Thursday, October 23, 2014

Re-Evaluating The Evidence

Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller
Elkhart, Indiana, 1946
What secrets were lurking behind that smile?

One of the lectures I have given for a great number of years is entitled "Deconstructing Your Family Tree: Re-Evaluating The Evidence." It is a methodology presentation urging genealogists to look more critically at the information and records they uncover, and to assess them in light of a variety of different criteria. Why was the document created? Who provided the information? How many people or clerks did the record pass through before entering into your hands? What errors could be made? And was there motive to provide inaccurate or blatantly false information?

With the recent confirmation that my mother, born in 1946, shared a father different than that of her older half-siblings born between 1938 and 1942, and her younger half-sister born in 1949, it was time to heed my own advice.

What secrets was Helen harboring? And who did she meet at the end of March or beginning of April 1946 that would become the father of her unborn child? And who else knew of her secrets?

The initial hypothesis presented by most people today when confronted with this narrative is that the relinquishment of my mother for adoption makes more sense in light of this knowledge of events. Knowing she was pregnant with another man's child and her relationship growing stronger with Frank Strukel, Helen ended her failed marriage with Eldon Miller, relinquished the child born of an illicit affair with a virtual stranger, and started life anew with her marriage to Frank in 1947. Right?

But the facts seem to indicate something far more complex.

Let's review the timeline. If one calculates a conception date for a routine pregnancy, Carol was conceived sometime between 26 March and 7 April 1946. Personally, I like to think April Fools' Day is significantly appropriate considering the circumstances.

Helen was probably just beginning to show her pregnancy when her husband, Eldon Miller, filed for divorce on 10 July 1946 claiming that "for some period past, the defendant has been openly and publicly running with another man, and... that for several months past she has been pregnant with child, and that this plaintiff is not the father thereof..."

On 22 October 1946, Helen placed an advertisement in the South Bend Tribune seeking a couple willing to adopt her unborn baby. She and Frank Strukel met with Ray and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato and made arrangements for the adoption of her child when it was born. 

Helen's divorce with Eldon Miller was finalized on 26 November 1946.

Carol Sue Miller was born in Goshen General Hospital on the evening of 31 December 1946. A few days later, the baby was released from the hospital in care of the DePrato's, who finalized adoption proceedings in 1948. Helen recovered from her recent delivery and married Frank Louis Strukel in Elkhart, Indiana, a few short weeks later, on 18 January 1947.

The timeline is a rather swift one, and there is little room to fit a meaningful relationship with another man between Eldon Miller and Frank Strukel. And it is likely that Helen -- and Helen only -- was the only person that may have harbored fleeting doubts as to the paternity of her daughter as she became aware of her pregnancy as spring was turning to summer in 1946.

But the man she had been "for some period past...openly and publicly running with" in the summer of 1946 was Frank Strukel. And it seems unlikely that Frank had any reason to doubt that the child Helen was carrying was his. He did not question the timeline, and he unquestioningly accepted his role as the father of the child. My grandparents remembrances of meeting with Frank and Helen to arrange the adoption of their child included no recollections of doubt, secrecy, or insincerity on Frank's part, and he was quite open with discussing the situation of Helen's pregnancy. Frank Strukel had signed away his paternal rights to his daughter in 1946 that are on file with the St. Joseph County, Indiana, Circuit Court, and it is likely he signed it in full belief that he was relinquishing the care of his first-born child.

When Carol was reunited with her mother, there was no hesitation in the narrative regarding her parentage. And if Helen had doubts in 1946, she had most certainly removed them by 1982. The stories regarding Carol's father were free-flowing and emotional, and the very fact that Frank Strukel insisted that his unborn daughter be adopted by a Catholic family makes it apparent that he thought Carol was his. Additional historical tidbits, such as Frank's desire to name his next daughter Carol in 1949 in remembrance of the daughter he lost, would indicate that Frank undoubtedly believed he was Carol's father.

And if Frank Strukel harbored no doubts about Carol's paternity, and her birth on 31 December 1946 raised no suspicions, he and Helen had been intimately involved by the previous spring time when she was conceived.

