Finding My Family: An Adoptee’s Search For Self

Photo of a man and three women. The photo is of four people standing in front of a rusty-tan brick wall. The man on the left and the two women in the center have their faces pixelated to hide their identity. They all have shades of brown hair. The woman on the right has silver hair cut above the shoulder and is wearing glasses. She is smiling. All the people are dressed in black.
Photo of the author with her siblings on the maternal side.

It was a journey that took decades

The search for my birth mother

I found my birth-mother in 1993—before the days of the Internet. I always knew that I was adopted, and I was always curious about my past. At age 12, while snooping through my parents’ paperwork, I found my adoption papers and my original birth certificate. It revealed her name CJF and her place of birth—Mississippi. I told one friend of my discovery and pledged to myself to find her after I came of age. When I turned 18, I made some phone calls to people in Mississippi with her last name, and I wrote to the state records, but had no luck. It turns out her family moved to Seattle when she was two.

After my son and I were diagnosed with the same heart condition, my doctor wrote a letter to the State of California and they released all of my adoption records. When I saw a Seattle address in the paperwork from California, my husband and I went to the public library and found someone with the same last name in the Seattle phone book. I called the number and when a man answered I asked if he knew CJF. He said that he had a sister with that name. I told him that she was a friend of my father—not exactly a lie. He immediately guessed that I was a niece she had put up for adoption. I gave him my phone number and the next day my birth mother called me. She was happily married to husband number three and had three other children: a daughter two years older than me who knew about me, a son three years younger than me, and a daughter twelve years younger than me with her current husband. CJF had four children total, by four different fathers. She broke the news of her adopted child to her husband, my two younger siblings, her in-laws, neighbors, and the rest of her relatives. One sister and one brother knew of her pregnancy and the adoption. She literally came out to God and the world on my behalf. My husband and I flew up to meet her a few weeks later, and that summer, we drove the family from Las Vegas to Seattle. We had a wonderful relationship for 22 years until she passed away in 2015.

Finding out about my birth father

My birth mom had two candidates for my birth father. She originally thought it was TW, but when she met me in person, she was convinced it was WF. His number was in the phone book, so I called him. We had a lovely first phone call, and he asked for photos of myself and my children. I sent them off immediately, and a couple weeks later he sent them back with a letter stating that a lot of people resemble other people. He admitted he was possibly my birth father, but did not want his life disrupted at age 60+. I told him that I did not need a relationship and I only wanted to meet him in person once, see some family photos, learn some family history, and get medical information. He refused all and with regards to medical information he said, “let the doctors do their job.” 

I wasn’t having it. The next time I was in Seattle, I called him again, but after refused to see me or provide information I went to work. I drove by his house and discovered that he lived on Lake Washington, i.e., he had some money. That explained his hesitance to meet me. Assuming that if I knocked on his door, it would be slammed in my face, I was tempted to hardcore stalk him by waiting until he left the house and follow him to the store or wherever and introduce myself—but I didn’t. Instead, I went to the nearest high school and asked to look at yearbooks. I told the office staff that I was looking for my cousins. Sure enough, I found a boy TF and a girl SF with the right last name and of reasonable ages to be my younger siblings. The office lady made copies of their yearbook photos. Again, this was the 1990s, and they were in their early 20s, so I decided to wait a few years before contacting them. I did not want to screw up their college experience or bring on an existential crisis before they were fully “baked.” I also wanted to reach out in a secondary sort of way, rather than calling their house or showing up at their job—not cool. The son was the older of the two, and in the early 2000s, I found him on classmates.com and reached out. He asked for a photo, which I sent, but I never heard back. A decade later, I saw the daughter on LinkedIn. I sent her a message, and she replied. She wanted “proof,” so I sent her a copy of the letter her father had sent me almost 15 years earlier. She refused to meet or send photos, but did provide medical information. I reached out to her again a year later when I was visiting my birth mom in Seattle, but still she refused to meet. 

