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.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Time My Mother Tried to Keep My Cousin's Baby

When I was seven years old, my eldest cousin Ellie had a baby.  I had always been the youngest of the cousins, so I was excited for someone else to be the baby for once.  When Wendy was close to a year old, Ellie let my mother babysit her for a few days.  I'm not sure where Ellie was going or what she was doing, but she was still only twenty, a single mother, and needed some time off. 

My mother and I had a grand time taking care of Wendy.  I remember watching her eat dry Cheerios and playing with her and even showing her off at my elementary school when she and my mother dropped me off one morning.

Then Ellie came to pick her up one evening.  She was smiling and seemed excited to be reunited with her baby.  "I'm even twenty minutes early!" I recall her saying with a smile.   

"Twenty minutes early and a day late!" my mother retorted, my first clue that she was angry or that anything was wrong.  My mother refused to let Ellie in the house.  Ellie seemed bewildered and nearly as confused as I was.  My mother told Ellie that she was a day late picking up Wendy.  Ellie disagreed and said she had come back exactly when she'd said she would.  My mother got angry and insisted Ellie was late and unpredictable and an "unfit mother" (a favorite phrase of hers, as I recall).  Ellie demanded her baby back so they could leave, and my mother refused.  If anyone else was home while this transpired, I never saw them.  It was just my mom and Wendy and me in the house and Ellie on just the other side of the front door.  Ellie threatened to call the police, but I don't recall my mother's exact response beyond something along the lines of daring her to do it. 

It was the '80s, before any of us had cell phones, and my mother wouldn't let her in the house, so Ellie had to leave to get help.  She came back a little while later with two police officers who ordered my mother to hand over the baby.  My mother explained how my cousin was an unfit mother and that she couldn't in good conscience turn a child over to someone like that, at which point the police threatened to arrest her.  My mother decided that she could in good conscience turn Wendy over to the police though and they could hand her over to Ellie if they really wanted to, but she stressed that anything that happened to her after that would be on their heads and not her responsibility.  I recall one of the officers rolling his eyes as he accepted the baby and immediately passed her to Ellie. 

I don't recall what happened after that except that they all left.  Ellie didn't invite us to babysit again, but if she held a grudge, she never let it show.  She brought Wendy over regularly for the large family birthday parties my mother hosted almost monthly until years later when they moved to another state.  I haven't seen either of them in person for years, but we're Facebook friends, as I am with most of my cousins.  Ellie is nearly fifty now and posts a lot about her weekends at the lake and her love of Bernie Sanders.  Wendy is my half-sister's age and has a family of her own.  We share old family photos from decades ago and laugh about how we looked.  I assume Ellie remembers that time my mother tried to keep Wendy from her, but I don't know if Wendy ever heard about it.  We don't talk about my mother.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

There's Something Wonky in My Family Tree

Warning:  This is long and might be completely uninteresting.  It's also hard to make it make sense without visual aids, so it might be nonsensical.

tl;dr:  I think my great-great-grandfather was either adopted or someone else altogether.

New Match
I got a new match on 23andMe not too long ago -- a 2nd to 4th cousin, the site said.  Since the user name said TJCapello*, it became my closest actionable (i.e., non-anonymous and as yet unsolved) match on the site.  I sent him the default "let's share DNA info and see how we're related" message, but -- as expected -- I didn't get an immediate response.  His profile was new and contained no additional information.

I looked up the initials and refreshingly uncommon surname and, taking into account that he was male, I found his full name and location online with a quick Google search.  I started drawing up a family tree for him based predominantly on his mother's obituary on (but also using, Facebook, FamilySearch, and Ancestry), and I was delighted to learn three out of the four of his grandparents were Italian immigrants.  I have only trace amounts of Southern European DNA myself and a tree filled with British and German names, so I focused my tree-building efforts on the non-Italian quarter of his ancestry. 

Then I got another new DNA match, even closer this time -- a 2nd to 3rd cousin, it said.  I quickly learned it was my previous match's sister (different surname, but Google knows all).  Whatever my relationship to her is, it's the same one I share with him, so I figured I should be able to find our most recent common ancestors in the great-great-great-grandparent range or even closer (thank you, ISOGG).

I built out the English-sounding quarter of the Capellos' family tree until it should have intersected with my own.  It even featured the surname Willis* like my own tree, and they lived in the Midwest, not far from another branch of my own family tree.  But I couldn't find any overlap, despite my own Willis branch of the family tree tracing back to the 1600s. 

I put this project aside for awhile, and I come back to it every so often.  This wouldn't be an easy one to solve like I had thought.  Either their family tree contains an error -- perhaps from an adoption or a non-paternity event -- or mine does.  Or maybe that mysterious branch of my family tree that ought to lead back to New York where my great-great-grandfather was born really doesn't.   

