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.

 

Sisterly Love

Feeling like an outsider is par for the course if you’re adopted. At least that’s what I heard from many other adoptees who like me never felt like they belonged in their families.

I grew up with parents who never understood me and vice versa. We had nothing in common or at least that’s how it seemed. That’s not to say I didn’t love Bob and Claire – my dad’s upbeat personality and my mother’s potato salad made a lasting impression. I knew they loved me even when I smashed up the car, dated guys they didn’t like or stayed out too late. Still, I never had a heart-to-heart conversation with my mother or father. They never tried to get too deeply inside my head and I kept my feelings to myself.

While I didn’t feel I fit in as their daughter, I never doubted my relationship with my sister, Melissa.

Even though we were both adopted (and didn’t know it), we were like flesh and blood sisters. We had our special code – knock three times to summon your sister to your room for a gripe session. We rode bikes together, played ring-and-run on Chicago’s southwest side and made prank phone calls. We got into fights that sometimes involved scratching and played a memorable game of tag that resulted in Melissa needing to have her eyelid stitched up. We watched our parents bicker.

Over more than 20 years of living under the same roof, we shared the good, the bad and everything in between.

Melissa was my maid of honor

Melissa was my maid of honor

We went our separate ways as adults but we’re still close. Melissa and I live in different states, live very different lives but talk on the phone or text several times a week. I know what Melissa and I have is as good as it gets with brothers and sisters.

When I visit Melissa and her family, I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel at home.

My first mother, Lillian, was also close to her non-biological sister. When Lillian was a girl living in rural Indiana, the social service authorities split up her large (that’s 12 kids) and impoverished family. Lillian was sent to live with a new family and Donna became her little sister. Actually, Donna was several years younger than Lillian so Lillian took care of her much like a mother would take care of her child.

When I talked to Donna last year, she spoke gently and lovingly about Lillian, her sister in every way but for blood.

They say blood is thicker than water but I don’t know if that’s true. Sisterly love doesn’t require a blood connection. At least not for me.

Adoptees as Outsiders

I’m an outsider.

I never felt like I belonged to my family. My adoptive parents, Claire and Bob, were old enough to be my grandparents, unusual for sure, and while they both came from big families, with lots of brothers and sisters, we rarely saw the extended family. I never knew my father’s family – they were from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I also didn’t feel very connected to my aunts, uncles and cousins on my mother’s side I only saw them at wakes, funerals, showers and weddings, never on holidays.

Claire and Bob loved me and I loved them, but they didn’t understand me. I spent too much time reading books in my bedroom. My parents wondered, what’s up with Lynne? All she does is read. They were not bookworms and I devoured books. I even read the dictionary for fun. I seemed a little strange to them and they seemed like fairly odd parents to me.

I knew there was something different about my family. A savvier girl would have done the math, figured out the truth and confronted her parents. “Am I adopted?” I never asked that question. My head was someplace else, probably in a book. As my second grade teacher noted,  “Lynne is in her own little world.”

My sister, Melissa, asked questions after Claire and Bob passed away and that’s how we found out we were adopted. What a strange thing for me to discover at the age of 38. I sat on the bombshell for years. Occasionally I wondered who my original parents were, if I had other brothers and sisters, but I wasn’t ready to dig deeper, and learn truths about my first family. About three years ago, I started poking around.

My birth mother, Lillian

My birth mother, Lillian

The house where Lillian raised her family

The house where Lillian raised her family in Northbrook

Recently I made a trip to Northbrook to see the house that would have been my childhood home if I had not been adopted.  Gazing at the gray and white house, on the grassy suburban lot, I wondered what it would have been like to grow up there. I can’t imagine my sister and three brothers, my birth mother, Lillian, and her husband, Dick, squeezed in that little house. How did they manage to live there and not explode? No, there wouldn’t have been space for me in that house.  I would have been child number 5.

I felt uncomfortable on Alice Drive, taking pictures of Lillian’s home. I don’t belong here, I thought, aiming my camera lens to capture a shot of the front door.

I can imagine all of my parents, Claire, Bob, Lillian and Bio Dad echoing my thoughts. “Get lost, you don’t belong here, you’re an outsider.”

Actually, feeling like I don’t belong is a running theme in my life. I’ve felt that way with my husband’s sisters. Listening as they recalled funny stories from their childhood, I smiled politely but could not share the memories that only siblings who grew up together have.

I also felt out of place in Virginia, where my husband an I lived for a few years in the 1990s. The natives would ask me where I was from and I’d tell them, Chicago. Oh no, a Yankee from the tough city of Chicago, no less. Seriously, that’s the reaction I got a couple of times. I almost felt like I needed to apologize for being from Chicago or at least stick up for my hometown.

