Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Looking Up My Family Online (Again)

Have you ever remembered something one way all your life and then seen it again later and it was completely different?

I was looking up Eugene, my lone surviving maternal uncle, online today, as I sometimes do.  He's hard to find.  I'm Facebook friends with his wife of nearly three decades, but she never mentions him, her photos don't include him, and based on some posts from her family, they didn't spend Thanksgiving together.  I wonder if they got divorced or maybe he died.  Surely one of my cousins would have known and said something.  Surely my regular Google searches for his name and the word "obituary" would have turned something up.

My uncle Eugene has lived in the same house for about three decades.  My other uncle used to live there too until he died in 2009 just shy of age 60.  They didn't live apart in my lifetime.  Uncle Boyd would pay the mortgage and Uncle Gene would pay the utilities.  Uncle Gene had always worked odd jobs that earned below the poverty line, selling used cars, playing in a band at a local nightclub, and working in collections at one point.  Pooling their resources was the only way they could afford their beautiful and spacious house, my mother said, and there was plenty of room for everyone.  I remember Uncle Boyd lived in a ground floor bedroom off the kitchen.  Uncle Gene and his wife lived in one of the upstairs bedrooms.  There was a stained glass window in the corner of the stairway, a gazebo off the front porch, and the sprawling backyard had fruit trees.  It was the nicest house anyone in our family owned.

I looked up the only address I could find online for Uncle Gene, but the picture was of a tiny shack of a house.  He must've moved.

But there was a gazebo in the same place.  And the front stairs looked the same.  And I realized my uncles had lived a tiny shack of a house all along.  How is this possible?  The lines of the roof and walls aren't even straight, and they're at odd angles.  According to the internet, the bank foreclosed on the house in 2013.  I guess they couldn't pay the mortgage without Uncle Boyd's contribution.  He lost his job at the steel mill to a machine back in 2000 and he never found another one -- it was the only job he'd had since he was 16 years old -- but I guess he received something in unemployment or maybe disability since he was diagnosed bipolar around the same time.  He should have had a pension too, though I don't know when that would have started paying out.  Grandpa started collecting his pension from the same steel mill when he retired at 55.  Anyway, Boyd died, the bank took the house, and my uncle Gene doesn't live there anymore.  One of my cousins said she had wanted to reach out to him after Boyd died but she'd held back because he's mentally unstable.  He was the most stable of all of them, I thought.

The bank auctioned off the house for $18,000 to something called BLT Homes Inc., which appears to fix up homes just enough to rent them out.  Uncle Gene and his wife started renting the place two houses down after that, according to the internet.  But I can't find anything about where Gene works, if anywhere, or what he does or how he is.  Why does no one in my family blog?

Then I started looking for my mother.  That way madness lies.  I haven't found an updated address for her since the group home the hospital released her to after her last suicide attempt by self-poisoning (don't try it, folks -- Harvard School of Public Health did a study, and ODing by pills has a less than 2% success rate).  And my dad said she left that place years ago when they told her she'd have to pay something to keep living there.  I keep searching by her name and her past addresses and diagnoses and the churches she's attended, but I find nothing new.  I don't want to reach out to her; I just want to watch her quietly while she is unaware.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Mean Jokes in Rhyming Verse

I've mentioned before how writing mean poetry has been one of my coping mechanisms since childhood, especially for processing impotent rage.  I wrote this poem the morning after the US presidential election.  It's based on a real experience I had that day.  If you're a Trump supporter, avert your eyes now -- I can promise you won't like it.

Today an old man at the school I did spy.
He edged around trying to catch someone's eye.
When no one heeded, he blasted aloud, 
"Nice weather today."  A nod from the crowd.

Then next he said what he'd come there to do:
"Nice weather, and a nice ELECTION end too!"

This actually happened; it isn't a joke.
No one under fifty acknowledged he spoke.

"Clinton's a crook and an insider too!
Trump wants a wall -- he'll know what to do!
Bengazi and Email!  The Vietnam War!
I know what is what here!  I'm 74!

"I too ran a business; we're mostly the same.
I know he's successful 'cause I know his name.
He could have retired -- he's 70 too!
He's fighting for us though, a patriot true.

