Thursday, January 4, 2018

Searching for a Published Family Tale

When I first DNA tested, when I started deducing the identity of my biological father, I found a man with whom I had so much in common I thought he might be my father.  Spoiler alert:  he isn't, but he did turn out to be my uncle.  I heard recently that he published something he wrote about his mentally unstable mother (so I think writing tell-alls about our mothers might be a genetically heritable trait?).  I hear it was deeply personal and possibly scathing, at least based on its family reception.  I want to find this piece of writing about my grandmother and the house where my father grew up, but I cannot. 

I don't know anyone who will tell me what it's titled or where or how it was published.  I don't know if it was a book or a magazine article or when it came out, but it was allegedly published.  My uncle is a prolific author who has published dozens of books and articles, but I can't find one that claims to be a memoir or a personal story.  His CV and his Google and Amazon author pages center on his career-related non-fiction writing, and none of them list everything.  None of them seem to list the articles at all.

I don't want to ask him personally partly because I don't think he'd tell me.  I have literally never contacted him, I'm not entirely sure he knows who I am, and I just don't like asking strangers for things when I can skulk about on the web hoping to uncover secrets myself instead.  My sister didn't know any helpful details and assured me our father wouldn't give up the information if she asked.  She feels sure he wouldn't want me to read it.  Any suggestions on where to find this story?  I'm betting it was an essay and not a full book... 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Small Update

I haven’t posted in a long time.  I’ve been feeling sad.  I’m okay and still functioning at a fairly normal level, but I’ve been having feelings I’d rather not feel.

I met my sister.  That was fine.  Apparently her parents even knew we were spending the weekend together.  My biological father apparently told her to tell me “hi” from him, which almost made me cry because I’d assumed he hated me for writing him a letter three years ago, introducing myself and subsequently upsetting his wife.  He still stays away, but it doesn’t sound like he hates me.  His wife still does though.  Because I wrote a letter once three years ago.  “Maybe when ten years have passed and she sees that her life hasn’t changed at all, she’ll be okay with it,” I told my sister.  But if she’s still mad after three years, I can’t imagine another seven will help.  I also can’t imagine him choosing to talk to me when it would upset his wife further and NOT talking to me only upsets me in my house where I cry in my shower alone.

A lot has happened this year.  I’m having trouble wrapping my head around it all.  I don’t even know where to start. 

Last night my daughter said about the fact that I don’t speak to my mother, “It’s not too late to make the right choice.”  I tried to explain, “This is the right choice.”  She’s never met my mother, only seen pictures.  My mother has required full time care on account of her crippling mental illness and prescription drug addiction for more than twice as long as my daughter has been alive.  Dante said she doesn’t really speak anymore, presumably for the same reasons, and no one else in the family can bear to deal with her anymore.  I don’t think I’m in the wrong here.  I thought my daughter understood when I explained that my mother has a disease that makes her say and do mean things, and she refuses to be treated for the disease. 

I don’t know what to tell her.  My mother is the only person I’ve ever actively cut from my life (my dad was a passive removal – I just stopped initiating everything – same with Dante honestly), and it was really hard and I was sooooo suicidal every time she’d call me to yell at me.  I lived in fear of the phone ringing, and I cried all the time and had trouble functioning.  How do you explain that to a 5-year-old?  Every day she tells me she loves me and asks me to marry her.  I don’t want to tell her how bad things can get with a mother.  I don’t want her to live in fear that things with us will turn out the same way.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Planning Dad's Funeral

My dad died at the end of July.  Dante didn’t want to have a funeral or memorial service.  He wanted to skip it all like my mother and her siblings did with their parents because it's easy and "no one will come anyway."  I didn't want to do it that way, partly because Dad had told me what he wanted and mostly because I didn't want to be as careless as my mother.  I told him I would come.  I told him about what Dad had said he wanted – just a small memorial service with Wes Montgomery’s jazz guitar rendition of “Willow Weep for Me” playing as a final send-off.  I would buy it off iTunes and have it on my phone.  It seemed easy enough, and when I die, I really don't want everyone washing their hands of me and pretending I never existed like my mom's family does.  

