Have you ever watched those TV programs - "Who Do You Think You Are?" where celebrities go on a quest to find out about their family history. Or "Long Lost Family" where people are connected to their parents or children after adoption?
I watch those shows all the time. And my biggest question has always been: "Who am I?"
I always knew I was adopted. I grew up knowing. In fact I was pretty proud of it. I can remember standing up in my second grade class and announcing to the teacher and the entire class that I couldn't answer a question on family history because I was adopted, end of story.
Me at Easter 1958
But then, there's always been a question: Who am (or was) I really? It's a little hard when you go to a doctor's office and they ask about family history. I would always shrug and say, "I don't know. I'm adopted." The response was always: "Oh....well, okay." When I had colon cancer in 2009, I wondered if it ran in my family, but there was no way to find out.
There were several reasons I didn't really pursue the quest for my birth parents for a long time. I didn't want to hurt my adoptive parents. They raised me, put up with me, cared for me. They were my parents. That was the most important reason.
I also feared being rejected a second time. I didn't know the circumstances of why I was put up for adoption. Going through life I came up with many, many different scenarios. Whatever the circumstances, I felt I had been given up and I didn't want to go through the possibility I would find my birth mother and be rejected again. That was always a possibility. She would have gone on and lived her life. Maybe she didn't want to be reminded or want me. I didn't want to take that chance.
Thirdly, New York is a notoriously difficult state for adoptees and birth parents to find out about one another. The records are so tightly sealed I don't think you could get a pin through the pages. My brother Michael was also adopted. At one point he and his wife wanted to know some specific things about the family health history. In order to do so, they needed to file with the courts in New York, a guardian (someone unknown to them) was appointed and would research the records. That guardian could report back ONLY the answer to the question specified, nothing more. I can understand why the state goes to such lengths to protect children and birth parents. But I wish they were more open if the child and parents are actually looking for each other, at least.
December 1958. (I still have that bookcase behind me.)
All I was told about my adoption was that I was 99% Scottish and 1% French. My father is 100% Scottish so it made sense to me that they would try to put a child with parents who had a similar ancestry. I was also told my (birth) mother wanted me brought up Catholic. This was when I was breaking away from the Catholic church. I remember responding, "Well, you DID bring me up Catholic. I'm just not anymore".
My birth certificate was a little bit more revealing. Of course, this was not the certificate issued at birth. It was a revised certificate filed in 1958 after my adoption. There were no revealing facts on it beyond I was born in Buffalo, New York, on May 14, 1957 at 1:11 AM. (I just discovered some health notes my mom had kept and put inside my baby book that stated I was 7lbs. 3 oz. when I was born). But that was it. No mention of a hospital. No other identifying information.
Me at 2 years old
Things took a really interesting turn in late 1980-early 1990. I remember this like it was yesterday because I received some news that shocked the heck out of me. For the first four months of my life I was someone else, with a different name entirely!!!!!
This was information my mom never intended to come out. But there it was, the elephant in the room. My mother, grandma Con and I were at a restaurant having lunch. My mom began talking about the recent death of the lawyer who had done the legal paperwork for Michael and my adoptions. She said some not very nice things about him. He was married to a friend of my mom and when they hired him they had hoped he would give them a break on the legal costs. He didn't, and in fact, my mom added, "He charged more for you because we had to change your name", HUH????? WHAT???????
Now, people who know me know I'm stubborn as hell. I mean I take being a Taurus to the max. If I can't figure out something, no matter what it is, I will stick at it until I figure it out or it kills me. Obviously I'm still alive so I've managed to figure things out. Well now we had the bull, er, elephant in the china shop. I still remember the horrified look on my mom's face when she realized what she said. OF COURSE I had to know!!!!
It took a while of admitted badgering but my mom finally gave me the answer. I was setting the dining room table for dinner so it must have been a holiday or family event because that's the only time we ate there. She came to the doorway and said, "Fine! You name was 'Diana". Are you happy?"
Diana.....Diana....did it feel like me? I wasn't sure. It was a nice name. But it felt foreign to me. My mom doesn't lie, but I couldn't help wonder if she had just grabbed onto the first name she thought of in frustration. Diana, Princess of Wales, was in the news in those days. My mom said the reason she didn't tell me was because she knew I didn't like the name Nancy - which is true. I never thought it was very feminine. She was afraid I would want to take the name Diana legally. (I actually thought about it, even looked into it, but I didn't want to hurt my parents so I never went through with it.
A few months later, when we were at Loon Mountain for the Highland Games, my mom came to me with a catalog of Scottish products and pointed to a surname. "Your last name was something like this." The name she pointed to was Galbreath.
Diana Galbreath. Was that me? Was that who I was for the first four months of my life? I always wondered what would she have been like if I had never been adopted. In the difficult times, I often thought Diana would have had such a wonderful life and all her (my) dreams would have come true. All the dreams that never came true as Nancy and broke my heart and spirit would have come true if I stayed Diana. Well, we all believe in fairytales sometimes.
Me in 1961 at 3 1/2. Love the red shoes.
