Category Archives: Using DNA tests

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

Adoptee, DNA test, Native American ancestry

My Birth Mother and Her Rumored Native American Ancestry

For adoptees searching for blood relatives, DNA tests can be powerful tools. I never would have confirmed my biological father’s identity without the benefit of DNA tests.

Yet these tests have limitations.

DNA tests don’t always work to prove Native American ancestry.

I may have a Native American ancestor. My birth mother, Lillian,  told her children she had an Indian ancestor and showed the kids how to do what she said was an Indian rain dance.

Whether or not they are true, these tidbits pique my curiosity. Michelle, Lillian’s oldest daughter, thinks our mother looked somewhat Indian.

Just look at those high cheekbones, the dark hair and eyes, Michelle said. Gazing at pictures of Lillian, I see a white woman with high cheekbones, dark hair and eyes. I don’t see a Native American.  Lillian’s ancestors came from Ireland.

birth mother, Native American
My birth mother, Lillian, claimed she was part Indian.

I identify as the adopted child of two parents whose ancestors came from Poland and Germany and the biological child of two other parents whose ancestors came from Ireland and possibly Scotland.

Only recently did I learn about my biological parents. As an adoptee searching for my biological roots, I took two DNA tests from Family Tree DNA and Ancestry.

According to Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test, 90 percent of my ancestry comes from the British Isles, with 9 percent from Southeastern Europe. Maybe I inherited only Lillian’s European DNA.  Perhaps the Native American ancestor is a myth.

Indian Rumor Lives On in My Birth Mother’s Family

No doubt my birth mother, Lillian, heard the Indian story from someone in her large family. Whether or not they are true, stories like this take on a life of their own. At the Arvin-Armstrong family reunion in southern Indiana, one of my Arvin cousins mentioned the rumor about the Native American ancestor. None of the family genealogists have been able to prove it.

I added to the rumor by sharing a story about one of my blood relatives who is part Indian.

An Oklahoma City native, John and I are related on my maternal side. John’s parents were a mix of Irish, Scottish and Native American, his mother being part Choctaw and his father being part Muskogee. Their respective tribes accepted John’s parents as members. “Both of my parents had Indian roll numbers,” John said. “We all have black hair.”

John popped up as a match on Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test. The test uses autosomal DNA, which is the blended mixture of genetic material that a person receives in equal amounts from both parents. Each person’s autosomal DNA is unique.

Perhaps my Native ancestry amounts to a few drops from a distant ancestor.

Indeed, that is what Elizabeth Warren discovered when she had her DNA analyzed. Warren retained an expert to dig deeper into her roots and the analysis concluded that she has an Indian ancestor. Warren’s pure Native American ancestor appeared to be “in the range of six to 10 generations ago,” said Carlos D. Bustamante, a Stanford University professor and DNA expert.

Proving Native American Ancestry is Tricky

Parents pass stories down from one generation to the next, leaving relatives to believe they have a Cherokee ancestor in the family. Yet DNA tests don’t always establish the Native American link. Genealogist Amie Bowser Tennant explains why DNA tests don’t reveal Native American ancestry.

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. and genealogist Meaghan E.H. Siekman point out, proving Native American heritage can be complicated. Each tribe is a sovereign nation with its own requirements for accepting members.

If my DNA tests had revealed a little Native American blood, I would have found it interesting, a tidbit that I could share at parties or at the next Arvin-Armstrong family reunion. Having Native ancestry would not change my sense of ethnic or racial identity.

I’d love to hear from adoptees who have discovered their Indian roots. Post comments on my blog!

Finding out you are adopted later in life

Finding Out You Are Adopted Late in Life

It feels like a cruel joke. Finding out you  are adopted late in life destroys part of your identity and turns your life upside down. 

I found out I was adopted at age 38. My sister, Melissa, called me one evening and dropped the bombshell. 

“You and I were both adopted,” Melissa said matter-of-factly. 

I couldn’t have been more surprised if she’d informed me that zombies had invaded her home in the south suburbs of Chicago. Stunned silence. Words were not available to me. I sat there holding the receiver, trying to make sense of this news.

