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.

When DNA cousins play musical chairs

I check my account on Family Tree DNA  every week to see if I have a new daddy, brother, sister or first cousin. I never know who will pop up on my DNA lineup.

A couple weeks ago, I sat up straighter when I saw a new dark-haired fellow at the top of my list of matches. He is a “second to fourth generation” cousin and he occupies the No. 1 spot on my list, meaning he’s the closest relative among all my matches. Whoa! Brandon bumped cousin Susan out of the top spot. Susan had been perched at the top for months. Susan and Brandon both live in California but they don’t appear to be related to one another.

Of course, this new match intrigues me. For what it’s worth, Brandon matches me for a solid stretch of 41 pieces (cm) of chromosome 12. I Googled Brandon. I checked him out on Facebook and LinkedIn. I viewed a cute dog video he uploaded on YouTube. We exchanged friendly emails. Like many of the other cousins I’ve contacted, Brandon has no idea how we are related. Sigh.

If I were to guess, I would say Brandon and I are related on my mother, Lillian’s side.

He is related to another cousin, a distant cousin who’s a genealogist. Sharon put together a family tree for me based on what she knows about Lillian’s side of the family. But I can’t rule out the possibility that Brandon and I are linked on my dad’s side. After all, my father and mother could be distantly related to one another, which would not be as odd as it sounds.

Brandon appears to be in his 30s or 40s, an approachable-looking guy and apparently a dog lover. His approval rating went up in my book when I saw his video, featuring a sweet little dog fetching a tennis ball in a stream.

Our predicted relationship is third cousin, according to Family Tree’s chromosome browser, but I think Brandon is probably a second cousin once removed. That could mean one of his parents’ grandparents could be a sibling to one of my grandparents. But which grandparent and from which side of the family?

I took a DNA test to find family on my bio dad’s side of the family. So far, the mystery remains just that. I have no idea who he is (or was), whether he had other children, whether he even knows I exist.

That's me checking the latest DNA matches

That’s me checking the latest DNA matches

And the truth is I have done next to nothing lately to uncover my father’s identity. Adoption searches are exhausting and they suck up time. I work, I’m raising a teenager and I have two dogs who need me for daily walks and affection. I’m married, too. I don’t want the search for lost family to come at the expense of the people and critters who love me.

Still, my imagination goes into overdrive every time I open my Family Tree account. What’s tantalizing and frustrating is seeing the names and photos of matches on my screen and knowing that some of those people knew my father.

Of course, they don’t think of him as “Lynne’s father.” (I am sure my dad does not know about me or if he does, he’s pushed my existence out of his mind. I’ll bet he never told his wife/wives about me.) Maybe my DNA cousins know him as goofy Uncle Jim, the one who drank too much and told off-color jokes at family parties. Sorry, dad, I can’t picture you being a model citizen. You’ll always be a rogue in my imagination.

Every time my DNA cousins change places on my match list, I think of musical chairs. It’s not a breakthrough for an adoptee looking for bio dad and family but it keeps the DNA game interesting.

Let’s Give Adoptees Their Original Birth Certificates

If you are not adopted, you take your birth certificate for granted. It’s a piece of paper you’ve had forever, with facts about your parents and your birth that you’ve known about all your life.

But if you’re adopted, the original birth certificate is like a piece of gold. I just got mine two years ago and feel lucky to have it. Without it, I would be completely in the dark about my birth mother Lillian’s identity, which is part of my identity, too.

me and the BC best

That’s my original birth certificate

Many adopted adults can’t get their original birth certificates because of old-fashioned state laws that keep those records sealed. That’s not fair. I think other adoptees should be able to learn about their origins without having to jump through a million hoops or spend gobs of money.

I signed Sandy Musser’s petition, which would restore original birth certificates to adult adoptees. Sandy, an adoption reform activist, wants to take her petition straight to the White House. She hopes to convince President Obama to enact an executive order, which would restore the OBCs to every adult adoptee in America “in one fell swoop because it is a civil and constitutional right.” I’m with you, Sandy.

If you’re reading this, take a moment to add your name to Sandy’s petition. The more signatures, the more likely this drive will make a difference.