The Wonkiness
Recently I've started finding other DNA matches, on Ancestry this time -- all in Ancestry's "4th to 6th cousins" range, which tends to be a very loose estimate -- whose trees overlap with that same Willis branch that doesn't fit into my own.  I've found upwards of five matches whose trees overlap in the same place, making them all second and third cousins of the Capellos, though Ancestry hasn't put it together into a "hint" for me yet because I sometimes have to draw up the family trees myself based on less detailed trees or user names alone.  I appear to share about half as much DNA with those Ancestry matches as I do with the Capellos, which leads me to believe my family tree intersects with the Capellos' a generation more recently than it intersects with the others'.  But that leaves me confused.  Looking at their family tree, that means I'm descended from a Willis born in the early to mid-1800s.  I already have all those slots in my family tree filled.  I don't know how they could fit into my own tree.

That said, I don't believe any ancestor on my family tree is necessarily the right one until I have at least a couple separate (non-sibling) matches whose combined DNA and family trees support my data.  The more distant the ancestor, the less possible s/he is to confirm.  The more distant the cousin, the less possible s/he is to confirm.  I'm in contact now with some cousins so distant that the relationship doesn't even show up in our DNA anymore, and I only feel confident of the relationship because of overlapping family trees and mutual DNA matches within those same family trees. 

Logicking It Out
Here's the deal with the Willis branch of the tree in question:  It shows up in several reasonably close DNA matches' trees, so I assume it is how I'm related to them.  It's possible I'm wrong, but it's unlikely.  In order to fit it into my own tree however, something currently in my tree must be wrong.  First, I know the Willises are connected to my maternal side because my paternal uncle on Ancestry shares zero of those matches with me.  I also have enough known DNA matches at this point to draw the conclusion that several specific ancestors on my tree must be accurate.  I can verify my mother is my mother, I can verify her parents are my grandparents, and I can verify my great-grandparents too.  I have enough reasonably close DNA matches backing up my data that I feel confident about six of my eight maternal great-great-grandparents.  I even have an Ancestry "hint" that aligns another more distant cousin with ancestors of one of the two remaining great-great-grandparents (I feel less certain because it's only one match and a distant one at that).  That would leave Jack, my great-great-grandfather who supposedly came from New York. 

Jack is the brick wall of the mystery branch of my family tree.  I have no DNA matches to support him, and many hours of research have yielded no indication of who his parents were, which makes it exceptionally hard to find DNA matches that would support him.  His wife, my great-great-grandmother Emily, was from rural Illinois, within a 45-minute drive of the Willises.  According to census records, she was twenty years younger than Jack and had their first child -- my great-grandmother -- when she was 28.  They'd supposedly married two years earlier, but I have not been able to find a marriage record, though I found one for her first marriage easily enough.  Lots of my ancestors crossed state lines to marry though, so I'm not even sure where to focus my search.  Could Jack have been my great-great-grandfather but actually been adopted?  I would think this more likely if he didn't claim to have grown up in New York, over a thousand miles from the family to which I'm trying to connect him.  I could be wrong, but I don't think adoptees were moved that far from their birth families in the 1850s.  Could my great-grandmother have been a non-paternity event (NPE), meaning Emily was impregnated by someone who wasn't Jack?  If that is the case, I'm still not sure who my great-great-grandfather would be.  There isn't one specific "most likely suspect" in the Willis family tree, either based on DNA or based on relative age and geographic proximity.

Next Steps
My closest DNA match on Ancestry whose tree contains the Willis line has several matches in common with me.  A few of them also contain the Willis line, but several don't have detailed trees, nor are they related to the entire cluster of other Willis descendants, though they are related to each other.  My next step is to build family trees for the ones who don't have them yet, or whose trees only have a couple of names, which is most of them.  My hypothesis is that the ones who aren't mutual DNA matches with the Willis cousins will be related via an adjacent family line -- perhaps the Thompsons.  Thompson was the maiden name of my closest Willis cousin's great-grandmother.  If I'm right and they're connected via an adjacent family line, it would tell me which generation connects me to that family tree -- the generation containing both the Willises and the Thompsons (or whichever adjacent family surname) rather than an earlier generation.

In case you're wondering why I would put so much effort into something that matters so little, please understand THIS IS MY FAVORITE KIND OF PUZZLE.  I have been waiting for something like this to happen ever since I solved the "who is my biological father?" puzzle, which was at most a 4-star difficulty on Dell Logic Puzzles' 5-star scale.  I find few things as gratifying as solving logic-based puzzles, and solving this one will create an even bigger hint toward solving other genealogical puzzles, of which there are two more I've been working on for months.  I've written about Aida, but there is another one I haven't even mentioned yet (she self-identifies as Cherokee, but her DNA is 99% European), and the solution to this Willis puzzle will help me towards solving both of them via deductive reasoning.  In short, I'm doing this for fun.

