When my son and only child was born, on Halloween 1997, the startling thought occurred to me that he was the first blood relative I’d ever met during my, then, 33 years on the planet.
It would be nearly 15 years before I was to meet another, more on that in a moment, but first, let’s review…
As mentioned in my Excerpts From The Abandoned Novel series of posts, I was the product of a one-night, no-names-exchanged, never-to-be-seen-again, recreational tryst at a resort in the Catskills, and I was given up for adoption by my biological mother, who was given, by her parents, the brutal ultimatum: Get rid of the baby or be banished.
I was raised in central New Jersey by a middle class Jewish couple, who, at the time of my adoption, already had one biological daughter, age 5, and then had another biological daughter a year after I arrived. My father was a Dickensian villain, but I had good, healthy relationships with my sisters, and my mother tried very hard to compensate for my father’s oppressive tendencies, supporting me fervently in my athletic pursuits, and upon my discovery of literature, which she’d majored in in college, she nurtured my interest despite my father’s protestations that a degree in English would never lead to an adequately lucrative career. (When I officially declared my major in English Lit, he literally said to me, “You’ll never get someone to marry you if all you have is an English degree!“)
My adoption was, for years, kept secret from me, until one day, when I was in sixth grade, I was given a homework assignment to create a chart of my family tree, and the solution that my parents came up with for the obvious dilemma was to finally tell me the truth. Funnily enough, since they knew nothing about my biological parents except for the name of my biological mother, for the one and only time in my life they gave me a note to give to my teacher, explaining the situation, and asking that I be excused from having to complete the assignment.
Over the years, I made several half-assed attempts to find my birth mother, hindered by a combination of the following:
- adoption records in New Jersey were sealed until 2014
- even if my birth mom was ok with the idea of being found by me, it was a needle-in-a-haystack scenario at best…
- far worse, if not an impossible scenario, if she did NOT want to be found
- for years, the internet did not exist or was not yet user-friendly enough to be of any help
- I was alternately too cheap or could not afford to hire a private investigator
- until 2012, I had the wrong spelling of my bio-mother’s last name
It had been years since my last search attempt, after which I’d pretty much given up hope, when, in May 2011, I came across a deeply moving article about the beneficiaries of organ donation in The New York Times that inspired me anew. At the time, I wrote a post about it on my previous blog, Fish & Bicycles, which I, of course, highly recommend 😉🤣, though I will provide this excerpt here:
So, just like Mr. Garcia’s organs, I was transplanted.
And…reading about how the organ recipients had a chance to meet the wife of the donor, and through her to posthumously honor the gift given by her husband, really stirred up my desire to find my birth mom.
She gave me life, after all. The least I can do is thank her.
Once again, in order to prevent duplicative effort, I ask that you indulge me and read from Fish & Bicycles, this time two posts written about the finding of my birth mother and her two children (my half-siblings) from a subsequent marriage:
As mentioned above, there was always the possibility that my bio-mother might have preferred to NOT be found by me. That I was instead warmly welcomed and embraced, that I learned about a portion of my ancestry, that hanging out with my half-siblings felt so comfortable and easy it was clear we’d hang out a lot if we lived closer (alas, they’re in New Hampshire), was just about as good of an outcome as I could have hoped for.
Left-to-right: Me, Cyndi (sis), Eileen (bio-mom), James (bro)
I’m contacted by my bio-mother and told that:
- two years prior to her giving me up for adoption, she’d had a previous unplanned pregnancy, also a boy
- this boy was adopted by a family from the same town in New Jersey that I grew up in…
- attended the same synagogue…
- graduated from the same high school…
- and his adoptive parents named him…wait for it…Howard!!!
This Howard visited me in Bellingham in August 2019.
Left-to-right: Howard 1.0, Howard 2.0
Remember the ‘one-night, no-names-exchanged, never-to-be-seen-again‘ nature of my conception, meaning that my biological father was not informed of the pregnancy and therefore never knew I existed?
Well, when I learned this fact back in 2012, I concluded, fairly reasonably I think, that the book on my bio-dad had therefore been closed, that half of my ancestry would forever remain a mystery.
Enter 23andMe, the DNA testing service, which yielded new information in two stages, approximately 2 years apart:
- In 2012, I learned from my biological mother that her ancestry was entirely eastern European, Ashkenazi Jewish, and so, imagine my surprise when, in 2018, my DNA test reported that I am: 80% Ashkenazi; 20%…wait for it…Italian! (For reasons I can only explain as being distracted by living with ALS, I didn’t then explore the Relative Finder service offered by 23andMe.)
- In August 2020, I was contacted by several people who had also completed DNA testing through 23andMe, and whom, using Relative Finder, discovered that we are blood relatives…yep…on my bio-dad’s side. (I was eventually contacted by three half-siblings and several cousins. Sadly, my bio-father, Jack, died in 2000.)
After several mindblowing video chat sessions with these new relatives — dubbed mindblowing for the uncanny ease and instant camaraderie of the connections right out of the gate — the three half-siblings (two brothers and a twin sister to the younger brother) flew to Bellingham on April 16th for a weekend visit.
Now, thanks to ALS, I can typically manage about 1.5-2 hours of time visiting with family and friends before fatigue and difficulty breathing overtake me, requiring rest and time on my non-invasive ventilator. And yet, the Sunday of this visit, my wife, son, and I went to hangout with my “new” relatives at the Airbnb they were staying at on nearby Lake Samish, we lunched and chatted and basked in rare April 70° sun, outside on the deck overlooking the lake, we arrived at 12:30pm, it was with utter amazement that we didn’t leave until 7:45, and the only possible explanation we could come up with for this unprecedented stamina: The Power of Love!
Jack Mitchell, my biological father
The Of Love & Genetics Recap
I could have been orphaned or aborted. My Dickensian father could have physically abused me, but he never did. My mother, who worked for many years as a publications editor at Rutgers University, inspired my pursuits in writing, as well as my eventual near-20-year career at Western Washington University. My sisters are both lovely and loving and made it possible for me to experience Unclehood.
No genetics, but much love.
The Maternal Side
I was a pro-choice feminist for years before I met my birth mother, but her story certainly reinforced those values. I’ll never forget hearing her voice for the first time, full of love and longing, leaving no doubt that she was opening the door to a reunion. Her son and daughter remain fond connections.
The Paternal Side
My 20% Italian, courtesy of my paternal grandmother Tina, is more specifically Sicilian, hence my lifelong love of spaghetti and meatballs and marinara! My bio-dad was beloved, once had Frank Sinatra as a babysitter, was a legendary story and joke teller, was obsessed with music, did voice work in radio and TV, and he was a practicing Buddhist. His three kids — whom, through their mother, grew up hanging out with someone they called ‘Uncle Tim,’ full name Timothy Leary — are extraordinarily kind and funny.
For the first 48 years of my life, the only blood relative I’d ever met was my own son.
But now, if you add up my adoptive family, my wife’s family, and the members of my maternal and paternal biological families, I’ve got more family than most people I’ve ever known.
That’s alotta family!