Tag Archives: adoptees

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!

My birth mother and the last letter to her sister

Reading my birth mother Lillian’s letter is like looking inside a window to Lillian’s soul.

Eight months before she died in 1983, my birth mother wrote a six-page letter to her beloved sister, Donna. Lillian and Donna were not biological sisters but the absence of blood didn’t make their emotional connection anything less than strong.

Donna was one of the first people I called five or six years ago after I’d learned my birth mother’s identity. Donna spoke kindly of Lillian. After we talked, Donna sent me a big brown envelope containing photos of Lillian taken at different periods in her life.

Last month, Donna, her husband and I got together on my last night in Indiana, where I had traveled for a family reunion. As we sat and talked in the lobby of my hotel near the Indianapolis airport, Donna offered me Lillian’s original letter, which she had saved and photocopied. I took the copy, thinking Donna should keep the original since it was her letter and she had saved it all these years. I showed Donna photos of my biological father, Steve, thinking she might have met him on one of her visits to see Lillian in Northbrook. Donna didn’t recognize my biological father in the pictures.

We talked about Lillian’s difficult life in Indiana and unhappy years as a wife and mother in the suburbs of Chicago. I thanked Donna and her husband for meeting me and walked them to the door. We hugged. “I’ll call you next week,” I said, thinking I would have questions about Lillian’s letter.

Back in my hotel room, I read and re-read the letter. What the letter said and what it didn’t say intrigued me in equal parts.

Reading my Birth Mother’s letter

In neat handwriting that slanted to the right, Lillian gave Donna a glimpse into her world at the beginning of 1983.

She wrote about the horrible car accident that had left her youngest son, my brother, Fritz, with brain damage.

After being struck and dragged 75 feet by a car in July 1981, Fritz slipped into a coma that lasted for three weeks, Lillian wrote. When he came to, doctors discovered he had brain damage on the left side of his brain. Fritz spent five months in a hospital.

“He had to learn to walk, talk and eat again,” my birth mother wrote. “He’s doing pretty good now (but) his coordination on (his) left side (is) not too good. I’m trying to get him into a rehabilitation training center so he can learn to do things for himself. All in all it has been pretty rocky…”

Lillian wanted to visit Donna in Indiana but she felt like she couldn’t leave Fritz.

“I’d love to visit you all but I can’t leave Fritz alone and he has a tendency to get on people’s nerves, that aren’t used to him,” she wrote. “I was never too strong on patience but I’m sure learning all about it now.”

They had moved out of their longtime home on Alice Drive in Northbrook to escape “all the trouble,” Lillian wrote. The trouble included a fatal shooting in their old neighborhood followed by a robbery of the victim’s home. Lillian desperately wanted to get Fritz away from his old friends and drugs.

Birth mother handwriting
Back in the day when students learned penmanship…my birth mother had beautiful handwriting

My Birth Mother’s new home

Lillian and Fritz had moved to a home in a wooded area, with a big lake across the street. I think it was Slocum Lake in Island Lake, Illinois. Lillian, who grew up in rural Indiana, probably felt safer in a smaller town and maybe the lake appealed to her. After all, my birth mother fished occasionally.

Twice divorced, Lillian worried about money. She didn’t have a phone. While Fritz was hospitalized, she racked up a huge phone bill that took a while to pay off.

“I was doubtful I’d ever get the thing paid,” Lillian wrote. “I just got the last payment made on the house in Northbrook so that is done so now maybe I can get to other things that I couldn’t afford before such as a phone.”

Lillian offered newsy updates on Mike and Michelle, her other children, her granddaughter Chris, her friends and ex-husband, Howard. She asked about Donna’s family. My birth mother expressed awe that Donna’s daughter, Kim, was old enough to drive.

She was a tiny little girl when last I saw her,” Lillian wrote.

 My Birth Mother, the Indiana farm girl

As girls, Lillian and Donna lived together on a farm near Odon, Indiana. Lillian was a foster child. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Lillian’s struggling parents were too poor to take care of their big brood – around 12 children. Authorities placed Lillian and her siblings in the homes of foster parents in southern Indiana.

