Category Archives: Using DNA tests

How I’ve used DNA tests to uncover blood relatives and learn about my ethnic background

Search Ends: I Found My Biological Father

My search is over. A DNA test has confirmed the identity of my biological father.

I was beyond thrilled when I got the email from a woman I suspected was a close relative based on countless hours of detective work. She had taken a DNA test at my request.

“Tom, I found my father,” I told my husband, who was under the covers at 6 a.m. “Congratulations,” he murmured.

The 1960s: Secret Era of Adoption

I was adopted in the 1960s when adoptions were deep secrets. As a late discovery adoptee, I did not discover the truth until I was 38. Without going through an adoption agency, my parents, both in their 50s, worked quietly with a doctor from Chicago’s northern suburbs who may have been a baby broker.

A door to my secret past opened in 2011, when Illinois unsealed original birth certificates. Up until then, I didn’t have any documentation related to the adoption. Once I got my birth record, I had to dig around to find out who my father was. My mother was listed, of course, along with an address in Northbrook, Illinois, but my father was “not legally known.”

After spending four years on and off combing genealogical records and comparing snips of chromosomes from distant DNA matches, I felt proud and satisfied to get the truth. To finally have a name, photos and some details about my dad and his family made the tedious, often frustrating effort worthwhile. I felt relieved, having unraveled a mystery that’s burdened me for years. I felt complete. I had roots like everyone else. My family history is coming together on both sides.

I was on top of the world but the high didn’t last. I crashed quickly.

Learning About My Biological Father

My father, Stephen, a skilled auto mechanic and co-owner of a gas station, was living on King Court in Wheeling, Illinois with his wife and two daughters when he got to know my troubled mother, Lillian, who lived a few miles away on Alice Drive in Northbrook with her husband and four young children. Lillian was an alcoholic who suffered from bipolar disorder. Her children, my half-siblings, often had to fend for themselves since Lillian wasn’t there when they needed her. Like my mother, Stephen was a drinker and carouser. Did Lillian and Stephen meet at some suburban watering hole? Maybe it all began when Lillian brought Stephen a menu at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress or at the service station when she brought the car in for a tune-up. Did they have a fling or was it something deeper? Did they share a bond over their rural roots?

My biological father, Stephen, in 1954
My biological father, Stephen, in 1954
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 have a million questions. What brought my father, the son of Arkansas farmers, to the northwest suburbs of Chicago? I know he served in the Navy. In 1950, at the age of 22, Stephen married a young woman from Arkansas. They tied the knot in Cook County, Illinois.

My biological father served in the Navy
My biological father served in the Navy

I never met Lillian, who died of breast cancer at the very young age of 48, long before I even knew I was adopted. Sadly, I will never have a chance to meet my father either. During my search, I thought it was possible my father never knew I existed and once I found him, he would welcome me into his life and it would be like a fairy tale ending. No such luck. I’m sure Stephen knew about me and never attempted to find me. That hurts. We will never have a chance to get to know one another. At the age of 75, Stephen died of lung cancer in 2003 in Scranton, Arkansas, about 20 minutes from the tiny town of Paris, where he was born. He was a recluse living in a one-room tin shack at the time of his death. Writing about this brings tears to my eyes.

At the kitchen table, I spent a couple of hours perusing family trees on Ancestry.com. I think Stephen was the youngest of eight or nine children. I felt sad seeing the names of his brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles who are all deceased. I’ll never have the opportunity to get to know them, to learn what it was like to grow up in a big farm family in the early 20th century in rural Arkansas, so different from my childhood in Chicago.

Spending too much time on genealogy can be dreary. I had to get away from my dead relatives so I shut down the computer and went downstairs to fold laundry. In the kitchen, I ran vinegar through the coffee maker. I worked up a sweat vacuuming the living room rug. I walked to the farmers market, the hardware store and the bodega to stock up on groceries and household stuff. I needed distractions.

Connecting with my biological family

But the dark truths I uncovered are lightened by other discoveries. I am overjoyed to have found Stephanie, Stephen’s oldest daughter, who understands and respects my need to know where I came from. In my first email to Stephanie, I introduced myself as a “new family member,” possibly a cousin. I didn’t mention the possibility we could be half-sisters. I explained my search, shared the date and year when I was conceived and where my mother had been living at the time. I told Stephanie my father might have been a golfer, of Irish or English ancestry, a man with blue eyes like mine. I attached a recent photo of myself, noting the strong resemblance between the two of us. Stephanie and I both have thick, coarse hair, fair skin and big, light-colored eyes.

The next morning, Stephanie’s email left me stunned. The year when I was conceived coincided with the break-up of her parents’ marriage, said Stephanie, who was in first grade at the time. After separating, her parents got back together but ultimately divorced. Stephen, who never remarried, moved back to the same rural area of Arkansas where he and his brothers and sisters had grown up.

Years later, when Stephanie was a teenager, she would learn from her mother that Stephen had fathered another child, a boy, with another woman. So Stephanie knew she had another sibling, a half-brother. Except for the baby’s gender, all the other facts seemed to point in one direction.

