This weekend my mother, father, and I traveled to Asheville, North Carolina for a once-in-a-lifetime event: we are meeting two of my father’s biological siblings.
My father is 59 years old and will be meeting members of his biological family for the first time thanks to something many of you may have tried: a commercial DNA test—an Ancestry.com DNA test to be exact.
I found out my dad was adopted at a young age—I don’t remember just how young but certainly before 2nd grade. Beginning in earnest around 5th grade, I attempted to find his biological family—this mostly consisted of combing through digital copies of newspapers or making posts on discussion boards.
I’m a naturally curious person and have always loved to do research but I can’t really tell you why I wanted to find his biological family. I know a big reason was my desperation to have a culture. Growing up in Hawai’i I always felt so, so left out and lesser than for not having a culture, language, or group to belong to—I thought if I could find my dad’s family that would be the key to unlocking my culture and all the amazing things that come along with having one. I was in 5th grade and obviously didn’t understand the larger implications of this but none the less it motivated me back then.
I was extremely close to his adoptive parents, even closer than I was to my own maternal, biological grandparents. They liked movies and music and were well educated. I was able to go to their house and listen to cool records, read interesting books, watch films, and hear all about politics and history. My father’s adoptive father died when I was in 5th grade and his adoptive mother came to live with us shortly thereafter. She was dying of brain cancer at the time and was also suffering from several chemical dependencies. During her time living with us and during end-of-life care she told my mother and father details about his biological family that no one had known. She told us his biological family was from South Carolina, that his mom’s husband was a Postman who had been killed in an accident, and that she had several other small children to care for alone.
My father was born at Saint Joseph’s hospital in Savannah, Georgia on December 28, 1959. His adoptive mother was a nurse at the hospital and after struggling with infertility she and her husband began the adoption process through the Catholic Church. The hospital contacted them immediately when my father was born and they were connected with a social worker who relayed details about his biological family and finalized the adoption. During that time, the State of Georgia “blacked out” all birth certificates of adoptees so there was no way for anyone to gain any information about my father’s biological family.
After adopting my father, his parents relocated to Athens, Georgia, finally settling in Carrollton, Georgia in the early 1960s.
Throughout my life, I begged my father to find his biological family but he was never interested in doing so. He never presented any objections beyond saying he felt he had a good childhood and didn’t need a new family.
When he became a grandfather in 2009 I asked again and he relented. After a couple of years of back and forth, he agreed to hire an agency to find his family. The agency successfully found his 80+-year-old mother. He was permitted to write her a letter and he did so but her response wasn’t what he had hoped. She responded to his letter and while the agency would not pass the letter on they agreed to read the letter to my father: his biological mother was not interested in establishing a relationship with him. They relayed a few other details over the phone but since my father didn’t have a way to record, reread, or take down the details, that was the end of the line.
I had been pushing him to follow through with this process for 20 years and when he finally agreed he was met with further rejection from someone he’d never met. The one friend I confided in said I should have just left things alone and that things happened the way they were supposed to in the past so I shouldn’t have pushed to change them now…I felt extremely guilty.
A year or two afterward, I asked my mother to buy DNA tests in a last-ditch effort to find some additional information. My mother and I ordered Ancestry.com DNA tests. My father lives and works overseas so we planned to get him one at a later date. We spit into the tubes and mailed them off.
My test came back and noted that the migration pattern for my ancestors ended in South Carolina. My first connection was a cousin who contacted me and said that we were descendants of the Lumbee Tribe and that we had family who had migrated from Robeson, North Carolina to South Carolina. I gave the few details I had about my dad’s biological family but it was another dead end. This cousin put me on to GEDMatch.com and gave me some additional information about the migration to South Carolina which was very helpful.
When my father was able to complete his test some months later, I loaded all of our results on to GEDMatch and let it be.