Unfortunately, nobody knows when or where or under what circumstances Frank Strukel met Helen (Timmons) Miller. All Helen would say is that her first husband told her nobody would want her and love her, but Frank did. So when Frank entered her life, she gained the strength to leave a desperately miserable situation and start anew. Her pregnancy definitely made that transition an unavoidable one, as it broke Eldon Miller's grasp upon her psyche, as well as served as a very physical wedge that drove them apart for good.

But if Helen met and embarked on a relationship in the early months of 1946 with Frank Strukel, she also apparently had met at least one other man who sparked her interest.

As mentioned in many previous posts, human emotions and relationships are complex things. We look at the events of the past, we read a handful of documents, and we make snap judgments of character of people long dead. Helen was married to one man while becoming pregnant by a second man and rapidly marrying a third man. Although this would make for a good series of episodes on daytime television, the reality is probably much more sobering.

Why do women cheat on their husbands? All you have to do is pick up any current women's magazine on the newsstand today, and the reason is emblazoned upon every cover. Numerous psychological studies agree: emotional connection. And in Helen's case, not only was that grievously missing in her life, she was also married to a man who had no secrets about his own extracurricular activities. 

Another unavoidable, yet simple, reason is this: sex is fun. Even in 2014, headlines are made when sexual education materials dare to tell children that adults have sex for reasons other than procreation. Not only had the emotional connection in the Miller marriage been severed long before, but so had the physical one. Eldon Miller was taking care of his needs, and eventually Helen came to the realization that what was good for the gander, was good for the goose.

Further questioning of living family members supports this. And it makes sense with my own observations. As a woman in her 60s, I saw Helen as a spunky, sassy, witty, strong woman. Of course, this woman had endured far more stressors in life and had moved past them successfully. The 29-year-old Helen was trapped in a hellish marriage. And this younger Helen was also burdened with the care of three children under the age of eight years and persistently reminded by her husband that nobody else would want her. But the Helen I knew did not seem to be a woman who would stand for being beaten down into submission for long. And she had her breaking point.

While Eldon Miller was out servicing the lonely war brides with their husbands overseas, Helen sought out her own means of intimacy and connection. Their marriage had deteriorated to one of mutual disregard, and it is likely at this time that neither one of them cared much about the activities of the other. The end of World War II also signaled the end of the marriage between Eldon DeWayne Miller and Helen Marie Timmons Miller. She had regained her sense of self-importance and realized that she was an attractive, vibrant, worthwhile person. Perhaps it took some secretive nights out without the kids whilst Eldon was away on one of his rendezvous for her to realize that men sought her out and found her pretty and desirable. Perhaps she had lovers that supplied her with the intimacy and connection she had craved for so many years past. And perhaps this is how she met Frank Louis Strukel and discovered what it was like to fall in love.

So when she found out she was pregnant in the spring of 1946, she likely wanted it to be Frank's child. And although she most certainly would have harbored doubts, she made herself believe that it was borne out of the love she had discovered in Frank. This is what she told Frank Strukel in 1946. This is what she told Ray and Arreda DePrato when she arranged for them to adopt her daughter Carol that same year. And this is what she told Carol when they reunited in 1982. This was her story because she believed it so strongly to be true.

Did those doubts resurface when Carol came back into her life? Or had she firmly suppressed them many, many years before? There was no use now debating the issue.

I had a grandfather to find.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

And The Results Are...

Ted William Miller
Elkhart High School, 1958

I sent autosomal DNA test kits to both my uncle Ted Miller and my cousin Michelle Herman, daughter of Sandy (Miller) Canen, on 7 February 2014. And after I dropped them into the parcel bin at the post office, all I could do was wait. This would become the frustrating reality to DNA testing as time passed. Regardless of how many leads or possibilities or willing test subjects crop up, it still leads to sitting and waiting. And guessing. And making research plans in response to all of the possible outcomes. Because unfortunately that's just how I am. Instead of spending my time on client work or lecture development or answering email in a timely fashion, I spend an inordinate amount of time building elaborate family trees and determining who to DNA test next, or I research the ancestors of those who matched my mother in 23andMe's DNA database -- no matter how small the percentage of shared DNA -- to determine how they might connect somewhere in the past.

