Monthly Archives: November 2013

A Toast to Gratitude

Learning about my birth mother makes me feel grateful for what I have.

I started writing about Lillian a few weeks ago. She was born into a large Indiana family in the 1930s. Her parents were overwhelmed by the baker’s dozen of children who filled their rural home. Amidst the stress of being unemployed while trying to support this growing brood during the Great Depression, Lillian’s father, George,  left his family twice – the second time permanently.

nice photo of Lillian and Howard
Lillian, my birth mother

The children were parceled off to different foster homes, where Lillian spent much of her childhood before attending Indiana University and moving to Northbrook, IIl., where she had me in the 1960s.

The stories I have heard rival how people live in Third World countries. People are not supposed to live like farm animals, right? Two relatives have told me that Lillian’s family was so poor – and perhaps had recently lost a home? – that they were forced to make their home in a chicken coop.  The story sounded ridiculous the first time I heard it, but I believe it more after hearing it from another family member.  I have no trouble believing another bit of family history – that Lillian’s brothers occasionally stole chickens to put food on the table.

Me? I’ve never had to steal my supper. I will serve roast turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry orange relish, braised red cabbage and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. At this moment, I have a refrigerator and pantry stuffed with food and I’m not even talking about the Thanksgiving goodies, which I have not bought yet. The abundance makes me feel guilty.

I didn’t know what I was going to find out when I embarked on this journey. Learning about Lillian’s childhood, her family and her problems with alcohol and mental illness has made me look at my life differently. I think about my childhood now and remember the times I enjoyed with my family rather than dwelling on what I never had, couldn’t do and didn’t like.

My adoptive parents, Claire and Bob, came from big families, too. They didn’t have a lot of money. They survived the Depression and knew how to stretch their dollars. Claire and Bob didn’t spoil my adopted sister, Melissa, and me but they loved us and protected us. They were grateful for their girls.

“Children are your millions,” Claire used to say.

Gratitude should not be something we feel only during Thanksgiving week or, in my case, after digging up hard truths about my birth mom and the rocky childhood I escaped.

Gratitude helps people feel happy, according to recent research. Instead of focusing on what I don’t have, I think about the great people, wonderful dogs and other good stuff in my life.

phoebe and maggie looking cute
Phoebe and Maggie,
beagle-dachshund mix

I am trying to make a habit out of feeling grateful. What about you?

When DNA Results Are Disappointing

My mother, Lillian, taught her children how to do an Indian rain dance when the family lived in Northbrook, Ill. She told my sister, Sissy, and other family members that she was part Cherokee.

Sissy and other relatives believe Lillian had some Native American heritage. Really, why would a mom who wasn’t Native American teach her kids an Indian rain dance?

Does Lillian look like she could be Native American in these photos? It’s hard for me to say. She had dark hair and dark eyes but not the angular features I associate with Indians.

Lillian when she graduated bigger
Lillian in 1953
nice photo of Lillian and Howard
Lillian probably in the 1970s

I was intrigued by the idea of being related, even just a little bit, to Native Americans. How exciting! There is a mystique to being Native and I wanted to be part of it. It seems hip, something to be proud of.

Turns out I’m not alone. Roberta J. Estes, who writes the DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy blog, hears from Indian wannabes every day. Some people mistakenly think they will qualify for free college tuition if they can establish Native heritage. Estes wrote an excellent piece on the limitations of DNA testing for those who want to use it to prove Native American heritage.

I’ve always thought of myself as a white woman with European ancestors. When I found out I was adopted 11 years ago, I figured I was still a white woman with European ancestors, perhaps from Poland as I wrote last week.

For adoptees, certain parts of identity can crumble just like that. Those people I always thought of as my parents? Well, Claire and Bob were my parents but they didn’t conceive me in the traditional sense. They didn’t pass their genes on to me. They adopted me.

Far from being set in stone, identity is something like a work in progress for adoptees trying to find their roots. As I’ve searched for the truth about my biological family, I’ve imagined other identities for myself. As I waited for my DNA test results, my imagination got a little carried away. Did my ancestors live on a reservation? Did Lillian learn the rain dance from her mother, brothers and sisters?

The test results threw cold water on my Indian fantasy. If I have Indian blood, it’s no more than a trickle. My ancestors came from Western Europe. One of my new cousins, who is a genealogy buff, told me there are no Native American ties on my maternal grandfather’s side of the family.

What about my maternal grandmother’s side of the family? That’s not entirely clear.

I took Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test, which uses autosomal DNA (a mix of genetic material from the mother’s and father’s sides). Autosomal DNA can trace back about four or five generations in terms of matching the test taker with “reference populations” from various parts of the world.

Lillian’s Native American ties, if they were real, would have had to have been further than five generations back in history.

According to my results, 98.23 percent of my DNA traces back to the Orcadians, meaning my ancestors were from the English Isles. If you inherited less than 3 percent of DNA matching a particular reference population, it will not show up on test results.

I could take the mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) test, which would trace my direct maternal line back to infinity. If this line is of Native American origin, it would show me as belonging to an mtDNA haplogroup known to exist in Native Americans.