I feel like an outsider when I’m with certain people who are not adopted. Adoptees know what I’m talking about.  Spend time with people who take their family history for granted. They have deep roots. They have big family get-togethers, even reunions. They know which countries their ancestors came from and have family trees fleshed out on both sides. They cannot imagine the oddness of having adoptive parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins – people with whom you have no biological ties — and a separate set of blood relatives, some of whom you discover for the first time as an adult.

Fortunately, there are places where I feel completely at home. I love living in New York City, the ultimate destination for outsiders. You can be from anywhere, you can have a weird story or a strange accent and nobody thinks anything of it.

I feel comfortable with my cousins who I’ve gotten to know better since beginning this adoption search. We see each other occasionally, talk on the phone and stay in touch on Facebook. We are making up for lost time.

Another place where I feel like I belong is inside Melissa’s warm, welcoming home in the suburbs south of Chicago. Melissa and I are not blood sisters but we grew up together, played, argued and bonded over Claire’s kielbasa and pot roast. We are closer than many biological sisters. Maybe it helps that we are not related.

 

My Birth Mother’s House

What would it have been like to grow up in my birth mother’s home? I will never really know, but perhaps I can get an inkling by seeing it. On a trip to Chicago, I take a swing through the northern suburbs to get a taste of what could have been.

I feel anxious, uneasy on the Metra train to Northbrook. My son, Jake, and I are going to see Lillian’s home — the house where I would have lived if Lillian had not given me up for adoption.

At the Northbrook train station, we jump in a cab. Our driver takes us to Alice Drive, a nice, quiet, leafy road with an odd mix of newish McMansions and small older homes. Lillian’s old house is a modest but tidy two-story gray and white home with dormered windows upstairs. The mature trees and shrubs in the front yard make the house look tiny. Behind the house, there’s a big backyard with a well-tended lawn. A mansion across the street and another large, imposing home to the immediate left make Lillian’s home look dinky.

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Lillian’s old home where she lived with my four brothers and sister. Alice Drive  is quiet.

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I start taking photos. There’s an attached garage and a central air-conditioning unit on the side of the house. I’ll bet Lillian and her family didn’t have central air conditioning in the 1960s. I can picture my brothers and sister having a blast climbing that tree.  I can see my brothers sneaking out those windows upstairs. Did Lillian or her husband, Dick, ever slam that front door after an argument? My imagination takes over.

I fantasize about the present owner of the house or an elderly neighbor approaching me.

After I explain what I’m doing, they tell me about Lillian, the lively waitress, the great cook, the unhappily married woman who was overwhelmed by the job of raising three boys and a girl.

Your mother was a lovely woman” or “what a tough chick,” or “I’ll never forget your mother’s beef stew” or “Lillian sure liked to drink”…or some new bit of information that surprises me.

Well, nothing like that happens. Perhaps the house is vacant or the owners are on vacation or sleeping. Nobody opens the blinds or the front door. I see no sign of life in the house or on the property. You could have heard a pin drop on Alice Drive. The whole block feels dead. I don’t see a soul.

Is this how it is in the suburbs? I grew up in a brick bungalow 35 miles away on the southwest side of Chicago. Neighbors hung out on their front porches. After dinner on summer evenings, my parents used to sit on the front steps and watch life go by on Sacramento Avenue. Kids played in the street. In Brooklyn, where I live now, I can look out the window at any time of day and see someone walking along my block or lingering to chat with a friend or neighbor. Brooklyn is a 24/7 kind of place, full energy. Chicago is lively too. Northbrook has a nice train station with paperback books for riders to enjoy, lovely homes on grassy lots, good public schools. But it’s too damn quiet.

I decide to trespass. What the hell, who’s going to stop me? I step on the lush lawn to take closer shots of Lillian’s old house.

This feels strange. I don’t belong here. I never lived here and I never knew the family who lived here. Many people might wonder why I’m curious about this house.

Well, I’m an adoptee on a mission of discovery. I don’t know my biological family’s complete story, only bits and pieces.  My blood relatives were like candles that burned at both ends. Two of my brothers, boys who used to play outside this house, are long gone. One committed suicide as a teenager, the other one died at 23 following an accident. Lillian was only 48 when she died in 1983. I am related by blood to the people who used to live in this house but I will always be the outsider.  That will never change.

I’ve got all the photos I need. The patient cab driver drives Jake and me back to the Metra station where we wait for the next train to downtown Chicago. My anxiety fades. I can’t wait to see my sister and fellow adoptee, Melissa, who grew up with me in that bungalow on the southwest side.

Unlike Northbrook, I will get a warm welcome when I walk in the door of Melissa’s home in the suburbs of Will County. I always feel at home in their house, which is something I never had with my biological family.