Sunday, September 21, 2014

Truths Revealed...To My Mother

Carol (DePrato) Lacopo and her brother, Ted Miller
Elkhart, Indiana, 1980s

Seeing the results of the DNA test that indicated my mother's sister, Dianne, was actually her half-sister, had me reeling. My mind was aflutter with a litany of questions, concerns, options, theories, possibilities... but mostly shock. It's not like the possibility of these results was a completely foreign concept. Hell, it was the primary reason I did the comparative test between my mother and her sister. As mentioned previously, my expectation was that all my doubts would amount to just a long-standing silly worry on my part, and everything would turn out as it should be. as was expected, and as we were told all along. I was dumbfounded that it was not.

My physical reaction was more-or-less something out of a bad cartoon or slapstick comedy.

Stand up. Sit down. Scratch head. Stare at computer. Stand up. Grab phone. Put down phone. Sit down. Stare at computer. Stand up. Leave bedroom to grab jacket to race to my mother's house. Come back to bedroom. Take off coat. Grab phone. Put down phone. Sit down. Stare at computer. Stand up. Sit down. Stand up. Sit down. Stand up. Sit down.

Eventually it devolved into a lot of spinning and pacing and fretting and muttering.

How does one tell their mother that her father is not the man she presumed it to be for over the past three decades? Is this a phone call thing? Is this an in-person thing? And if it should be done in person, how do I call to say I am coming over? That sets off alarms immediately anyway, and then it becomes a phone call thing again. God knows patience is not a virtue I was blessed with, so I picked up the phone.

Truly, I remember more about my mother meeting Helen for the first time in 1982 than a phone call from nearly eight months ago. I recall my stomach being in knots and feeling that buzzing numbness of excitement mixed with fear and dread when my mother answered the phone. I am sure I started the conversation with something horribly clichéd, like "are you sitting down?" But I didn't spend a lot of time on pleasantries.

"I've received Dianne's test results. She is your HALF sister."

I think it took a moment to really settle in, because what I remember the most is the lack of  any significant emotional display. And really, I had no idea what effect this would have on my mother. She wasn't raised by Frank Strukel, and since he had died in 1968, she had never met him either. But she had a picture of him hanging in her home computer room next to that of Raymond DePrato, the man who raised her. The news I was giving her about her paternity did not rip apart her childhood memories or tarnish memories of a presumed biological father that doted upon her as an infant. But it did alter the perception of her own story. In 1982, my mother learned how her story began. She was introduced to the players. Those actors in the drama of her birth that she could not meet, she learned about through stories and remembrances of others. This was the perception of herself that had given her roots and identity in 1982 where before she only had questions.

And now it was different. It was a lie. It was wrong.

After that particularly surreal phone call, my mother confessed to the whole human gamut of emotions. There were tears over losing a father she had accepted as her own. There was anger over not being able to question anyone who had answers. There was frustration over coming to terms with the possibilities of her father's identity when decades of stories seemed to indicate there was little doubt that it was Frank Strukel. And there was fear over how her sister would react to the news.

I tried to joke with my mother. Perhaps Frank Strukel was her father, and not Dianne's! We chuckled over that being the sort of bizarre reality that occurs only in our family, but unfortunately Dianne had many genetic matches with people of Slovenian ancestry. My mother had none. The Štrukelj researcher that had contacted me earlier with no genetic match to my mother did match Dianne - albeit only by a tiny singular 5 cM strand of DNA on Chromosome 2. Although the scientist in me stated I needed a Strukel cousin of known relationship to use as a comparative control, the verdict was unavoidable. Dianne was the Strukel. My mother was not.

The next step would be to test one on my mother's other siblings to see if she was the product of a final reluctant tryst of Helen's with her first husband, Eldon Miller. And although there were three known children born of this first marriage, the biggest enemy to the genealogist (especially the genetic genealogist) is time. Helen's eldest son, Jerry Miller, had just passed away in Oregon the previous October at the age of seventy-five. And her daughter, Sandy Miller, the older sister my mother always knew existed, had died regrettably young at the age of sixty-four in 2006.

All that was left was Ted Miller.

Ted, 73, and his second wife, Darlene, live on a small farm in Sedalia, Missouri. Having been taken from his mother and moved to the west coast by his father, Ted had spent his early adulthood in California, and the bulk of his later years in Oregon. Only as he reached retirement age did he decide he wanted to taste a little of the agriculture pursuits of his ancestors. He wanted to try his hand at simple country living, and he found it suited him. And although he and my mother had maintained a close relationship over the years, it was largely through intermittent cards, letters, and phone calls. Conversely, I had rarely spoken to him over the years, for no other reason than the resultant constraints of time and space.

But this was a genealogical emergency.

I had my mother dig up his contact information, and I informed her that I was immediately hanging up the phone to call him. She agreed that I would tell him the news regarding my recent findings, ask him to spit in a tube for his DNA test, and instruct him to call her immediately thereafter.

Ted didn't seem too shocked to hear from me. He just said his hello as if he and I chat every Sunday over coffee. I moved past the pleasantries. I breathlessly rattled off the entire litany of my doubts regarding my mother's paternity, the science and concepts behind autosomal DNA testing, my mother's results compared to her sister's, and on and on and on. Ted just listened quietly. He is a big man who uses few words. When I finally finished, I asked him if he grasped all of that, and if he had any questions.