I had earlier sent out a slew of invitations to connect with other genetic matches of my mother in the DNA database of 23andMe, and I had done the same on FamilyTreeDNA after I had my mother's results transferred to that site as well. But before the big revelation that Frank Strukel was not my mother's father, they were just simple, pleasant invitations to the tune of "we have DNA in common! Let's compare notes and see where we connect!" Now that I was losing my mind waiting to determine if Eldon Miller was or was not my mother's father, as well as proving or disproving he was also the father of Ted Miller and Sandy Miller, I had to do something to keep busy. 

I picked through the two DNA databases, and I eliminated any matches to my mother that also matched her sister, Dianne. The presumption being that anyone who shared genetic material with both of them were likely people who shared a lineage on her maternal ancestry. I was concerned with the big Question Mark that was now her paternal ancestry. To those people with profiles that shared DNA with my mother only, a new query went out: "URGENT! I need your help! Please help me by sharing your genome and ancestral information! My mother's paternity is in question!"

The unfortunate reality of the situation was that the only matches my mother had in either database were woefully small. Most of them fell under 0.3% of shared DNA, which at best could be a fourth cousin. And knowing someone's sixty-four great-great-great-great-grandparents still wouldn't help me find the answers I was seeking. The few people who did respond to my queries had little genealogical information or a poor understanding of genetic genealogy. It was not uncommon for me to get simplistic responses like, "my father is from New York," or "that sounds like my mother's rascally cousin Leroy! We always thought he had more kids out there!" When I responded that the state of New York was a bit too broad to be helpful or that cousin Leroy would have contributed a far greater genetic match than 0.2%, I was usually met with silence.

I had done some preliminary work on the ancestors of Eldon Miller. There were no obvious matches to my mother that also shared connections to any his ancestors. None. And although Eldon came from a long line of colonial Germans from Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, the matches to my mother seemed to have a very strong southern English bent to them. But I told myself, the matches are too small to mean much of anything. You just have to wait.

I hate waiting.

Ted Miller's DNA sample made it to the labs of 23andMe on 20 February 2014 -- less than two weeks after I had sent the test kit to him. For that, I was ecstatic. And I logged into my online account every day to see at what stage of processing and analyzing they were in. But if Ted was questioning the fact that Eldon Miller was his father, his results would do me no good alone. I already knew that Ted and my mother, Carol Crumet, shared the same mother, Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel. So at the very least, his results would come back as an approximate 25% match, as a half-sibling should. But what did that tell me about her father? Nothing. Any number of combination of fathers with Eldon thrown into the mix could account for half-siblings. The only way Ted Miller's results alone could help me was if they came back as 50% matches, or full siblings. But even as full siblings, if Ted truly believed Eldon was NOT his father, would that mean that Ted and my mother were the result of a long standing affair of Helen's that dated back to 1940? The convoluted combination of possibilities made my head ache. I needed to know more about their deceased sister, Sandy (Miller) Canen, and I would learn that through my cousin Michelle's test results. And so I also watched and waited for her test kit to arrive at the labs of 23andMe.

Gerald and Sandra (Miller) Canen
Elkhart, Indiana, 1962

I hate waiting.

Still after a week had passed into the processing of Ted's sample, Michelle's sample had yet to arrive at the lab. I sent her a friendly email on 28 February 2014 stating "Ted's spit sample has made it to the lab. I am not sure if you've sent yours or not. Remember, we will never have a sample from Jerry, as his children are adopted." This is the gentle, friendly, mildly-persuasive way of saying, "You DO realize you are my only other source of Miller DNA, don't you? Please stop dilly-dallying, spit, and drop the damn test kit in the mail!"

It may have had some benefit. Her test was mailed on 3 March 2014, and arrived at the labs of 23andMe on 14 March 2014. Over a month had passed since one-quarter of my family tree had been nullified, my mother's story regarding her entry into this world had changed, and Frank Strukel had been demoted from being my grandfather to being my grandmother's second husband. And even if I could have had Ted's results alone, even a tiny genetic morsel to nibble upon, I'd have been happy. But while Michelle's tests were being processed, Ted's were stuck in "Quality Review" for an eternity.

I hate waiting.