"It wasn't for me that I voted this way.
My kids and grandchildren -- they'll thank me one day.
He had a TV show.  He'll know what we need.
I like that he's rich and he can't really read."

The old man then nudged me.  A push to reply.
But still I said nothing.  You're low.  I go high.
I stepped to avoid him, not wanting a fight, 
But also I'm nervous -- he's old, male, and white.

They say to be kind to both sides of the aisle,
That we can have friends whose beliefs are quite vile.
Dear reader, I just don't see how that can be.
My friends respect women and Muslims and me.

If you don't respect me, or people of color,
If you're a racist or a lady-mauler,
Then you are scary, and you are wronger
And hopefully you will not be here much longer.

You're probably stupid and probably white.
You're probably old, and I'm probably right.
You're probably male and -- if you're a lady --
You're likely self-hating and possibly crazy.

You make bad decisions; don't try to deny it.
But when we're in person, I will be quiet.
I don't want to fight you, your dog, or your gun.
I don't want to hear it; he's already won.

YOU haven't won though, of that I am sure.
Your whiteness comes easy, but you'll still be poor.
He doesn't love you.  He wanted the crown.
Your job's still gone elsewhere; your doctor's still brown.

But you lit the match (and a few matching crosses),
You'll feel "great again" while the sane count our losses.
I'll tell you the truth and I won't spare my ire:
I hope you die in your own dumpster fire.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Features I Want to See on AncestryDNA

I'm still trying to figure out the wonkiness in my family tree that I mentioned a few weeks ago.  I have it narrowed down to the right eighth of my family tree (based on deductive reasoning, since a significant number of DNA matches back up every other great-grandparent in my tree), possibly the right sixteenth (a gg-grandfather about whom I've found almost no information and whose wife has been backed up by more than one reasonably close DNA match).  I've found eight DNA matches so far who are descendants of the same mystery couple from the early 1800s.  They aren't on my family tree, but I think they are my ggg-grandparents.  I think one of their sons was secretly my gg-grandfather.  Ancestry would probably say the same thing if the family trees in question were linked to profiles and not just trees I'd drawn up myself from scratch.  Ancestry starts thinking it's suspicious when I have just three DNA matches whose trees overlap.

Here is some functionality I'd like to see on AncestryDNA that I think would make it a lot easier to solve my little mystery:

1)  In "Shared Matches," show me not just how much DNA I share with my matches but how much DNA those individuals share with each other.  23andMe recently implemented this feature in their "open sharing," and it would be super useful, if only more people participated in open sharing.

2) Allow me to search the DNA database by user name.  23andMe does this.  Or even just let me search my own matches by user name.  You can currently only search your AncestryDNA matches by searching for a surname from their family tree.  If you want to find someone who isn't a relatively close match and didn't link to a family tree, good luck finding them in your (in my case anyway) hundreds of pages of matches.

3) Allow me to search my DNA matches by not only surname from their tree but also by full name.  This would be very helpful when I'm trying to find people who have Joseph White in their tree and not just any random person named White.  Better yet, allow me the option of inserting their birth and death years too and/or locations, which is already what the Ancestry "shared ancestor hint" algorithm seems to function around.

4) Allow me to search my DNA matches by more than one surname.  23andMe does this.  Maybe I don't want to know literally everyone with Williams in their family tree.  Maybe I only want to know the ones whose trees contain both Williams AND Smith, regardless of whether those family lines intersect or not.  This feature would make it dramatically easier to find more DNA matches descended from that 1800s mystery couple of mine because I could search for his surname AND her maiden name.

I love AncestryDNA.  The fact that they allow users to link their family trees to their profiles makes it an easier service on which to find matches than on 23andMe or Family Tree DNA.  I can tell you how I'm related to over 200 of my DNA matches on Ancestry, largely for this reason.  HOWEVER, their search functionality is still the worst of the three of companies.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Time I Realized I Lived in THAT House

I had clues growing up that our house wasn't an admirable one.  I remember taking the bus home from elementary school and hearing a handful of children making fun of the house with the Christmas lights still up in spring.  It was my house, and they knew it as soon as I ashamedly stood up to get off the bus.  Dante had been allowed to climb onto the roof to trim the gutters with a strand of multicolored lights the previous fall, and neither he nor my mother had been keen for him to take them back down ("Why should we?  He'll just have to put them back up again in a few months").  There weren't Santas or reindeer or anything like I've seen up year-round at some homes, but we were out of date, and it was obvious enough for the other kids to laugh at without my ever having to invite them inside.