He just chuckled.

"If Dianne's only her half-sister now, I'd sure be proud to claim her as a full one!"

I asked him if I could send him a DNA test kit right away.

"Sure, I'll take your test. But I am not sure how much good it will do you."

Lying on my bed in Indiana, I rolled my eyes and took a deep breath. Was I going to have to explain this all again? I immediately put my lecture onto replay.

"No, no, no, I get all that."

Then why I asked him did he think taking the test would do me little good?

"Eldon Miller is not my father."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

In Defense of the Truth



As genealogists, we seek the truth.

The unfortunate reality with being a truth-seeker is that the truth is rather messy. And if that truth has been buried deeply within the sands of time and further weighted down with silence, avoidance, and lies, it is even more difficult to dig free.

This blog details my efforts to ferret out the story - and the truths - regarding the conception and birth of my mother, Carol Sue Miller, born in Goshen, Indiana, on the night of New Year's Eve, 1946. She was a child born of a recently divorced woman who had left a husband who treated her poorly. The mother, Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller, had just lost custody of her two sons, who were immediately taken by their father across the country to be raised without the influence of their mother. This same mother made the painful choice, with other outside pressures, to give her child to another couple to raise. This child, who was conceived outside the bounds of marriage, is my mother. If you have read the blog this far, you have learned that my mother is not the child of the man who thought she was his first-born daughter.

The truth is undoubtedly messy.

The story you have followed thus far details infidelity, deception, premarital sex, abandonment, lies, revenge, and deceit. In learning about the war experiences of Frank Louis Strukel, you have experienced just a tiny bit of misery, starvation, murder, degradation, alcoholism, torture, and despair. In learning about my grandparents, Ray and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato, you glimpse a bit of disappointment, loneliness, and anguish over the inability to have children of their own.

None of these things are pretty.

As genealogists, we are constantly faced with not-so-pretty events in the lives of our ancestors. In a lecture I give regarding utilizing court records in Pennsylvania research, I titillate and shock my audience with a criminal case that occurred in 1794, where Maximillian Spaidle is prosecuted by the State of Pennsylvania for the crime of buggery. He was caught having "a venereal affair...upon a certain red Heifer about the age of three years." To some, this may be an inappropriate topic to cover in a room full of genealogists. Why do I use it as an example? Because the person who paid Maximillian's bond guaranteeing his appearance in court was listed as "his father." No other record in existence provides that sort of information. It is genealogically relevant. And it is Maximillian's regrettable truth.

Similarly, I recently discovered through the ever-expanding database of digitized newspapers that my great-great-grandfather, Albert Swarm, bludgeoned a teenager to death with a piece of wood in 1901. There were no witnesses, and he claimed self-defense. This is the same man who went through five wives, largely because of his temper, so it is more likely that Albert killed a man in a rage over something petty. At the time of the murder, his nineteen-year-old wife, Rosa, was at home having just given birth the week before to her second child - my great-grandmother. Rosa left him in 1904. Albert wasn't even held or prosecuted for his crime. There simply was no proof as to the events that transpired prior to the murder. That is a part of Albert's story. It is a part of Albert's truth.

Again, Truth is a harsh mistress.

It is also offensive.

And it should be. We are all humans. Our ancestors were all humans. We have the capacity for tremendous good and survival, as well as horrible acts of depravity and selfishness. And the fact that I urge everyone to tell their story, or the stories of their families, means I am asking you to tell the truth. Whitewashing the family history to make everyone hold to the highest standards of societal propriety is a lie. A grievous one. And a genealogist that skips over the salacious and horrific details of his family because they are "inappropriate" is a genealogist I do not want to work with.

So why this tirade about truth seeking?

After my last blog post I was contacted by a genealogical colleague, a person who was a staunch supporter of my blog and who was engrossed in the story that has been unfolding. This same person found my language offensive, against their beliefs, crass, and unnecessary. Those are directly quoted adjectives. This person also stated that they will not likely continue reading my blog because of my language usage.

I would like to quote Dr. Daniel Fincke, a Doctor of Philosophy, from his blog Camels With Hammers  from 12 September 2012 regarding the use of "dirty words":

"There is nothing inherently wrong even with a harsh word like "fuck". It's good that we keep a lot of emotional charge in the word by not overusing it and abusing it, and it's good that we have recourse to it in any number of circumstances where it can be used to shock or provoke or intensify or otherwise stimulate people."
"In fact, these and other similarly "vulgar" words have a sort of wonderful dialectical tension that gives them their power. They are somewhat arbitrarily forbidden and ruled as impolite and potentially offensive and their forbiddenness in certain contexts is precisely what makes them effective words. Bringing them into contexts they are typically not allowed makes them strong words. The more we relax the general rules of politeness against them and make them entirely ordinary, the more we rob them of their power when we want to use them."
"The words have no magical "intrinsic" wrongness. The rules about them are on one level arbitrary of course. But once there are meanings and implications associated with words then they have effectiveness. It's knowing that a word is considered and will be taken by others as generally coarse or informal that makes it your choice to sound coarse or informal when you use it. You know that the social understanding is that you are going to present yourself in this way should you use the word." 

