Betty Morrell, 82, arrived at Greater Binghamton Airport on Jan. 15, eager to see her mother. As she waved across the airport, her 96-year-old mother Lena Pierce began to cry. It was the first time Morrell had seen her mother in 82 years.
“It was like the beginning of my life,” Morrell told ABC News. She had been searching for her biological mother for 50 years.
Pierce gave birth to Morrell in a Utica, New York, hospital on Feb. 11, 1933, when she was only 13 years old. Pierce named her daughter Eva May. The State of New York took Eva May away from Pierce after six months, due to Pierce’s status as a ward of the state.
Eva May was then adopted by a family in Long Island and grew up as Betty Morrell. While she had cousins and relatives, Morrell was an only child and always “wanted a sister and a brother.”
A neighborhood kid first told Morrell she was adopted. “I didn’t even know what adopted meant,” she said. Wanting answers, Morrell approached her adopted mother. She confirmed the adoption and said Morrell's birth mother had died when she was a baby.
“I understand why she said that,” Morrell said. “She didn’t want me to look.” And Morrell didn’t look for years, as she was happy with her life and family. It wasn’t until the death of Morrell's adopted mom did the secrets start to reveal themselves.
Morrell's aunt had "slipped" and told Morrell her name used to be Eva and she was born in a Utica hospital. It wasn't until 1966 that Morrell began actively searching for her biological mother.
“I know I was loved and had a wonderful family. There was that missing link. It just kept driving me,” she said.
Morrell began writing to all the hospitals in Utica until she finally heard back from one that said they had two records of births on Feb. 11, 1933 -- one boy and one girl named Eva May. But as she tracked down adoption agencies, she kept hitting walls because her adoption was closed. “Back in those days you couldn’t get any information,” she said.
After several failed attempts, Morrell put her mission aside, raising a family in Long Island and then moving to Florida about 24 years ago. One of her grandchildren, Kimberly Miccio, would go down to visit her during the summers.
Miccio explained how her grandmother would tell her stories of how she searched for her birth mother. Miccio, whose mother was also adopted, felt a deep connection with her grandmother’s story.
Miccio was 12 when she began helping her grandmother search for Pierce. “She knew I really wanted to find my mother,” Morrell said.
For the next 20 years, Miccio didn’t stop searching. She finally made a discovery in September 2015. Miccio got in touch with a distant relative of Morrell's through ancestry.com. The relative put Miccio in touch with Millie Hawk, one of Pierce’s daughters.
Miccio was surprised to hear Morrell’s mother was still alive. “We were just hoping she would be able to find a sibling.”
It was a breakthrough moment that left Morrell filled with emotions. Miccio said her grandmother didn’t even believe it at first.
“I’ve got a mother! And I’ve got a sister!” Morrell recalled saying. Morrell went on to learn she actually has four sisters and two brothers.
Pierce was about to go play bingo at the fire station next door to her apartment in Hallstead, Pennsylvania, when Hawk came over and said they had found Eva May. “She broke down and started crying. She was crying so much she couldn't even go to play bingo,” Hawk said.
Morrell was finally going to have the opportunity to speak to her mother, something she had thought about since she was a child. “I was kind of nervous,” she said.
Hawk had answered the phone when Morrell called, and the two sisters hit it off so well that Morrell’s granddaughter had to remind Morrell that the reason she made this call was to speak to her mother.
Once they were on the phone “we had such a connection,” Morrell said. “It was just everything I ever hoped for.”
Pierce had told Morrell she tried to find her for years but ran into dead ends. "She never stopped thinking about her," Hawk said. "She would always say, 'My Eva May.'"
Then came the emotional reunion at the airport in January. “It was amazing. Both of them were crying,” Miccio said.
In the weeks that have followed since the monumental encounter, Morrell has become very close with Hawk, talking to her almost every day. Hawk and her husband will be visiting Morrell in Florida next month.
As for her relationship with her mother, Morrell and Pierce talk often, although Pierce sometimes forgets information because of her age. Morrell has to remind Pierce that she is Eva May in some of their conversations. Morrell said she is grateful for finding her biological family.
“It’s an experience that not many get at my age or my mother’s age,” she said. “It’s the best thing that’s happened to me.”