For 42 years, Nancy Womac held out hope that she would one day meet the daughter who had been taken from her at birth in a Tennessee hospital.
The girl was always on Womac’s mind over the years, to the point that she would bake a cake on her daughter’s birthday every year and wonder how her life was unfolding.
Womac had never even been allowed to hold her daughter when she was born in June of 1979, but that day finally came in August when she and Melanie Spencer shared a tearful embrace four decades in the making after an improbable reunion set in motion by a 2018 DNA test on Ancestry.
"Forty-two years of questions," Spencer said in an interview with NBC News. "It feels like coming home."
"And she’s just what I thought she would be," Womac said. "She’s beautiful. She’s smart."
Womac was a teenager when she gave birth to Spencer, who was taken from her and adopted by another family.
"I loved her from the first time I knew I was pregnant," Womac said. "Never stopped loving her."
Womac was 16 and living in an orphanage in Dalton, Georgia, when she learned she was pregnant. The orphanage director found out and sent her to the Bethesda Home for Girls in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, one of a network of children's homes founded by preacher Lester Roloff.
The home was advertised as a place for troubled children to learn discipline through the word of God, but according to court filings that would lead to the homes' closure, girls who lived there said they were physically abused and lived in fear.
"It was a long dirt road from the main road down to Bethesda," Womac remembered. "It just kept going and kept going, and then it opens up to this long white building. It was like a nightmare.
"You just learn after a while, after being abused and slapped I guess survival mode kicks in. Just let me get through this day."
NBC News made numerous efforts to contact Roloff Homes, the former operators of the Bethesda Home for Girls, but received no response.
After six months of living at the Bethesda home, Womac was flown to East Ridge, Tennessee, to deliver her baby.
"I remember going into labor, and they just give me a shot and put me out," she said. "I don’t remember having her. I don’t remember them wheeling me into the delivery room. I don’t remember nothing. She was then gone by the time I woke up."
The harrowing experience left Womac always wondering about her little girl.
"She was my first born," she said. "It’s something that you never really get over."
As Spencer grew up in South Africa and Indonesia as the adopted daughter of missionaries, her mother could only wonder about where she had gone.
"I remember thinking, 'Well, she should be taking her first step now,' or, 'She should have lost her first tooth,' or, 'Her first day of school should have started,'" Womac said. "And every year on her birthday, I know it didn’t make any sense, but I always baked her a cake. She would be 12 today. She would be 13 today. She would be 14 today."
Spencer had been told by her parents in South Africa that she had been adopted and that "it was important for my biological mother that I go into a good Christian home."
Just as Womac yearned to know about her daughter's life, Spencer had the same curiosity about her mother.
"I always had a lot of questions about her," Spencer said. "I wanted to find her, I wanted to know more about her. I think there was fear that it could be very hurtful if I dug more and found out that she didn’t want me."
Spencer moved to the U.S. for college and eventually earned a master’s degree and worked in the counseling field. When she had two children of her own, it intensified her own yearning to know about her biological mother.
"I really started thinking about what will I tell them about where they’re from," Spencer said. "I decided to do Ancestry. The most interesting part was that it came up with a DNA match. It had been almost 40 years, and I thought, 'Why not?'"
The results of the test led Spencer to contact Womac's sister, Cheryl Blackwell, with a message saying she was born in East Ridge on June 14, 1979, and that her birth mother was named Nancy. Blackwell didn't see the message for a year until she checked her Ancestry account.
"She said, 'Yes, I know the story,'" Spencer remembered as she began to cry.
It led to the mother and daughter connecting on Facebook, which led to them texting each other for the first time.
"How are you? It's good to finally find you," Womac wrote.
"I’ve wondered about you for a long time," Spencer answered. "It’s a little overwhelming."
"There’s not a day goes by that I have not thought of you," Womac replied. "I want you to know that you are loved so much."
Spencer then drove from her home in Maryland to Womac's home in Georgia to meet her biological mother for the first time.
They spent several days together as Spencer met Womac's other children, shared family meals and spent time with her mother looking at old photographs before taking some new ones of their reunited family.
"These girls on Bethesda (support) groups, they talk about forgiveness and healing," Womac said. "And they say, let it go. I can’t let it go. (Spencer is) in my life, but so many things I’ve missed. But maybe after this, it won’t be so bad."
Womac is hoping to inspire other women who say they are Bethesda survivors to keep searching for their own children. She wants those children to hear the same message she delivered to Spencer after a reunion that took 42 years.
"She will know the truth," Womac said. "I’m happy she will know that she was loved."
Read more about Bethesda survivors on NBCNews.com.