Life continued on. In early 2002, I started doing a little more research. I wrote to the department of Social Services for the State of New York, requesting any information possible. I didn't expect to hear back from them. It is the government after all. But to my surprise I did. The only non-identifying information they provided was that my birth mother was 19 when she gave birth to me and that I had an older sibling! What? A brother or sister out there? Really?? But with nothing else to go on I let it drop. Life went on. I retired, moved, bought my house, got into gardening and being with my boys- Sammy and Griffy (my doggie kids). Time passed.
Not certain how old. 7 or 8 maybe? I look a little maniacal!
This brings us back full circle to those programs which peaked my curiosity. Once again the big question raised it's head...who am I? I had no idea who I thought I was, but I wanted to find out if there was anything more I could find.
I started with Ancestry.com (which sent me on a whole other tangent on the McMillan family tree which became fascinating and consuming at the same time - another topic for another blog). I put in the info I knew, which wasn't much. Then I started thinking. There was a Facebook page for everything, why not for adoptees looking for their parents? So I checked it out. Sure enough there was a community called "Adoptees Looking for Birth Parents or Siblings." I figured I had nothing to lose so I posted what I knew and prepared to wait.
To my amazement, in a very short period of time, a woman got in touch with me saying she thought she had found my birth family! I was shocked. Could it really be that easy? She said she thought my mother's name was "Joyce Anne Gilbraith", that she was born in 1938 (which would have made her 19 at my birth - that fit!) and was from Buffalo, New York. I apologize to this nice lady because I was highly skeptical. Was it possibly just a coincidence that my birth mother and my adoptive mother both had the name Joyce? And the name Anne, that was my Grandma Mac's name.
I put this information into Ancestry.com and started to get hits and info for Joyce Anne Gilbraith. It all certainly fit. I also heard from a man named Myles on the Facebook site who offered me the same information that the nice woman did and suggested I call a woman named Diana who lived in Texas who might possibly be my long lost sister/half sister. I thought, why not.
This all happened on Sunday which is the day I always go to visit and have dinner with my folks. I started talking about all of this with them. They were very interested and, after hearing all the information, my mom even said it certainly sounded likely, that everything fit, that this was my birth mother. I have spoken on occasion with her about the times I checked into my birth history. She really didn't mind and she understands my curiosity.
In 1969 at the age of 12 with my brothers Steve 5 and Mike 19, I love this picture -
doesn't sweet faced little Steve look like he's up to something?.
First I got in touch with Diana by Facebook and that evening we talked on the phone. It all seems to fit! There's too much that fits to be coincidental! She was born a year before me in March, in Buffalo, to Joyce Ann (I'll use that to differentiate between my mom Joyce and my birth mom Joyce). Joyce Anne was unmarried at the time. She then became pregnant with me. She was living with her mother who was helping her to raise Diana. My understanding is that while she wanted to keep me, her mother said no, that Joyce wasn't married and she was helping her out financially, they just couldn't keep me. So I was given up for adoption.
The strange thing was that I was also named Diana. That seemed to be the only thing that didn't fit. Why give two children the same name? But it turns out that Diana/Diane is a family name on the maternal side of the family. It appears that, knowing she couldn't keep me, Joyce Anne gave me the name Diana feeling that I would at least carry on the family name even if I couldn't be with them. My parents changed it so if it hadn't been for my mom's revelation I never would have been able to made that connection.
Joyce Anne would go on to marry three times before she passed away in Oklahoma at a very young age. Even if I had pursued this quest years ago she wouldn't have been alive to meet. But I do have the next best thing in Diana. Not only have I gained a half sister (I always wanted a sister), I've gained three more. Julia, Melody and Roseanne.
This is a picture of my half sisters sent to me by Diana
It was not an easy life for my sisters. When Roseanne was still a baby, the girls were placed in foster care. Sadly, Joyce Anne couldn't take care of them. Roseanne was adopted fairly quickly. Julia was later adopted by her foster family. Diana remained with her foster family. I think Melody did too, but I'm not certain. Diana kept in touch with Joyce off and on throughout her life so she has the most memories. She filled me in on everything about the family history and her life experiences. She's also sent pictures of herself and the girls as children. Diana said she will also send some documentation on Joyce Anne and a picture of her so I can see what she looked like. I've searched the pictures to see some resemblance. I think I look a lot like Diana in the picture above in some of my childhood pictures.
My mother asked me the most important questions when I told her everything. She asked "What are you going to do next?" and "What does knowing this mean to you?"
What next? Nothing except to be in touch with my sister Diana. I have always had family. Now I have the sisters I always wished for as well. She's a terrific lady and I'm so happy that we were able to get in touch and stay in touch.
I still have one question. Am I really so much Scottish and some French? I don't mind hearing the bagpipes, they don't make me cringe. I like all things Celtic, but that doesn't mean I am. I probably am. But I'm still curious. So I bit the bullet. I ordered a DNA kit from Ancestry, You send in a cheek swab and they tell you your heritage. It takes about 6-8 weeks from the time you send the test back and I still have to receive it. I'll share that journey with you when that happens.
What does knowing this mean to me? It's hard to explain. It's like there was always this hole in me, full of questions I couldn't answer. It's gone. I have the answers I need. And I know who I am. I know who I came from and the family history . I'm really glad to know about it. I'm happy to have a new sister in my life. I was blessed to be adopted and to have my parents and my family. I'm Nancy McMillan and I can finally say it's good to be me.