During her teen years, the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Lillian lived with Donna’s family. Donna’s stern mother, Ruth, made it clear she expected Lillian to do housework and look after Donna, who was 13 or 14 years younger than Lillian. Ruth had her hands full with two other children and relied on Lillian to help out. My birthmother stepped up to the plate. Lillian took care of Donna like a mother and they formed a deep bond. After Lillian moved to Northbrook, she and Donna visited one another, usually with their families along.

Birth mother
My birth mother, Lillian, looked young and beautiful in this undated photo

Lillian confided in Donna when she learned she had breast cancer. The cancer was in an advanced state when Lillian was diagnosed a couple of years or so before she died. A surgeon removed a large tumor in my birth mother’s right breast along with lymph nodes in her arm. After surgery, my birth mother was unable to use her right arm normally.

Metastatic breast cancer had been eating away at my birth mother, causing discomfort, fatigue, depression and who knows what other symptoms. Lillian never mentioned her health in the letter. Maybe Lillian had accepted the prospect of dying with stoicism and was steeling herself for death and didn’t want  to talk about it in the letter.

“I have thought of all of you so often and do love you all (but) just hate to write when there are problems and I usually have a one-track mind when there’s trouble,” she wrote. I “can’t think of anything else until I get that solved and don’t like to lay it on anyone else.”

Feeling connected to my Birth Mother

I knew my birth mother’s childhood had been difficult. Now in Lillian’s own words, in her own handwriting, I saw how difficult the end of her life had been. In 1983, I didn’t know I had another mother. My adoptive parents kept the truth about my adoption and my biological family hidden from me. I never had a chance to meet or get to know my birth mother. That’s why I find every detail about her life so fascinating. I feel connected to my birth mother.

Reading the letter, I felt sympathy for my birth mother’s situation. Sitting alone at my desk with the letter in front of me, I blinked my eyes and tears rolled down my cheeks. Several days later as I wrote this piece at my desk, I had to stop writing to take a walk across the hallway. Tears flowed.

Birth mother
My birth mother, Lillian, in an undated photo

Perhaps my birth mother would have told Donna more if they had talked on the phone. I think my birth mother wanted to talk. Lillian gave Donna an unlisted phone number for her friend, Nancy, in case Donna needed to reach her.

“I expect to get a phone in the next month but if for any reason before you would want to reach me, call Nancy,” she wrote.

My birth mother had given me up for adoption almost 20 years earlier. I don’t know if she ever thought about me over the years or in the final months of her life. She never mentioned me in the letter.

Donna wrote back to Lillian but the letter was returned. My birth mother was just 48 when she died at Lutheran General Hospital in November 1983. Fritz passed away in a nursing home in January 1985. He was 23.

 

 

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

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.

 

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.

Let’s Give Adoptees Their Original Birth Certificates

If you are not adopted, you take your birth certificate for granted. It’s a piece of paper you’ve had forever, with facts about your parents and your birth that you’ve known about all your life.

But if you’re adopted, the original birth certificate is like a piece of gold. I just got mine two years ago and feel lucky to have it. Without it, I would be completely in the dark about my birth mother Lillian’s identity, which is part of my identity, too.

me and the BC best
That’s my original birth certificate

Many adopted adults can’t get their original birth certificates because of old-fashioned state laws that keep those records sealed. That’s not fair. I think other adoptees should be able to learn about their origins without having to jump through a million hoops or spend gobs of money.

I signed Sandy Musser’s petition, which would restore original birth certificates to adult adoptees. Sandy, an adoption reform activist, wants to take her petition straight to the White House. She hopes to convince President Obama to enact an executive order, which would restore the OBCs to every adult adoptee in America “in one fell swoop because it is a civil and constitutional right.” I’m with you, Sandy.

If you’re reading this, take a moment to add your name to Sandy’s petition. The more signatures, the more likely this drive will make a difference.

