There have been several adoption twists in television shows of late to the point where I almost expect it. Recently, it’s been part of a Grace and Frankie episode where Coyote meets his birth mother but she does not want to expose this secret to her new family. This is common in reunion stories. In the Netflix series Safe, based on a Harlan Coben novel, a daughter stalks her biological father in an effort to reveal their secret relationship. This one thankfully turns out positive for both of them. Adoptees and bastard children have certainly risen to the forefront of modern entertainment drama.
I’m obviously more sensitive to these situations than most because I am an adoptee, but first a lovable bastard. I have admittedly stalked and written to my birth mother, but have received no acknowledgment. I even circumvented the scenario of keeping the secret discreetly between mother and son, by also writing her family. Still no response. On the other hand, the birth father has long passed, but his family was graciously receptive to my inquiries. I don’t know where to go from here?
I could have popped-up during a different chapter of their lives, but there were no inheritance issues, rights to the throne, or other claims that are too often Hollywood-ized. I want nothing except some questions answered and perhaps some insight into health genetics. I’ve tried to find some of this information by building an Ancestry.com family tree and finding common DNA connections. I have now identified about 200 DNA relatives on my Jerry Banister Family Tree, including a separate test that I took on 23andMe. There are now over 22,000 people that have been added to my branches just to find these 200 close connections. It’s a very cumbersome process that has taken over 3 years, considering that in order to find one match on the tree it’s necessary to add 100 more names.
The challenge is that most all the voluntary DNA testing has been in recent years, excluding those who are no longer living and never had access or reason for testing. This means that the majority of my DNA connections are with younger generations whose identities are often only revealed in the obituaries of their parents or grandparents or finding more intrusive sources. Ancestry was designed to maintain privacy for the living, so seeking information through other member trees is often marked as “private.” You need permission from family members to see the newest members. I haven’t really been accepted into the Ban(n)ister family, with a few exceptions, so my work might be considered to most as stalking – just like in the movies.
Today would have been my dad’s 99th birthday. Mom was one day behind him. They adopted me just before they turned 29 and my sister four years later. It takes a special couple to take-in someone else’s baby as their own. I couldn’t have asked for better parents, although I still did my share of making life difficult for them. I regret not being more grateful at the time and for abusing my good fortune. I was especially mean to my mom who did everything for me, when I was really nothing more than a guest in their home. I would like a do-over on being their son.
As I continue to explore the family that shares my DNA and put-together an Ancestry.com tree to understand the connections, there’s a certain sense of guilt that washes over me. These are all complete strangers, while my “real” family has nothing to do with genetics. While my adopted parents were still alive, out of respect I had little interest in looking for strangers. My heart was definitely in the right place, but I didn’t always show it. As I reflect on growing up, I should have shared my feelings, expressed my love. Instead, I was selfish and in need of a do-over.
In this life, you don’t get do-overs! You have to live with your mistakes, as I am with mine. After all, it was a likely mistake that brought me into this world. Two strangers attracted to each other got together without anticipating the consequences. It gave my parents the start to a family and me the opportunity to raise a son of my own. It turned out to be a chain reaction of good fortune. Granted, I could have been a better son, but most people don’t understand this until they take on the role of being a parent themselves. In my case, I also grew up in a family that also had the resources to provide me with a college education. I’m not sure that would have been the case without adoption. Not to mention the personal nurturing and attention I received as part of a stable household. All things consider, I would never risk a do-over or even consider giving up the love that I will always feel for my mom and dad. It’s their birthday and I miss them!
As I approach 20,000 entries on my Jerry Ban(n)ister Family Tree, I find myself going backwards rather than forward. Most of the DNA connections that I’m now finding are very distant relatives, designated as 5th or 6th generation cousins. In each case, I start in the 1700’s and follow the trail to more modern times. Ancestry maintains privacy for those still alive, so as I move into the 1900’s there is little identifying information. I often discover how we are genetically related, but know little about them personally. Only in a few cases have I actually met these members of my “family.” The majority are simply strangers that have a distant connection to the circumstances regarding my adoption. As a result, I remain clueless on the answers I seek.
What am I looking for? I ask this question every day as I continue to explore the names or initials that have even a slight DNA connection on Ancestry or 23andMe. I then try to see how they fit into the tree and mark them with a green “DNA MATCH” label. Many of my newest discoveries are actually offspring of 2nd or 3rd cousins that were labeled earlier in my research. However, DNA science is a relatively new technology and only my generation was given the opportunity to voluntarily provide samples to be tested. Slowly but surely new names appear in the database, but they tend to be younger, perhaps seeking answers like me. The closest I now find are third or fourth cousins, as my generation continues to die.
It seems a bit morbid but the only new information I now get is in the obituaries of my peers. They list living family members that only show up as “private” on Ancestry records. It’s unfortunately the only way to fill-in the holes on my family tree. Someone has to die to reveal the family secrets that are hidden from the public. This is especially true for me because I don’t know these people that are my relatives. I didn’t grow up with them or attend reunions to meet their parents or children.
It’s a sad quest, especially knowing that my 86-year old birth mother is alive but unresponsive along with her children who ignore my inquiries. It’s as if I’m prying into their lives, when I should have the right to answers. The family tree research exercises I go through every day are futile attempts to know the people who gave me life. She probably gave me a better life through adoption so I’m nothing but grateful. However, without her acknowledgment of our relationship, I will always probably remain clueless.
This year I’m experiencing a new level of family-ties, having recently added two son-in-laws. Granted, it’s only on the step-father level, but it’s still beginning to develop into a new marital challenge. I’ve noticed there are more conversations between mother and daughters now that the honeymoon is over. These are all non-DNA relationships as if that has anything to do with habits or abilities to get-along. However, I have somehow become part of these discussions, as my habits are now compared with their new husbands. It’s a personal violation of my space. For example, my son-in-law here in Portland was playing video games all day Sunday, and my wife commiserated by describing herself as a “football widow.” The topic of should the husband always accompany the wife to the grocery store was also bantered about? Hopefully, our sex lives won’t be compared!
I think that in the long run I’ll enjoy having son-in-laws if we can keep the wives from talking. I’m not sure exactly what we have in common yet, but that will come together over the many meals that we will share. They both seem to be better educated and more serious than I ever was at their age. Neither of them have the same sports interests that comes natural with my son. It will take a while for me to understand the nature of their careers. I also try to maintain a distant relationship with my wife’s daughters since their father is the primary male figure in their day-to-day growth. He will also most likely be the “favored” father-in-law simply because they are married to his daughters.
I doubt there will be grandchildren from either couple, having not married sooner. Both women are now in their late thirties and highly motivated in their careers. For me, three grandchildren through my son and his wife are more than I ever expected. I’m off to visit them in Florida in another month. I certainly enjoy spending time with my daughter-in-law that has brought a lot of joy into my son’s life. I’m sure she’s gotten an ear-full about me from my former wife in their discussions about the men in their life.
I’ve added my son-in-laws to my family tree that includes a combination of extended, adopted, and genetic families. As I work on all these personal connections, it’s disturbing to know that we all will someday be just a memory to future generations. It’s good to adding living relatives rather than spending all my time trying to identify “strangers” that may or may not have had an influence in my life. As time goes on, I hope my new son-in-laws are as happy with their new wives as I am with mine. Please, just keep us out of the conversation!