Our yard was unkempt.  A science teacher from the local middle school mowed our lawn in the summer months, once or twice a month.  It was how he made money when school was out.  At least once or twice that I heard of, the grass and weeds got so high that someone called the city to complain.  We didn't garden.  We didn't fertilize anything because, as my mother often said, "Why would I encourage the grass to grow?!"  I loved weeding the rock beds as a child, but my mother wanted Dante to do it, and he wasn't interested.  Sometimes I could convince her to give me $2 for my work since she'd planned to give Dante $20.  She complained that I didn't always get the entirety of the root and the weeds would come back.  "If you can't do something right, don't do it at all!" she'd say.  I think that's why our house so rarely experienced weeding or cleaning in the first place.  An all-or-nothing attitude toward cleaning and home maintenance is a great way to end up in a dilapidated building surrounded by garbage.

The time that really sticks out in my mind though was one of the times Dante totaled a car.  It was the white Camaro.  I didn't have a car yet, and Dante had already totaled at least one or two cars before the Camaro, so we were probably thirteen and twenty years old respectively, give or take.  Our mother had always given him a pass when he wrecked a car ("It was raining!  What was he supposed to do?") and the Camaro allegedly wasn't even his fault.  According to Dante's retelling, a woman had crashed into him turning left while she had a red light.  Other witnesses had said she had a green light and Dante was speeding, but as my mother said, "Dante still had the right of way!"  Regardless, his car was totaled, and the other driver was uninsured, so his insurance was covering everything that was going to be covered.  Dante also had to go to court.

Our mother was furious at both the other driver and the situation itself.  She insisted Dante's crumpled white Camaro be parked at the top of our circular driveway.  She took a large sheet of white poster board and wrote in Sharpie with her perfect penmanship, "This is the result of an uninsured driver."  She taped her poster to the side of the car, facing outward so it was legible from the street.  She seemed surprised and indignant when someone called the city to complain.  The city told her she couldn't do that.  It didn't matter if what she wrote was true.  It didn't matter that she was angry.  It didn't matter that it was "on her land;" it was a neighborhood eyesore.  In case you're wondering, we didn't live in a particularly nice neighborhood.  It was a middle class block of split-levels and ranches with two to three bedrooms each.  There were no Homeowner's Associations back then.  We had the largest, most expensive house on the block, as my parents liked to brag.  It just also happened to be an eyesore.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

My Cousin's Half-Brother Was Murdered

My cousin Ellie's parents divorced before I was born.  Her father was my uncle who got his high school sweetheart pregnant and then dropped out of high school at age sixteen to get married and take a steady union job (the only job he ever had, as far as I know) at the local steel mill like his father before him.  He had a cocaine problem as an adult and ultimately died of a heart attack in his fifties, a few years after the steel mill laid him off.  Her mother was my uncle's high school sweetheart who got pregnant with Ellie at age seventeen.  We all went to the same shitty high school in the same small town where we all grew up, albeit decades apart.

Ellie's mother went on to remarry, and that marriage lasted for the rest of her husband's life.  I didn't know this until recently.  She had another child too -- a son -- several years older than me but a decade younger than Ellie.  I hadn't known this either.  I only know this now because Ellie started posting on Facebook last week that he was missing.  She said he was 40 but, due to a car accident and traumatic brain injury, mentally closer to 12.

His body was found in the woods yesterday; he had been murdered.  I don't know the details, but apparently someone does because the police have already arrested two young men for the crime.  Their photos are in the news.  Their faces look like they were made for punching, and I hope they get everything they deserve.  I hope they are scared.  That's the worst thing I can imagine personally -- being scared and cut off from anyone who might be able to save or comfort me.  It's what I imagine most people would experience while being murdered.  I hope they feel it through a lengthy trial and a multiyear prison sentence.  I hope they can't live with themselves but have to for a really long time.  I've looked them up on Facebook, and they're both very much poor, uneducated white trash, so at least they shouldn't be able to buy their way out.  I don't think the currency of being a white male extends far when your victim is an equally white male.