And because it's the truth.

I admittedly paused in my typing when describing my reaction to my mother's DNA test results compared to those of her sister. But writing in my blog that I sat there in disbelief thinking "Fudge!" is ridiculous and untrue. What I thought at that very moment is what I described in the last blog. And it is EXACTLY the one word with its coarse and informal and rude and forbidden and offensive and shocking implications that described my feelings at that particular moment.

If the acts of my ancestors haven't offended you by now, my use of a single word shouldn't either. But out of the acts of infidelity, deception, premarital sex, abandonment, lies, revenge, deceit, misery, starvation, murder, degradation, alcoholism, torture, despair, disappointment, loneliness, and anguish, have come stories of great survival, hope, love, commitment, redemption, joy, and laughter.

And that is because we are all human. Those of us living today. And those of us who have gone before us. These are the imperfect - often offensive - stories we need to tell.

And telling their stories is the best way to respect them as the imperfectly wonderful human beings that they were.

Will the truth set you free, as the old proverb states?

Maybe not. But it makes for damn good reading.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Truths Revealed



Upon my return from the chaotic "Amtrak Polar Vortex Debacle of 2014," I was immediately faced with the task of removing several feet of snow from my driveway that had been left untouched since my departure from the tundra two weeks previously. After digging my way into my house, I had three days to prepare for another two-week long trip to Salt Lake City, Utah. This including unpacking, cleaning, and repacking, but additionally this was a work trip that involved getting a host of client correspondence, files, notes, and documents into some sort of working order to take with me. Organization is not my strong point. Procrastination is. It usually results in mayhem.

On the last of these three days of insanity, and the day before I had to arise in the dark to catch an early morning flight to Utah, my otherwise healthy cat decided to drop dead whilst vehemently begging for his breakfast as had been his custom for the previous eleven years.

After crying on my ride to the airport, crying to myself in airports and on a series of planes to Utah, and crying on my ride from the airport, I still managed to keep my mind focused on work, and I returned home to another eight-foot wall of snow in my driveway on the night of 25 January 2014.

The point this narrative so far?

DNA was the LAST thing on my mind.

But February 2014 was already on my calendar as a light month. I was going to be able to get some computer work done, sit at my desk, do some much needed organization around the house, and prepare for a busier spring.

Although I had to still battle the onslaught of snow with just a hand shovel, I secretly enjoyed the physical workout it provided, especially in the quiet still of the night. I will tell everyone who will listen how much I hate snow, and how I dread another Indiana winter, but there is something about the crisp, silent stillness of a winter night that has its appeal. January came to a close with hopes of February being a productive month at home.

But I certainly had not completely forgotten about my adventures in DNA. Beyond the nagging doubts of my mother's origins, I was still fascinated with the power of DNA to help with my research, and while in California in December, I paid to have all of my data, and that of my mother and father, transferred to FamilyTreeDNA so that I could take full advantage of their database of several hundred thousand testers. I also splurged and ordered my Y-DNA test and my mt-DNA test, so that I could fully experience the spectrum of DNA testing and what it could offer me. I also downloaded all of my data to a site called GEDmatch.com, which is a free site where DNA testers can use data from all three companies - 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and AncestryDNA - can compare their autosomal DNA test results with each other, and take advantage of their many tools to utilize the data to its fullest potential.

So to say I was just ignoring the whole DNA game in January would definitely be a falsehood. I was in it deep. But I was more involved with the "big picture" aspect of it, and I was still exploring what it could do for me as a research medium now that I was a full-time professional genealogist.

But on 2 February 2014 my focus shifted. My impatience and curiosity always outpaces the powers that be. Although the "Dear Dianne, Your first set of 23andMe results are now available" email was delivered to my virtual mailbox on 5 February 2014, I was able to tell they were ready three days before.

Preliminary results means that relationships have not been calculated, colorful little ethnic composition maps have not been generated, nor have potential matches been shown to you. It just means the data is available to play with.

So I played.

And the first thing I did was a comparison of DNA between Carol Crumet and her sister Dianne Moore. There is a tool for that on 23andMe, and I simply placed my mother's name in one designated box, and Dianne's in one of three boxes reserved for the people with whom I might want to compare to her. And then my cursor hovered over the tab "Compare."

My heart was racing. However clichéd that sounds, it was. The doubts I had harbored for over thirty years would be answered with a single click. I was equal parts terrified, and equal parts feeling foolish over my guts being in knots over it. But I was also partially exhilarated that DNA held the truth. It would not - could not - lie to me.

Click.

Immediately a picture graph representing 22 chromosomes and an X-chromosome popped up. Green-colored segments of various lengths were strewn all over them indicating the areas on each individual chromosome that my mother and her sister shared in common. There was a lot of green. That seemed  to be a good sign. But what I needed was a number. And although this method of playing with the preliminary data gave me the tools that I needed to compare them to each other, I had to do the math myself.

The graph told me that my mother and her sister shared 1935 centimorgans (cM) of DNA in common. A centimorgan is a unit of measuring genetic linkages. And 23andMe considers roughly a total of 7438 cM of data on the twenty-two chromosomes and two X-chromosomes of women.

Break out the calculator. Punch. Punch. Punch. Punch. Punch.

