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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.