Ethnic Identity: Part 2

Here it is St. Patrick’s Day. What an ironic time to learn I may not be all that Irish.

As I checked my email on the subway last week, I saw the message from Ancestry. “Your Ancestry DNA results are in!” Excited, I opened the message, and clicked on the analysis of my ethnic makeup. Much to my surprise, Ancestry estimates my Irish-ness to be merely 18 percent. About two-thirds of my ancestry can be traced back to England, Scotland and Wales.

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Ancestry’s ethnicity estimate

A while ago, I wrote about discovering and embracing my Irish roots after going through life assuming my ancestors came from Poland and Germany. This is a common phenomenon for late discovery adoptees. We grow up believing what our parents tell us and find out, as adults, that the truth is something entirely different.

My Polish-German identity started to crumble once I learned, at age 38, that I was adopted but I didn’t stop seeing myself as Polish and German until a DNA test made it official.

Family Tree DNA presents the information in a different format

Family Tree DNA’s ethnic breakdown

I also confirmed my heritage, or so I thought, with blood relatives. Chatting with my biological sister, Michelle, who told me our mother, Lillian was Irish, and talking to a family genealogist who suggested our family’s oldest known ancestor was an indentured servant from Ireland who immigrated to Maryland in the 1700s, left me convinced I was at least 50 percent Irish.

Of course, not knowing anything about my father and his relatives leaves a big hole in my story.

Also, the science of determining ethnic origins is evolving. DNA test companies can only provide estimates of ethnicity so I’m not going to read too much into those percentages from Ancestry. Besides, being English, Scottish and Welsh isn’t all that different from being Irish, right?

Have you heard conflicting things about your roots? I’d love to hear your stories.

Meeting My Family

When we first talked on the phone about 1½ years ago, my biological sister, Michelle, told me almost immediately, “I’ve known about you for a long time and I’ve always loved you.”

As sweet as it was to hear, I was also put off hearing those words coming from a stranger. How can you love a sister you’ve never met? I tend to keep people at arm’s length. It takes a while for me to trust them, let alone love them. Yet since that first conversation, Michelle and I have talked dozens of times about our family. She’s opened up about the trouble she had with our mother, Lillian, the fun times she had growing up with three brothers, and her deep love for her father, Dick. I’ve grown comfortable saying “I love you” to the sister I never met.

Still, it’s one thing to talk to a brand new sister on the phone, quite another to meet her in person. It took me a while to feel comfortable with the idea. Finally, after months of thinking about it, I was ready to go to Galveston, Texas, to meet Michelle in person and have her take a DNA test. (I was hoping that comparing her results to mine would allow me to identify members of my elusive father’s side of my family.)

As I planned my trip, I was anxious every step of the way. The prospect of meeting Michelle made me nervous. Yes, she is my sister but we don’t have much history. I worried how the reunion would go and if we would struggle with awkward moments.

Going to Galveston by myself was also a little scary. A couple of hours after buying a round-trip plane ticket, I saw the documentary on TV about Robert Durst, the rich and eccentric New Yorker who was accused and ultimately acquitted of murder charges in the shooting death of a neighbor, whose body was found carved up in pieces in the Galveston Bay.

A word of warning on the Galveston seawall

A word of warning on the Galveston seawall

The next day, I read about a man who was picked up by police in Galveston in connection with the murder of a University of Virginia student. I wondered, “Am I going to die in Galveston?” What a terrible way for an adoptee’s search to end. I won’t even get to write about it if I get cut up in small pieces and dumped in the Gulf of Mexico.

In my mind, I knew I was being a baby. To steel myself for the trip, I told my friends and relatives about it and they gave me the moral support I needed. By the time I boarded the plane, I was psyched for a family reunion in a strange city.

Unlike my flight, which was delayed a couple of hours, the drive from Houston to Galveston was smooth and painless. I pulled my rented Prius into the parking lot of a hotel on Seawall Boulevard, right across from the Gulf of Mexico.

But when I checked in and asked the front desk clerk about where to eat dinner, some of my anxiety re-emerged; she told me it was not entirely safe for me to be out walking around alone after dark and that if I was going to go out, I should leave right away. To get to the nearest restaurant, I had to cross several lanes of traffic without the benefit of a streetlight.