Advice for Adoptive Parents from an Adoptee

From my own adoption experience and as someone who hangs out with adoptees on Facebook, I know many of us have grievances with our adoptions.

Here’s mine. My parents, Claire and Bob, never told Melissa and me we were adopted. Claire and Bob were recovering from the death of their only child, Bobby, when they decided to adopt a baby girl – that would be me. A year later, Melissa joined our family.

claire, bob and bobby

Bob, Claire and their son, Bobby

Claire and Bob took these “secret” adoptions to their graves. I use the word “secret” ironically since everyone in my family except for Melissa and me knew about our adoptions. I didn’t find out until I was 38 years old. By that time, my parents were both gone so I could not ask them about the adoptions. When I asked my cousins for details, they knew very little so I was left with many unanswered questions.

I don’t like being a late discovery adoptee. Really, who would?

I’ve been thinking about what I would tell a couple planning to adopt a child. I’ve never done it but as a mother, I think I speak for many parents when I say parenthood is a job you can’t really prepare for. Doesn’t matter if you give birth or adopt. No parent knows what she’s getting into when she has a child.

Of course, adopting a child brings with it some special issues. I’ve put together a short list of suggestions for would-be adoptive parents. Call it the “do’s and don’ts” of adoption from the adoptee’s point of view.

• Be straight with your child. Tell her the truth about being adopted. That doesn’t mean you have to reveal every unpleasant detail about the circumstances behind your child’s birth especially if those details are painful. Tact is not a bad thing especially with a little one.

But you owe it to your child to be honest. Yes, adoption is complicated. It’s also one more way to create a family so why hide the truth?  Besides, isn’t it better that the truth comes from you rather than having your child discover the facts on her own? Believe me, if you choose not to tell her, she will find out anyway.

• Don’t play favorites. I cringe when I hear stories from adopted adults who are scarred, having been made to feel like second-class citizens compared to their parents’ biological siblings.

Note to parents: don’t bother adopting if you don’t have a big enough heart to love the child the same way you do your natural offspring. No one ever said blending a family would be easy but I assume as an adopter, you chose to bring a non-biological child into your home. Nobody forced you to do it.  So make the best of the situation, no matter how tough it is. Bend over backwards to make your adopted child feel loved and protected. Be sensitive to her feeling of being different. Whatever you do, don’t make her feel second-class by treating her differently than the other kids in the house.

• Don’t feel threatened. At some point, your adopted child will want to know about her origins. Don’t take it the wrong way when your child asks questions about her birth mother or father. Don’t be offended when she embarks on a search for facts about her biological family. Don’t be hurt when she wants to meet with her blood relatives in person. Understand that your child’s curiosity and need to know are natural.

If you are not adopted, you probably have known about your family since Day One. Your mom and dad filled you in on the story of your birth and the details about your first days of life on this planet. You’re not curious because you know your story. If anything, you take it for granted.

Put yourself in your child’s shoes. If you were adopted, wouldn’t you want to know about your first family? Be supportive of your child’s desire to learn about her kin. Oh, and if you happen to know things about your child’s other family, it’s time to come forward. Don’t be an obstacle in your child’s search for truth. She will appreciate your love and support.

• Educate yourself as much as you can. If you plan to adopt a child from overseas, go into it with your eyes open.  Ask questions. Do your homework. Many children from faraway countries have been hurt. They may have health and behavioral problems that you’ve never heard of. Can you make a lifelong commitment to loving and helping a troubled child? It won’t be easy.

Last year, Reuters exposed the underground practice of “rehoming,” where unhappy parents seek new homes for the kids they regret adopting with no official regulation or oversight. Vulnerable children, many from foreign countries, have ended up in the hands of unfit even dangerous people.

Until I read the articles by Reuters, I never knew giving up was an option for adopters. The idea of adopting a child and then changing your mind when the going gets tough makes me angry. When you adopt a kid, you make a commitment to loving and raising the child. It’s not a consumer purchase.

Before you adopt, ask yourself if you have what it takes to be a good mom or dad even when things become difficult. Maybe you’re up for the challenge. Or maybe not?

Twin Identities – An Adoptee Reunion Story

It’s strange enough to find out as an adult that you are adopted. It’s even weirder to discover you’re not as unique as you thought you were. Hey, meet your identical twin.