Keeping tabs on my family 

About once a year, I would Google search TF, SF, their father WF, and his wife. I would check Facebook, similar social media sites, and various people-search sites like spokeo, intelius, beenverified, etc. (I didn’t pay for the service, I just looked at the addresses and relatives that showed up, realizing that the information may not be 100% correct.) I discovered that WF sold his fancy house and downsized. The siblings had low online profiles. TF had a Facebook page, but it was virtually all scenery. There were a few pictures of his daughter, but no clear photos of him. I could tell that he was into motorsports and hiking and that he was divorced, but there was little else. The people-search sites indicated that he had some legal issues in his past, and it appeared that he had moved back home with his parents for some time as an adult. His sister SF had no Facebook page, but she had made numerous comments on various websites. I learned that she also had a daughter who was into competitive sports and was planning a school trip to Europe. I discovered that her husband was an engineer. Still, there were no photos. Some years later, I saw that WF’s wife passed away when I found her obituary after a Google search. It confirmed that TF and SF were their only children. Later, when WF died and I read his obituary, I finally learned some details about his life, such as profession, hobbies, etc., but still, there were no photos to see.

Still searching for identity 

My hair is silver now, but when I was young, I had long, straight, dark brown hair, green eyes, and got a very dark tan in the summer. People often asked my nationality and frequently guessed that I was part Native American, East Indian, or Hawaiian. Growing up in Southern California, with my dark looks, Mexican ancestry seemed to be a reasonable assumption. When I asked if I was Mexican, my adopted parents had told me that I was German and Italian. My adopted dad knew my birth uncle – not the one I called, a different one. That uncle was tall and blond, and although his last name was Irish, it was not traditionally Irish (like O’Day, my married name). My adopted dad must have guessed German. On my adoption papers sent to me from California, my birth mom identified my father as being Italian, but listed him as unknown on my original birth certificate, so my adopted dad must have gotten the Italian from that. At age 12, this information satisfied me, and I went for years believing it was true. When I met my birth mom, she told me her family was English, Irish, and a little Chickasaw Indian. I was excited to be part Native American, even a little bit. I wrote to the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma and they kindly sent me a booklet about the tribe. My ethnicity on WF’s side was still a blank; his last name was Irish, and that was all I knew.

DNA revealed the truth

Shortly after my birth mother died in 2015, I sent my DNA to ancestry.com and later to 23andme.com. It was exciting to finally learn what nationalities I was. When the results from Ancestry came in, I logged into the “DNA Results Summary” with great excitement. The first ethnicity category displayed was Native American. I was shocked when it showed 0%. What the hell! I scrolled down: English, Irish, Scandinavian, 4% African, 1% Middle Eastern, and 1% Jewish! I emailed my kids to tell them they were Black and Jewish. Growing up in a Jewish family, I was thrilled to be 1% Jewish. Note: My adopted dad was 2nd generation Polish, but I grew up almost exclusively around the Jewish part of the family, and since my adopted mom was Jewish, I was legally Jewish growing up, since Judaism follows the maternal line. 

Not Native American after all

After getting over the shock of not being Chickasaw Indian, I was thrilled to be African American. It explained my semi-olive skin tone and my capacity to tan darker than my Mexican friends. I was disappointed that my birth mom was not alive to learn the truth about her ethnic heritage, as she was extremely proud of her believed Native American roots. When I found out that I was Black, it was the first time I felt a strong connection to the American experience. My adopted mom’s parents and oldest sister were born in Odessa, Ukraine. With a Polish father and first-generation Jewish mother, I grew up with a very Eastern European, immigrant-oriented mindset. Plus, growing up in Southern California, the Spanish influence was stronger than the American influence for me. Learning that I had at least three African ancestors (I’m 2% Nigeria, 1% Benin & Togo, and 1% Cameroon, Congo & Western Bantu People), helped me finally feel a connection to the American experience. Ancestry results change regularly, and as of this posting I am listed as 33% Scotland, 32% Ireland, 11% Sweden and Denmark, 9% Wales, 8% Norway, 2% Germanic Europe, and 1% England and Northwest Europe, plus the aforementioned African ancestry. I was disappointed that my Jewish ancestry disappeared.

