As I look back on 2015, meeting my sister, Michelle, and niece, Chrissy, stand out as high points in my journey to uncover truths about family.
The reunion came about after many phone calls. During those calls, Michelle spoke candidly about her childhood, revealing the unvarnished truth about growing up as the only girl, with three brothers, a beloved father, Dick, and Lillian, our hard drinking, hard living bipolar mother who struggled to keep everything together. They all lived in a modest house in Northbrook, a leafy suburb 35 miles north of the bungalow where I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago. Without going into all the details, Michelle survived a lot of hard knocks.
Planning the trip and traveling to my sister’s town, Galveston, Texas, felt exciting and unsettling, I was not the only nervous one. Michelle and Chrissy were as jittery about meeting me as I was about meeting them but as soon as they saw me, they welcomed me. Michelle was outside her house, smoking a cigarette, waiting for me as I drove up in my rental car. We looked each other up and down and then we hugged. Chrissy and I hugged. The three of us headed out for lunch at the Golden Corral.
Eating, shopping for trinkets, looking at family photos and gabbing, lots of gabbing, made the awkwardness go away. We had a good day together.
Michelle is the closest relative I’ve found since I started searching for family. Meeting her in person was cool. I wanted to have a face to connect with the friendly voice on the phone. Four and a half years older and several inches shorter than me, Michelle describes herself as a tomboy. People at the restaurant and gift shop came over to chat with my sister, who loves to talk.
Were we full or half sisters? During the visit, Michelle took a DNA test, which I had purchased for her. The test results established that we were half sisters with different fathers. That’s what Michelle had told me all along but I wanted proof.
It’s exciting to find a new sister. Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test and Ancestry’s DNA test have turned up hundreds of cousins who are somehow related to me and while it’s interesting to know I have so many relatives out there, it’s not nearly as thrilling as finding a sister.
I found Michelle with the help of Marilyn Waugh, a wonderful search angel who tracked down family on my birth mother Lillian’s side. I also played detective. My husband, Tom, and I pored over records including obituaries which were available online. I made many phone calls and was able to track down Michelle’s stepmother, Jeannie, who put me in touch with Michelle.
Michelle called me first. “I’ve always known about you,” she said in her flat, Midwestern accent.
Finding a sister, hearing her voice on the phone and realizing she had known about me for most of her life while I was discovering her for the first time made my head spin. I don’t remember what I said – it was very awkward – but that’s how it all began.
As I shop online for last minute Christmas presents, I think about gifts adoptees would appreciate. Three gifts come to mind (and you can’t buy them on Amazon).
Original birth certificates. My home state of Illinois unsealed original birth certificates in November 2011 and that’s how it all started for me. At first I was hesitant to request the document. I was apprehensive about searching for family, concerned about what I would find. My husband, Tom, pushed me. He handed me a check for $15 to send to the Department of Public Health in Springfield.
Several weeks later, it arrived in the mail. I took some deep breaths as I tore open the envelope containing my OBC. The birth certificate was full of surprises. It shot holes in the assumptions I had about birth moms. Assumption No. 1: birth mothers are unwed teenagers. Well, it turned out my mother, Lillian, was married and 28 years old when she had me. We couldn’t believe it. We thought Lillian must have lied about being married but that was not the case. The OBC identified her by her married name and maiden name, provided her address at the time of my birth and her age and place of birth. With those precious facts, I was able to track down my birth mother’s family, with a great deal of help from Marilyn Waugh, an awesome search angel.
Without the birth certificate, I had nothing to go on. I had reached out to my cousins on my mom’s side of the family but they had no idea who my biological parents could be.
The old-fashioned laws that prevent adoptees from obtaining their original birth certificates should be thrown out the window. Several states are doing just that. This year, Oregon and Ohio were among the states that opened formerly sealed adoption records to adoptees. It’s about time! Adoptees deserve to know the truth about their origins.
DNA tests. Autosomal DNA tests, which reveal the identities of blood relatives from both the maternal and paternal sides, can be an excellent tool for adoptees searching for their families. Several smart cookies out there have used their test results to identify and locate parents and other relatives. In Laureen Pittman’s case, she found her bio father after he turned up in the relative matches provided by DNA test company 23andMe.
I have not been able to connect the dots. Though I’ve taken Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test and a similar test offered by Ancestry, I have not been able to figure out my father’s identity. Sorting through DNA matches takes a tremendous commitment of time and patience and I haven’t put in the time.
Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test answered a nagging question I had about my sister, Michelle. The test Michelle took confirmed beyond a doubt that we had the same mother, Lillian, but different fathers. That’s valuable information.
Unlike human beings, science doesn’t lie or forget and that’s what I love about science.
Which brings me to what could be the most important present adoptees would like to find under the Christmas tree – the truth.