I have never relied upon an email from 23andMe to tell me "Your Results Are Ready!" to access new results. I have always known that days before their system bothers to notify me. And really? Do people ever just wait for that email? "Oh my goodness, I had forgotten all about that test! I am so glad they sent me a reminder!" Really? Do those people exist? It seems ridiculous to me.

Interestingly, the DNA results of both Ted Miller and Michelle Herman were ready at about the same time. So I really had a great deal to chew upon thereafter.

Cousin Tree (with genetic kinship)
Wikimedia Commons, Author:Dimario, 2010

Ted Miller shared 24.8% of his DNA with my mother. He matched his sister Dianne Moore by 25.6%. If you refer to the chart above, which you may see again and again in the future, this would be compatible with Carol and Dianne both being Ted's half-sisters. Full siblings share approximately 50% of their DNA with each other; half siblings 25%. Therefore, although they all shared the same mother, they all had different fathers.

Ted Miller and Michelle Herman shared 26.5% of their DNA in common. Michelle only shared 10.7% of her DNA in common with my mother, Carol Crumet; and 9.18% with Dianne Moore. Referring to the chart above, this would indicate that Michelle is Ted Miller's full niece, and as such it also means that Ted Miller and Sandy (Miller) Canen were full siblings. The amount of DNA Michelle shared with my mother and Dianne would indicate that they are half-aunts, and therefore half-sisters to her mother, Sandy (Miller) Canen.

And like the sick and twisted logic puzzle that it is, if Ted and Sandy are full siblings, their shared father is Eldon Miller. Ted's paternal doubts were proven false. And for those purists who will chime in that these results only truly indicate that Ted and Sandy were full siblings, and their father could be anyone who fathered them both in 1940 and 1942, the link to Eldon Miller was confirmed via other DNA matches.

And if Ted and Sandy are full siblings, yet half-siblings to Carol. And Carol is a half-sibling to Dianne, the results are unavoidably clear.

Eldon DeWayne Miller was the father of Ted William Miller, born in 1940, and Sandra Kay Miller, born in 1942.

Frank Louis Strukel was the father of Dianne Lynn Strukel, born in 1949.

And much like her early childhood days when Carol first learned of her adoption, and before our initial search in 1982, Carol Sue Miller, born in 1946, was again without a father.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Waiting, Sharing, Informing, Fretting

Helen (Timmons) Strukel, center, flanked by her daughter Dianne (Strukel)
Moore and granddaughter Lisa Moore on both extreme right and left, and son
Ted Miller and his wife, Darlene. Elkhart, Indiana, c1984.

For those of you who have been astute enough to monitor the timeline of events, you can see that I contacted my uncle, Ted Miller, and my cousin, Michelle Herman, on 4 February 2014, with the urgent plea to donate some DNA for my research. My first blog post was 18 February 2014. I had a sneaking suspicion that I was in store for quite a bumpy ride.

As indicated in previous posts, I am NOT a patient person. I will spend hours of research time following genealogical lines that MAY be pertinent, when I know it might end up being a waste of time if test results indicate something else entirely. I had done research on the ancestors of Eldon Miller in the past; but I jumped back into the work with gusto after receiving results questioning my mother's paternity. The Miller kin are local families, and I have dabbled at researching them over the years, solely because I never was 100% convinced that my mother wasn't truly a Miller by birth, and not a Strukel. Now I was presented with the scientific proof that the latter was true, and I was just waiting for results to determine the former.

The only busy work I could do while waiting for test results was to expand Eldon Miller's family tree. Teasing my mother that she would be seventh cousins with my father if she were truly Eldon's child (both descending from Johann Casper Stoever, born in 1707) didn't help ease the anxiety I was feeling. And now I was presented with the possibility that Ted may have a different father as well. I told my mother if she had a different father, I would find him; but if Ted did, he was on his own! This was becoming a big genealogical mess. After the initial shock of the test results indicating that my mother and her sister shared different fathers, my mother teased me that I was likely more upset than she because one-quarter of my three decades of research was suddenly wrong. She was absolutely correct.

More immediately pressing, nobody had told Dianne the results of her test yet. New DNA tests were flying all over the country, and I was diligently searching into Eldon Miller's ancestry, and my mother's sister had yet to learn the results of her DNA test... and that her sister was really her half-sister.

