Thursday, April 24, 2014

Geneaology: How Do You Find Your Ancestors When You Don't Know Who You're Looking For?

me on the right, with my not-biologically-related cousins


In grade school, I was the kid with the pretend family tree. Sort of.

I would get stressed when the teacher handed out those cute little worksheets with a tree and branches and ask her students to begin entering the names of family members. I'd start with my name in the middle. Then I'd put my mom's name on the appropriate branch. Then the stress would start. I had a loving like-a-dad-step-dad but obviously the tree wanted my biological father, whom I liked to keep secret from others. I was young but old enough to realize I didn't want to talk about the father I was court ordered to visit every other weekend.

Deep sigh. I put my step dad on the "father" branch, even though he wasn't a "real" relation.

Siblings. Double sigh. More stress. I had a half sister from my mother and step-father's marriage and four half siblings from my biological father and step-mother's marriage. I loved all my siblings but if I put more than my one half sister on the sheet, then I'd have to explain where the other siblings came from. I put my one half sister on the branch. I felt like a jerk and a traitor.

Then I'd think, "okay, the next part can't be too hard," but I'd be wrong.

Paternal grandparents, crap. Well, feed the lie, I guess. I entered in my step-dad's parents' names. Because honestly, if I were to have put my biological father then I'd have to leave the paternal grandfather line blank because good ol' dad was the product of an affair, a bastard child.

I looked around. Most kids were finished with their trees and drawing little doodles with their Crayola crayons. Electric yellow suns, cornflower blue skies, and carnation pink flowers framed their picture perfect families.

Maternal grandparents. Well shit, throw in the towel. At this point I pretty much crumpled up the paper and tossed it in the trash. Well not really, because I was a kid who aimed to please adults so I probably just wrote in some names just to be done with it.

I think every grade school class required this family tree exercise and I hated it.

My mother was adopted and even though I fudged a bit with the biological father branch, I was mentally unable, unwilling to write down my grandparents names, her adoptive parents names. Don't get me wrong, I love my grandparents, they have since been like a second set of parents to me my entire life, but to write their names on this line felt like a lie.

And there it began with the crayon in my seven year old hand. My obsession with finding the truth.

Over the next twenty plus years, I asked my mother a lot of questions. Mostly, I knew she didn't know the answers as she was in the dark just as much as I, but I really hoped she'd want to know the answers. Unfortunately, I was wrong. My mother was happy to not know.

There were a few times I bluntly asked my grandparents but was met with vague responses. They claimed not to know too much, but I noticed, as I grew older, their recollections were a bit more defined. According to them, in 1964 a friend, a nun by the name of Sister Seraphina, contacted them, telling them about a new baby in need of a home. The mother already had three daughters and could not raise this baby. My grandmother said that my mother's father was not in the picture. (Whether the baby was the result of a deadbeat dad or a May-December romance, I may never know.) My grandparents met with an attorney, did the adoption, and took my mother home from the hospital when she was three days old.

My grandfather has often said that as my mother ages she looks like her own mother. Grandpa said he got a really good look at my biological grandmother through the hospital door as she held my mother for the last time. My grandmother has always claimed there was a note from the birth mother. For years, I asked her to show it to me, hoping there would be a shred of evidence of who this woman is. My grandmother hushed me by saying it was boxed up somewhere and someday she'd go looking for it. Last fall, Grandma finally showed it to me. Turns out it was kept in her prayer book in her dresser the entire time. I think she finally realized just how far I was going to go to pursue my ancestry. I read the letter with disappointment. It was a generalized letter telling the adoptive parents how grateful and hopeful she was that her daughter would be raised in a good family. It held words of encouragement for my grandparents but all I read was another dead end.

Now that I am the mother of my own three children, my desire to find my history has exponentially deepened. For the last ten years I have been on the internet, leaving posts on adoption message boards and signing up for reunion registries. It hasn't done me much good without even a name to research. A few years ago, I began searching on Ancestry.com. I started by creating my husband's tree so at least my children would have the history of their paternal lineage. However, my mother's side, wildly blank, has been gnawing at me, as was my longing to know where I come from. A couple months ago, I ordered Ancestry.com's DNA kit. I thought it would be a long shot to find a relative but if anything I could find my ancestors' origins.

The DNA kit cost me $99 plus shipping. It was sent out and I received it about a week later. All it took was me spitting in a plastic container and sending it back. Once Ancestry received my saliva, they told me it could take up to 6 weeks to receive my results. I tried to put it to the back of my mind and go about my daily schedule.

Three weeks later my husband and I were in Seattle, getting ready to head back to Spokane. It was five in the morning and while he was packing up our car, I checked my email.

My results were in.

I was ecstatic. I held my breath. The room could have caught on fire and I would have been oblivious. I was on a mission.

I went to the site. The first thing I was given was my ethnicity estimate.



I really would have guessed I were more western European and I was really surprised to see the 2% Native American.

Next I received a list of my DNA matches.

I had twenty-six 4th cousin matches, matched with a 95-96% confidence. WOW. I emailed all of them and heard back from a few. I was able to examine most of their trees. The good news was that none of their trees, and I mean NONE, had any matching relatives to the ones I already knew about on my biological father's side. The bad news is that since I have no idea who I am looking for, these people could match to me on either side and it could go back as far as 10 generations - making my search for my mother's birth family that much harder. It was still a start. However, the best news came the next day. I woke up that morning and opened my email and I had a new match.

This match was a second cousin match with a confidence of 99%. Oh my stars. 99%! Second cousin? I emailed her pronto. It turns out she was also adopted yet it was an open adoption and she knows her birth mom but not her birth father. She's my age so likely it means that one of her parents is cousins with one of my parents. Which side, I do not know but I am really excited to find out.

As this journey progresses, I will update my blog with my findings but will respect the privacy of the living relatives. If you're interested, keep an eye out or visit my blog's Facebook page to stay connected.

UPDATE: As I was ready to post this blog, I received a Facebook message from my second cousin's birth mother.... Let the history fact finding mission begin!

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