Safely reaching my destination, I dined on fish tacos and enjoyed views of the Gulf from three sides. I felt better but still felt a bit edgy and uncertain about what lay ahead.

My sister and I planned to get together the next day. After a poor night’s sleep, I rose early and was shocked by the strong odor of marijuana in the hallway. Part of me wished I were on a vacation, a business trip, anything but what I was really there for.

Time to do this, I thought as I left the hotel. As I parked the rental car on Michelle’s block, I saw my flesh-and-blood sister waiting for me outside her modest home. The first thing she said when she saw me was, “You’re beautiful.” Up until now, I had only seen photos of Michelle as a little girl and teenager. Almost five years my senior, Michelle is several inches shorter than me and has fine brown hair and green eyes. She has slender, fingers, much smaller and more delicate than mine. I wrapped my arms around her. Michelle’s pretty, blonde daughter, Chrissy, gave me a big hug. She lives in Florida, but came to Galveston to see her mother and meet her new aunt.

My blood relatives: Michelle, in the middle, and Chrissy on the right

My blood relatives: Michelle, in the middle, and Chrissy on the right

Michelle packed several photo albums into the trunk of the car. Over lunch at the Golden Corral, we talked about our lives. My nervousness started to fade.

As girls, Michelle and I grew up in homes just 35 miles apart in the Chicago area but our childhoods could not have been more different. I was sheltered – smothered, really – by overprotective parents who had time to focus all their attention on Melissa and me, their adopted daughters. Growing up in Northbrook with two young working parents, Michelle didn’t get enough protection. She was exposed to good and horrible things, living with a mother who had a temper and drank too much.

Michelle thinks my voice sounds like our mother Lillian’s. I can’t vouch for that but it’s easy to see the physical similarities between Lillian and me when I look at the old photos.

Looking at new photos in Michelle’s albums stirred up my curiosity about the family I never knew. I would have been the youngest, a girl with an older sister and three older brothers, Michael, Joey and Fritz. Only Michael is still living.

My birth mother, Lillian, had a tough, impoverished childhood in rural Indiana, a stormy, alcohol-fueled adult life in suburban Chicago and an early death from breast cancer at age 48.

Having Lillian as a mother was painful, according to Michelle, who couldn’t wait to get away from her mother. (For different reasons, I was also eager to leave my parents’ suffocating nest and get a taste of freedom.)

I wonder how Lillian, a 28-year-old married mother of four, felt during her pregnancy with me in the early 1960s. Did she think, “Oh, not this again!” Was she angry?

Some time after I was born, Lillian told Michelle about me. “You have a sister but your father made me give her up.” To me, that sounds like Lillian telling her daughter the truth about the child she relinquished. Michelle thinks it was Lillian’s unsuccessful attempt to drive a wedge between her and her dad. Michelle thought the world of her father, and understood why he didn’t want to raise a child who wasn’t his.

Still, Michelle has told me, “I wish you had grown up in our family.”

We tiptoed around the topic of my adoption. Chrissy thinks it’s a shame I never got to meet Lillian, the grandmother who took her fishing and treated her with kindness. What would it have been like to talk to Lillian, to know the woman in the faded photos? I’ll never know. But this visit helped me put some flesh and blood on those images.

Back at Michelle’s home, I said goodbye to my sister and Chrissy, giving them hugs and fighting the tears that welled up in my eyes. This kind of bonding never would have happened over the phone.

On Monday: Family Reunion in Texas

Talking on the phone with the sister you lost through adoption is one thing. Meeting her and her daughter in person is something else altogether.

Adoptee reunions can be emotional. Come back on Monday to read about my reunion with my sister, Michelle, and niece, Chrissy.

These rabbits were a gift from Michelle

These rabbits were a gift from Michelle

Fishing in the DNA Pond

A few years ago, I started the search for blood relatives with enthusiasm and misgivings.

