hard. She wanted more to do with dad than us as brothers and sisters. I think that’s when my dad decided to give me my adoption papers. I was in my 30s then. One day he just said ‘here’ and gave me them.”
Laura said she took the papers and drove home to Rice Lake.
“I opened it and the papers were all in German. I poured a cup of coffee and I sat here trying to understand German. I combed through every page trying to understand. And if I had calmed down, I would have seen right away that there was an English translation underneath the stack of papers. But when you’re shaking and realizing this is my life in a short few pages, you aren’t thinking straight.”
Laura learned her mother’s name was Sonja Erika Husack. Sonja was actually her middle name.
Laura also learned that her given name at birth wasn’t Laura.
“My whole life I hated the name Laura—hated that name. And it’s a beautiful name, Laura. For some reason, I wanted to be a Barbara so badly. So when I looked at my adoption papers and saw that my birth mom had chosen the name Barbara, I couldn’t believe it.”
The search began, but all Laura had was the little bit of information in the adoption papers. She had seen a 1989 newspaper article of a woman who was adopted from Germany and had found her family. Her name was also Barbara.
So Laura contacted her. The woman passed along copies of Laura’s adoption papers to the recently discovered family in Germany to investigate. They tried searching. And found nothing.
While always in the back of her mind, and many dead-end trails, the search went unfulfilled for more than 20 years until 2018.
One day, Laura Googled her mom’s name and suddenly there was a face she recognized though she hadn’t seen it in 6 decades.
“I showed my family and said that’s my mom,” said Laura.
But there was no contact information and Laura couldn’t be absolutely sure.
Fast forward to September 2019. Laura’s daughter, Nicky, had recently submitted a home DNA test through ancestry.com. When her results came back, the face from the previous search popped up, this time, undeniably connected to Laura through Nicky.
Nicky called her mom and said “Yes Mom, that woman you found is her; and Mom, she has Facebook.”
Laura sent her birth mom a Facebook message and gave her name and birth date. But Erika being the smart and cautious woman she is, was wary.
Four days went by and no answer.
“Now I’m Facebook stalking her,” said Laura remembering that week.
Laura discovered she had two half sisters and a dad, David Healing, her mom’s husband. Laura said she almost messaged her sister Deb, but was glad she didn’t because she found out later that Deb had no idea she existed.
Undaunted by the silence, Laura decided to go to the internet once again, this time with more information. While on a break at work, Laura once again Googled her mother’s names (maiden and married) and her home town in Florida for the off chance a phone number may turn up.
It did. Along with her mom’s voter registration, address, etc.
Laura left work to go home to call her mom.
“I sat down and prayed please let her answer,” said Laura. “The fears set in quickly—of the hangup, the ‘don’t ever call me’, what if her husband answers and he doesn’t know about you. So I was just praying, just please let her answer.”
Laura dialed the number. A woman with a thick German accent answered, “hello?”
Laura asked if she was Erika Healing. She replied, “who is this?”
Laura said she cleared her throat and responded “My name is Laura Brunette, but my birth name was Barbara Husack. I was born Nov. 18 1958 in Stuttgart, Germany. I have the paperwork.”
Laura said her mom cut her right off and said, “Oh...my...Barbara! Oh, oh God. Oh honey.”
Through tears Laura repeated, “Are you Erika Husack Healing? Are you my mother?”
Erika said “Yes, baby. I am your mama.”
After Laura explained how she found Erika on Facebook first, Erika found Laura too. On the phone she said “I’m looking at you right now.”
Before Erika hung up, she told Laura, “I better call your sister and let her know that you exist.”
Deb Healing soon messaged Laura and said “So I hear I have a sister. Welcome to the family; I couldn’t be happier. My God, you look like mom.”
Plans were made and Laura and her daughter flew to Fort Myers, Florida, on Oct. 11, Laura’s adopted dad’s birthday.
“I’ve been on a lot trips and many places. It was the trip of a lifetime,” said Laura.
After their initial reunion at the airport, Laura said “Nothing can compare to looking into the eyes of my mother and seeing for the first time after 60 years, the love she’s held for me. Immediately I was home. For the first time in my life I felt an emptiness inside me disappear, and filled with pure joy and love.”
Laura gave her mom copies of the paperwork and put together a photo album of pictures of her formative years, wedding pictures and her children’s baby pictures to give her.
“I told her, now you see how I grew,” said Laura. And they cried.
Laura said she regrets that the family can’t all be together for the holidays, but another reunion is planned in February to celebrate her sister Deb’s birthday. It will be the first time Laura gets to meet her half sister.
In the meantime, Laura said the family has discovered video chatting.