by Tracie Bettenhausen  | Photos by Jade Neumann

When Terrie Rath met Jimmy Carter, she didn’t know why he handed her a bag of peanuts. She didn’t know what he said. She didn’t realize he was President of the United States of America until years later.

She had just landed in the Minneapolis airport, 13 years old and 48 pounds. Her new parents, Marlowe and Ethel Beckman, had spent more than a month in Columbia, working through the ins-and-outs of adopting her to bring her home to Mora, Minnesota.

Terrie was overwhelmed by the United States.

“When I first saw my parents’ home—and they weren’t rich—but when I saw their home, I felt like the richest girl in the whole world,” she says.

She had never seen so much food. Her parents took her to meet part of her extended family, treated to a Thanksgiving-like meal at her new grandparents’ home.

“They were passing the dishes of food around, and I watched what everyone was doing,” Terrie says. “When the bowl got to me, I (depicts taking scoop after scoop of food onto her plate). My dad came over and started taking some of the food off my plate, and I cried.”

She didn’t know food was easy to come by here in her new home. It wouldn’t be her last chance at so much abundance.

When Terrie was less than one month old, she was abandoned on the steps of a church in Columbia. An orphanage operated by Catholic nuns took her in; she was the youngest of about 45 other girls who were allowed to stay until they were 14 years old.

Terrie remembers getting up early before school, getting the donkeys ready, and heading out to pick the crops of coffee beans and marijuana. Their labor helped pay the orphanage’s expenses, as she understood it. Some of the older girls smoked the marijuana, and forced her too as well, so she wouldn’t tell on them. She was only four or five years old.

There were two lines for the showers before school.

“You’d stand in one line to get all wet with the soap, and then you’d stand in the next line to rinse off. But by the time you were at the end of the second line, all the soap was dried on you,” she says. “But I didn’t know any different. It’s just the way it was.”

She also remembers having to stand in line to take spoonfuls of castor oil.

Still, Terrie says, “God had his hand on my shoulder my whole life. I’m not saying I didn’t have no hardships, but everything has fallen into place.”

She was abandoned by a mom for an unknown reason (she speculates maybe her mom was too poor, or her parents were caught up in the drug trade). She was brought to America, knowing no English, by parents who were already in their 40s (Who adopted kids who were Terrie’s age, she wonders?), and who already had three other children. She was a teenager at the time of her adoption, when most people want babies.

“I won’t sit here and say I wasn’t abused. I was abused—by the priests; and the nuns were mean,” she says.

She shows a scar on her arm, the result of a time she was burned with an iron by one of the nuns.

“I could not have screamed my brains out for someone to help me. I had no control of that situation,” Terrie says. “There was nothing I could do, nowhere I could go.

“But I didn’t let that define me. I didn’t let my childhood hold me back. I didn’t have control of that,” she says. “You don’t have control of what your life was like. But when you’re an adult, you have control. Your present and your future, you can make what you want.”

Terrie’s parents tried for four years to bring her to America. They wrote letters back and forth, with translators helping them understand one another.

When she came to America, she didn’t know English, but learned through a Spanish/English dictionary, special education classes, and flashcards.

Her dad was her closest attachment.

“He just took more time with me, more care. I spent so much more time with him than with my mom, and that was okay,” she says. “We were always outside, tinkering around on vehicles and tractors, taking care of the animals, sheep, horses, cows, rabbits. We’d chop wood, and go hunting and fishing.”

Terrie says she still has trouble forming close bonds to this day. She connects with people through teasing and laughing.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love to see people smile and laugh, but I feel uncomfortable when people who don’t know me want to give me a hug. There are times when my insides feel empty,” she says. “There was always something missing. I had never known love. I was never with just one person to form an attachment when I was little.”

The closest she’s come has been through her daughter, Niomie. When Niomie was a baby, she tried to imagine how her own mother must have struggled to leave her on the church doorstep.

“When I had my daughter, I knew there was somebody else who had my blood,” she says.

Today’s Terrie’s daughter is 21 years old.

“I have prospered, I have my own home, I have a wonderful husband,” she says, coming back again to how her life could have been so different. “In Columbia, if you weren’t adopted by 14 years old, they [would] sell you, to put you to work, or to be a prostitute.

“I believe in God 100 percent. If it wasn’t for Him, I wouldn’t be where I am. That’s my look at life. It’s a miracle…I remember what I came from. I remember what I did not have,” Terrie says. “That’s not to say I didn’t work for what I have, but I thank God for guiding me through my life.”   

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Tracie Bettenhausen is a senior staff writer/editor at Basin Electric. She has generously opened her home to two once-foster, now-adopted kitties, Basil and Sweet Pea.