They shared 26.0% of their DNA in common.

Twenty.  Six.  Percent.

I think my racing heart stopped. I felt a little dizzy, almost as if I'd been drinking way too early in the day. I was certain about what I was seeing, but I still brought up all the same DNA websites I had read countless times before. And I reread on all of them the simple facts I already knew in my head. Full siblings share an average of 50% of their DNA in common. Half-sibling share an average of 25%.

Fuck.

Although that's not a family-friendly term to put into my blog, it was the first thing that came to my mind. Truly. I stared blankly at the screen and at the not-enough-green striped chromosomal map in front of me with my calculator mockingly sitting next to it. I sat. I stared.

Fuck.

And it's not like I hadn't thought about this possibility. But at that moment, I knew I never really believed that it would be true. You have to know me to realize I agonize over EVERYTHING. And if you cannot prove it to me with concrete scientific fact, I am not going to ever believe it entirely. Show me proof, and I am fine. I really expected to see the proof to the story that everyone had told - and believed - since 1946. I could smile, sigh, and everyone could say, "See? I told you so! I don't know why you fret so much!"

Twenty-six percent is why I fret.

Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. OH MY GOD! Fuck.

That's the response that came to my mind after my initial numbness. That rushing thought, and the feeling of my skull becoming hot to the touch like an overheated hard drive because of the cascade of colliding thoughts and plans and repercussions and emotions and consequences and wonderment and confusion pummeling my brain. I was flushed and warm and frantic and shocked. I was overwhelmed.

I had to tell my mother.

Frank Louis Strukel was not her father.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Results

Ancestral Composition graph for Michael Lacopo
05 September 2014, 23andMe.com

On 28 July 2013, I wincingly paid roughly two hundred dollars for two autosomal DNA test kits from 23andMe for my mother and me. For those who know me, I am frugal. Painfully frugal. I will shop at Goodwill and agonize over buying a shirt for three dollars, then I will wear it until it is so old it unravels. But I will drop $275.00 for copies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century estate files in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania. Or thousands of dollars on a complete forty-nine volume set of Map Guides to German Parish Registers. I mean, really, a man has to have his priorities. So for $200 I was wanting my world rocked.

At about 1 a.m. that night I sent my mother a message. I knew she would receive it. The one thing I did inherit from her was the nocturnal habits of a vampire.

"Hey, can I have 1 ml of your saliva?"

Her response came at 2 a.m., as I had expected, "I've been wanting to do this! Yes, you can!"

This was followed by a 3 a.m. response, "Wait a minute! I just realized what you're up to. You're trying to find out who your daddy is, aren't you?"

My mother's life-long threat to me is to allow me to devote my life to genealogical research only to utter with her last dying breath, "You're a foundling." My response is that I will exact my revenge by planting her in the ground with only one of those bland, ubiquitous, anonymous tombstones over her head inscribed merely "Mother." But since I look more like the mailman than either one of my parents, the joke has run anywhere from being switched at birth to being the result of an immaculate conception.

And of course, since 23andMe was the only company in the DNA game to offer medical reports based on genetic markers, it made the novelty of the test even more appealing. There are no menacing hereditary diseases lurking in my family tree that I am aware of, but it seemed an interesting avenue to explore and to compare results. And although I certainly had my mother's paternity questions in the back of my head, the use of this as a long-term genealogical research tool was more in the forefront of my mind than to put the "Strukel vs. Miller" debate to rest. But trust me, it was there.

Of course, when the test kits arrived, I tore mine open, registered my kit, gave my perpetually dry salivary glands a pep talk, and produced enough spit required to box it up and throw it right back into the mail. Due to scheduling conflicts and out-of-town visitors, I was not able to get to my mother's house and gather her sample until the following week.

I couldn't help but see some sort of odd similarities to the events unfolding in the summer of 2013, compared to those in the fall of 1982. When we embarked upon the search for my mother's birthparents in 1982, my parents' marriage was ending. My mother, who had been a housewife and stay-at-home mother was tasked with reinventing herself. And the timing was right to initiate the search for her parents, because it answered questions long-held about her past, and gave her an extended family for support, and a new sense of identity to go with the new chapter in her life.

Similarly, in 2013, my mother's second marriage had just ended. Sadly, this one was not due to incompatibility or the inability to sustain a healthy, loving relationship. This one was the victim of a glioblastoma, a particularly sneaky villain of a brain tumor that once diagnosed becomes a formidable foe, and one who regrettably always wins its battles. What started as a freak dizzy spell in the fall of 2012 became a series of brain biopsies, radiation treatments, chemotherapy, trips to Mayo Clinic, and a rapid decline. Thomas Eugene Crumet died 23 May 2013 having just turned 70 years old. He and my mother were in their 24th year of marriage, and plans of a quiet retirement traveling the country or relocating to their beloved deserts of the southwest were terminally thwarted. They instead turned into a 66-year-old woman's struggle to begin life as a widow.

So then, although taking this test with my mother would serve the possibility of solving distant genealogical questions, it was also something I could do with her and share with her. It would bring her a little bit into my crazy world of the past, and tell her a little bit about herself. Because it was now time for another reinvention. And distraction.