But the test is not recommended for adoptees looking for close relatives, which was my original reason for doing DNA testing. Test takers can be an exact match with fairly distant relatives due to how slowly mtDNA mutates, Family Tree DNA told me in an email.

Ok, maybe I’ll take the mtDNA test after I exhaust my search for information about bio dad. In the meantime, I will have to hang my hat with the uncool, invading British settlers instead of the Indians who suffered at their hands.

On Monday – Native American Ancestry?

My birth mother, Lillian, taught her children an Indian rain dance at the family home in Northbrook, Ill. That’s what my sister, Sissy, told me.

Lillian was part Native American, according to the stories I’ve heard from my sister and other family members. If that’s so, why did her Indian ancestry not show up on my DNA test results? I’ll tell you more on Monday.

nice photo of Lillian and Howard
Lillian

 

When DNA Blows Your Ethnic Identity Apart

At my age, I should be having an ordinary mid-life meltdown. I should be fretting over wrinkles and flab. Instead, I am having a weird ethnic identity crisis that only an adoptee can have.

I grew up eating kielbasa and sauerkraut in Chicago, a city known for its large Polish population. My Polish-American adoptive mother, Claire, used to talk about the Krasowskis, the Pinkowskis, the Wisniskis and other Poles in her circle of family and friends. Three good friends from Chicago, Cara from high school, Laura from work, and Debbie from college were all Polish. I thought I was Polish, too, at least on my mother’s side.

Secretly, though, I liked having Miller for a surname. It’s easy to say and spell and it’s all-American. Polish names can be hard for the average Joe to pronounce let alone spell correctly.

Though my adoptive father Bob, a German-American, gave me his surname, he didn’t have nearly as much influence over my sense of ethnic identity. Claire was the proud Pole. She passed that sense of ethnicity on to me and my sister, Melissa.

Even after I found out I was adopted 11 years ago, I continued to identify with the Poles. “You look Polish.” How many times have I heard that from relatives on my mother’s side. My (non-Polish) husband, Tom, friends and even people I didn’t know have told me I look like a Pole. I’ll never forget the time an elderly woman wearing an old-fashioned floral dress glommed on to me on a city bus in New York. She had that Eastern European look and saw a fellow Pole, or so she thought.

Hey, I own a copy of Marianna Olszewska Heberle’s “Polish Cooking” (The zupa pieczarkowa – fresh mushroom soup -is excellent.) I own several cookbooks by Martha Stewart, one of our better-known Polish Americans. Bring on the kielbasa, pierogis and kapusta (sauerkraut).

kielbasa and kraut from flickr
Courtesy of I Believe I Can Fry/Flickr

Now it seems my Polish roots were a myth. My test results from Family Tree DNA show no Polish connections. Scrolling through pages and pages of results, I see the names of more than 600 men and women, identified as cousins. They are strangers to me and their surnames, Bennett, McDaniel, Johnson, Henderson, Nolen and Mahoney, leave me cold. Where are the “-skis”?

Good bye Poland. Hello Ireland. My ancestors came from Ireland and England with some Viking connections, according to the DNA results.

irish sweater smaller size
Me and my Irish sweater

In the 21st century, does it mean anything to be an Anglo Saxon? That’s what I am, a born again Anglo Saxon. I’m still getting used to this identity. It feels weird. I suppose it goes with the territory of being adopted and not finding out about it until you’re grown up, which is what happened to me. It’s one more revelation.

Finding an Adoption Agency Online

The idea of making a profit from the adoption of babies turns my stomach but that’s how it works in many states. Illinois, my home state, deserves some credit for taking action to keep the profit out of the adoption process.

The state’s Attorney General, Lisa Madigan, has filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against the Adoption Network Law Center, a for-profit adoption provider that reaches families far beyond its home state of California. Prospective adopters in Illinois and elsewhere can find the Adoption Network Law Center quickly with a few clicks of the mouse.  The company is not approved by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to place children, according to the lawsuit.

The Illinois case calls attention to the Internet’s vital role in the adoption process. It’s not an overstatement to say the Web has transformed just about all aspects of adoption including the way parents find babies to adopt.

It’s tempting for eager would-be parents to jump online to fast track their plans to build a family.

adoptive family for blog on choosing adoption agency
Courtesy of photostock/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Adam Pertman advises parents to slow down.

“Educate yourself,” says Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. “Don’t just do it by clicking on a mouse. Go to an adoption agency for an educational session. Become a more informed person. Understand this is a big important life decision that requires a process. It’s a process rather than just a transaction.”

You can love the Internet or hate it but you can’t avoid it so learn how to use it intelligently. The Internet is teeming with adoption agencies and other adoption providers – good ones, bad ones and everything in between. Weeding out the bad guys is not always easy for parents. The Adoption Institute offers a list of questions for parents to ask to assess the integrity of the providers.

The Adoption Institute is also conducting research on the Internet’s role in adoption.  Adopted adults, adoptive parents, birth parents and adoption professionals are sought for this project. Check out the surveys  (online of course). Each one takes about 15 to 20 minutes.