I had already researched crematoriums in my hometown back when Dad and I had discussed how much life insurance to keep, so I already had an idea of who to call and how much it would cost.  I gave the information I had to Dante so he could be point person, since he was still living in our hometown, and in Dad’s house no less.  I told him about Dad’s life insurance policy, how I was the beneficiary, and how the plan had been for us to split whatever remained after the cremation.  I told him I would give him my half in addition to his own if he would handle whatever needed handling and not make me do anything.  It didn't sound like Dante has a job right now, and he will have to find somewhere to live when the bank forecloses on Dad’s house.  I knew he needed the money more than I did, and I wanted the convenience of not being Dad’s next of kin for whatever needs handling more than I wanted anything else.

My best friend put me in touch with her mother, who has been something of a mother figure for me since I was a teenager.  She is kind and good at logistical dilemmas I would otherwise have to handle alone.  She gave me contact information for an estate attorney and an accountant, in case we (read: Dante) should need them.  She told me everything that she had to do when her own dad died and left her his farm in another state and how she divided up assets for her siblings.  I thankfully wouldn’t have to do most of that because my dad left behind significantly more debt than assets.

Dad died in the hospital across the state, a four hour drive away.  I told Dante I would be driving to our hometown with my husband and daughter in two days, when we estimated the body should be back in our hometown and ready for cremation and the memorial service.  My daughter had a surgery scheduled for the following week, so I wanted to get everything done and get back home.  Dante was calling our Dad’s brother, who told his sister and mother.  They were the last of Dad's family.  We hadn't been entirely sure our grandmother was still alive until that point.  

I would tell my mom’s side of the family -- a few cousins and an aunt by marriage -- less because I thought they cared about my dad and more because he was my dad and I wanted to tell them.  I knew they would be kind.  Dante asked me to pass along his cell phone number so that he might be able to get back in touch with them.  He said he’d been cutting himself off and losing contact with people for years.  He had just recently been coming out of a depression, he said.  He didn’t want to relapse.

“Is Mom still at Butterfly Glen?” I asked him.  “Are you still on speaking terms with her?  I don’t think anyone else in the family is.”

“She’s still there,” Dante replied.  “I visited her on Mother’s Day.  I wouldn’t call it ‘speaking terms’ though.  She didn’t really talk while I was there.”  He described how the people at Butterfly Glen keep her heavily sedated.  “I guess we weren’t the only ones who didn’t want to deal with her.”

I asked Dante not to tell Mom yet about Dad dying.  They’d been divorced for ten years and hated each other for at least thirty, so the only reasons I felt she would benefit from knowing were because her spousal support – 100% of her income – would be coming to an end, and because she might be able to use her ex-husband's death to get attention.  “It’s not the end of the world if I have to see her, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer not to, and we’d need a contingency plan for what she might do if she showed up at the service.  I'd rather she not know until I've left town.”

“I already called and left a message, but I haven’t told her yet,” he replied.  “It’s fine with me.  I don’t think anyone wants her there anyway.”  And that was that.

I drove my husband and daughter the seven hours back to my hometown.  I answered calls from Dante each day as he looked for another form or document he needed that seemed to have vanished in the hoard.  He’d found a metal lockbox, but it had gotten wet inside and seemed to permanently smell.  He emailed me the form to collect Dad’s life insurance.  I emailed him an obituary I wrote.  He’d been calling the VA and the crematorium every day, and he finally got the VA to say they would cover the cost of transporting Dad's body back across the state and the crematorium to agree to an early Sunday morning service.  I would have to extend my stay to a sixth day, but it was okay.  There was still a two day buffer before my daughter's surgery.

I spent most of my days in Cincinnati trying to keep my daughter entertained.  Our hotel had a pool, so my husband took her swimming every day, and sometimes I joined them.  Sometimes I stayed behind in the hotel room and watched "Gossip Girl" on my phone until I forgot where I was.  We walked around the local malls and went to lots of restaurants while I fielded logistical calls from Dante.  He asked if I thought Dad had a will and where did I think it might be.  I told him I was 95% sure neither of our parents had ever had wills.  It would have required them to do something.  Since they had more debt than assets, I had always planned to walk away from everything and let it be sold for parts, or whatever happens when you die owing people money.  I think that was Dad’s plan for me too.  I'm not sure what Dante's plan had been since his life had remained tied up with Dad's.  

Dante was freaking out a little bit.  A friend had told him the house would be taken within twelve days of the death of the person on the mortgage since there was no will leaving it to anyone.  The bank would put a lock on the door and he would be homeless.  I told him Mom was still on the mortgage even though she wasn’t on the deed anymore, so maybe they would go after her for the money instead.  I couldn’t find a copy of the deed without Mom on it, but I knew details from the divorce.  I wondered quietly to myself if Mom might try to retake the house. 