My results arrived first. They started filtering in while I was speaking at the 2013 Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The medical findings came initially, and my colleagues were relieved to hear that my chances of ovarian cancer were quite minimal. 

All of my results were viewable by 23 August 2013, and at that time I was able to view my Ancestral Composition. These findings are crude metrics of your ethnic background, and they are origins based on self-reported information of places of origin and demographics derived from populations today. This part of the analysis is NOT hard and fast science. It is more fluff to be discussed at a dinner party. But it was interesting. And it made for a pretty graph. 

My DNA markers indicated I was 99.8% European with 0.1% Native American or Asian and 0.1% undetermined. No surprises there. My further breakdown of French/German, British/Irish, Italian, and Eastern European was remarkably similar to what my paper trail would have indicated. Then again, it's pretty easy to make numbers fit when over 40% of your genome is labeled "nonspecific European." At least there were no alien populations that grossly differed from over three decades of research.

As for matches in the enormous database of people with whom I shared DNA in common, there were few. Those that were likely the most closely related were people I had corresponded to as far back as the 1980s on various ancestral lines. It was fun and interesting to see them there and to revisit our linkages and to see it written indelibly into our DNA, but I was presented with no earth-shattering revelations of my ancestry.

I was frankly underwhelmed.

My mother's test results were delivered on 6 September 2013. We both shared the same DeltaF508 mutation in our cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene that would increase our risks of having children with cystic fibrosis if our mates carried the same mutation. My father does not have the defect, and my cats are adopted, so everyone is safe. But it's always nice to know you are as defective as your mother.

Beyond that, my mother's Ancestral Composition was the most boring one I have seen to date. Although she supposedly had 0.6% Native American or Asian markers which I could not account for with my research, the bulk of her ancestry was labeled "nonspecific European." Bland. Boring. Uninspiring. And it could support just about any caucasian man on the planet for her father.

The struggle to get my father tested was won (which could be a blog all unto itself), and his results became available on 5 November 2013. The numbers did not lie. I was not a foundling. I was not an immaculate conception. Born only nine months and four days after my older brother, I am sure I was still a horribly inconvenient mistake in judgment, but I was still nonetheless the offspring of the parents typed upon my well-worn, tattered original birth certificate printed on official green paper that was neither colorful and bright, nor of the drab, Army-green variety. It is an odd green saved only for official birth certificates issued in St. Joseph County, Indiana, in 1967.  

But along with the test I had purchased for my father on 26 September 2013 was also an additional test labeled "Dianne Moore." It sat on my desk for a while. During the blur of the approaching holiday season and the planning of a cross-country train ride to California with my mother, I joined her for a brief lunchtime meeting with her sister who had agreed to help her pick out a new pair of glasses. While my mother tried on a series of frames, I explained to Dianne my purposes for having her tested. Apparently I downplayed the "I am confirming Mom's paternity" part of the conversation, as later Dianne only seemed to recall my need to have multiple family members tested to make database matching more genealogically relevant.

On Christmas Eve, 2013, my mother and I left South Bend, Indiana, on an Amtrak train bound to Chicago, Illinois; and thence to another headed to Palm Springs, California. On 3 January 2014, Dianne Moore's saliva sample was received by the 23andMe laboratories. On 7 January 2014, an Amtrak train limped into Chicago's Union Station ten hours late during a polar vortex depositing two inappropriately-dressed, cranky mother and son passengers in forty-below-zero temperatures with no connection home.

My mother's paternity was the last thing on our minds. 

And at the same time an email was received from another tester in the 23andMe database who saw that I was listed as a Štrukelj researcher. She was so excited to see another Slovenian genealogist in the database, as she too had Štrukelj in her family tree!

But she was perplexed.

Why didn't we share any DNA in common?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Technology Catches Up

DNA Macrostructure
Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web
site: http://cnx.org/content/col11496/1.6/, 19 June 2013

In 1992, I still had a weighty argument that my mother's father was Frank Louis Strukel, despite her 1946 birth certificate naming Eldon Duane Miller as such. I continued my research into the Strukelj family of Slovenia. I hired a researcher to comb the Catholic church records south and southwest of the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana, in what was historically the Duchy of Carniola. I embraced my one-quarter Slovenian heritage and was able to identify all of Frank's sixteen great-great-grandparents, all born in the decades around 1800. For seven of those individuals, I had identified their respective parents, taking my Slovenian family tree back to the middle of the eighteenth century. For Eastern European ancestry with limited hands-on resources on this side of the ocean, I thought I had done quite well.

But I was still tormented by the "what if...?"

Paternity testing came into being with the advent of blood typing in the 1920s, and although this means of identification is horribly crude, I tried to discover the blood types of all parties involved. Besides my mother's known A-negative blood type, I could not ascertain the blood types of the remaining people involved. I had even asked Helen to identify her blood type when she was alive as a part of a medical questionnaire I had obtained during my early days of genealogical research, but she had absolutely no idea. If she didn't even know her own, it was doubtful she had even the slightest notion of Frank's or Eldon's blood type. The thought of seeking out past medical records crossed my mind, but the logistics and privacy laws seemed daunting, and I had presumed any medical records of Frank's before 1968 had long since been destroyed.