And because the circumstances of these sisters were so different than that of the average family, I had no idea how Dianne would respond. I have always been one who just relies on the facts. Let the truth present itself, and I will adjust accordingly. After all, I am a doctor, a scientist. And I am a pragmatist. If I can't change a situation, I find a way to adapt to it. But I am a weeper too. I can cry at a well-crafted commercial. I've had exceptionally beautiful music, scenery, or people reduce me to a blubbering mess. But how would Dianne respond? I really had no clue, but I did not think she would be exceptionally distraught over the news, because I think she is equally as pragmatic as I. But my mother thought differently. 

Although my mother, Carol, and her sister, Dianne, had missed sharing a childhood together, they were reunited at the respective ages of 36 and 33. So they had now been sisters for nearly half a lifetime. My mother, raised an only child, grew up knowing that she had an older half-sister Sandy that existed somewhere in the world, and she longed for that sister to play with as a child and to serve as her mentor. Her desire to feel that connection was so strong that the first thing she said when presented with her sister Dianne on that emotionally-charged reunion night in November 1982, was "Sandy?"  But in Dianne, she found a younger sister she never knew she had, and a sister who supposedly shared both parents. She found the sibling bond that she never had the chance to experience as a child.

And Dianne, although possessed of three half-siblings, spent the bulk of her childhood without their presence. With Jerry and Ted being raised in California by their father, and Sandy essentially kidnapped by him shortly thereafter, she was in grade school when Sandy and Ted came back to Elkhart to visit their mother. Their refusal to return to California to their father, Eldon Miller, suddenly filled the household with new personalities. But Ted and Sandy Miller were nine and seven years Dianne's senior. It wasn't exactly like playmates had miraculously returned home. Although there were no significant animosities between the siblings and Ted was immediately protective of his youngest sister, there was no time for a sisterly bond to develop with Sandy. They had missed out on a childhood together, and Dianne was just ten years old when Sandy graduated from high school. She was only twelve when Sandy married and started a life of her own. Siblings existed, but they were somewhat out of reach of this only known child of Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel. Carol's return to the family in 1982 also gave Dianne a sister to bond with that somehow eluded her as a child.

I did not expect Dianne to explode into hysterics, nor did I expect her to collapse into a frightful sobbing heap. I put theatrics more into my mother's repertoire. But I did expect a certain degree of disbelief and shock. After all, for over thirty years I seemed to be the only one harboring doubt about my mother's paternity. Everybody else accepted the facts presented by their mother, Helen. After all, she is the one who should know the facts of her children's paternity, right?

Unlike my phone call to my mother immediately upon receiving the test results, my mother thought the news should be presented to her sister in person. And I was the one who should deliver the news, because I was more capable of explaining the science behind it. Ironically, the meeting date was set on 12 February 2014, the day Helen would have turned 97 years old had she been alive. And boy, did I wish her alive right now! Dianne was to come to my mother's that coming weekend, 15 February 2014, and she knew that part of the visit was to discuss her DNA test results. I don't think there was any suspicion or wonder on her part why this needed to be done in person, because as stated, few people had the doubts I did. It was just a way of her to review her results with me present, as I could explain the dynamics of DNA.

There was not a lot of time wasted once we were all seated in my mother's kitchen. Although I put little weight into the "Ancestry Composition" presented by any of the DNA testing companies, I showed Dianne how dissimilar hers was to my mothers to set the stage. But there was no dramatic pause for effect. I just stated this was so because they were not full sisters, but half-sisters. Dianne's response was entirely what I anticipated. There was no tense drum roll to the big revelation, or theatrics after they were presented. It would have made for a great blog post, but instead it was met with a rather quiet mix of confusion, disbelief, and surprise. A little nervous laughter and jokes about wishing Helen were there for a good thorough grilling followed, but as Dianne stated, "You're still my sister, half or otherwise, and nothing changes that."

Three days later, I made my first blog post. Five days later, I received a notice that Ted Miller's DNA test had reached the labs of 23andMe. And as February dragged into March, I began weaving the story on this blog that was the story of my mother's entry into this world. A story that at the time had no ending. No answers. And lots and lots of questions.

