October 3, 2012

Ancestry and Adoption

In February of this year, Ancestry.com was featuring a 2-week trial to encourage people to get hooked try out their services.  After thinking about it, I decided "what the heck" and signed up to give it a whirl, figuring I could always cancel two weeks later.  After all, two weeks should be plenty of time to suss out a family ancestry, right?   I spent probably 3 days straight staying up till 4 am filling in little links in my husband's and daughter's family trees.  I stayed up late several other nights as well, though perhaps not quite till the wee hours.  A week and a half in, I looked at B and told him point-blank that we would be needing to continue the membership because there was absolutely no way that I would ever be done in time because his family never ended.

Eight months or so later, I'm still not done.  Granted, I haven't exactly been working around the clock on it because my in-laws' line goes on freaking forever--and that's just on the one thread I've followed through so far.  Heaven only knows where the other threads will lead once I've sifted through them all and clicked on every little green leaf waving wildly at me with yet another "ancestry hint."  The damn things are like kudzu; just when you think you've knocked them all out you find them swarming somewhere else.

"Ku-ku-KUDZU!"
"Gesundheit."

So far it's been an interesting journey; turns out my lovely girlie and my spouse are related to any number of European royalty (assuming of course that Ancestry.com is at all accurate), including but not limited to several Plantagenets (including the king who signed the Magna Carta), Robert the Bruce--High King of Scotland, Brian Boru--High King of Ireland, Llewellyn the Great of Wales, William the Conquerer, Eleanor of Aquitaine (think "Lion in Winter"), not to mention assorted other nobles and a few Crusaders as well.  That's the funny thing about genealogy; once you get far enough to connect with one royal, suddenly you're connected with metric crap-ton of royals because they were forever intermingling families for political reasons.  Also--bonus--there is a heck of a lot more recorded information about them.

My grandmother-in-law was big into genealogy and spent years tracing her husband's (B's grandfather's) family history long before the magic Google and interwebs came into being.  She even journeyed to England to look at old records and eventually wrote a book of family history going back several generations.  This record has proved invaluable in my own research efforts.  For example, she insisted that there was a family story that Bonnie Prince Charlie was, in fact, one of her husband's relatives.  The problem was that she could never find any proof.  Years ago I looked into it, but it never seemed entirely plausible because the timelines didn't jive.  There was essentially a generation off between where she'd traced back and where Charlie's line came forward, making it extremely unlikely that the family is directly descended from him (never mind the fact that he was far too busy begetting illegitimate children while in exile in Rome to be taking ship to Virginia where the hubby's relatives first came over).

Interestingly enough, I solved this mystery just the other night, some 20 plus years after I'd first heard the legend.  Turns out there was a relevant Charles in the family tree, just not that Charlie.  Still, good old Chuck was fairly important after all, because he largely bridges that generation gap between documented family history and royal descendents rather nicely.  Good to know that my husband is apparently the 20 gabillionth in line to the throne of England.  (I'd better start packing my pointy hats...)

Pointy Hat of Scotland

This history is fascinating and exciting and intriguing and even a little depressing, at least for me.  When I start with the girlie on the family tree, I can see her dad's name and his family line shooting off across the room on a genetic rocket and back into the middle ages.  It's impressive, really.  Meanwhile, I look down at my name on her tree and see the great, white nothingness that follows it because I was adopted when I was only five weeks old (yay, me!).  I've never had any complaints about being adopted; I always figured I probably came out ahead in the bargain and could only imagine how torturous the decision to give me up must have been for my birth mom even if she was a knocked-up college student as seems to have been the case.   Because I knew I was adopted before I was old enough to really comprehend what that meant, I didn't grow up with any random identity crises or anything like some kids do.  Sure, I sometimes wondered where my various attributes originated--like who in my family had blue eyes or red hair or liked to draw or sing or read.  I also wondered what my ethnicity was, though given my pale complexion it was easy enough to rule out most countries.  But that still didn't stop me from making up nationalities as the mood suited me.  Sometimes I was Irish (hello, red hair and freckles!) if for no other reason than that I was born on St. Patrick's Day.  Sometimes I was French, because I liked the language and because "LaRue" is French.  Being French somehow seemed exotic, at least until some kids at school asked one day what "LaRue" meant.  When I told them it was French for "the street," my darling classmates promptly decided what I'd actually said was "the streak."  Lovely.  I was "Mary the Streak(er)" for the rest of that year.  Kids.  Sigh.

For the most part, though, I never really thought much about finding my birth family.  As far as I was concerned, I already had a family so I didn't seem to be missing anything, nor did I have any great desire to upend either my life or that of my birth parents.  Besides, it's hard to miss what you've never known, and I'm pretty used to the anonymity of my past.  When my girlie was born, I thought more about digging into my past because  a family medical history suddenly seemed infinitely more relevant.  It was one thing for doctors to scrawl "ADOPTED" and slash lines through the family medical history section in all my medical charts, but I didn't want them doing that to my daughter.  Unfortunately, all I could ever uncover was "non-identifying" information, most of which I already knew from the records my mom gave me when I was in my 30s.  These records helped me fill in a very few blanks, such as the height and hair/eye color of my birth mother and "putative" father (it feels so special to know someone was "alleged" to have sired you...as though your existence were somehow a crime).  Because Indiana law does not allow for open adoption records at the time of my birth and because I wasn't in a position to hire someone to pry open the records back then, I filed the new bits of information away and went on about my life in relative peace, at least till I had to keep staring at that giant abyss of blankness behind my name on Ancestry.com while hearing the voice of Duncan MacLeod (of the Clan MacLeod) on a loop as he repeatedly demanded of his adoptive father "Where do I come from?  WHERE DO I COME FROM????" from one of the Highlander episodes.