MeIissa suspected we had been adopted. One phone call to Gina confirmed it. Gina is like our cousin. Her parents, Virg and Mitch, were close friends with my parents, Claire and Bob. Aunt Virg and Uncle Mitch, as I called them, and Gina came to our home for dinner and we visited them occasionally.

Gina told Melissa that she had known for some time about her adoption and our adoptions.

It took 38 years for the truth to show up like an uninvited guest for dinner, an unwelcome stranger who had no intention of leaving.

Emotional Impact of Finding Out You Are Adopted

I felt stunned. Claire and Bob never so much as hinted at the possibility that I was not their biological daughter. In hindsight, I realized how obvious it was that I was adopted. How stupid was I for not having put two and two together. After all, Claire who was in her 50s when Melissa and I were born. She was too old to have biological children. Well, duh!

Of course I thought it was strange to have parents who were old enough to be my grandparents but I didn’t take that thought to its logical conclusion. It was odd that I had been born in Skokie, way north of Gage Park, but I never asked Bob and Claire why they had me at a hospital that was 26 miles away from home. 

I wasn’t stupid, just trusting. Naïve. Without knowing it, I belonged to a secret club of secret adoptees, people born in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, during the era of closed adoptions. Surely other adopted kids attended classes with me at Tonti Elementary and Curie High schools in Chicago but we didn’t know we were adopted.  Our adoptive parents upheld the unspoken, unwritten rule: “Whatever you do, don’t tell the kids they’re adopted.”

While 38 seemed embarrassingly old to learn I was adopted, other adoptees discovered their truth even later in life. Joanne Currao was 48 when she found out she was adopted. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Joanne’s brother, had known about their adoptions and never told her.

Finding out you are adopted late in life is unsettling. Author Mirah Riben contacted several late discovery adoptees who talked about the impact discovery had on their lives. Riben wrote an excellent article based on the comments from late discovery adoptees.

Being Adopted, an Uncomfortable Label for Me

Finding out you are adopted is weird.  I didn’t want to dwell on what it meant to be adopted, to accept the reality that two other people were my parents. Claire and Bob were still my parents. I put my adoption in a box and shoved it aside.

Nothing changed in my life, the life that others could see. I took the subway to my editing job in Manhattan, arranged play dates for Jake, cooked meals for the three of us, walked the dog, cleaned the house and did all the other ordinary things that were part of my routine.  Even if I had wanted to dwell on being adopted, my busy schedule would not have allowed it.

When I was a kid, I never felt like I had much in common with my parents. I loved Claire and Bob and they loved me but we didn’t think the same way. We didn’t share the same interests or talents. As far as personality, my mother and I could not have been more different. Claire thrived on drama. She often cried and bickered with Bob about stupid stuff. One time she poured dry cereal over Bob’s head, not to be funny, but to express her frustration. I wanted parents who were more like Mike and Carol Brady. Loud emotional displays made me uncomfortable. I retreated to my room.

Finding out I was adopted helped me make sense of the differences between us.

Adoptee Curiosity Builds

Years passed. On the outside, I looked like me, an older version, but inside, something had changed. Curiosity about my adoption grew. Questions about my biological parents and the circumstances surrounding my adoption sprang up but there was no one I could ask. Claire died in 1998, Bob passed away the following year. Gina knew nothing about my birth mother or father.

I called cousins on Claire’s side of the family. Of course they had known all along that I was adopted. My cousin Gloria could not believe that my parents had never told me. She and my cousin, Collette, had no idea who my natural parents were. Claire and Bob never revealed the details to their extended family.

After the state of Illinois unsealed birth certificates for adopted children, my husband, Tom, urged me to request a copy of my original birth certificate. Tom got the ball rolling. He handed me a check he had filled out for $15 to the Department of Public Health. Somewhat reluctantly, I mailed in the request. I felt apprehensive.

Discovering my Birth Parents’ Identities

My birth certificate revealed my birth mother was a 28-year-old married woman I didn’t know named Lillian, a Northbrook resident. My biological father’s name was missing. A search angel, Marilyn Waugh, helped me locate my half-sister, Michelle, my mother’s oldest daughter. Open and friendly, Michelle told me lots of stories about our family, including some horror stories. Unlike me, Michelle and her siblings grew up with a lot of freedom.