And as I dabbled into the ancestry of Eldon Miller, I realized that nobody with any of his ancestor's surnames were matches with my mother in the 23andMe DNA database. Many of her matches had a strong southern presence in states no ancestors of Helen's or Eldon's had ever seen: Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas. As a genealogist, these southern locations were as foreign to me as having ancestors in Kazakhstan. And although Helen had one Virginia line of ancestry, I had significant doubts that all of these matches went back to these few families. I knew what I fearfully expected the pending tests to tell me, as much as that possibility had never entered into my head in the last thirty-two years. But what about Ted and his suspicions? As much as I preached the responsibility of the genealogist to tell the story of their ancestors, how much of Helen's story did I really know? How much did any of us know? And what secrets did she take to her grave that we will never know?

All I could do was wait. Waiting impatiently, knowing that the answers I would receive would likely result in bigger questions.


And fret.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

More Millers Please!

Ted and Dorothy (VanScoik) Miller, 8 November 1961, Elkhart, Indiana,
flanked by his mother and stepfather, Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel

The genealogy gods were definitely frowning down upon me. This was almost as bad as my mother's threat to tell me on her deathbed that I was a foundling. And although I had circumvented that possible disaster by demonstrating that I truly carry half of my father's and half of my mother's DNA, it certainly didn't prepare me for the genetic chaos I had just recently been thrown into.

"What the hell do you mean Eldon Miller isn't your father?!?!?!?"

Of course that's what I was screaming in my head, and what I wanted to scream into the phone. What came out of my mouth was more akin to an animalistic grunt combined with a defeatist whine that ended in an upward inflection defining it as a question. But Ted Miller understood what I was asking.

And although I had never dreamed of Ted having any father other than Eldon Miller, I had certainly always noticed the significant difference in his physical appearance compared to his siblings. Ted stood nearly a foot taller than Jerry or Sandy, and his dark, angular features stood in stark contrast to the more rounded, nondescript, soft, pale features of his brother and sister. There is no question that he stood out in a Miller line-up.

But Ted was born in 1940, smack dab in the middle of his two siblings: Jerry in 1938 and Sandy in 1942. And although it is clear that his parents, Eldon and Helen (Timmons) Miller, had an unhappy marriage, had it really resulted in an extramarital affair only three years into their union?

Ted went on to explain his statement of doubt. His father, Eldon, had always treated him poorly. The sun rose and set on this first-born son, Jerry, and Ted was merely collateral baggage that came with him. Upon his divorce from Helen in 1946, Eldon allowed his four-year-old daughter, Sandy, to stay in Indiana with her mother, indicating his nineteenth-century mentality that daughters are clearly of lesser importance than sons. But as time passed, Ted realized he was more a pawn in the game to hurt his mother than a desired presence in his father's California home.

Ted developed a close relationship with his stepfather, Frank Strukel, upon visits back home to see his mother, and especially so after he refused to return to California and his father in or around 1955. Later in life he would jokingly say, "I think I am one of Frank's children." He clearly connected with his much younger half-sister Dianne, and immediately so to Carol once she reunited with the family in 1982. Even though he returned to the west coast, and he and his older brother Jerry worked together in a marine business in Portland, Oregon, partly owned by their father, Ted's devotion was clearly to his mother's second family. And although he loved his Miller kin, the same ease of connection just wasn't there.

Ted further stated that his father clearly demonstrated his own doubts toward his paternity by the way he treated him. Perhaps even Eldon became suspicious of the origins of his tall, swarthy, handsome son that looked so unlike him as Ted grew to manhood. Upon Eldon Miller's death in 1982, his son Jerry was well taken care of. Ted was not. Eldon's favoritism, and perhaps his doubts, were heard loud and clear even from the grave.

So then, as a genealogist and a genetic detective, what was I to make of this? Was any of this proof that Ted Miller had a different father, or was this just hopeful thinking of a son hidden within the shadows of his older brother? Did Ted truly believe this statement, or was it something that he wished were true? Although I suspected the latter, it was apparent from his curt, bold statements that he was not being wishy-washy about the prospect. It was something that he had considered for a long time. And it was enough to raise doubts in my research. How could I prove or disprove my mother a Miller if I had no absolutely, positively confirmed Miller child to compare her to?