Dante asked if I thought he should stop paying the mortgage and the bills.  I told him that’s what I would do.  I told him the bank likely wouldn’t move to foreclose until he’d missed at a least a few months of payments, so I would stop payment on everything but utilities, stay put until the bank at least started sending threatening letters, and save whatever money he could for a new apartment.  He said he’d been cancelling our dad’s magazine subscriptions.  He had so many.   I warned Dante that the VA might not stop Dad's monthly checks right away and that, if they paid him something after his death, they would realize their mistake and demand it back in a few months.  It was the same thing that had happened every time he moved back into the hospital or the nursing home -- his check got reduced retroactively, and he was expected to pay them back thousands of dollars.  If this happened for three or four months like it did before, they would be expecting tens of thousands of dollars back.  I warned Dante not to spend the money from Dad's checking account in case this happened.  He replied, "Well, they better not do that then."

Cincinnati was a long trip.  It was the first time I'd been to my hometown in six years.  I spent as much time with my best friend and her family as possible.  My birthday happened while we were there, so my best friend and her mother and sister and boyfriend all joined us for lunch the day before the memorial service.  It was nice.  There were even presents.  If you have to deal with a parent's death, make sure to do it in the town where your best friend lives.  It makes everything so much better.

The morning of the memorial service, my daughter was supposed to stay with my best friend's mom and sister while my best friend, my husband, and I went to the service.  Then we'd all go out for lunch.  But my daughter started running a fever the night before and wasn't better by that morning.  I asked my husband to stay with her in the hotel room while my best friend and her family and I went to the service together.  We made up half the attendees.  My brother arrived shortly after me, and that's when the man who runs the crematorium welcomed us, showed us around, and said our dad's body should be arriving in two more days.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Grandma's Letters

My cousin has a binder two inches thick with old letters from our grandmother.  Today she lent it to me to see if I could find any genealogically significant information that she hadn't.  She'd already highlighted parts.  She told me Grandma wrote things that were weird to write to your grandchildren.  She said Grandma hadn't been the innocent victim of circumstance she used to think she was -- she made the choice to stay in her environment, and she made it repeatedly until she died.

I hadn't expected my name to come up so many times in her letters.  My mother was my grandmother's only daughter, closest friend, and primary source of transportation, so it's only logical I would be a prime source of gossip.  Except I wasn't interesting.  The gossip isn't always bad.  Sometimes she says I sang at church and did a good job, or she comments on how hard I've worked to maintain a 4.0 GPA throughout school.  Sometimes in the next sentence she comments on my related "whining" or "complaining" or my "mood swings."  "Same old, same old," she dismisses.  I was 17 for that one.  It was around the time my mother called the hematologist from church to prescribe antidepressants for her "moody teenager," though talking to the doctor myself or seeing a mental health professional was still strictly forbidden.  I'm not sure how much of my bad behavior was witnessed first hand and how much Grandma heard from my mother.  I mostly saw my grandmother at church at that point.  

She details my mother's breakdown in 2005 on a week-by-week basis.  She didn't detail it in my letters, but she did for my cousin, and probably for other friends and family on her mailing list.  She comments how I "finally got around to being worried" about my mother.  "File that under 'better late than never,'" she quips.  My dad and I had been talking and worrying for some time of course, but that didn't count because it wasn't for an audience.  She said my mother's change in behavior was partly due to her poor health, partly her bad husband, partly her daughter finishing school and choosing to continue to live so far away, and partly because she didn't have a good relationship with either of her children.  And partly the "over medication," of course.  Grandpa yelled from the next room, "Do you need to detox?!" while my grandma was on the phone with her, but my mother heard him and "snapped out of it" enough to behave better, so no action was taken.  All of this came from letters.

My grandmother gauged my mother's mental health by how much she talked to her and how much she ate.  "Annie only ate a quarter of her Frosty yesterday," was cause for alarm, but "Annie finished her Frosty today," was a sign that the worst was over, the dark cloud had passed.  "Did you know Annie has lost 70 pounds?" she asks in January of 2005.  I didn't realize it had started so early.  I don't know if I saw her between Thanksgiving of 2004 and my wedding in 2008.