It was when I was thinking all these thoughts that I realized I did know my cousin had a younger brother.  We went to elementary school together.  I met him once, but I had forgotten.  It was the time my mother and I were watching Ellie's daughter, Wendy, for a few days.  I remembered bringing her to school one morning while my mother was dropping me off.  I remembered being approached by an older boy and girl who inexplicably knew baby Wendy.  My mother told me they were Wendy's uncle and cousin.  When I asked if they were my family too, my mother told me no.  I was confused and disappointed.  I always remembered the cousin's name because it was the same as my own, but it occurred to me today that I remembered the uncle's name too.  I think he had been in fifth grade when I was in kindergarten.  If I could go back in time and watch events unfold, these are the sorts of mundane things I'd want to see again.  I'd want to know what else I missed, who else I met without realizing.  It was an awfully small world I used to live in.

His mother doesn't know yet that he's dead.  She's in the ICU recovering from surgery.  I met her once too when I was younger.  She was really nice.  She worked as a stagehand in the costume department for the US tour of Phantom of the Opera, and she showed me around backstage as a favor to my mother, even though we weren't technically family anymore.  I hope she's okay.  Ellie is having a hell of a time.

I don't understand murdering people.  I understand the allure of committing violence -- I've been made powerless too many times not to want to do it to someone in return -- but if your life is going badly and you feel worthless, I expect you either to learn to cope or simply to internalize it as a quiet shame like the rest of us.  You don't get to kill someone just because you feel bad.  And reading these murderers' Facebook pages, one of them appears pathetic and self-pitying to the point that -- had he not been a violent criminal -- I would have simply felt sorry for him.  He battles his weight, he doesn't have many friends, and his own father doesn't seem to care much for him.  The more I learn about someone, the more I tend to relate to them and the less I can be angry, but this piece of garbage person also killed someone who could not defend himself and whose family now has to live with the fallout.  He should kill himself.  If he were to kill himself, my only regret would be that he didn't do it before murdering someone who actually had friends and family who loved him.  (I kind of want to write that to him in a letter.)  The other murderer just sounds like a really stupid sociopath who is bad at not getting caught.  I understand feeling violent and wanting to hurt someone else.  It's what I feel about these murderers, for instance.  It's what I've felt when people have physically hurt or restrained me and made me feel powerless.  It's a horrible feeling.  I get it, and it doesn't ever go away completely.  And I have zero empathy for the people who act out their violence on others.  There are too many other options for that one ever to be acceptable.  Violence is the act of a despicable coward who cannot sit with his own feelings.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Memories from Childhood that Didn't Seem Weird Until I Said Them Out Loud

For as long as I have known her, my mother has refused to wear a bra inside the house.  Unless she had to leave the house, she wouldn't get dressed at all.  Her usual nightgown -- and subsequently what she wore unless she was heading out -- was an exceptionally large, polyester muumuu.  She had a collection of them, all in the same cut but different flowered patterns and colors.  She even bought a slightly smaller muumuu for me when I was a child, but due to its wide neck coupled with her tendency to shop a few sizes larger than I needed, I couldn't physically keep it from falling past my shoulders and off my body.

My mother had a few regular volunteer jobs she did each month, either at my school or at the county health department's Well Child Clinic.  She spent Friday mornings grocery shopping with her mother, and they spent every Wednesday together at Walmart, where my mother would buy several hundred dollars worth of paper goods, cleaning products that wouldn't be used, and dozens of small fad toys (think Koosh balls or Beanie Babies) that no one we knew wanted.  These were the times my mother got dressed.

When my mother got home from grocery shopping, she would be too tired to do much else.  I remember rushing to help my dad bring in the groceries when either it was summer or I was too young to attend full day school.  My mother would carry grocery bags to the kitchen too.  Then, as she always did when she returned home from somewhere, she would whip off her bra, settle in to the couch, and turn on the TV, while my dad and I put the groceries away in the kitchen.  My job when I was little was to hand each item to my dad out of the bags on the floor where he couldn't reach them from his wheelchair.  He would squeeze the vast amounts of new food we may or may not eat in among the rotting produce and meat left in the refrigerator from one week to the next.  The various bags of potato chips usually went in the white particle board dresser that had inexplicably been in the kitchen since before I was born.  The other boxes of junk food were mostly piled on top of the dresser, but I also remember them scattered over the counters, atop the kitchen table where we were theoretically supposed to eat but never did because it was buried under piles of food, and across the occasional flat surface in the dining room.  There was one piece of furniture in the dining room that always held the most Little Debbie snack cakes, but I can't remember what it was -- a bench?  A shoe rack?