Advice for Adoptive Parents from an Adoptee

From my own adoption experience and as someone who hangs out with adoptees on Facebook, I know many of us have grievances with our adoptions.

Here’s mine. My parents, Claire and Bob, never told Melissa and me we were adopted. Claire and Bob were recovering from the death of their only child, Bobby, when they decided to adopt a baby girl – that would be me. A year later, Melissa joined our family.

claire, bob and bobby
Bob, Claire and their son, Bobby

Claire and Bob took these “secret” adoptions to their graves. I use the word “secret” ironically since everyone in my family except for Melissa and me knew about our adoptions. I didn’t find out until I was 38 years old. By that time, my parents were both gone so I could not ask them about the adoptions. When I asked my cousins for details, they knew very little so I was left with many unanswered questions.

I don’t like being a late discovery adoptee. Really, who would?

I’ve been thinking about what I would tell a couple planning to adopt a child. I’ve never done it but as a mother, I think I speak for many parents when I say parenthood is a job you can’t really prepare for. Doesn’t matter if you give birth or adopt. No parent knows what she’s getting into when she has a child.

Of course, adopting a child brings with it some special issues. I’ve put together a short list of suggestions for would-be adoptive parents. Call it the “do’s and don’ts” of adoption from the adoptee’s point of view.

• Be straight with your child. Tell her the truth about being adopted. That doesn’t mean you have to reveal every unpleasant detail about the circumstances behind your child’s birth especially if those details are painful. Tact is not a bad thing especially with a little one.

But you owe it to your child to be honest. Yes, adoption is complicated. It’s also one more way to create a family so why hide the truth?  Besides, isn’t it better that the truth comes from you rather than having your child discover the facts on her own? Believe me, if you choose not to tell her, she will find out anyway.

• Don’t play favorites. I cringe when I hear stories from adopted adults who are scarred, having been made to feel like second-class citizens compared to their parents’ biological siblings.

Note to parents: don’t bother adopting if you don’t have a big enough heart to love the child the same way you do your natural offspring. No one ever said blending a family would be easy but I assume as an adopter, you chose to bring a non-biological child into your home. Nobody forced you to do it.  So make the best of the situation, no matter how tough it is. Bend over backwards to make your adopted child feel loved and protected. Be sensitive to her feeling of being different. Whatever you do, don’t make her feel second-class by treating her differently than the other kids in the house.

• Don’t feel threatened. At some point, your adopted child will want to know about her origins. Don’t take it the wrong way when your child asks questions about her birth mother or father. Don’t be offended when she embarks on a search for facts about her biological family. Don’t be hurt when she wants to meet with her blood relatives in person. Understand that your child’s curiosity and need to know are natural.

If you are not adopted, you probably have known about your family since Day One. Your mom and dad filled you in on the story of your birth and the details about your first days of life on this planet. You’re not curious because you know your story. If anything, you take it for granted.

Put yourself in your child’s shoes. If you were adopted, wouldn’t you want to know about your first family? Be supportive of your child’s desire to learn about her kin. Oh, and if you happen to know things about your child’s other family, it’s time to come forward. Don’t be an obstacle in your child’s search for truth. She will appreciate your love and support.

• Educate yourself as much as you can. If you plan to adopt a child from overseas, go into it with your eyes open.  Ask questions. Do your homework. Many children from faraway countries have been hurt. They may have health and behavioral problems that you’ve never heard of. Can you make a lifelong commitment to loving and helping a troubled child? It won’t be easy.

Last year, Reuters exposed the underground practice of “rehoming,” where unhappy parents seek new homes for the kids they regret adopting with no official regulation or oversight. Vulnerable children, many from foreign countries, have ended up in the hands of unfit even dangerous people.

Until I read the articles by Reuters, I never knew giving up was an option for adopters. The idea of adopting a child and then changing your mind when the going gets tough makes me angry. When you adopt a kid, you make a commitment to loving and raising the child. It’s not a consumer purchase.

