Johnston said she was a 17-year-old Danville High School student when she gave birth on June 15, 1960, to Brenda Lee, whom she named after the popular singer.
She admits that unwed teenage mothers were looked down upon in the 1960s, but that her mother and stepfather allowed her to continue to live at home with her baby girl.
Within a year’s time, however, the teen had married, was expecting again and living with her new husband, his grandmother and baby Brenda Lee in the grandmother’s home.
“His grandmother didn’t care for me, especially since I was a young mother and had a child,” she said.
After Johnston miscarried, she said her husband’s grandmother suggested to her that she should let an aunt take care of baby Brenda Lee for a while but added that she needed to sign some paperwork because the relatives might need to take the baby into Canada.
“I signed papers to give up my parental rights,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was signing. I had no clue.
“Somewhere along the line I realized it was a put-up deal,” she said.
Johnston clearly remembers the day in July 1961 when a car pulled up while she was outside playing with Brenda Lee.
“The man said they had to take her right then, and I gave her hug and that was the last time I saw her,” she said. “We had just celebrated her first birthday the month before and she had just taken her first steps.”
Johnston said she never forgot about her little girl, even after leaving Danville and moving to Portland, Ore., in 1971.
“I did try several things and organizations over the years to try to find her, and even when I still lived here in Danville, I had a woman who would do the legwork, but they kept asking for more money,” she said. “A lot of times I thought I would go through Oprah Winfrey to try to find her.”