I don't remember my parents cleaning out the refrigerator more than once, when the original, yellow, 20-year-old refrigerator stopped working and they had to replace it, though it might have happened a handful of times when I wasn't aware.  I don't know how old the junk food was, but I remember finding a box of moldy low-fat Twinkies in the dining room in the early '90s.  Something in the low-fat formula must have imbued them with the ability to mold.

After we put the groceries away, we would eat lunch in front of the TV in the living room.  Sometimes it was grilled cheese; sometimes it was hot dogs.  I usually drank milk while my mother nursed a 64 oz. cup of 7Up or Pepsi.  What we watched depended on the year.  My dad always had his own TV in another room, but the rest of us shared the one in the living room, so unless there was a particular show I followed that my mother liked enough to want to watch with me, we watched whatever she chose.  When I was in preschool it was All My Children at noon followed by One Life to Live.  At least one summer in the late '90s it was TLC's A Baby Story.  I remember complaining to my mother that it was hard to eat on my lunch break from my summer job while watching a woman give birth, but she refused to change the channel regardless of how many times she'd seen an episode.  There wasn't anywhere else in the house to sit and eat, so I eventually stopped coming home.

My mother's afternoons usually featured another nap, which usually meant changing out of the rest of her leaving-the-house clothes and back into a muumuu.  I say "another" because she slept off and on throughout the day and night with little regard for the hour.  If she had a regular sleep schedule, I never caught on to it.  She usually slept on the living room couch, though there were a few years in the late '80s when she tried to share Dante's room with him.  She bought him a set of bunk beds and a matching desk with the money that had been in his savings account supposedly earmarked for college.  The lower bunk was hers, she said, as was the desk, which she positioned in the already crowded dining room, opposite her old desk.  It was quickly buried under collections of pens, papers, old mail, and leftover Koosh balls.

Friday, July 15, 2016

I Am One of the Happy, Well Adjusted Donor Conceived

One of the things I find funny about the studies that survey how many donor conceived children are happy and well adjusted is that I'm one of the happy, well adjusted ones.  If someone had interviewed my mother at any point in my childhood or teen years (most of the studies gauge young children by their parents' assessments), she would have given them an honest and glowing portrayal of what a good kid I was.  I got very good grades, never got in trouble, never did drugs or drank or had sex or skipped class or snuck out or even really disobeyed.  I never received so much as a detention or a grade lower than a B+.  I had never seen a psychiatrist or a therapist and therefore had zero diagnosed mental issues.  I never lashed out at my parents with "I hate you" or used the knowledge that my dad wasn't related to me against him.  I didn't even tell him I knew.  I didn't express anguish at the loss of half my biological family or show even so much as a curiosity about them after my mother told me never to speak of it again.  I was a good kid.

I'm a happy, well adjusted donor conceived adult now, by my own admission.  I graduated magna cum laude from my university and then paid off my own student loans.  My ulcerative colitis went so far into remission that my doctor thinks I must've been misdiagnosed in the first place.  I am married and have a healthy, happy child, and I own my own home.  I don't do drugs, I eat well and work out and -- let's be honest here -- look pretty good, and I dress like I live inside a Lands' End catalog.  Anyone who only knew me from Facebook might think I'm a Stepford wife.  Even my therapist -- assuming she isn't being facetious -- expresses wonder at how I came to be so well adjusted.  I have all these things going for me, and I am NOT OKAY with anonymous donor conception.

I found my biological father, and I even have contact with my half-siblings.  I know my full family medical history and hundreds of years worth of genealogy.  I can think about being donor conceived without crying now; I don't have to shut it away in the back closet of my brain just to get through the day anymore.  But I am NOT OKAY with anonymous donor conception.

It makes me wonder what the other happy, well adjusted donor conceived people are like up close.