I had one promising lead a few months afterward when I sent out messages to all of my first and second cousins on Ancestry.com containing a few details about my dad’s biological family: did they know anyone living in South Carolina in 1959? Did they have a relative in their 80s living in South Carolina? Did they know a woman widowed in South Carolina in the late 1950s? I received one response from someone who said they had relatives from New York who moved to South Carolina and on to Florida during this period. We exchanged a few details but they didn’t know anything about an adoption and I hit another dead end.
Finally, in the early spring of 2019, a new match showed up on my father’s DNA matches (I manage my parents’ tests so I can always see/correspond with my father’s matches while he is overseas). We both had a new first-second cousin match. To this point, my father had only matched with second-third cousins and more distant relatives. I reached out to the new match via my account and immediately relayed a few selective details about my father’s connection to South Carolina and relayed my excitement about the fact that my dad finally had a more closely related match than ever before.
To my pleasant surprise, the match responded immediately. Since Ancestry.com said we were first cousins I didn’t pay attention beyond that fact and we began exchanging information. A few days went by and after looking at my father’s other matches I realized this match had thousands of more telomeres in common than any of my other first cousins so I messaged the match and said I thought we might be more closely related. They immediately wrote back and said we needed to talk on the phone—I was speaking with my half-uncle.
On April 23rd, around 11:30 AM I went into an empty office at work and took a call from my recent Ancestry.com first-cousin match. The following story was relayed to me: my biological grandmother was born and raised on Staten Island to an Irish father and Slovakian mother (my fifth-grade self was quite happy about this!). My great grandfather lost everything on Wall Street during the Depression and my grandmother went to work at a phone company in Manhattan at the age of 14. She met my grandfather in New York City while he was serving in the Army and when his service ended they relocated to South Carolina where they had 4 children. He was a rural mail carrier and was killed in an automobile crash in 1959. A few months later, my grandmother became pregnant. Her other children attended the local Catholic school and she contacted the Church for help. Having told her 4 children they were running away from bill collectors, the Church relocated the family to an apartment in Savannah, Georgia where a social worker (we suspect it was the same one who met with my adoptive grandmother and saw the adoption through) regularly visited.
After his birth, the children and my biological grandmother returned to South Carolina. The nuns teaching at the children’s school told the oldest sibling they had a little brother but that was the only mention of the situation that ever gave any indication to anyone that my father existed at all.
My father’s half brother was eager to establish a relationship and after asking my father for permission I put them into contact with one another. They corresponded at length and we exchanged pictures that left no doubt about the DNA connection.
Earlier in the year, we were invited to my dad’s adoptive family’s annual reunion—which happens to take place in North Carolina. Since we were already planning to visit the area, my father, his half brother, and one of his half-sisters agreed to meet while we are here. This is my first time coming to the reunion, meeting any of my extended family on my dad’s side, and my first time meeting my dad’s biological family. Within a few days, I went from being an only child with one surviving grandmother to getting to know two completely new family groups from North and South Carolina. It’s pretty wild.
So, as you are reading this, after 59 years and 7 months, my father, mother, and I will be meeting members of his biological family for the first time. There are still mysteries to be solved and research to be done as we have not determined the identity of my father’s biological father but none of this would have been possible without the commercialization and popularization of commercial DNA testing.
I am very thankful that I have been able to meet and establish relationships with my father’s adoptive family for the first time and I am thankful I was able to help him find part of his biological family as well.
I have only spoken about all of this with three close friends and I am extremely thankful for each of their support–they listened, shared their own stories, and were each so kind. It was an emotional experience for me because I pride myself on being a lone wolf of sorts. Navigating the hurdles, fears, and emotions related to my own relationship to my father, his relationship to his adoptive family, and worrying about hurting people, was very challenging (and of course, it coincided with a few other life events which compounded the complications that emerged).
All this is to say, if you are looking for your biological family or perhaps, like me, you think you don’t have a real in-group, don’t give up. It may take 30 years or it may take 60 and of course, things are often out of our control but know that a completely new set of circumstances can arise at any time no matter how long it takes. Biological or adoptive, chosen or born-to, it’s up to each of us to establish the connections and relationships we want to have in this life.