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.

DNA and Facebook – Hope for Adoptees

For the last 24 hours, I’ve been absorbed in an adoptee search story going viral on Facebook. My friend in The Netherlands alerted me, knowing it would be of interest. I can’t keep up – at the time I am writing this – there have been 3,000 comments and 60,000 shares.

It is the story of a coach and a cheerleader, never married. She went out of state to her aunt’s when she learned she was pregnant. As an adoptee, she was comfortable surrendering her child to adoption and the father was not ready to take on raising a child himself. I joined the thread when it was still early enough to connect with the adoptee doing the search.

Like my mom and my self, Ancestry isn’t always helpful, at least not quickly and not until one has more complete information (names and locations) than the minimal information the agency in California was willing to give this woman. Also, Ancestry does not have a lot of records newer than the 1940s. This woman was born in 1977. We are becoming friends because, though our stories are different, we have a lot in common.

Already, there seems to be strong evidence that the father has been identified and may have lived out his life in Eldon, MO. This is particularly interesting to me because my adoptive maternal grandmother’s family originated in that geographical area, so I do have some sense of the place. My grandmother’s father founded the town of Eugene, which is located nearby. My adoptive maternal grandmother was a double cousin to Maudie, who lived in Eldon at the time I met her. Their parents were brothers and sisters who married brothers and sisters and they grew up on farms walking distance apart.

If this man (who seems quite likely to be the father) is indeed the father, the sad news is that he has died. However, he did have another daughter during his life. A good friend of mine got a big surprise when her mother died and she found out that the man she had been told was her father – wasn’t. She has since located and reunited with a half sister and they are so much alike. This is a joy that softens the shock of her own discovery.

Like the adoptee doing this search, my mom wanted to find her own mother. By the time she made the effort with the state of Tennessee, her mother had died. That devastated my mom. Tennessee denied her the adoption file but the law had changed by the time I tried and I now have that treasure trove of information. After my mom and dad (both adoptees) died, I went on my own journey of reunion because my family still knew next to nothing about our origins. Ancestry helped me with some background information about my mom’s dad. By then, I had learned from exploring Ancestry about his children by his first wife. I visited his grave in Pine Bluff, Arkansas only to discover my mom’s youngest half-sister buried nearby. I had only missed meeting my aunt alive by 2 months.

This led me to an Ancestry page for my aunt. I sent a private message and the surprise was that it was answered by the best friend of this woman’s daughter. She put me in touch with my cousin. I did spend an entire afternoon with her. She had all of her mom’s photo albums and by the time the afternoon had ended, I felt like I had lived decades within the family.

23 and Me eventually led me to discover who my dad’s father was. His mother was unwed, he was given her surname at birth. I thought it would be impossible to ever know who he was. A cousin did 23 and Me, which put me in touch with another cousin who had my paternal grandmother’s photo albums. She had left breadcrumbs as to my grandfather’s identity there that did end up being the lucky break that revealed him.

Never think it is impossible to re-connect the threads of your identity, even when states seal adoption files and the agencies involved refuse to give you identifying information. Not all searches are successful or happy, however, reading through some of the entries on this woman’s now viral search thread on Facebook, I have been heartened to see so many adoptees have shared their own stories of how DNA brought them success with their own searches.