Grandma's reviews of me improved when she started receiving regular letters from me.  I hadn't realized I was writing my own press releases.  She references my purchasing "a proper dining table" in three consecutive letters.  I guess she wrote to my cousin more frequently than I wrote to her.  She details the stressors of my Manhattan job, but this time without the added snark or the implication that I'm whining.  I wonder if her news bites inherited whatever tone the original teller passed down.  She wrote about my trip to Atlantic City, my cooking Christmas dinner for Michael's family, and she seemed delighted or at the very least neutral about all of it.  

I don't know if there are letters from the time my mother swore she would turn her parents against me.  I can't stand to find them.  I don't want to read anymore.  I was shaking from adrenaline as I read about myself, like I was being attacked to my face, but there is no one to even talk to about it now let alone fight.  My grandmother has been dead for eight years, and I'm just now seeing that she wrote what I perceive to be snarky things about me when I was in the darkest and hardest time of my life.  I don't like it.  I don't like being made fun of for "complaining" and "whining" and having emotions.  I was depressed, and my mother was mentally unstable and abusing drugs.  They complained about my emotions, and then they complained when I stopped exposing my emotions to their view, even though it was 2005 and I didn't cut ties with anyone for another three years.  I've tried to stop having emotions, and I can't.  The best I could do was shield myself from the people who mocked me for having them.  

I am finding it hard to be generous when I'm hurt and angry and no one in that family has ever apologized to me (or anyone else, as far as I know) for anything.  I'm afraid I will never stop being angry.  I wish my dad and my grandmother -- and, hell, my grandfather too -- were alive just so I could say mean, cold things to their faces.  I would be quiet and calm, and when they would get upset at my terrible words, I would scold them for being so emotional, so "moody," so sensitive.  (It's what I'd like to do to my mother too, but I hear she's kept heavily sedated these days. More on that later.)  

I try to be generous because I know they all were mostly miserable, but I still judge them because they made me miserable too, and I deserved better than what they dished out.  Everyone does.  Everyone deserves better, but they were the ones who were responsible for me and prevented me from having that.  I will try to be generous and believe they did the best they could with the tools they had not because I think they deserve my kind thoughts but because it's good practice for the generosity I do owe to my daughter.  It's another way I can be less like them.  It's really hard.

I'm afraid I will never stop being angry.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Time My Mother Played Santa at Walmart

The best part of reconnecting with Dante has been having access to new "crazy mom" stories.  Here is one Dante told me that apparently happened several years ago.

My mother put on a Santa hat, went into Walmart, and handed out hundred dollar bills to strangers until security forced her to leave.

Dante made it sound like she did this at more than one location.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

"Dad's Dead"

I got a call last week from my estranged brother who has literally never contacted me in our lives except at the behest of one of our parents.  Caller ID showed his name, so I let it go to voicemail.  Even if I hadn't seen his name, I won't answer calls from that area code unless I recognize them.  They could be from my mother.

Dante left a voicemail saying to call him back, nothing more.  I received a Facebook message from a random stranger immediately after the voicemail.  A Google image search showed that the profile photo had been all over the internet, and a search of the name yielded no hits, so I assumed it was Dante incognito.  I discovered I could read the message without "accepting" it or sending a read receipt, so I did.  It was Dante saying our dad was doing poorly and the phone number he had for me was defunct (this is the beauty of not having an outgoing voicemail message, Friends) and to call him back.  Dante is still living at home with our dad.

My best friend, Jerry, didn't think I should call him.  I knew the only reasons anyone from my family would be calling me would be either 1) because they wanted money, or 2) they wanted me to do something, and I didn't have any intention of giving them anything or going there, even if a parent was dead.  Still, I hoped for the narrow possibility that something would finally force to the surface the fact that I am not my dad's biological daughter.  Maybe Dante would be asking me to donate a kidney or bone marrow and I could say nonchalantly, "I'm not any more related to him than you are.  Didn't you know?"  Maybe Dad actually wanted to talk to me for the first time in years.

I called back on speaker phone so that I could record our exchange and listen to it later and get thoughts from Jerry as necessary.  That is why I have a recording on my phone of Dante choking back a sob and saying, "Dad's dead."