What if I found out my father was an ax murderer or ran a Ponzi scheme? The thought of finding family was exciting yet nerve-wracking. Since then, I’ve found a sister, taken a DNA test and made contact with many new far-flung cousins, none of whom can provide any clues to my father’s identity. So I still don’t know if my father was a sinner, a saint or just a complicated man with good and bad qualities.

I am tired and resigned. Searching for relatives feels like a chore only worse. At least grocery shopping and laundry can be completed whereas an adoptee’s hunt for kin can go on and on. It’s frustrating.

I’m not ready to give up, though. Having taken another DNA test, I hope to get psyched again for the search.

Adoptees looking for family should not limit their DNA testing to one company so I’m giving Ancestry’s test a chance. My No. 1 goal is to uncover clues about blood relatives on my father’s side.

Over the weekend, I registered my DNA test kit on Ancestry’s website, provided the saliva sample and packed up my specimen to ship back to the DNA lab in Utah. It took all of 10 minutes.

It's time to ship out my DNA sample

It’s time to ship out my DNA sample

The tough part comes later when the DNA test company delivers the results – hundreds of names of relatives from both sides of my family. It is strange and amazing to think I have so many living, breathing relatives, and they most likely will be strangers to me.

DNA testing is confusing, frustrating and time-consuming. I’ve spent hours using Family Tree DNA’s chromosome browser to compare my matches and it’s always as clear as mud how we’re all connected.

That’s just me. I don’t mean to discourage other adoptees from giving DNA testing a chance. Unlike me, you may have the smarts, the time and the patience to parse those test results. You might even hit the jackpot by finding close relatives directly. It hasn’t happened to me but others have struck gold through genetic testing.

Good luck and wish me luck, too.

An Update on My DNA Journey

I’ve heard adoptees searching for family should fish in many ponds so I’m casting my line in Ancestry’s pond, hoping I might net some clues about my blood relatives, especially those on my father’s side.

While most people were getting psyched for the Super Bowl on Sunday, I shopped for a DNA test from Ancestry.com.

I dove into the DNA pond a couple of years ago, purchasing the Family Tree DNA FamilyFinder test. The results did not turn up a father, brothers, sisters or first cousins, just distant cousins, hundreds of them. My experience is fairly typical. Very few people find a parent or sibling match directly through a DNA test.

Checking out my DNA matches at the kitchen table

Checking out my DNA matches at the kitchen table

Still, every week or so, Family Tree DNA uncovers a few new cousins and sends me their names. Which side of my family these relatives hail from and where they belong on the family tree is usually unclear.

Analyzing the results can be frustrating and time-consuming. Why didn’t I pay more attention to the genetics discussion in high school biology? If I had, maybe I’d have my DNA cousins sorted out. (Actually, all I remember about biology is the fetal pig dissection, which I delegated to my lab partner.)

The truth is I have not spent enough time with my test results. Too busy with my everyday life.

Despite my lazy approach, I have confirmed relationships with a number of  cousins on my mother’s side, including several second cousins. I had the pleasure of speaking with Shannon, my second cousin once removed, on the phone recently. You have to be adopted to understand why it was exciting to speak to a blood relative, only the third one I’ve talked to in my entire life.

My biological son, Jake, is the only bio relative I’ve hugged and kissed in real life. My half-sister, Michelle, and I have never met in person but we talk frequently by phone and end each conversation by saying “Love you.” But that’s it for my blood relatives.

If you’re adopted and searching for family, you should give DNA testing a chance. Unlike me, you may have been riveted by your high school genetics lecture so sorting through DNA matches might come more naturally. Or maybe you have the time and patience for parsing the test results.

DNA tests cost around $99 each. While they are affordable for many of us, it never hurts to save a few bucks if you can. Through a Google search, I found a free shipping offer, which saved me almost $10 off the cost of the Ancestry test. Every penny counts, especially since I’m sure this won’t be the last DNA test I purchase. My fishing trip continues.

 

Shocking DNA test discoveries

I did not find a new father, brother or sister in 2014 and maybe that’s a good thing. As much as I’d like to discover my biological father’s identity, I don’t want to cause misery in my or another family’s life.