Before you adopt, ask yourself if you have what it takes to be a good mom or dad even when things become difficult. Maybe you’re up for the challenge. Or maybe not?

Questions About Identity Never End for Adoptees

My friend, Mary, sent me a link to Laura Skandera Trombley’s wonderful article about the identity questions that adoptees wrestle with every day.

“I saw this story and immediately thought of you,” Mary wrote.

Skandera Trombley, who is a college president, talks about the questions adoptees have about their first families, the circumstances that led to adoption, biological ancestors, ethnic roots and medical histories.  Like me, Skandera Trombley was adopted in the 1960s.

“I was born during a cruel time for the adopted; the 1960s was an era when such transactions were considered “closed,” and basic information was routinely and legally withheld,” Skandera Trombley wrote. “And yet I cannot escape or pretend to ignore my past. It walks with me every day.”

Unlike me, Skandera Trombley knew early on that she was adopted. She also learned that being adopted was not something you dropped in casual conversations with people outside your immediate family. When people asked her where she got her pretty red hair, rather than saying “I’m adopted,” Skandera Trombley’s adoptive mom advised her to tell people that she had a red-haired aunt who lived in New York.

I can identify with Skandera Trombley’s fierce attachment to her name. Miller is my adopted father’s surname, the only name I’ve ever had and the name I intend to keep for the rest of my life. When I got married, there was never any question that I would continue being a Miller. I liked having a name that’s short, simple, easy to pronounce and spell. More important, my maiden name is part of my original identity, the name readers see when they read my articles. My name is my name. Like Skandera Trombley, I don’t want anyone messing with it.

I thought I knew who I was and where I came from until that day 11 years ago when I found out I was adopted. My identity suddenly felt like it was up for grabs. Some man other than Bob Miller actually fathered me? Claire Miller was not my real mother? Was I not really a Miller? Was I something other than Polish and German? Why didn’t my parents tell me I was adopted? How could I have been so stupid to have not figured this out years ago?

I’m still wrestling with some of those questions. Having searched for my blood relatives through DNA testing and old-fashioned record checking, I know who my biological mother was, why she gave me up for adoption and my ethnic heritage. I have filled in many names on my family tree but it’s still only half a tree. My mother and her relatives are represented but my father and his relatives are nowhere to be found.

nice photo of Lillian and Howard
Was Lillian part Cherokee?

These days I wonder what my last name would be if my biological father had raised me. Will I ever find out that name and other basic facts about the man who (perhaps unknowingly) brought me into the world?

“I learned a hard lesson: For the adopted, coming to terms with one’s identity is a lifelong struggle,” Skandera Trombley wrote.

That’s one way to look at it. It’s true that learning about my original family and their challenges has brought tears to my eyes. It’s been very sobering. Still, I don’t feel like I’m struggling, exactly. I am learning the truth about my origins and I’m taking the good with the bad. Truth is good. I can handle occasional jabs of painful truth. Just don’t lie to me, please.

Last week, I discovered two distant cousins who only recently found out they are related to one another as uncle and niece. Pat and Sheryl live in Oklahoma, a state I’ve never visited, one that’s known for its huge population of mixed-blood and full-blooded Native Americans. Pat has an Irish or Scottish surname but he is as he put it a “card-carrying Native American.” He and Sheryl have Native American roll numbers.

How intriguing! Now that I’ve found blood relatives with Indian ancestry, I’m wondering again about my heritage. My DNA test didn’t turn up any Indian blood. In fact, my ethnic background is more than 98 percent Western European, according to Family Tree DNA. I’m definitely Irish, possibly English and Scottish. But I’ve heard stories about my birth mother, Lillian, teaching her other children an Indian rain dance, according to my sister, Sissy. Rumor has it Lillian was part Cherokee. Could I have trace amounts of Native American blood from way back when?

These are the kinds of questions that I turn over in my head. I guess you could say my identity is a work in progress, a jigsaw puzzle with many missing pieces.