Dad had been in the hospital in Cleveland again when he died.  His wound had reopened, as it always has, and the VA hospital in Cincinnati had shipped him back to Cleveland to stay in their spinal cord injury unit, as they always did.  He had been in the ICU lately, which wasn't a first for him.  I've visited him in ICUs since the '90s.  Dante said he hadn't been able to get in touch with him lately, though I'm not sure how "lately" he meant.  Some of his updates, such as Dad's driver's license expiring, were things I remember happening four years ago.  He said he had tried calling Dad's cell phone but got no answer, which doesn't surprise me since he always avoided taking valuables with him to the hospital out of fear they would be stolen, even if they were his primary means of communication and entertainment and he didn't know how long he'd be there.  He said he'd finally gotten in touch with a doctor at the hospital and learned that Dad had gone into cardiac arrest, which was a first for him.  He was alive but couldn't communicate except for subtle head movements.  Dante said the doctor had called him on his own cell phone from the ICU and was asking Dad if he wanted "to be made comfortable," and Dad supposedly nodded.  He died later that day, right before I called Dante back.  He was a four hour drive from anyone he knew.

Dante and I talked for several hours over the next two days, mostly trading ridiculous stories of our parents.  Every time one of us tried to get off the phone, we'd feel compelled to share one more thing and stay on the line for another ten minutes.  He was doing it too.  It was good.  I've never connected with Dante that way.  Maybe he had changed.  Maybe I had imagined some of his scariness and inflated it over the years of estrangement.

I was also surprised at how little Dad and Dante had presumably talked since Dante had moved back home.  I'm not sure how long Dad had been in Cleveland when he died, but Dante didn't know we weren't in touch.  I told him that he had all my contact information but that, when he wouldn't ask me any questions about my family or my life and I stopped working to maintain the relationship, I stopped hearing from him at all.  It had been three years.  Dante had no idea.

He also had no idea what Dad wanted to happen when he died.  He'd apparently only had that conversation with me.  As I recall, it only happened because he wanted the go-ahead to cancel all his life insurance policies minus the one the VA paid for, and we were confirming it would be enough to cover the cost of cremation.  He didn't want a big service or burial, he said.  He just wanted his favorite jazz song playing on a boom box to send him off.   I can do that, I had said.

More to come.  So much has happened.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Update on the NPE in my Family Tree

I previously wrote about the wonkiness in my family tree.  It's looking more and more like my gg-grandfather was not, in fact, my biological gg-grandfather.  I currently have 26 DNA matches I can trace back to the same married couple in the Willis family.  Ancestry isn't aware of most of them because I drew up their trees myself.  I've made at least thirty of what I think people call "mirror trees."  My closest matches in this Willis family group share just over 100 cM of DNA with me.  Based on other cousins with whom I share the same amount of DNA as well as the extensive Willis family tree I've mocked up, I think the eldest match is my second cousin twice removed and the other two are my third cousins once removed.  This is all still estimation.

I've also discovered, as more close matches appeared, that there are genetic links between this massive group of Willis family members and Aida and my closest mystery cousin, the one who self-identifies as Cherokee but turned out to be 100% white lady.  All my mystery people are turning out to reside on the same mysterious branch of my family tree.  I guess this shouldn't surprise me since I have so many matches across most of the rest of my tree that I can often tell how I'm related to someone based solely on shared DNA matches.  (I have a LOT of matches.  I credit it to being so historically American and the DNA testing companies also being American.)

There is so much data it's hard to compile into one place where I can see it at a glance.  Today I started to draw the family tree on a wall-sized dry erase surface in the hopes of fitting all the DNA matches I know and then trying out places where my mystery cousins might fit.  It makes me look like a conspiracy theorist, or so I like to think.  I just need some red string and photographs.

I currently have one most likely suspect for the role of gg-grandfather based on proximity of DNA matches, though he isn't necessarily it.  My next step will be to figure out some currently living descendants who might someday DNA test and to hypothesize what their matches to other cousins should look like.  I think the match I'd most like to see would be one of my g-grandmother's descendants, any of whom should match to my entire mystery bunch as well as to the descendants of my gg-grandmother's clan in Illinois.

Something to consider for anyone who thinks they can keep a child's paternity a secret if they just wait out the clock:  the person I'm in the process of finding out isn't biologically my ancestor is 150 years my senior.  He died decades before my parents were born.  He fought in the Civil War.  

DNA testing is still in its infancy.  Who knows what DNA tests will be able to unearth in another 150 years.

If anyone has done genetic genealogy focusing on people this far removed from the current era and has advice or suggestions for what I should be doing next, please let me know.  It's hard since the margin of error increases -- snowballs, really -- each time you go back another generation.