Rita Betush, 68, left, of Tarentum, Pa., meets her sister, Judy Bottomley, 75, of Mesa, for the first time, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013.(Photo: Tom Tingle Tom Tingle/The Republic)
PHOENIX -- On Thursday morning the doorbell rang in the quiet Mesa home Judy Bottomley shares with her husband, Jim.
The sound signaled a moment that Bottomley, 75, had hoped and prayed for -- she'd even dreamed about it -- most of her life.
Standing on the other side of the door was Rita Betush, 68, the sister that Bottomley had never met. Betush had traveled from Pennsylvania to connect Bottomley with the family she had longed to know since she was a child.
Bottomley had been given up for adoption when she was an infant. Thursday's meeting with Betush was the first time she'd seen any members of her birth family since then.
"It's almost surreal, like a Monet painting," Bottomley said, holding tight to her sister's hand. "It's so good to see her. I was telling Jim I was so afraid I was going to wake up and find out it wasn't real until I could touch her and put my arms around her and know she's flesh and blood. It was almost too much to hope for."
"We made it come true," Betush said. "Yes we did."
Bottomley's mother was divorced with three children when she took a job working as a housekeeper for a family in Roanoke, Va. She fell in love with the son of her employer, and Bottomley was the product of their relationship.
Although they would eventually get married and have other children, they were not married when Bottomley, who they had named Helen, was born and gave her up for adoption.
"My mom told me and my brother that we had a sister somewhere when I was about 10," Betush said. "At one time they hired a private investigator to look for her. My brother looked for her, too, in the 1970s, but they couldn't find any clues. It felt like all the time I was looking and wondering where she was. I wondered if she was still alive and if she knew about us."
Bottomley spent most of her childhood in the suburbs of Chicago, but she also lived in Texas, Arkansas and Indiana while growing up.
She knew she was adopted and wondered about her biological family.
"When I was a young girl, I used to dream I was standing on a corner in Roanoke," Bottomley said. "I was looking at people on the street and wondering if any of these people was my mother. That's how bad I wanted to know."
Bottomley recalls one afternoon while she was in high school when her adoptive mother asked her if she was interested in trying to find her birth parents.
"I took one look at her face, and I could see she was sad because she was afraid," Bottomley said. "So I said no."
She waited until after her adoptive mother passed away in 1987 before she began searching for her biological family in earnest.
That was the start of a decades-long quest that left Bottomley frustrated and often in tears as she had to navigate obstacles presented by Virginia's laws concerning privacy in adoption cases.
Last year, a young social worker with the Children's Home Society of Virginia brought fresh eyes to Bottomley's efforts.
The case had previously been considered closed because the agency contacted one of Bottomley's half sisters who said she didn't know anything about her.
But the new social worker noticed Betush's name in an obituary for their mother and contacted her.
"Last August I was working on a jigsaw puzzle when she called me," Betush said. "She asked if anybody had given up a baby for adoption, and I said my mother had, and we've been looking for her for years."
The agency initially acted as a go-between, forwarding emails between the sisters. In October, they were given permission to contact each other directly.
They've been sharing phone calls, letters and emails since then.
They found out there have been times when their lives have potentially overlapped.
When Betush and her husband, Bob, married in 1964, he was stationed at an Air Force base in California near where the Bottomleys were living at the time.
Their paths could have crossed again after the Bottomley's moved to Mesa. Betush's brother-in-law lives a few miles away in Chandler, and they have visited numerous times over the years.
They even took a trip to the White Mountains during the brief period when the Bottomleys were living in Show Low.
"They used to go to places like Organ Stop Pizza, where we used to go," Bottomley said.
They no longer have to rely on hope or coincidence to get together. The Betushes plan to spend a couple of weeks in the Phoenix area on this visit, and the sisters will visit as much as possible.
Bottomley has three children -- a son by birth, an adopted daughter and a foster daughter -- while Betush has two daughters.
They'll try to have family gatherings in Arizona and later at the Betush's home near Pittsburgh.
They made an appointment Thursday afternoon to have pictures taken. They plan to make the most of whatever time they have together.
As the sisters sat in Bottomley's dining room Thursday morning, they would spontaneously hug or touch each other or hold hands as if they were each checking to see if the other was really there.
"Just a couple of days ago, Jim said to me, 'You have a sister,' " Bottomley said. "I have a sister. That's something I've wanted my whole life and never had."
"Me, too," Betush added.
Weldon B. Johnson, The Arizona Republic