Paternity testing into the 1980s became more accurate with a variety of other new tests. The discovery of proteins on white blood cells shared by parents in the 1960s, as well as other advances in molecular biology, raised the likelihood of confirming paternity to almost a 90% accuracy. But firstly, these were out of convenient reach of the young inquisitive genealogist in northern Indiana, and secondly, for the best accuracy I needed a living father to test against my mother, regardless of who he might be.

But that all changed in the 1990s. The discovery of various genetic markers that can be passed unchanged from parent to child started appearing in scientific journals, legal cases, and in the media. The Y-chromosome passed from father to son could be proven to be relatively identical in long ancestral lines of men. Dr. Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona published an article in the January 1997 of Nature illustrating that male descendants of Jewish priests carried identical and unique markers on their Y-chromosome that differentiate them from others. In 1999, Bennett Greenspan, a genealogist, was stubborn enough and forward-thinking enough to pester Dr. Hammer to help him test multiple male members of the same surname of his mother's family that lived in Europe and South America. Their Y-chromosomes matched. Genetic genealogy was born.

At the same time reports of another kind of DNA was surfacing in scientific journals. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is a form of DNA that occurs in the body of the cell and not in the nucleus, so every person carries many, many copies of it in every cell of our body. The mtDNA in the sperm is destroyed upon conception, so the human fetus develops with an exact copy of mtDNA from the mother only. Men and women both carry mtDNA in all of their cells that is an identical copy of their mothers. This mother in turn carries the same mtDNA of her mother, and so forth. Because this type of DNA is so ubiquitous in the body, it can be isolated far easier than other types of DNA, and it can be retrieved from long-dead biological specimens such as teeth, bones, and hair, making this a type of DNA that is not only identifying but laboratory friendly. It was first used in a legal case in Tennessee in 1996 to help convict a man of murder. And it was used as recently as 2012 to help identify the remains of Richard III, dead over 500 years.

Fascinating? Yes! 

Practical? No.

I was one of the few people who read these scientific studies with delight. My genealogical and medical background made it the most beautiful marriage of disciplines. And long before it was a commercial reality I had contacted a fellow researcher in 1998 about using mitochondrial DNA to resolve a long-debated genealogical research quandary. I was a genetic genealogist before being a genetic genealogist was cool.

But if Y-chromosome testing could confirm the relationship from a father to his son; and mtDNA testing could confirm the relationship from a mother to any of her children; how would any of this help me? I was looking to confirm the relationship of a living daughter to a deceased father.

So I put this question to Dr. Thomas Shawker in an email in 1998. He was one of the early lecturers of DNA technology and its benefit to genealogists. And frankly, family members who are presently reading this blog might be shocked that this paternity issue so plagued me that I was contacting geneticists in the late 1990s. There was no other family member that doubted the assertion that Frank Strukel was my mother's biological father. And there was plenty of evidence to back up that assertion. And as stated previously, I believed it too. But it doesn't mean I didn't want to prove it. That's just how I roll.

Dr. Shawker's response indicated that I could still benefit by the old standards of paternity testing, and that by testing my mother and all four of her siblings, an assessment of various biological markers could tell me with moderate certainty what set of children belonged to what father. For hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. From laboratories who would accept specimens only through approved physicians or legal agencies.

Thousands of dollars? Laboratory visits for five individuals in different states who would think me crazy for even contemplating the doubts I had lodged menacingly in my brain? For moderate certainty? No thanks.

But I knew there had to be an answer to my questions rooted in genetic testing. It just took time for the scientific community to catch up with my needs. The first direct-to-consumer DNA testing company, GeneTree, emerged in 1997, but its first few years were devoted mostly to paternity testing. Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, founded in 1999, bought them up in 2001. They in turn were acquired by Ancestry.com in 2012 to help successfully launch their AncestryDNA. But again, their initial offerings were tests for Y-DNA and mtDNA - neither of which were suited for my problem.

FamilyTreeDNA pushed the consumer model and really became the go-to laboratory for genealogist seeking DNA testing, offering their initial Y-DNA and mtDNA testing to the public in May 2000.

DNA became the scientific and genealogical buzzword in the 2000s. The 2001 publication of Bryan Sykes, Seven Daughters of Eve, showed that mtDNA testing had taken the roots of mankind to just seven progenitor women (which has since been greatly modified). Surname projects in which male participants routinely tested their Y-DNA for comparison with others of the same surname was commonplace by 2003. The Genographic Project was launched by the National Geographic Society in 2005, offering consumer testing of Y-DNA and mtDNA for anthropological reasons, but it gave the regular guy on the streets a glimpse into his deep origins from man's original migrations from the plains of Africa.

But although I could apply this powerful tool to many other aspects of my genealogical research, none of it was applicable to resolving my dilemma of my mother's paternity.

Until 2007.

23andMe, a privately-owned biotechnology company, was founded in 2006 in Mountain View, California. They developed a saliva-based direct-to-consumer test that sequenced the DNA on all twenty-three of the human nuclear chromosomes; including our twenty-two autosomes and our one set of sex chromosomes: XX for women, XY for men. Their first test was offered to the public in November 2007, and although quietly revolutionary for genealogists, the test was marketed more for health analysis. Several new scientific studies had shown a genetic predisposition for certain diseases based on biological markers on a variety of our autosomes. If 23andMe could sequence those markers for the consumer and identify the presence of various markers known to increase disease susceptibility, they could provide a sort of educational and health awareness tool for anyone interested. The concept, and the science behind it, won the company Time magazine's Invention of the Year in 2008. 

