Tag Archives: Adoptive father

What’s in a Name?

I am preoccupied with names. As an adoptee of course, I wonder what my name would have been if I had been raised by both of my natural parents.

I could have been a Winter had I grown up with Lillian and her husband as parents. Winter sounds kind of elegant, less common than Miller and not a name you associate with beer. (My high school geometry teacher used to greet me by saying “It’s Miller time.” That’s all I remember about geometry.)

Winter wasn’t my natural father. I think bio dad was some other guy, a nameless, faceless fellow who may remain a mystery to me forever.

Every time I log into my Family Tree DNA account, I look for new names among my living cousins and their ancestors. My bio father’s surname is in here somewhere but how to find it? Could he be a Smith, a Jones or a Wilson? Those are the top three surnames among my DNA matches.

Is my bio dad's name here?
Is my bio dad’s name here?

One of my new cousins contacted me recently. She comes from a family with many Millers and wanted to know about me. Bob Miller was my father but he adopted me so we don’t have any biological connection, at least not one I know about.

I have at least eight Millers among my DNA matches. If everyone explored their ancestry long enough, wouldn’t we all find at least a handful of Millers in the family? Seems likely. But wouldn’t it be funny if I found out there actually was a bio connection between me and Bob?

Either way, I like having a name that’s easy to say and spell. Miller reminds me of my wonderful father, the dad who drove me to school, played tennis with me and helped me learn to drive. Miller sounds friendlier and more approachable than Winter, don’t you think? Winter reminds me of Rebecca de Winter from the 1940 Hitchcock movie, Rebecca. The late Mrs. de Winter was beautiful and glamorous but more than a touch cold.

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.

Who’s Your Daddy?

I will always think of Bob Miller as my real dad.

He did not pass his genes on to me but so what? Bob did all the things good fathers are supposed to do. He read stories to me before bedtime. He played tennis with me. He drove me and my sister, Melissa, to the piano teacher’s house for lessons. (He never covered his ears when we practiced.)

Me and Dad in Virginia Beach 1998
That’s me with Dad in Virginia Beach in 1998

When the fourth grade bully jumped on my back and knocked me down, Dad chased Maureen, grabbed her by the collar and hauled her into the principal’s office.

When I was in eighth grade, my parents wanted to get me into a high school in a better neighborhood. Dad talked to the principal. Tell the school your daughter wants to study cosmetology, the principal advised. Well what do you know? My make-believe interest in hair styling got me into a newer high school in a safer neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side. Way to go, Bob, and good tip from Mr. Mulcahey.

Born in 1910, Bob Miller grew up in a big family – he had something like 10 brothers and sisters. They lived in Menominee, a tiny town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “God’s country,” was how he described the area.

Bob moved south, lived in a boardinghouse when he was young and single and worked as a linotype operator. My mother, Claire, accused him of having that “boardinghouse reach” whenever he helped himself to seconds at dinner. Dad could really eat, especially dessert. For a man with a hearty appetite, Bob was always slender, skinny actually. I used to think I inherited his appetite and metabolism. When I was a girl, I could pack the food away and never gain an ounce. I also have slender fingers which I used to think I got from my father.

claire, bob and bobby
My parents, Bob and Claire, with their son, Bobby, in the 1940s

Bob was an unrefined gentleman. He cursed freely but the words didn’t mean much. He would have been a better dad if he had stood up to Claire occasionally. He always deferred to our high-strung, self-centered mother.

The last time I saw my father, he was flat on his back on a hospital bed. Even though he was dying, Bob gave me a smile when I said good-bye.

Bob Miller was not my biological father but I didn’t know that when he passed away in 1999, less than a year after Claire died. My loving but secretive parents never told Melissa and me we were adopted. We never found a single document related to our adoptions.  One of our cousins told us the truth in 2002.

My biological dad is “not legally known,” as the birth certificate puts it. That makes me some man’s love child. He’s a mystery to me whoever he is. As I wrote earlier, my bio dad liked to play golf but that’s all I know about him. He may know even less about me.

Do you know who your dad is? What do you think of him?