My saliva sample has not brought new siblings or parents into my life...a good thing, perhaps

My DNA sample has not produced bombshells

That’s exactly what happened after George Doe (not his real name) gave his parents the “gift” of DNA testing.

As reported on Vox.com, the article was written from the perspective of a biological son, an enthusiastic scientist who thought DNA testing would be a really cool thing for his family to do. The test revealed a family secret. George, our scientist, discovered he had a half-brother, Thomas, who had been adopted at birth. Like many adoptees, Thomas did DNA testing to find his blood relatives.

This revelation tore the family apart. George Doe’s parents divorced and no one in the family is speaking to George’s father.

George never expected genetic testing to cause such personal drama. He contacted 23andMe and asked a spokeswoman to address the fact that customers who buy genetic tests may not realize they’re participating in paternity tests. He didn’t get much satisfaction from the company.

I hope the family heals and Thomas gets the information he’s looking for from his new dad.

George Doe’s story is a cautionary tale for adoptees and the non-adopted. Many of us go into DNA testing with the dream of finding long lost relatives who are waiting to welcome us into their families. Personally, I don’t expect the red carpet treatment from any new relatives. But I’m still intrigued by the possibilities. It’s been more than a year since I got my initial results and I still check my Family Tree DNA account every week for new blood relatives. The closest matches I’ve found are second cousins on my mother’s side.

As adoptees, I think many of us know we are diving into risky waters when we pursue the results of DNA tests. We know we have the potential to cause trouble by appearing out of the blue, claiming to be somebody’s secret child or sibling. But do people who are not adopted realize what their saliva samples can lead to? Maybe they should be warned in advance, the same way patients are warned about potential side effects from prescription drugs.

The label on the DNA test could read: “WARNING: The results of the test you are about to take may turn your world upside down and lead to painful revelations. Do not take this test if you are unprepared for shocking outcomes.” In other words, if you like your family history the way it is written, don’t buy this test.

Do you think the test companies should do more to caution people about the potential for bombshells?

Missing Fathers

I grew up with a father who read me stories at night, played tennis with me, drove me to piano lessons, taught me to drive and did all the other things good fathers do for their children. Still, Bob Miller wasn’t my biological dad. As an adoptee, I wonder who that man is and what I inherited from him.

question marks photo

Kara Sundlun’s amazing story of connecting with her bio dad stirred me up. Though she didn’t have the benefit of having him in her life as a child, Kara always knew his name. When Kara actually met her father, he didn’t exactly welcome her with open arms but he did not reject her either. It took a paternity suit to get Bruce Sundlun, the governor of Rhode Island, to acknowledge Kara’s place in his life. As a young adult, Kara moved into her dad’s home, bonded with her half-brothers and ultimately grew to love and forgive the man who was absent during her childhood.

I never had a chance to know Lillian, my birth mother, and it seems likely I’ll never know my bio father either. In my heart, I believe he’s dead. If my father was anything like Lillian, he burned the candle at both ends and died many years ago.

I envy Kara Sundlun. How fortunate Kara was to know her father’s name and to have a father who did the right thing in the end by welcoming her into his life. Kara got the answers to her questions and enjoyed a good relationship with her dad. It doesn’t get much better than that.

You can read more in Kara’s memoir, “Finding Dad: From ‘Love Child’ to Daughter.”

What’s in a Name?

I am preoccupied with names. As an adoptee of course, I wonder what my name would have been if I had been raised by both of my natural parents.

I could have been a Winter had I grown up with Lillian and her husband as parents. Winter sounds kind of elegant, less common than Miller and not a name you associate with beer. (My high school geometry teacher used to greet me by saying “It’s Miller time.” That’s all I remember about geometry.)

Winter wasn’t my natural father. I think bio dad was some other guy, a nameless, faceless fellow who may remain a mystery to me forever.

Every time I log into my Family Tree DNA account, I look for new names among my living cousins and their ancestors. My bio father’s surname is in here somewhere but how to find it? Could he be a Smith, a Jones or a Wilson? Those are the top three surnames among my DNA matches.

Is my bio dad's name here?

Is my bio dad’s name here?