That’s the strange and shocking scenario presented in Identical Strangers,  a memoir written by identical twin sisters and adoptees Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein.

I read this book while on vacation near Cancun, Mexico with my family. (My recipe for a perfect vacation? Put me on a beach, add a good book with a couple of mojitos, and I’m happy.)

Good book with a mojito on the beach equals a great vacation.

Good book with a mojito on the beach equals a great vacation.

Paula and Elyse didn’t grow up together the way sisters normally do. They were raised by different sets of adoptive parents. Early on, they knew they were adopted but they had no clue about their “twinship” until they were in their 30s. Whoa!  I cannot imagine how strange it would be to discover as an adult that I had an identical twin sister. It was weird enough to find out the truth about my adoption as a woman well into my 30s. That’s when I learned that my sister, Melissa, and I had been adopted. Of course, this family “secret” was a secret only to Melissa and me. Our cousins, aunts, uncles, God knows who else, all knew about our adoptions. Ah, the joy of being a late discovery adoptee.

Paula and Elyse are late discovery twins. They discovered they were separated as infants for a secret and misguided study on separated twins. Speaking to each other on the phone for the first time, the women realize their voices are practically identical. The sisters both suffered nearly fatal reactions to sulfa drugs. They also suffered from depression.  Meeting in person for the first time, Elyse and Paula realized they shared the same mannerisms and even liked the same shade of lipstick.

Yet Paula and Elyse live very different lives. Paula is married, has a little girl and lives in Brooklyn. Elyse, who is single, lives a bohemian lifestyle in Paris.

As an adult, how do you fit a brand new twin sister into your life? Paula has reservations about a relationship with Elyse.  Still, they forge a bond. They laugh, they cry, they get on each other’s nerves, just like sisters do. Their many uncanny similarities, shared DNA and love bring the women together.

Elyse and Paula embark on a search for their biological parents. Hey, I can relate to the excitement and pain that goes along with the search for kin. Of course their search leads the sisters to painful realities. Among other things, they learn that their mother, Leda, tried to commit suicide when she was more than 5 months pregnant with them. Like me, Paula and Elyse never got a chance to meet their birth mother, who was long gone by the time they found out about her.

When she discovers Leda is deceased, Paula is relieved.

“A bittersweet mix of relief and sadness sweeps over me,” Paula wrote. “There will be no emotional reunion, no pressure to find a place for our birth mother in my life.”

I know many adoptees wish for nothing less than a happy reunion with their natural mothers. I’m like Paula. I breathed a sigh of relief when I found out Lillian was deceased. Though I still find it fascinating to learn things about Lillian’s life, and would have liked to have met her, I have never had a huge desire for a relationship with the mother who was absent from my childhood.

I remember how much it hurt to find out the woman who brought me into the world battled with demons in her head. Lillian suffered from bipolar disorder. Leda, who suffered from schizophrenia, was hospitalized several times for emotional problems.

Adoption searches force us to face painful truths. Paula and Elyse suffered when they learned the truth about Leda, but their search brought them even closer to each other. Adoptees in search of happy reunions will enjoy this story.

Questions About Identity Never End for Adoptees

My friend, Mary, sent me a link to Laura Skandera Trombley’s wonderful article about the identity questions that adoptees wrestle with every day.

“I saw this story and immediately thought of you,” Mary wrote.

Skandera Trombley, who is a college president, talks about the questions adoptees have about their first families, the circumstances that led to adoption, biological ancestors, ethnic roots and medical histories.  Like me, Skandera Trombley was adopted in the 1960s.

“I was born during a cruel time for the adopted; the 1960s was an era when such transactions were considered “closed,” and basic information was routinely and legally withheld,” Skandera Trombley wrote. “And yet I cannot escape or pretend to ignore my past. It walks with me every day.”

Unlike me, Skandera Trombley knew early on that she was adopted. She also learned that being adopted was not something you dropped in casual conversations with people outside your immediate family. When people asked her where she got her pretty red hair, rather than saying “I’m adopted,” Skandera Trombley’s adoptive mom advised her to tell people that she had a red-haired aunt who lived in New York.