But aside from the health information, it was found that large chunks of autosomal DNA are passed from parents to offspring in a predictable manner. And those parents had in turn received half of their DNA from each of their parents. And so on, and so on, and so on. So it became obvious that predictable amounts of autosomal DNA should be found between ANY of our relatives - not just a father to his son, or a mother to her children. Plain and simple, if my mother were the daughter of Frank Strukel, half her autosomal DNA would be "Strukel DNA." If she were the daughter conceived resultant of one final reluctant tryst in Helen's dying marriage to Eldon Miller, my mother would be half "Miller DNA." And I did not need Eldon nor Frank to be alive, because the DNA my mother carried would also be predictable comparable to her siblings. Although Carol and Dianne presumably shared the same parents - Frank Strukel and Helen Timmons - they would only share roughly 50% of their DNA in common, because they would have gotten a different half jumble of autosomal DNA from each parent. But since Carol supposedly shared only the same mother with Jerry, Ted, and Sandy - and a different father - she would only match them by approximately 25%.

A very important aspect of genealogical research had now been scientifically reduced to a numbers game. And I was in love with it.

Finally I was presented with the tool I so desperately needed for the problem at hand! Finally, finally, technology had caught up with me!

And so in 2008 I had a direct-to-consumer, no frills, no fuss, no muss, immediate way of testing my mother and her four siblings.

For $999.00 per test.

Technology had caught up with me. My bank account had not caught up with technology.

FamilyTreeDNA jumped onto the autosomal DNA bandwagon in May 2010, and AncestryDNA did the same in 2012. Consumer competition and improving laboratory techniques drove prices down, and by 2013, an autosomal DNA test from any of the three company's had dropped to $99.00.

On 28 July 2013 I ordered my first two tests from 23andMe. One for me. One for my mother.

My genetic journey had begun.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bothersome Acceptance

Carol Sue DePrato, 4½ months old
May 1947, South Bend, Indiana

That damn 1982 Jackson Browne song often returned to haunt me in the years that followed the release of the original birth certificate for my mother, Carol Sue Miller, in 1992.
"She's got to be somebody's baby;
She must be somebody's baby;
She's got to be somebody's baby..."
But nobody else in the family was terribly concerned with the findings on the birth certificate. My mother was disappointed. She wanted to finally have that sense of identity that comes with the tangible record of your introduction into the world. Something solid and official that finally tells you who you really are. And in her mind, the information she was presented with on her birth certificate was erroneous, so it sadly still clouded the events of her birth with deception and falsehoods.

As stated numerous times in this blog, everyone has a story to tell. And the unfortunate reality is that the storyteller is not a perpetual resource. Those who were present to witness the events of my mother's birth were now gone. "Mrs. Helen Miller," the informant and mother who provided the information on the birth certificate on 1 January 1947 was no longer living to question when these findings came to light. We were only left now with conjecture.

Helen had told my mother that the nurses and attendants were shocked at her level of composure and stoicism in the face of the pains of childbirth on that New Year's Eve evening in 1946. Helen felt that she had no right to indulge herself in the pity and concern of those assisting her when she was bringing a child into the world that she was not taking home with her. She had carried this precious living being inside her for nine months. This child represented the love she finally found in Frank Strukel and the courage she found to leave Eldon Miller. This child marked a tumultuous turning point in Helen's life, and in a week's time, she would have to say goodbye to this child. Forever.

Would a woman carrying this much guilt and sadness mixed with joy and hope for the future then divulge the story of this child's conception to Mary Bartholomew, the attendant that took the information for the birth certificate on the day following Carol's birth? 

Probably not. 

Would a woman who checked into the Goshen General Hospital as Mrs. Helen Miller on that winter night in 1946 while others were preparing to ring in a new year supply a name for the father of this child with a surname that did not match her own? 

Probably not. 

And although Indiana state law then (and now) legally recognizes a woman's current husband as the father of her child, regardless of the circumstances of the child's conception, was Mrs. Helen Miller ready to divulge to the hospital staff that she was divorced from Eldon Miller as of the month prior to this baby's birth? 

Probably not.

In July 1946, Eldon Miller claimed his wife was carrying a child that was not his own. In October 1946, Helen Miller placed an advertisement in the South Bend Tribune seeking a couple to adopt her unborn child. When Ray and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato replied to that ad and met with Helen shortly thereafter, they also met Frank Louis Strukel, who admitted to being the father of the child. Frank Strukel signed away his paternal rights to this child in 1947 so that she could be formally adopted by the DePratos. From 1982 to her death in 1987, Helen Strukel often discussed the details surrounding her daughter's birth with no hesitation or doubt that her second husband, Frank Strukel, was the father.

This information was enough for my mother. It was enough information for the rest of the reunited family. And in a methodology lecture I have given to genealogists for years regarding evaluating evidence, I have use my mother's birth certificate as an example of evidence and legal documentation that can be proven to be incorrect by ancillary information. After all, the information provided by the welfare department report of 1947, an acceptance of paternity by Frank Strukel, a denial of paternity by Eldon Miller, as well as information provided by those interviewed who were alive at the time of the event, including the birth mother, should trump a single birth certificate whose information was collected during a time of intense emotional trauma, correct?

