BY STARRLA CRAY
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN In her heart, Denise Johnson of Lester Prairie has been Brenda Judice’s mother for the past 20 years.
Now, she’s also her mother on paper.
Brenda, 30, was adopted into the family Jan. 25, legally solidifying an already unbreakable bond.
“I’ve never looked at her as anything other than being my daughter,” Denise said. “I made a commitment when she was 10 years old that I would never give up on her. . . . I’m not going anywhere.”
For Brenda, whose childhood was often difficult, being formally adopted has brought great comfort.
“I feel much more at peace,” she said.
Meeting her daughter
Brenda and Denise met through Brenda’s father, who is no longer a regular part of their lives.
“[Brenda] is my ex-husband’s daughter from his first marriage,” Denise explained.
Denise first visited Brenda in 1990. At that time, 5-year-old Brenda had been living in Las Vegas with her birth mother.
“Her favorite thing was McDonald’s chicken nuggets and cherry slushies,” Denise recalled.
“Still kind of is,” Brenda chimed in.
Moving to Minnesota
Five years later, when Brenda’s mother was undergoing difficulties, Denise offered to have Brenda stay with her and Brenda’s dad in Minnesota.
It quickly became obvious that Brenda’s life in Las Vegas hadn’t been ideal.
“There were signs of neglect and abuse, and none of her clothes fit,” Denise said. “It was very, very sad to see.”
In the first few weeks, Brenda underwent surgery to resolve a medical issue, and Denise called an attorney in order to gain custody.
Although being with her dad and Denise in Minnesota was safe, Brenda recalls feeling “petrified” at first.
“I hadn’t really been anywhere before,” she said. “I was terrified, to be honest with you.”
Brenda quickly adapted, though, and pretty soon, she felt right at home.
“She and I really bonded. We still, to this day, have a hand squeeze to show that everything’s going to be OK,” Denise said, reaching to clasp Brenda’s hand.
‘Mom’ in almost every sense
About five months after Brenda’s arrival, Denise gave birth to a baby girl, Stephanie.
At that point, Brenda started calling Denise “mom,” reasoning that since Denise was a mother now, the name fit.
“I think I was pretty happy to be in a more stable environment,” Brenda added.
Brenda wanted Denise to become her mom officially, but her birth mother wasn’t interested in signing the adoption papers.
“Quite a few people would ask me, ‘why didn’t [Denise] adopt you?’” Brenda said. “It was harmless, but it hurt my feelings a little bit.”
Denise and Brenda’s father got divorced in 2000, but Denise was determined not to lose her oldest “daughter.” Brenda lived with her dad for two months, but then moved back in with Denise.
Brenda later graduated from Farmington High School (the family lived in Apple Valley at the time), and spent 1.5 years studying at Rochester Community and Technical College.
After that, Brenda entered the workforce, got married, and started a family.
Meanwhile, Denise remarried in 2005, and she and her husband, Bruce, made their home in Lester Prairie.
In 2013, Brenda also purchased a house in Lester Prairie, and Denise offered her a job at RiteWay Manufacturing, located just north of town on Highway 7. (Denise’s late father, Bob Green, founded RiteWay in 1999. Denise became the owner/president in 2012.)
Not too late
Talk of adoption faded as the years went by, as Denise and Brenda assumed that it was too late once Brenda turned 18.
One day, however, Denise heard from someone that an adult adoption is a possibility and permission would no longer be needed from Brenda’s birth mother.
Denise contacted attorney Amber Donley in Glencoe, and they began researching the process.
“I had a discussion with my dad face to face,” Brenda recalled. “He said, ‘if this is what you really want, I’m on board.’”
Being adopted had been a dream of Brenda’s for many years. The idea was appealing for her two sons Tyler, 6, and Bryce, 2, as well. Although Brenda is no longer married, she plans to stay close to home and raise her boys in the Glencoe area.
Brenda said Denise has not only been a terrific grandmother to her sons, but she’s also been there for every major event in Brenda’s life.
“[She’s] been there when I was married, when I graduated, when I had my two handsome sons, and been there for every band concert, conferences, and joyous moments and moments that were dark and hard and tons of tears. Just everything,” Brenda posted on Facebook the day of the adoption.
As the paperwork was finalized at the McLeod County Courthouse Jan. 25, Denise said the judge was initially perplexed by the situation, but once he understood, called it “one of the most heartwarming cases” he’s ever seen.
Becoming best friends
Brenda said she hopes her story will raise awareness of adult adoptions, and help others who may be in a similar situation.
“We had to jump through a lot of hoops, but in the end it was completely worth it,” Brenda said.
Denise and Brenda’s relationship not only changed legally with the adoption, it’s also grown as Brenda has gotten older.
“It’s more than just mother/daughter,” Denise said. “It’s turning into being best friends.”