I can identify with Skandera Trombley’s fierce attachment to her name. Miller is my adopted father’s surname, the only name I’ve ever had and the name I intend to keep for the rest of my life. When I got married, there was never any question that I would continue being a Miller. I liked having a name that’s short, simple, easy to pronounce and spell. More important, my maiden name is part of my original identity, the name readers see when they read my articles. My name is my name. Like Skandera Trombley, I don’t want anyone messing with it.

I thought I knew who I was and where I came from until that day 11 years ago when I found out I was adopted. My identity suddenly felt like it was up for grabs. Some man other than Bob Miller actually fathered me? Claire Miller was not my real mother? Was I not really a Miller? Was I something other than Polish and German? Why didn’t my parents tell me I was adopted? How could I have been so stupid to have not figured this out years ago?

I’m still wrestling with some of those questions. Having searched for my blood relatives through DNA testing and old-fashioned record checking, I know who my biological mother was, why she gave me up for adoption and my ethnic heritage. I have filled in many names on my family tree but it’s still only half a tree. My mother and her relatives are represented but my father and his relatives are nowhere to be found.

nice photo of Lillian and Howard

Was Lillian part Cherokee?

These days I wonder what my last name would be if my biological father had raised me. Will I ever find out that name and other basic facts about the man who (perhaps unknowingly) brought me into the world?

“I learned a hard lesson: For the adopted, coming to terms with one’s identity is a lifelong struggle,” Skandera Trombley wrote.

That’s one way to look at it. It’s true that learning about my original family and their challenges has brought tears to my eyes. It’s been very sobering. Still, I don’t feel like I’m struggling, exactly. I am learning the truth about my origins and I’m taking the good with the bad. Truth is good. I can handle occasional jabs of painful truth. Just don’t lie to me, please.

Last week, I discovered two distant cousins who only recently found out they are related to one another as uncle and niece. Pat and Sheryl live in Oklahoma, a state I’ve never visited, one that’s known for its huge population of mixed-blood and full-blooded Native Americans. Pat has an Irish or Scottish surname but he is as he put it a “card-carrying Native American.” He and Sheryl have Native American roll numbers.

How intriguing! Now that I’ve found blood relatives with Indian ancestry, I’m wondering again about my heritage. My DNA test didn’t turn up any Indian blood. In fact, my ethnic background is more than 98 percent Western European, according to Family Tree DNA. I’m definitely Irish, possibly English and Scottish. But I’ve heard stories about my birth mother, Lillian, teaching her other children an Indian rain dance, according to my sister, Sissy. Rumor has it Lillian was part Cherokee. Could I have trace amounts of Native American blood from way back when?

These are the kinds of questions that I turn over in my head. I guess you could say my identity is a work in progress, a jigsaw puzzle with many missing pieces.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day From a New Irish-American Adoptee

This is my first St. Patrick’s Day as an Irish-American. Ok, that’s not exactly right. I’ve been an Irish-American since the day I was born but I just found out about my Irish roots a few months ago.

Happy_St._Patrick's_Day!

Courtesy of National Library of Ireland on The Commons/Flickr

What can I say? I’m adopted and my ethnic identity got a makeover. It sounds weird doesn’t it? For adoptees, it’s  a normal experience, particularly for those of us who found out about our adopted-ness late in life. We grow up associating with one or more ethnic groups only to find out we’re actually related to an entirely different population.

I grew up on Chicago’s Southwest Side with a Polish-American mom and a German-American father. Polish and German. Kielbasa and sauerkraut. That was my ethnic stew and I never questioned it.

My life story began to crumble 11 years ago when I found out I was adopted, a detail my adoptive parents took with them to their graves. Last year, after starting my adoption search, I found blood relatives and other people who were close to my family. They told me the truth about my birth mother and the situation that led to my adoption. They revealed family secrets which of course were secrets only to me. I also did DNA testing hoping it would help me find relatives on my father’s side. Today I have a new ethnic identity, along with stories about my biological family, birth certificates, a death certificate and a stash of old faded photos.