Who cares where you come from, so long as you come over here.

Perhaps part of my renewed interest is because my adoptive mom passed away in April and I am now (sort of) orphaned.  Suddenly I find myself wanting to know more about who I am and, like the hot Scot above, where I come from.  Everyone deserves to know who they are and what their history is.  Not only do I want to fill in the pieces and thus satisfy my own curiosity, I also the information for my girlie who likewise has a right to know the half of her history she's missing.  So recently, when Ancestry.com started offering limited invitations to DNA testing, I jumped at the chance.  I realized that for a paltrey $100 their testing is not likely to be as thorough or complete as I might like, nor exactly was it gonna turn me into the next Alex Haley.  And that's okay.  But I figured any information about me at this point is far better than the none I currently have.

Eventually the test packet arrived; instead of being provided with cotton swabs with which to scrape my cheek, I was given the dubious pleasure of hocking up a nice juicy loogey into a little plastic test tube, after which I was required to dump in a stabilizing agent, seal it in the provided envelope, and send it off.  Once I'd closed the package I started to get paranoid because I realized belatedly that I wasn't supposed to eat or drink anything for 30 minutes before performing my spit-take, which was suspiciously tinged pink.  Hello, Crystal Light!  I feared that I'd screwed up the test and that the scientists over at Spit Genes backward R Us would be sitting around wondering why I'd felt the need to bleed fruit punch into my sample and would ultimately charge me for another one.  Whoops.

Afterwards, I checked the Ancestry.com site every couple of weeks to see if any results had been posted, which they never were.  Watched pot, and all.  I was supposed to get an email when they were ready, which I also never received.  Then one day I happened to be playing around with the family trees and I happened to look over at the testing section on a whim. I was stunned to see their little pie chart all colored in and with percentage numbers emblazoned on the page, informing me that 60% of my DNA was genetically tied to the British Isles and 34% to Northern Europe.  Probably not surprisingly, there was also listed a  6% of "unknown."  Heh.  As if I needed confirmation that I've always been an "unknown quantity."

Is it just me or does that pie chart look a little like a blue Pokemon?

On the one hand, this information is not in the least surprising.  As I've already mentioned, my physical appearance fairly screams Irish or Scottish, and I've had several people over the years comment that my coloring and build also resembles someone from Northern Germany.  Maybe Boris Becker is my long-lost cousin.  So yeah, DNA peeps, good call on those percentages.  On the other hand, even though this information was not exactly earth-shattering news, I was still not prepared at all for the wave of emotions which hit me the moment I saw those results.  It's one thing to make up crap over the years about where you're from, but another thing entirely to have it confirmed in reality.  And it's yet another thing to see the names and faces of people who are genetically tied to you.  I have 4th and fifth and sixth cousins--blood relatives.  Who knew?  Obviously I knew I had relatives somewhere, but before it was always too abstract to take seriously.  Now it's real, and that kinda blows me away.  Mind you, I can't exactly run over to their profiles and start comparing branches on the family tree because I still don't have birth names to share.  Until I do, contacting any of these people to hunt down members of my family tree is largely pointless.  But I'm not gonna lie...just knowing there are actual people out there in the world with my DNA blew me away.  I cried.  I did.  I felt a little like a fool doing so, but I still did.

Now I want even more to pursue my history.  I want more than just a vague "you were here" red dot on a map.  At 47, I don't necessarily have a burning desire to meet or start up a relationship with my birth parents, even assuming they could be found (I'll cross that bridge if and when I ever come to it), but I do want information.  I would like to find out their names and backgrounds so I can plug it all in at Ancestry.com and maybe have a prayer at long last of making all those connections for my own line.  I want to build my own history as a gift both to myself and to my daughter.  I want to be able to stop hiding behind all the masks I've made for myself over the years and discover instead those bits of myself I've been missing all this time.  What would it be like to see my face on someone else for the very first time in my life?  I've never looked like anyone before, not really, even though I'm constantly hearing from strangers that I look like their ex-wife's cousin's brother's mailman or whatever.  But that's not the same.  What must it be like to exchange a lifetime of pseudo-anonymity for a better understanding of one's own history?  Likely nothing will come of it all, but who knows?  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?  Chances are I won't be related to royalty like the girlie and hubs; more likely I'll descend from a McDonald's fry cook or from a long line of people who spent time in the stockade for being a wise-ass.  Wouldn't that be poetic justice?  Still, I'd take it all in a heartbeat, just for the luxury of knowing one way or the other.  Perhaps someday.

In the meantime, the following is a poem I found a long time ago and have always loved; it's dedicated to all my fellow adoptees out there.


2 comments:

  1. I have been walking this road with my two adopted daughters ~ thank you for putting all yours/their deepest thoughs into words ~
    k

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  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it...I also wish both you and your daughters much luck with their journey; my (non-birth) brother and I had very different experiences of adoption, even with the same adoptive parents; he felt abandoned, whereas I never did. It affects everyone differently and in ways I didn't completely understand when I was younger. I do hope you know that any curiosity they may have about their birth families is not in the least a reflection on how they feel about you. I know my adoptive mom sometimes worried about that. That's why I like the above poem so much. Searching for one's history is not about caring more for one set of parents or another but rather about understanding the contribution each set of parents provided to one's life and trying to build a more complete understanding of who one really is and why. Knowledge is the mortar which joins all the puzzle pieces together into a consolidated whole. At least that's the hope. ;)

    Best wishes,
    G

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