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.
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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. Her stepfather thought high school was for city kids who had nothing else to do. She finished eighth grade in a country schoolhouse with just one teacher and worked long hours at the dairy.
On a summer day in 1928 while picnicking with girls from a sewing class, 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.
“I loved that baby so much. I wanted what was best,” Disbrow said.
She never met them, or knew their names. But over the years, Disbrow wrote dozens of letters to the adoption agency to find out how her daughter was faring. The agency replied faithfully with updates until there was a change in management, and they eventually lost touch.
Disbrow’s life went on. She married a fruit salesman who became a wartime pilot and drafting engineer and they had two children. She worked as a dressmaker, silk saleswoman and school cafeteria manager in cities spanning from Rhode Island to Minnesota and Northern California before moving to the seaside town of San Clemente an hour’s drive north of San Diego.
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.
“Lord, if you would just let me see her,” Disbrow remembers praying. “I promise you I will never bother 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 who has circled the world 517 times. She worked for nearly 20 years at Walmart – and especially enjoyed tending to the garden area.
Lee knew she was adopted her whole life, and grew up a happy child.
It wasn’t until she was in her 70s that the search for her biological parents began.
Lee started suffering from heart problems and doctors asked about the family’s medical history. She knew nothing about it. 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 a stack of more than 270 pages including a written account of the assault and handwritten letters from a young Disbrow, asking about the tiny baby she had cradled for a month.
He then went online to try to find one of Disbrow’s relatives – possibly through an obituary.
“I was looking for somebody I thought was probably not living,” said Lee’s now-54-year-old son. 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.”
On the phone with her biological daughter, Disbrow was in disbelief. Her legs began to tremble. She couldn’t understand how a naive dairy farm girl without an education could have such accomplished grandchildren.
A month later, Ruth Lee and Brian Lee flew to California. They arrived at Disbrow’s meticulous apartment on a palm tree-lined street armed with a gigantic bouquet of flowers.
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. They pored over family photo albums and caught up on the years Disbrow had missed.
“It was just like we had never parted,” Disbrow said. “Like you were with the family all your life.”
Since then, the families have met numerous times. Disbrow has gone to visit grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Wisconsin and Texas. She is planning to travel to Alabama in the spring, where they will celebrate her recently marked 100th birthday.
Disbrow has started sharing her story with members of her church and community. The Orange County Register ran a story about Disbrow’s journey in December. The family’s improbable reunion also made the local newspaper in Viroqua, Lee’s hometown in western Wisconsin.
“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.
Disbrow’s daughter Dianna Huhn, 55, of Portland, Ore., said the reunion has filled a void for her mother – one that for many years, the sharp, stylish woman with sparkling blue eyes kept a deep, dark secret.
“I have never seen my mother as happy,” said Huhn.