The bigger DNA surprise

After examining my ethnicity on Ancestry, I looked at my “DNA Matches” and started trying to determine who was on my mother’s side and who was on my father’s side. Using Ancestry’s “Search” feature, I began constructing a family tree for WF. I found a second or third cousin that I reached out to, but she didn’t know WF and had not done a DNA test. Using the “Search” feature combined with Google, I found out that WF’s wife had a brother who was on the County Commission in Snohomish County in Washington state. I briefly contemplated contacting him, but reconsidered. I regularly checked Ancestry results and gradually learned more about my family, but nothing dramatic stood out… Until…

About a year later, I logged on to Ancestry and saw a new first cousin. I did the “Shared Matches” feature and determined that she was on my father’s side. I was beyond excited; finally WF would be outed to his family by having a secret daughter—ME. The new cousin had a family tree with about 30 entries. I clicked on it and to my utter shock the name TW appeared three times: as her grandfather, great-grandfather, and uncle. OMG! It was TW after all. I messaged her that night and the next day we shared a two-hour phone conversation. The following day, I spoke with my oldest sister and a couple days later I spoke with another sister. TW had three other children, all with the same mother and all older than me. I have developed a warm relationship with my siblings and my two cousins. Although I don’t closely resemble any of them, they all see the family resemblance in me. When I met my cousin’s son, he was taken aback by how much I looked like his great-grandmother—my grandmother. It has been awesome discovering shared interests and habits, learning family and medical history, and receiving photos of my relatives. TW’s mother’s parents were born in Norway and his father’s parents were born in Western Ireland (County Sligo and County Mayo where Gaelic is still spoken). I understand why my birth mom identified my birth father as Italian; he is “Black Irish” and resembled Colin Farrell with very dark brown hair and thick eyebrows.

The tragedy of the situation is that TW died a few years before I connected with the family. By all accounts, he would have been thrilled to know me. We share a lot in common; we both have strong opinions, good speaking voices, and a love of history. For a couple of years, I was angry at myself for not searching him out decades earlier. His last name was fairly common and although I made some phone calls, I eventually gave up since my birth mom was convinced that WF was my birth father. About a year after my discovery, I messaged SF on LinkedIn to inform her that we were not related. I was shocked when she replied stating that she was “disappointed” and was thinking about eventually contacting me. Seriously? I offered to pay for a paternity test from the beginning. If she, her brother, or her father had agreed to test, I would have known the truth in time to meet my birth father, and they would not have assumed they had a sibling that they refused contact with for two decades. WF and his wife died believing that their children had a sister. What a waste!

Moral of the story

If you are adopted or interested in sensitive family information, don’t waste time. Get your DNA tested. Reach out to assumed relatives, even if you are unsure. Be pushy. Don’t leave a single stone unturned. You owe it to yourself, and your genetic relatives owe you the information.

I have received criticism for intruding into people’s lives for my own selfish purpose. My response is “too bad.” As a human being, my right to know my history is more important than hurting someone’s feelings or disrupting their lives. I never expected to have a relationship with my birth mother. The fact that she was happy to know me and include me in her family has been a huge blessing in my life. I would have been satisfied to meet over coffee, receive some family photos, and learn about family medical conditions. I also deserved an explanation as to why she placed me for adoption. I felt the same about my paternal birth family. Even though WF and TW never knew I existed, being their relative (or potential relative in WF’s case), they (or their relatives) owed me basic information, but not a seat at their dinner table. 

Someone close to me asked, “What if people want to keep their secrets?” I responded that my right to know will always exceed their right to privacy. I grew up resentful that I had more knowledge of my Yorkshire Terrier’s pedigree than I knew of my own. With the state of DNA technology, the era of secrets is over.

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