As a daughter of an adoptee, this season I am grateful I can use DNA for adoption research. Seats at my genetic holiday table are gradually filling, even if some place cards are just penciled in.
At this time of year when many of us are spending more time with family than we otherwise might, we often reflect on the empty seats at our table. We think of those who weren’t able to travel to the family gathering, and back to those who have passed on. For some, however, a long empty seat has been filled this year, thanks to the assistance of a DNA test.
Earlier this year we related the story of Mary McPherson and her cousin Dolores Washington-Fleming who discovered a common connection through Peter Edward Williams. Mary is a descendant of his wife and Dolores through his slave.
Mary and Dolores welcomed this new connection and shared information about their common ancestor. As they reunited for the first time, perhaps they talked about what life might have been like in the 1850s in the south, and how their ancestors would’ve never guessed that the two of them would be gathered around the same table.
DNA for Adoption Research
As word spreads of the power of DNA testing to reveal the secrets of the past, many adoptees are flocking to genetic genealogy testing companies with the intention of filling the empty seats at their holiday tables. The New York Times reported a touching story of Khrys Vaughan who felt her identity crumble when she found out she was adopted. Turning to DNA testing, she was able to connect with cousins and feel a biological connection she didn’t know she had been missing. Even though she still has many open seats at her table, she felt that filling even one meant that she was no longer biologically adrift, but could now look at someone and say, “This is my family.”
A similar story broke recently out of California. Just days old, Jen Chervin was found outside a hospital in Yuba City, CA. That was 40 years ago. But this year, Jen used the power of the genetic genealogy database in combination with some serious genealogy work to find her parents. While neither is in a position to openly embrace her as a daughter at this time in their lives, Jen now has a name card to place at seats of honor around her holiday table, all thanks to a simple saliva test.
This has been a landmark year in my own family. In one seeming miracle after another, I have added the names of maternal grandparents and great grandparents to my family tree as DNA testing has helped my mom fill in some of the missing pieces in her life. We have had a true Texas welcome from some of her paternal second cousins, and an outpouring of kindness from a maternal second cousin. While our place cards for mother and father are only tentatively penciled in, I know as I look around our genetic holiday table that I am excited about the new faces I see and I can’t wait to learn more.
How to Get Started Using DNA for Adoption Research
If you want to get started filling seats at your table, there is no time like the present to give yourself (or someone else) the gift of DNA testing! (Remember, before you get started, make sure you’re emotionally ready for the unexpected. You never know what “surprises” you’re going to unwrap when you start genetic testing.)
My quick reference guides will guide you through the process and act as a reference tool along the way. It will tell you that the first rule in DNA testing is to test the oldest generation. So parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles should be first on your list. If you are that oldest generation, then pat yourself on the back and get swabbing!
The savvy shopper begins with the AncestryDNA test for all interested parties, and the YDNA 37 marker test from Family Tree DNA for all males. Then sit back and wait for the results to roll in! As they do, check back here at Genealogy Gems for tips on how to use that data to fill seats at your holiday table next year.
More Inspiring Gems About DNA for Adoption Research
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Do family secrets make your genealogy research more difficult? More intriguing? Here’s how one listener feels about the secrets in her husband’s family history (and a nice resource on adoption in Ireland).
Recently we heard from Kate, a longtime Genealogy Gems Premium member. “Our first visit to my husband’s family was in 1998. I was eager to learn about who is who in the family. We were told that a woman was raising her sister’s child who was born out of marriage, but we can not talk to anyone about it. The daughter supposedly did not know she was adopted. SHH! We were told other things we must keep quiet about. We did our best to do as they wished.
Today on Facebook an old photo was posted with my husband’s paternal grandmother. Again, curious, I asked who is ???????. Was messaged in a private message. ‘(She) was adopted by my husband’s grandparents.'” Neither Kate nor her husband had ever heard of this person. Her father-in-law had never mentioned this person.
“My husband’s father left Ireland in the late 1920s,” she explains. “This may have happened after he left but he communicated with his family. He did not go back to visit until about 1956. Maybe that is part of this.”
But she thinks “there must be more to this” than just a secretive family culture. She “looked up Irish adoption and found legal adoption is relatively new to Ireland.” She shared this overview of Irish adoption policy and hopes it will be helpful to others.
“This secrecy is so difficult to deal with. How do you deal with this issue? This was very common in my mother’s generation. How long do we maintain these secrets?”