If Eldon Miller was my mother's father as stated on her 1946 birth certificate, it would do me no good to rely on Ted Miller's test only, especially if there were significant doubts to his own paternity. What I needed was another Miller. But as stated previously, Jerry had unfortunately died just four months previously, and Sandy also in 2006. I was plumb out of Miller siblings! But...

Jerry Miller raised two children with his wife, Nell. Their son, Robert, had died suddenly in 2004 at the age of thirty-seven. Their surviving daughter, Karen, lived in Oregon. And although I had met Karen only once, I was not averse to calling her up right away and begging for her DNA. But there was something that nagged at me lodged in the back of my skull. As I dug through my original notes taken in 1982 upon first reuniting with my Grandma Helen, I found proof of what was bothering me in the loopy handwriting of a fifteen-year-old me. Karen and Robert were adopted. Testing Karen would do me no good to serve as a surrogate for Jerry Miller's DNA. His genetic legacy was gone forever.

Sandy (Miller) Canen, Carol (DePrato) Lacopo, Helen (Timmons) Strukel,
and Michelle Canen, c1983, Elkhart, Indiana

But Sandy DID have a daughter! Michelle was born in 1979, a miracle child born seventeen years into the marriage of Sandra Kay Miller and Gerald Canen when the prospect of children had long pased. Only three years old when my mother, Carol, reunited with her birth family, Michelle had no memory of ever NOT having an Aunt Carol. But the twelve-year difference in age between Michelle and myself also served to be an enormous divider. Six years old when I left for college, I had no meaningful relationship with my cousin. And returning to the area to start practice as a veterinarian, I had little in common with a teenage girl in Elkhart and even less time to explore the possibility of it. She married in 2003, moved initially to northwest Indiana, and then to the suburbs of Chicago. And so sadly as the family historian, I was more in touch with the ancestors who had died long before than I was with my very much living first cousin barely 100 miles away.

Michelle had grown into a beautiful young woman, graduated from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, having studied landscape architecture, married, and was living outside Chicago working in the field that she had studied in college. But the lives of a thirty-four year old married woman and senior inside sales representative for a landscaping firm in Illinois, and a forty-six year old veterinarian-turned-genealogist single man in Indiana rarely intersect, regardless of the affinity of our relationship. On 2 February 2014, that would change.

Sandra Kay (Miller) Canen and her daughter,
Michelle (Canen) Herman on her wedding day.
Elkhart, Indiana, 2003

One could say "Thank God for Facebook" in the sense that it keeps us cognizant of the lives and events of those separated from us by distance. But it can be just as much as a distractor of meaningful relationships, as the two-dimensional presence of someone we care for is "good enough" most of the time. Michelle was present in my Facebook world, when she had barely been so in my real one. But it allowed for immediate contact.

"Hi, remember me?"

Blah, blah, niceties, blah, blah, apologies for not staying in touch, blah, blah, how have you been, blah, blah, blah.... followed then by a complete and total unforgiving launch into the world of genetic mayhem, paternity issues and doubts, family history, failed relationships, and the science of DNA. And by the way, can I have some of yours?

The response was immediate. 

"I knew that my mother's side of the family was always some big mystery, and when my mother passed I felt I would never really know that part of my lineage... and oh what an interesting story it is turning out to be! Wow! But without a doubt I will help! Mike, just give me the details of what I need to do!"

That week, two more DNA tests left my home: one bound for Missouri and Ted Miller, the other bound for Illinois and Michelle (Canen) Herman. Their relationship to each other and to my mother should at least tell me if Ted, born in 1940, and Sandy, born in 1942, shared the same father; and that father presumably being Eldon Miller. The numbers for both of them would clearly show whether my mother was also a Miller by birth. Would this confirm the long-held doubt in my mind that perhaps Eldon fathered one last child with Helen in 1946...

...or would it show me that my mother had a father unique to her and to her only and that there was a man of whom I knew nothing that entered my grandmother's life in the the brief period of time between Eldon Miller and Frank Strukel?

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 that -- 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 with which I was blessed, 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 cherished childhood memories or tarnish reminisces 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 in the events of 1946. 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 never knew but 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 questions regarding 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 had always known 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 routinely chatted every Sunday over coffee for the past thirty years. 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, 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.


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%.


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.


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.