Birth certificates and DNA tests are good tools but they have their limits. Adoptees also need straight answers from their families. Sadly, many of us run into obstacles when we confront relatives with questions about our original parents. I hear stories all the time about birth moms who refuse to reveal to their children the names of biological fathers. That’s selfish. Ok, so maybe mom is bitter about a failed relationship, maybe the father was a big jerk or something worse, and she doesn’t want to acknowledge the man’s existence. That’s her problem. Mothers need to put their hard feelings aside and recognize and honor their child’s need to know who fathered her.
Have I left any gifts off the list for adoptees? I’d love to hear from you. Please post your comments.
It hurts to find out, as an adult, that you were adopted.
Every late discovery adoptee’s moment of truth is delivered differently but there’s no way to sugarcoat it. The blow may come in a relatively gentle way as it did for me. Thirteen years ago, my sister, Melissa, called me one evening. “You and I were both adopted,” she said very matter-of-factly, with no tears or anger in her voice. (Melissa and I both hate drama.) MeIissa, who suspected we had been adopted, confirmed it with our cousin, Gina, who had been adopted by a couple who were close friends with our parents.
I was stunned. I felt betrayed by my parents who never so much as hinted at the possibility that I was not their biological daughter.
They fooled me and now I felt foolish. Here I was, married, a mother, 38 years old and finding out for the first time that I had been adopted. Mom and Dad were both in their 50s when I was born and baby Melissa arrived 14 months later so I should have figured it out on my own. I was no detective, despite having devoured Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden mysteries as a girl growing up the 1960s and ‘70s.
Mom and Dad were both deceased. I would never be able to ask them about my beginnings. I would never know how difficult it was to bring me into the world or whether I was born by C-section or the natural way. Did Mom and Dad meet my biological parents? I would never know the whole story. My genes, family history, ethnic identity and everything else I thought was mine was lost. All the interesting stories about my grandparents, aunts, uncle and the cousins on Mom’s side of the family didn’t belong to me anymore. Poof! Just like that, it was gone.
I’ve learned that my discovery, though painful, was far less dramatic than other adoptees’ stories.
At the age of 52, Darlene Coyne found out about her adoption in a brutal and unexpected encounter with her mother, a woman she loved dearly. Darlene’s 21-year-old daughter wanted to know about the family’s medical history. At a family gathering, the daughter, who has bipolar disorder, pushed her grandmother for information, knowing there was some history of mental illness on her side of the family. Darlene’s mother was tight-lipped, revealing nothing.
Grandmother and granddaughter had a rocky relationship. It wasn’t the first time Darlene’s daughter had bugged her grandmother with questions about mental illness and the older woman was fed up with the questions.
“I have something to tell you,” she told Darlene. “You should sit down.”
Darlene’s mother revealed that Darlene, like her siblings, was adopted. “I adopted you also—so she (Darlene’s daughter) can quit blaming my family for her mental illness,” she told Darlene.
What a way to find out you’re adopted. Darlene was shocked and deeply wounded. Her mother never apologized to Darlene for lying about the adoption or being so callous in revealing the truth. Though Darlene eventually forgave her mother, their relationship was never the same.
Every late discovery adoptee’s moment of truth is unique. I’d love to know how you found out you were adopted. Tell your stories in the comments.
Knowing what I know about my mother, Lillian, and grandmother, Susan, makes me appreciate my life as a mom.
Lillian and Susan both lost children under different circumstances.
Lillian was forced to give me up for adoption. Her husband insisted on it, knowing in his gut that I was not his child (He was right. My sister Michelle’s DNA test confirmed we have different fathers.) It must have been painful for her to endure a pregnancy, deliver a healthy baby and hand her newborn over to a couple of strangers. How did Lillian feel going home to her husband and four little kids with no baby in her arms? Maybe it was relief mixed with sadness.
Thirteen years later, my brother, Joey, ended his life after things went south with a girlfriend. Lillian, who was battling alcoholism and bipolar disorder, went downhill after her boy’s untimely death. Joey was 18.
Losing loved ones was nothing new for Lillian. My mother lived with foster families when she was a girl. In 1940, four-year-old Lillian and her three-year-old brother, Eric, were “welfare children,” the Census Bureau’s label. They were the only children living in a middle-aged couple’s home in Daviess County, Indiana. Their 52-year-old foster dad worked in road construction.
My mother’s family was broken up out of necessity. Lillian, Eric and some (maybe all?) of their siblings were separated from their parents and sent to live with strangers and relatives in Indiana and other parts of the Midwest. Susan and my grandfather, George, were dirt poor and overwhelmed with their brood of 13 children. Michelle recalls the story about George getting arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. Barely scraping by, the family at one time even lived in a chicken coop.
Poor Susan. Married to George at the age of 19, Susan brought 13 children into the world only to see her family torn apart. She must have felt helpless.
I suppose feeding and caring for 13 kids would have been impossible for many men in the Depression era, especially so for my grandfather, George. He was no provider.
My grievances look so petty compared to what my mother and grandmother went through. I just want to hug Jake, my 15-year-old son, and ignore his curfew violations, messy bedroom and the other stuff he does that makes me crazy. I’m raising my flesh-and-blood child. Lillian and Susan were not so lucky.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?