A world-traveling, 86-year old adoptee takes an emotional journey to explore her birth roots. Here’s how it went finding her biological mother and sharing the news with her adoptive family.
This story and related pictures are shared with the family’s permission.
Etta is a vivacious, 86 year- old world traveler. She hasn’t let old age slow her down. It is a lucky day if you catch Etta at home as she is usually traveling to Thailand, India, Egypt (during the 2011 revolution!), Europe, or visiting grandchildren all around the USA. Recently, Etta took a journey into her family history that didn’t require a passport. This genetic journey has changed her just as much as (and maybe more than) any of her international travels.
An adoptee’s discovery
It was only when Etta went to get a passport for her first international adventure as a high school student that she learned she was adopted. As she got older—especially after having kids and grandkids—her curiosity about her biological family increased, fueled by her kids’ own curiosity.
For five years Etta and I talked about doing a DNA test to possibly identify biological family and one January morning, we finally ordered the DNA test. The test kit came and I called Etta to arrange a time for her to spit in the tube. She told me that it would have to wait a few weeks because she was leaving the next day for Thailand. Half in jest, I told her that she had better be careful because she had to live to come back and take this test.
Etta had a fantastic trip and made it safely home to spit in the test tube. We eagerly waited for her test results and once they came back we were excited to see a 1st cousin match. I immediately sent this match a message and went to work on sorting out the rest of her matches.
By sorting through her other matches and talking with Your DNA Guide founder Diahan Southard, I figured out that this 1st cousin match was actually a half niece whose mother (who was still alive) was Etta’s half sister.
This revelation came as a shock to the niece. At first they didn’t believe that Etta was that closely related. However, I emailed them a picture of Etta and as soon as they saw her face, they knew instantly that she was family. The half sister said, “I felt like I was looking at my mother again.” They sent me photos of their family and I could easily see the family resemblance. She had some 1st cousins who looked just like her.
However, Etta didn’t know any of this yet. She wanted to hold a family party with her children and grandchildren where I would share the results with everyone. I think she knew the significance of this journey and she didn’t want to take it alone. They held a big family dinner and I put together a presentation of the results. As we sat around talking during dinner, I heard her children talking excitedly about learning which of their ancestors they looked like. I chuckled to myself because I knew that for some of them, the answer was going to obvious.
I shared what I had discovered with them, including photos of Etta’s birth mother, possible birth father, and then grandparents and great-grandparents. Her children and grandchildren started collecting photos of Etta from around the house and comparing them to her mother, grand-mother, half-sister, and cousins. It was also pretty clear that her son was the spitting image of her maternal grandfather.
An overwhelming discovery
All of this new information was exciting for everyone there, except Etta. She was overwhelmed.
As you can imagine, it is a lot to take in, especially when it comes through a relatively new science that you don’t totally understand. With time and some one-on-one meetings, Etta processed the discovery of her newfound family. I could see that Etta was on an emotional journey.
Later that year, Etta traveled to meet her half-sister (who has since taken the AncestryDNA test and there is no question that they are half siblings). They had a great time! Etta has also traveled back to Seattle and met some of her cousins. Her biological family has welcomed her with open arms. Etta shares personality traits with her biological family (traits that Etta didn’t share with her adopted family) and they always come away saying, “Yep, we’re family.”
As I have worked with more adoptees since then, I have seen that they all go through an emotional journey. Finding out who your biological family can change you, and sometimes redefines you. For some the process is short; for others it takes time. The journey is different for everyone, but for all of them it takes courage, strength, and a willingness to step into the unknown.