Becoming An Ancestor

Wedding Photo – Raphael Vandervort Hempstead and Mary Elizabeth Gildersleeve on April 30 1906

I’m a family historian and a family storyteller. I believe I finally did arrive at my personal destiny – that of discovering and then sharing the true origins and cultures my family was created from. It is a feeling of wholeness that I never expected to have. It is also fascinating, I suppose, simply because it is our real identity constructs. Both of my parents were adopted – with falsified birth certificates giving them identities they were not born with.

A quiet revolution is taking place for adoptees today. More and more are finding their genetic biological families, just as I did. Only a few years ago, this would not be possible but the advent of inexpensive DNA testing and matching sites like Ancestry and 23 and Me as well as social media have made what once seemed like only a dream – possible.

My parents and my in-laws are now ancestors, meaning they have died and no longer walk this earth as physical presences. My husband and I both approach our 70s. We are way to becoming an ancestor. Just yesterday, my husband went into a hours long dialog about all the choices he has made in life to arrive at this place in time with our oldest son. Too often, after our parents have died, we wish we would have asked more questions. Asking questions is not always all that easy when they are alive however and we don’t always know what to ask.

I freely share so much about my life. Someone may want to know about me. Their life might be changed by knowing that I existed. They might be empowered by knowing that they once had the same dreams I do. We’re all future dead people, and 100 years from now, someone like me will come looking for you.

Certainly, this is what adoptees are doing today. This is what I have done regarding my true family of origin. My family origins journey began in cemeteries. The cemetery in Pine Bluff Arkansas to be precise. I sat by my maternal grandfather’s grave and talked to him. Then I discovered that my mom’s half-sister had only died a few months before. Darn, I missed that opportunity to know her. But I was able to get to know her daughter thanks to something her best friend posted about my cousin’s mother on Ancestry. During one wonderful afternoon, she shared with me photos and stories from the many photo albums her mom left her. We were both sad that our mothers never got the chance to meet. Certainly, her mother always hoped my mom would show up. The state of Tennessee was not helpful, when my mom inquired. Today, it has all changed for adoptees like my mom and dad.

The photo at the top is my dad’s grandparents, sent to me by a cousin (with whom I share my paternal grandmother) who lives in Mexico, thanks to Facebook messenger.

My Unorthodox Life

This program is being discussed in my all things adoption group this morning. It is said that “The whole storyline was so upsetting. The adoptive family is awful.” And also this, “One of the characters is looking for his “birth person” and is scared to hurt his adoptive mom by calling her his birth mother. Adoptive mom says stuff like “I thought I’d be dead when you start looking” or “Can’t you ask your private investigator to ask questions to her rather than make contact?”. So much insecurity, jealousy and emotional blackmail.

One adoptee notes – My adoptive mom did the exact same thing . As if it’s about HER “trauma“ (which honestly is self inflicted).

And there is this about the show – The adoptive mom also got pregnant shortly after adopting, and begs him to not change his name, even though she falsified his birth certificate! She’s like “I want you to stay happy,” when he is obviously depressed, tormented, hasn’t dated anyone in years, etc. The biological son (his brother by adoption) is calling him an idiot for doing it because “we have the best parents in the world” and “you’re the one who started this problem.” Then hangs up the phone on him. They are doing all they can to sabotage any reunion. His poor birth mom. He doesn’t even pick up on the fact she wanted to keep him.

I haven’t see this one but last night we suffered through A Serious Man – written, produced, edited and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. All we could figure out by the end of the movie was that it was the Coen’s revenge on their Jewish upbringing. I kept thinking – if I was Jewish, it might make sense. There is no adoption thread in that movie.

In my mom’s group, there are more than the usual number of Jewish people. So, I have been exposed to some of their experience. The one that stands out large for me is the mom who had famously large breasts and then developed breast cancer. She had boy/girl twins the same age as my youngest son. Though she had a great attitude going into the experience, she died rather quickly. I was somewhat impressed by the way her Jewish community was there for the whole family throughout that ordeal.

