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?


  1. "What the hell do you mean Eldon Miller isn't your father?!?!?!?"
    LOL you took the words right out of my head! This really is a great read! Can't wait to continue.

  2. You know you really can't top REAL life stories! Awaiting the next post!

  3. Came across you story many months ago, then forgot, then came across it again a couple of weeks back. Read up to the previous post in a marathon session, bored my other half with it (he just doesn`t `get it`! To be fair , i can`t even tell a joke. Let alone describe what you and your family have gone through. As others have mentioned, surely this is a book!? Looking forward to the next post, soon. It will be soon right?????

    1. With the chaos that is my life, I try to get to the blog as often as I can! And I had to laugh about the other half "not getting it." Sadly, those people do exist, but I have no idea how they make it through life without getting to know their ancestors! :)

  4. Met you yesterday at the Tazewell County conference and was very impressed with your lectures. After spending the better part of today reading your blog from beginning to the current, I'm even more impressed--and astounded at your family's story!! Definitely will be subscribing! Linda S.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed the lectures... I love sharing my knowledge! And those were big topics this weekend. I am glad you're enjoying the story! So much more to come!

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