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 third 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."


  1. Just want you to know that I love this blog and have totally been drawn into your mothers story. Hanging on every word and can't wait for the next one. I only wish my family was so interesting! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Wow -- all while I was reading this, I was trying to anticipate the ending. I never saw it coming. Great read.

  3. Wow, you really know how to write cliff-hangers.

  4. Wow. I love your stories! I do hope you put it all in a book someday. Your posts read like a great fiction book... but they're true!

    I nominated you for the "One Lovely Blog" award!

  5. Michael - every time I read one of your posts, I feel as though I need to call someone and say, breathlessly, "Did you see the latest episode of 'Hoosier Daddy?' OMG, can you believe they DID that?" There is very little on television that holds a candle to real-life drama, and you present it in such an engaging way .... more, please!

  6. I just found this blog today from a post on Jane's Gang FB page. WOW.. what an amazing story and so well written. This really should be a book! I am glad I didn't find it earlier because I always want to know the rest of the story NOW! I am really looking forward to your next installment!!! I can't believe Ted never mentioned that before!!!

  7. I should have known there was going to be another cliffhanger. Wow. Another great post! Keep them coming :)

  8. And? And?? I'm another visitor from the Jane's Gang FB page. I spent yesterday afternoon reading your entire blog from the beginning. What an amazing journey...and clearly it's not over yet. I can't wait for the next installment.

  9. This is more exciting that "Who Shot JR?"
    Where are the tee-shirts?

  10. And I thought my family was complicated...