My paternal grandmother died of a heart attack the day she was to be released from the hospital following breast cancer surgery. She was originally from Long Island NY and my understanding is that there are a lot of Jewish people there. I have a smidgeon of Ashkenazi Jew. I suspect I may have gotten that from her. Another mom in my mom’s group lives in the town on Long Island with the same name as the surname of my paternal grandmother – Hempstead. The family goes way back with historically significant sites in New London, Connecticut (a diary covering a period of 47 years from Sept 1711 to November 1758 by an ancestor, Joshua Hempstead, is still in print).

Family Contact Matters

I understand this as the child of two adoptees.  The adoptions for both of my parents were closed and my parents both died knowing very little about their origins or the details behind why they ended up adopted.  Since their deaths, I have been able to recover a lot of my rightful family history.  I now know of genetic relatives for each of the four grandparents.  It has been quite a journey.  It wasn’t easy (though maybe easier for me due to our unique circumstances than for many) and it required persistence and determination to see it through.

Certainly DNA testing and the two major matching sites – Ancestry as well as 23 and Me – were instrumental to my success.  Since the genetic relations I was coming into first contact with had no prior knowledge of me and I am well over 60 years old, seeing the DNA truth that I was related to them, I believe it mattered.  It is hard to refute when it is right there clear and certain.

My mom had four living half-siblings on her father’s side when she was born.  One died young of a sudden heart failure.  I barely missed getting to meet my mom’s youngest half-sister by only a few months.  I was lucky to connect with her daughter who had all of her mom’s photo albums and possession of a lot of family history, including written accounts.  One afternoon with her and I felt like I had lived my Moore family’s history.  The family photos I now have digital copies of are precious treasures.

Though my Stark family was the first I became aware of and within a month, I had visited the graves of my grandmother and her parents east of Memphis in Eads Tennessee, those living descendants were the last I finally made a good strong connection with.  The reality is that I simply can’t recover 6 decades of not living with the usual family interactions with my true genetic relatives.  All I can do is try and build relationships with whatever time each of us has left.  The personal memories of my grandmother that my mom’s cousins possessed (she was our favorite aunt, they said) made her come alive for me.

The Salvation Army was somewhat forthcoming with information about my father’s birth at one of their homes for unwed mothers in the San Diego California area just walking distance from the beach and ocean.  They were able to give me my father’s full name and the missing piece of how he got from San Diego to El Paso Texas where he was ultimately adopted.  Once I knew my grandmother’s first married name (born Hempstead including my dad, later Barnes, Timm at death) and a cousin did 23 and Me, my discoveries were off and running.  Her mother, my dad’s youngest half-sibling, was living only 90 miles away from him when he died.  Mores the pity.

I thought I’d never know who my dad’s father was since his mother was unwed but the next cousin I met who I share a grandmother with had her photo albums and she left us a breadcrumb.  Clearly she had no doubt who my dad’s father was.  His father, Rasmus Martin Hansen, was an immigrant, not yet a citizen, and married to a much older woman.  So, he probably never knew he was a father and that’s a pity because I do believe my dad and his dad would have been great friends.

I now also have contact with my Danish grandfather’s genetic relatives.  If it had not been for the pandemic, they would have had their annual reunion there in Denmark.  I haven’t heard but I would not be surprised to know it is postponed.  My relative (who I share a great-grandfather with – my dad being the only child of my grandfather) planned to make the Danish relatives aware of me.

To anyone who thinks not knowing who your true relatives are – if the adoptions were more or less good enough, happy enough and loving enough – I am here to tell you that not knowing anything about your family (including medical history) and being cut off from the people you are actually genetically related to DOES matter.  Adoption records should be UNSEALED for ALL adult adoptees at their request.  Sadly over half of these United States still withhold that information.  I know from experience as I encountered this problem in Virginia, Arizona and California.  If my mom’s adoption had not been connected to the Georgia Tann, Tennessee Children’s Home Society baby stealing and selling scandal, I would not have gotten my first breakthrough.