On the phone that night, we made a connection. Stephanie is a lovely and thoughtful person. We talked for nearly an hour. She agreed to take a DNA test. Wouldn’t it be great to have Stephanie as my new sister, I thought after hanging up.

I was very happy when the Family Tree DNA Family Finder test confirmed it. Stephanie and I spent more than 90 minutes talking on the phone. Stephanie, her daughter, a college student, and I want to meet in person either in the Big Apple or near St. Louis, where Stephanie lives. It’s exciting to imagine the possibilities.

 

 

Adoptee’s Journey: Reuniting with Blood Relatives

As an adoptee, I’ve been on a journey to uncover the truth about my original family. As I look back on 2015, meeting my sister, Michelle, and niece, Chrissy, stand out as high points.

Adoptee reunites with biological 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.

Blood relatives: my sister, Michelle, center, and niece, Chrissy on the right
Blood relatives: I met my sister, Michelle, center, and niece, Chrissy, on the right, for the first time in 2015. For a late-discovery adoptee like me, it was very exciting.

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.

Search angel helps adoptee find blood relatives
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.

Best Gifts for Adoptees

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).

Christmas present - for blog

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.

Checking out my DNA matches at the kitchen table
Checking out my DNA matches at the kitchen table

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.

Meeting My Family

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.

A word of warning on the Galveston seawall
A word of warning on the Galveston seawall

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.

My blood relatives: Michelle, in the middle, and Chrissy on the right
My blood relatives: Michelle, in the middle, and Chrissy on the right

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.

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?

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.

What I’ve Learned About DNA Testing

I took a DNA test to find blood relatives on my father’s side. Ever since I got my DNA results a few months ago, I’ve been semi-obsessed with solving the puzzle of my past from the comfort of my home.  It’s a work in progress  (emphasis on “work”).

I know many of my fellow adoptees are in the same boat. Many of you are thinking about taking a DNA test, so I want you to know what I’ve learned about DNA over the last couple of months. Keep in mind I’m pretty green about the science of DNA, actually quite feeble with science in general. I’m still learning the terminology and the tools for understanding DNA results. These are just my  impressions.

DNA tests are easy. I ordered Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test online. A few days later, it arrived in the mail. Following the simple directions, I used the little brushes that came with the kit to scrape cells and saliva from inside my cheeks. I bundled up the results and sent them back to the test company. The process was quick, painless, easy and cheap. The test only cost $104.

Ÿ• DNA test results are hard. When I got my results a few weeks later, I was stunned to see the names of more than 600 new cousins, none of whom are first cousins. What should I do with all these matches? I have not found an easy way to sort out the relatives from the two sides of the family especially since none of my matches are closer than second to fourth cousins.  I’ve also learned DNA can be random in the way it’s passed down from one generation to the next so that complicates things.

It probably would be helpful for my half-sister, Sissy, to take A DNA test. A cousin who’s a genealogist also suggested I do mitochondrial DNA testing, which would trace my mother’s ancestry only. That would help determine whether I am related to various cousins via my biological mother or biological father.

Hmmm. I’m reluctant to shell out more money for DNA testing. Fortunately, there are smart people with a passion for DNA and genealogy who will answer our questions at no cost.  Genetic genealogist Roberta J. Estes has a great website on DNA. Check it out. It is especially helpful if you’re curious about Native American ancestry.  The DNAAdoption Group on Yahoo is also helpful and extremely active.

DNA is time-consuming. Don’t take a DNA test thinking it’ll provide answers to all the burning questions you have about family. I’ve spent countless hours comparing matches in the chromosome browser, attempting to determine who’s related to who on which side of my family. Oh and did I mention the hours I’ve spent writing emails to matches?

me looking at DNA matches
How am I related to these people?

Ÿ• DNA cannot replace old-fashioned detective work. As an adoptee searching for blood relatives, my most significant discovery to date has been finding my half-sister, Sissy. DNA had nothing to do with that discovery. My wonderful search angel, Marilyn Waugh, pointed me in the direction of my mother’s family. Working with online records and old newspaper stories, my husband, Tom, found Sissy’s stepmother’s name. I gave her a call and she put me in touch with my sister.

DNA is social. I’ve had many pleasant and interesting conversations online with my new DNA cousins. Many are genealogists with a passion for family history. Some are adoptees on a mission to fill in the blanks in their life stories. Whatever their goals are, I can tell they’re good people. I can picture myself having dinner or coffee with some of these folks. That’s how friendly the connections feel.

Ÿ• DNA is tantalizing. The DNA game never gets old. Every week or so, new cousins are added to my ever-growing list of matches.

Are you sitting down? Here’s an amazing story. Just the other day, I heard about a woman whose birth mother turned up as a DNA match. How thrilling that must have been for her. She and her mother have talked on the phone. Maybe a face-to-face reunion is on the horizon.

Hearing that story sends chills down my spine and inspires me to stick with this project no matter how long it takes.

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.