SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. – For most of her 100 years, Minka Disbrow tried to find out what became of the precious baby girl she gave up for adoption after being raped as a teen.
She hoped, but never imagined, she’d see her Betty Jane again.
The cruel act of violence bore in Disbrow an enduring love for the child. She kept a black and white photograph of the baby bundled in blankets and tucked inside a basket.
It was the last she saw of the girl – until the phone rang in her California apartment in 2006 with the voice of an Alabama man and a story she could have only dreamed.
Disbrow, the daughter of Dutch immigrants, weathered a harsh childhood milking cows on South Dakota dairy farms. She finished eighth grade in a country schoolhouse and worked long hours at the dairy.
On a summer day in 1928 while picnicking, Disbrow and her friend Elizabeth were jumped by three men as they went for a walk in their long dresses.
Both were raped.
“We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know what to say. So when we went back, nothing was said,” Disbrow recalled.
Months passed. Her body began to change.
Disbrow, who had been told babies were brought by storks, didn’t know what was happening.
Her mother and stepfather sent her to a Lutheran home for pregnant girls. At 17, she gave birth to a blond-haired baby with a deep dimple in her chin and named her Betty Jane. In her heart Disbrow longed to keep her. But her head and her mother told her she couldn’t bring an infant back to the farm.
A pastor and his wife were looking to adopt a child. She hoped they could give Betty Jane the home she couldn’t.
Over the years, Disbrow wrote dozens of letters to the adoption agency to find out how her daughter was faring. The agency replied faithfully until there was a change in management.
Disbrow’s life went on. She married a fruit salesman who became a wartime pilot and drafting engineer and they had two children.
Every year, she thought about Betty Jane on her May 22 birthday. Five years ago, Disbrow prayed she might get the chance to see her.
On July 2, the phone rang.
It was a man from Alabama. He started asking Disbrow, then 94, about her background.
Worried about identity theft, Disbrow cut him off, and peppered him with questions.
Then, the man asked if she’d like to speak with Betty Jane.
Her name was now Ruth Lee. She had been raised by a Norwegian pastor and his wife and had gone on to marry and have six children including the Alabama man, a teacher and astronaut Mark Lee, a veteran of four space flights.
Lee knew she was adopted. It wasn’t until she was in her 70s that the search for her biological parents began. She started suffering from heart problems and doctors asked about the family’s medical history. Her son, Brian, decided to try to find out more and petitioned the court in South Dakota for his mother’s adoption records.
He got more than 270 pages including letters from Disbrow.
He then went online to try to find one of Disbrow’s relatives – possibly through an obituary.
He typed Disbrow’s name into a web directory and was shocked when a phone listing popped up. “I kind of stopped breathing for a second.”
A month later, Ruth Lee and Brian Lee flew to California.
Disbrow couldn’t get over how Lee’s hands were like her mother’s. Lee was amazed at the women’s similar taste in clothing. “It was just like we had never parted,” Disbrow said. “Like you were with the family all your life.”
Disbrow is planning to travel to Alabama in the spring, where they will celebrate her recently marked 100th birthday.
“It has been such a surreal, amazing experience that I still think sometimes that I will wake up and it will just be a beautiful dream,” the 82-year-old Lee said.