Tag Archives: DNA test

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.

New Cousins

I took a DNA test to find blood relatives who might know my biological father’s identity.

me and my DNA
Me and my DNA

I am an adoptee on a mission. I’ve written about the mystery man before, the father who really wasn’t a father to me. I don’t need (or want) to meet bio dad. In fact, the thought of meeting him actually scares me. But I would like some answers. What’s his name, what did he do for a living, does he have a family, do I have other brothers and sisters? How did he meet Lillian, my birth mother? I wonder if he and I look anything alike. Photos along withfacts would be great.

I’ve talked to a handful of people who were close to Lillian, hoping they would know who my father was but nobody knows (or they’re not saying). Finding my bio dad is like locating an available New York taxi in a downpour. Still, I am giving it my best shot.

Well, I got my DNA test results and I am a little disappointed. None of the more than 600 matches are close relatives. There are no siblings or half siblings. I have cousins, hundreds of cousins, but they’re not exactly kissing cousins if you know what I mean. There’s not a single first cousin on my list of matches. The closest relatives are second cousins and many are even more distant on the family tree.

I knew a DNA test was a long shot. Taking the test was quick and painless.  Interpreting the results is time consuming and hard.

Using Family Tree DNA’s chromosome browser feature,  I try to separate the cousins on my maternal side from those on my father’s side. I have emailed a few of my DNA matches to introduce myself and delicately inquire about the nature of our relationship. I don’t use the “A” word (adopted) unless I know I’m talking to another adoptee. As my fellow adoptees know, that word makes some people nervous.

Three of my cousins got back to me and wouldn’t you know? They’re all from Lillian’s side of the family. Two are genealogy buffs. Shannon and I have exchanged several friendly emails. She’s shared many interesting stories about how our Irish ancestors scraped by and filled me in on the diseases that run in our family. That’s  valuable information. I like Shannon and hope we meet in person some day.

In a few hours, Sharon managed to put together a family tree for me. How did she do it so quickly? I was awed by her skill. Thanks to Shannon and Sharon, I know quite a bit about my ancestors on Lillian’s side of the family.

I shared the family tree with another cousin, Duane, who used it to create a tree of his own. Duane and I have gotten friendly. We’re both adopted, close in age and on similar missions. Duane and I are seeking answers to questions about our birth parents.

Two cousins never responded to my emails. I believe they are from my father’s side of the family. Wouldn’t you know?

I thought about calling one of them. He is a few years younger than me and looks friendly enough on his Facebook page. Most important, this guy is one of my closest DNA matches, and he has taken a Y-DNA test. Perhaps he knows who my father is. Maybe he is also adopted? Since he hasn’t responded to emails, would he be more receptive to a phone call?

For adoptees who have taken DNA tests, what would you do in my situation?  Have you called any of your matches directly? Is it taboo to call a match who doesn’t respond to emails?

I feel discouraged. I am no closer to answering the big question hanging over me: Who is my father.

This is hard work. I need encouragement so I am re-reading Richard Hill’s excellent book, “Finding Family”  for motivation and tips. An adoptee, Hill used DNA tests and old-fashioned detective work to learn the identity of his father.

I take comfort knowing it took Hill many years to dig up the truth. That could be my future, too.  I have a lot of spade work ahead of me.

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.

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 is Bio Dad?

When you don’t know who your biological parents are, you jump on any little scrap of information you can get.

I’ve talked to several people who knew my mother, including her best friend, Nancy. During our first conversation, she assured me she had no idea who my bio father could be. The second time we talked, she told me she never knew my father but very casually mentioned he was a golfer. A golfer?  A professional golfer? A suburban guy who liked to putt around on the golf course for fun? Nancy didn’t know. How long did he and my mother go out? I asked. Just a couple times, Nancy said. Hmmm. Very interesting.

good golfing photo
Courtesy of Flickr/Sean MacEntee

That’s all I know about my father. My mother was married and had four kids when she met him. She worked as a waitress and cook at a number of bars, restaurants and a very nice private club with a golf course in the suburbs north of Chicago. Did she meet my father at one of those places? Possibly. I don’t know where she was working in the summer of 1963, which is when I was conceived.

I hope a DNA test will move my search in the right direction. Using Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test kit, I scraped samples of DNA from the insides of my cheeks and sent the results back to the company. Family Tree DNA will contact me if my sample matches any samples in the company’s database.

I know where my mother came from and what her childhood and adult life were like. I have a picture of her in my head and several photos of her on my desk.

Dad is a mystery man. Unless I find someone who knew him, someone who can tell me what he was like, I’ll always picture my father as some featureless guy in a golf shirt toting a cart full of clubs and flirting with married waitresses.