Not to a genealogist who doubts everything.

But even if I was 99.9% satisfied with the premise that Frank Louis Strukel was the father of Carol Sue Miller, what could I do in 1992 to put that bothersome 0.1% doubt to rest?

Nothing.

At least nothing in 1992.
"She's got to be somebody's baby;
She must be somebody's baby;
She's got to be somebody's baby..."




Monday, August 25, 2014

Doubts

Birth Certificate of Carol Sue Miller, 31 December 1946

After the November, 1982, reunion of Carol (DePrato) Lacopo with her birthmother, Helen M. (Timmons) Strukel, many questions were asked. Of the many pressing question that all adoptees have swirling in their heads, the biggest one has to be "Why?" In my mother's situation, some of the basic story regarding the circumstances her birth was relayed to her by the parents that raised her. Since hers was a privately arranged adoption, both sets of her parents had met, and the life circumstances of all had been discussed. My mother always knew that her birth parents had not been married, but there was the supposition that they had intended to do so shortly after her birth. My mother always knew that her mother had been married previously to a man named Miller, and that the surname given to her at birth was her mother's married name at the time, and not that of her true father. And although she was unaware that she had three older half-siblings, she did know of the daughter four years her senior by this first marriage, Sandra Kay Miller.

From 1982 up to Helen Strukel's death in 1987, the story had been rehashed and picked over numerous times. A handful of minor details were sprinkled here and there, but the basic storyline never changed. So trying to find documentation of these details scattered among several governmental offices was never a pressing issue. Unlike many adoptees who beg agencies for the tiniest scrap of non-identifying information in hopes of locating their birth parents, my mother had already found hers. Why should I work backwards to locate the paper trail already attested to, discussed, and witnessed by living individuals?

Because I am a genealogist.

And because I alone had doubts. If Helen was living with her first husband, Eldon Miller, when she became pregnant with Carol in the early spring of 1946, could she positively, unequivocally, and without any doubt whatsoever state that he was not her father rather than Frank Strukel? Eldon and Helen obviously shared a bed within their marital home. Although Eldon had his string of very visible affairs, and Helen was secretly hiding her recent infatuation with Frank Strukel, was it not possible that despite their mutual disregard for each other, that Eldon required her to submit to her "wifely duties"? Even once?

Of course, this was never discussed, and any time I raised such a doubt, I was dismissed with a flippant wave of a hand. After all, everyone who would listen to my story would emphatically state that Helen would KNOW who she slept with. Eldon Miller proclaimed with little doubt in his divorce petition of July 1946 that his then-wife Helen was pregnant with another man's child, so he obviously had no reservations about the child's paternity being his own. Frank Strukel signed away his paternal rights when Carol was relinquished to Raymond and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato, thus acknowledging fatherhood. And in five years of telling the story repeatedly, Helen never wavered in her stance. So why would I feel the need to question the events of 1946 over forty years later?

Because I am a genealogist.

I have before me a copy of a letter that I wrote from my apartment in West Lafayette, Indiana, on 31 October 1988, while I was in my second year of veterinary school. It is a letter sent both to the St. Joseph County (Indiana) Department of Public Welfare and to the Indiana State Department of Health requesting that the adoption records and original birth certificate of Carol Sue Miller be released.

Of course, opening records sealed by a state law takes a lot more effort than writing a letter requesting it to happen, but it did provide me with information regarding the recently passed legislation known as Indiana Code 31-19-18: "Establishment of an Adoption History Program Administered by the State Registrar."

The construct of the program is quite simple. Identifying information regarding an adoption can be released if the State Registrar receives the appropriate application and registration submitted by both the adult adoptee and the birth parent. Once a match is made, information is released. For adoptees and birth parents seeking each other independently, this state-run agency provides a perfectly structured avenue for a reunion. In my situation, information I had already discovered six years previously could be used as a tool to release the records regarding my mother's birth and adoption.

Unfortunately, my studies and graduation, my mother's remarriage, the death of my grandfather, and life in general proved to be roadblocks toward accessing this information. Additionally, there was apparently no rush on anyone's part to help me obtain information that would just retell the same story we already knew. But after I had graduated with my doctorate and settled into a new job in Granger, Indiana, I was close enough to home to pester the appropriate parties into action. 

On 11 June 1992 an "Adoption History Information Release" was provided to three consenting parties who had filed petitions regarding the adoption of Carol Sue Miller in 1947: Mrs. Carol Sue Crumet of Niles, Michigan (adult adoptee); Mrs. Rosie A. DePrato of Osceola, Indiana (adoptive parent); and Mrs. Dianne L. Moore of Elkhart, Indiana (birth sister). It is this release that allowed me to receive the many pages of documents made by the St. Joseph County, Indiana, Welfare Department  during its investigations that I have used in the earlier narratives.

And with the release, my mother was provided with a copy of her original birth certificate. This was the one document she had wanted to see for forty-five years. And upon this precious document was inscribed the name of her father:

Eldon Duane Miller.