One of my new cousins contacted me recently. She comes from a family with many Millers and wanted to know about me. Bob Miller was my father but he adopted me so we don’t have any biological connection, at least not one I know about.

I have at least eight Millers among my DNA matches. If everyone explored their ancestry long enough, wouldn’t we all find at least a handful of Millers in the family? Seems likely. But wouldn’t it be funny if I found out there actually was a bio connection between me and Bob?

Either way, I like having a name that’s easy to say and spell. Miller reminds me of my wonderful father, the dad who drove me to school, played tennis with me and helped me learn to drive. Miller sounds friendlier and more approachable than Winter, don’t you think? Winter reminds me of Rebecca de Winter from the 1940 Hitchcock movie, Rebecca. The late Mrs. de Winter was beautiful and glamorous but more than a touch cold.

Myths and Truths About Birth Mothers

Elle Cuardaigh’s thought-provoking piece about birth mothers and stereotypes reminded me of the day I found out who my birth mother was.

Before I knew the facts, I assumed my mother had been really young and naïve when she got pregnant with me. Not true. Lillian was a 28-year-old married woman when she gave birth to me in Skokie, Illinois in the 1960s.

Married? If she had been married, why would she have given me up for adoption? Married women don’t do that. My husband, Tom, and I figured she must have been lying about her marital status to make herself seem more respectable.

We were dead wrong. Turns out Lillian was indeed married, the mother of four young children. Her husband was convinced I was not his child so he ordered Lillian to give me up which she did. Not long after that, Lillian and Dick split up and she remarried a few years later.

My birth mother, Lillian, was a married mother of four when she had me

My birth mother, Lillian, was a married mother of four when she had me

I found out more surprising things about Lillian’s life including the fact that she had attended college, something my parents had never achieved. Birth moms are asking, “why is that surprising?”  Forgive me for making assumptions.

Searching for the truth about my birth parents has opened my eyes to so many truths, myths and lies about adoption. It would be an understatement to call adoption complicated. Every adoptee, birth mom and adoptive parent has a unique story.

Way back when I was a journalism student, I learned the folly of making assumptions. “If you a-s-s-u-m-e, you make an ass of you and me.”

I no longer make assumptions about the parents who brought me into the world or for that matter, the parents who raised me. That would be stupid.  I think it’s safe to assume the longer I pursue the truth about my roots, the more surprises I’ll turn up.

Adoptees: Insiders or Outsiders?

I told you about my odd childhood, how I grew up feeling like an outsider  in my family. Well it turns out I’m in good company. Many adoptees feel the same way, based on the comments I heard from my Facebook friends who are adopted.

I guess I hit a nerve. Many readers said they also felt like they did not belong to their families, even when they were wanted, cared for, protected and loved, like I was, by their adoptive parents. Of course we also don’t belong to our original families.

The house where Lillian raised her family

I felt like an outsider gazing at the house in Northbrook, Illinois where my birth mother, Lillian,  lived with her husband and four children.

Each one of us has a unique story. Some adoptees grew up knowing they’re adopted and feeling second class compared to their parents’ biological children.

Some were told by their parents to never tell anyone they were adopted. In other words, being adopted is really bad and you better keep your mouth shut about it. What does that do for anybody’s self worth?

Like me, some people never knew as children that their parents adopted them. We grew up feeling different, not like our parents at all, and not knowing the truth, which could have explained the feeling of not fitting in.

While the comments from my fellow “outsiders” were plentiful, I also heard from a handful of people who completely disagreed. They said they never, ever felt like outsiders in the family. How is that possible? Since I can’t identify with the insiders, I can only speculate on how they and their parents pulled this feat off (and try very hard not to feel envious).

A few questions for those of you who don’t suffer from the outsider complex:

ŸŸ  Did your parents bend over backwards to make sure you felt at home in their home? How did they manage to do that?

ŸŸ  Did they tell you the truth about how you joined the family?

Ÿ  Did your aunts, uncles and cousins treat you like one of their own?

Ÿ Ÿ  What would you tell potential adoptive parents who want to make sure their adoptive child feels like a real member of the family?

I would love to hear your stories.