Unfortunately, Kate’s frustration is all-too-common. Family secrets can feel like brick walls our own families build that keep us from understanding them. My experience is that it’s not usually about us as researchers. I think pain or protectiveness toward a loved one are often behind someone’s desire to keep a story out of the limelight.
Everyone’s perspective may differ slightly–there is not “one right answer” to this issue. And the need to reveal secrets for someone’s safety or well-being may at times trump all other considerations. But generally, here’s what I do when someone trusts me with a secret from the past. First, I thank them. Then I ask what I may do with that secret. Are they ready for me to help tell the story now (even to a small audience)? Are they ready to write it down (even in a sealed letter to be opened at a later date)? I try to understand and show respect for their reasons and feelings, even if they’re different than my own.
Over time, my respect and patience will pay off: in my relationship with that person, in my ability to understand the family better, and maybe–eventually–in that person’s willingness to let the story be more widely known. Many people reveal stories in stages. Telling it to me may be an important step toward full disclosure. I may continue to encourage (but not nag) them to share the story.
That may never happen. If that’s the case, I have to redirect my interest to family stories that can be told without risking relationships with loved ones. It’s hard sometimes. As descendants, we want to know the truth. As researchers, we are hungry for answers. I’m glad the “fruit” on my family tree ripens at different stages. There’s always a ripe family story or memory ready to be harvested. Meanwhile, I’ll keep an eye on that family secret–the unripe fruit–so if it does ripen, I’ll be there to harvest it.
Family Secrets in Genealogy: Crystal’s Story in the free Family History Made Easy podcast (episode 44)
Annie Barrows Talks Family History and “The Truth According to Us”
Family Tree Etiquette: Online Private v. Public Trees
Thank you for sharing this post with others who care about family stories, family secrets and what-to-say-when. It’s one of our trickiest challenges, that’s for sure!
A woman recently went searching for her birth mom after receiving a copy of her adoption records (these recently opened in her home state of Ohio). She didn’t have to search very far: just in a different department at her workplace.
“When [La-Sonya] Mitchell-Clark first received her birth records in the mail on Monday and saw the name Francine Simmons, she immediately plugged it into Facebook,” reports the story on Entrepreneur. It didn’t take long for her to recognize her mother as a woman who worked at the same business she did.
“Following a tearful reunion, the two…discovered that they live just six minutes away from one another,” reports the article. La-Sonya also learned that she has three birth sisters, one of whom also works at the same company. Wow! Company picnics and water cooler chats must suddenly seem a lot more meaningful after this birth family reunion.
Learn to use your own DNA to search for genetic relatives (whether you’re adopted or not!) in our free Genealogy Gems podcast interview with CeCe Moore, a leading expert who appears regularly on television shows to talk about finding family with DNA.
Recently we announced our featured book title for the first quarter of 2015: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. A major theme in this book is what happens to a child’s identity when he or she is separated from parents and kin.
With this story fresh on my mind, Lisa sent me a story from The Press and Journal (Aberdeen, UK) about Irene Robertson from Scotland. Irene grew up never knowing much about her birth family. Her mother had released her into foster care but never allowed her to be adopted, so she stayed with a foster mother until she was an adult.
Over the years she wondered whether she had birth relatives out there somewhere. It was painful. “When I saw programmes on the TV like Who Do You Think You Are? I couldn’t watch them,” she told The Press and Journal. “I couldn’t watch people meeting their relatives, I would just start crying. I so wanted it to be me.”
When she was nearly 70, a charity called Birthlink helped Irene locate her niece and, through her, her brother. Their reunion over the phone, and then in person, felt to Irene like coming home. “The minute I spoke to him he said, ‘You sound just like family’ and that’s all I wanted to hear really,” she told the paper. “That’s great. He made it very easy. I mean somebody called me ‘Sis’. What a feeling that is, it was just amazing.” Read the full story about these birth siblings reunited and see a picture of them in the The Press and Journal.
Join our “virtual book club” in reading Orphan Train, a novel about two people fostered out in the U.S.–one an orphan train rider and another a teen in today’s foster system. In March we welcome author Christina Baker Kline to the Genealogy Gems podcast to talk about the experiences of her characters in Orphan Train–feelings that might very well resonate with Irene in Scotland.
(Note: when you use our links to shop for the book you are helping to support the free Genealogy Gems Book Club and Podcast. Thank you!)