I wanted to know my biological father’s identity. Wanting to help me solve the mystery, Michelle tossed out the name of a guy with a common Irish surname, a man my mother had been friendly with. Michelle thought he could be the right guy but it was just a guess.

Determined to find out my biological father’s identity, I took two DNA tests. I found Stephanie, a woman who turned out to be my half-sister, my biological father’s oldest child.  My natural parents, Lillian and Steve, were married but not to one another. They had an affair and created me. I’m sorry I never got to meet them before they passed away.

Adoptee Regrets, I’ve Had a Few

I regret not having learned the truth about my adoption sooner. Had I known before my parents had died, I could have approached Claire and Bob. I know my questions would have caused an epic shit storm, but I would have learned a few details about the first chapter of my life.  Bob and Claire had their reasons for not disclosing my adoption. Perhaps they wanted to protect me from the stigma of adoption. Maybe they feared I would search for my bio parents. Perhaps the doctor who connected my parents to a newborn baby girl (me) at Skokie Valley Community Hospital advised them to keep mum about my adoption.

At first I blamed myself for being dumb. But with the passage of time, I have stopped blaming myself. Claire and Bob should have told me the truth.

The truth about my adoption felt unwelcome when it landed at my door so many years ago. I kicked the truth aside, unwilling to explore it but it sat there and waited for me. Once I opened my adoption box, I learned the facts about my original parents and their families. The truth didn’t come gift wrapped with a pretty bow on top, but it’s all I’ve got. I feel better, having found the missing pieces of my life.

I’d love to hear from other adoptees who stumbled onto their adoptions. Tell me your stories!

 

 

 

MyHeritage Offers FREE DNA Tests

The MyHeritage company is making 15,000 DNA kits available at no cost. Yes, you read that right – FREE DNA tests for a limited time.

MyHeritage is offering free DNA kits to help reunite adoptees and birth families. The giveaway is open to adoptees seeking to find their biological family members, or anyone looking for a family member who was placed for adoption. People who cannot afford genetic testing will receive preference. The offer is limited to U.S. residents, involving adoptions that took place in the U.S.

Adoptees and family members can apply for a free MyHeritage DNA kit at DNAQuest.org through April 30, 2018. Participants will be selected, and their free DNA kits will be shipped to them by the end of May 2018. Check out the DNA Quest website for more details.

If you’ve already taken a DNA test with another company, you can upload their DNA data to MyHeritage for free and participate in this initiative.

According to MyHeritage, the DNA Quest initiative is an expansion of another pro bono project that reunited adoptees from the Israeli Yemenite community with their biological families. For that project, MyHeritage donated 1,200 DNA kits, provided professional and emotional support, and facilitated successful reunions between adoptees and their blood relatives.

Biological sisters met for the first time
A DNA test helped bring two biological sisters together for the first time. (Photo courtesy of MyHeritage)

Using a DNA test from Family Tree DNA, I confirmed that Michelle was indeed my half-sister. She and I had the same mother, different fathers. Ancestry’s DNA test helped me learn my biological father’s identity and locate Stephanie, who is my late father’s oldest daughter.

I love DNA tests. Unlike humans, DNA tests don’t lie, have memory lapses or stonewall us. They’re a great tool for adoptees who are searching for biological relatives.

What have you learned from using DNA tests?

I met Stephanie, my sister and a blood relative, for the first time in New York City.

Meeting My Blood Relatives For the First Time

I was a bundle of nerves as I drove to JFK to meet my sister, Stephanie, and niece, Rachel, for the first time. We made plans to spend three days together several months ago and while I felt good about these people, they nevertheless were strangers, unknown blood relatives that I found through DNA testing.

Continue reading Meeting My Blood Relatives For the First Time

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.

Continue reading Search Ends: I Found My Biological Father

Adoptee’s Journey: Meeting Blood Relatives for the First Time

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.

Meeting a Newly-Discovered Half Sister

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.

Continue reading Adoptee’s Journey: Meeting Blood Relatives for the First Time

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.

Continue reading Best Gifts for Adoptees

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.