Many of the things I’ve learned are painful. My mother’s childhood and the poverty, sadness and sickness that scarred her and other members of her family have made me cringe.  Those photos of Lillian with her four other children – my brothers and sister – and the pictures of Lillian’s siblings and other relatives are fascinating to look at, yes. But there are days when looking at the photos makes me want to cry. A photo gallery of dead relatives I never knew. So dreary.

Finding out about my ethnic heritage has been one of the happier discoveries in this adoption search.  My ethnic identity is alive, intact and part of who I am today. Nobody can take it from me. It’s something I share with my son. After all these years, Jake, who is 14, finally knows what his mother contributed to his ethnic makeup.

Just like Barack Obama, I’m not 100 percent Irish-American. I don’t know anything about my biological father’s background though it’s safe to assume his ancestors came from Western Europe, too. Judging from all those Irish and English surnames among my DNA matches, I think I must have a fair amount of Irish/English/Scottish blood in me.

When I think of Irish-Americans, I think of fun-loving, smart, articulate people. Who wouldn’t want to be a member of their club? Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Medical History: Adoptees Fill in the Blanks

Every time we turn around, we hear about the importance of family medical history. Yet for adoptees, these facts are missing or at best incomplete.

A couple of recent  situations reminded me how little I know about my family medical history.

Leafing through Better Homes and Gardens on the subway, an article about heart disease caught my eye.

“When it comes to heart disease, what runs in your family matters—a lot,” the article began. “Studies show that if one of your parents had a heart attack or stroke, your own risk for these conditions can double, and having a brother or sister with the disease ups your chances of having a heart attack, too.”

I turned the page. Another article suggested talking to relatives about diseases that run in the family and then telling your doctor, who can use the information to recommend lifestyle  changes or screenings. “So grab a pen and paper and start interviewing Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and everyone in between,” the article said.

Yeah, right. Like I can pick up the phone and get the scoop on family health conditions just like that. The writer is obviously not adopted.

On another day, sitting in an office in Manhattan, my doctor and I tried to calculate my lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Lillian, my mother, died of breast cancer at the age of 48 and that’s why I made this appointment. I have no idea how old Lillian was when she was first diagnosed with the disease so I couldn’t answer my doctor’s question about age of onset. Hell, I didn’t know about my adoption until 11 years ago and didn’t know Lillian’s name until 2012. By the time I found out about her, Lillian had been gone for nearly 30 years.

I recalled hearing from a relative that Lillian had battled cancer for quite a while.  How long is quite a while? Let’s say my mother had the disease for seven years, I told my doctor.  She knew I was guessing and she wasn’t pleased. My doctor quizzed me about the other members of my family who had the disease. I don’t know, I don’t know, I said. My blood relatives are strangers to me.

I knew what my doctor was thinking: you should know your family history! I am adopted, I said, feeling compelled to defend my ignorance.

pic for medical history article

Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/Grant Cochrane

As we wrapped up our meeting, my doctor commented on how frustrating this lack of history must be for adopted people.

Yup, adoptees from the sealed records era run into these situations all the time. We don’t have family gossip stored in our memories because we never had a chance to talk with our biological kin. We can’t answer doctors’ questions with actual knowledge. We are clueless about our family histories.

In recent months, I’ve learned a few things about the health issues that run on my mother’s side of the family.  Lillian, in addition to breast cancer, struggled with alcohol and probably bipolar disorder. At least one of her brothers struggled with bipolar disorder, too. Lillian’s father, George, also had a drinking problem. My half-sister has diabetes and suffered a mild stroke some years ago.

What little I know about my mother and her relatives seems like a treasure chest of facts compared to what I have on my father and his family – absolutely nothing.

This problem is finally getting attention from the outside world. New Jersey lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow adoptees to gain access to their medical histories along with their original birth certificates.  I say it’s about time.

In the absence of information, I will do what I can to keep heart attacks, strokes and other bad stuff away.  Healthy genes, heart attack genes, mystery genes – whatever I inherited doesn’t have to dictate what’s going to strike me five, 10 or 20 years from now.

I try to take care of myself by making (mostly) healthy choices. Today I have a head cold. Part of me wants to take a nap, the other part of me thinks it’s time to get up, stretch my legs and have a glass of water with another shot of cold medicine.  It’s snowing and 27 degrees outside but a walk might do me good and get my mind off the things over which I have no control.