*Not his actual name.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Books Intended for DC Adults

There are quite a few children's books on the market geared toward telling your preschooler that s/he was conceived via donor egg or sperm, but I can't seem to find a book intended for the masses who learn they're donor conceived somewhere between adolescence and death.  Isn't that odd? 

I don't collect a lot of things, but in the last few years I have found myself collecting the few books on donor conception that take into account the perspectives of DC adults.  I only own them because my library doesn't carry them and they're typically old and sometimes out of print.  Lethal Secrets is a good one.  I'm reading Experiences of Donor Conception now, which has different sections focusing on the major players in the DC Trifecta (donors, intended parents, and offspring).  AnonymousUs has a lot of first person stories from the Trifecta too, and Alana edited together a "best of" sort of book from the site, so there's that.  But I think there should be a "how to" book, with sections on "so you just found out," and "tips for coping," and "how to search, if that's something you might be into," as well as "other resources." 

Such a book would be beneficial not only for DC offspring but also for any parents who want to tell them but think it might be too late when they reach out for resources and the closest thing they come across is The Pea That Was Me.

If you know of a book intended for DC teens and adults who are just now finding out they're donor conceived, please let me know.  And if you don't know of such a book but have ideas about what else it should contain, please let me know that too.  If there really is a void on the topic, I'd like to put something together and put it up on Amazon, even if the primary thing it says is,  
"Your feelings are valid, 
you're going to be okay, 
and you are not alone." 

I've found too many bewildered, newly discovered DC people reaching out for support on unrelated and tangentially related forums (I'm looking at you, most of Reddit) and, instead of empathy or validation, they get hammered with "you should be grateful to be alive" and "but you were WANTED" and "it doesn't CHANGE anything" and "think of the donor's PRIVACY!"  There has to be a better way.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

My Favorite Thing About Mother's Day

I think my favorite thing about Mother's Day is how many hits I get on my Mother's Day card posts like this one from people using benign and non-snarky search terms like "mother's day card from daughter." 

And don't forget this one, which doesn't come up in Mother's Day searches but I think would make a fantastic card cover if you want to express your own sentiments inside: 

Feel free to print your own.  If someone asks where you got it, I simply ask that you credit "some bitch on the internet."  Happy Mother's Day, Everybody!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

These Are the Stories Like Shrapnel

The memories that come to my mind now are older.  I've covered most of the really ridiculous stuff from the last fifteen years, but the stories that made me therapist cry were the old and buried things I didn't even know were weird.  Writing my post earlier today brought the following verses to mind:
These are the stories like shrapnel.  
The digging brings anguish and doubt.
Perhaps they should've stayed buried,
But damn it feels good when they're out.

And it does feel good when they're out.  

Spending My Childhood on Antibiotics

I complained of stomach aches a lot as a child, from as early as I can remember until I was in high school.  As much as I loved seeing my friends at school and socializing, the idea of inadvertently doing something wrong or getting in trouble terrified me.  I approached almost every school day terrified that I'd forgotten to do some piece of homework, or that something had been assigned during one of the many hours I'd spent zoned out and daydreaming without even realizing it, or that I might get scolded for something I didn't mean to do wrong.  In hindsight, my stomach aches were probably a combination of stress and my looking for any excuse to get out of school.  In most cases, my mother wouldn't let me stay home unless I could produce physical evidence that I was ill -- either a fever, which I ran only a few times in my life, or vomiting.

My mother took my temperature rectally until I was at least six.  When I asked why I couldn't use the oral thermometer like everyone else in the house, she said I would bite down on it.  I promised I wouldn't.  I don't even know what the problem would have been if I had -- it was a plastic digital thermometer, not one of the old style ones made of glass and mercury.  When I asked why we couldn't get one of the digital thermometers they stick in your ear at the doctor's office then, she told me they aren't accurate enough.  I wonder now how much of her insistence on using a rectal thermometer was as a punishment for my daring to ask to stay home.  I think it was at least a little bit punishment.

On the rare occasions that I was allowed to miss school, my mother took me to the doctor without fail.  I remember her saying something along the lines of how, if she let me miss school, I wouldn't be allowed to just stay home and lie on the couch watching TV all day like she did in my absence.  If I didn't go to school, by god, we would spend the day at the doctor's office.  She wasn't going to incentivize my sicknesses by letting me lie around at home all day.

No doctor ever found a source for my stomach aches or proposed that they might be stress related.  With few exceptions they told us instead that I had an upper respiratory infection and prescribed antibiotics.  I also had strep throat a lot, for which they injected me with penicillin and I was allowed to rest at home for 24 hours without being treated like someone who was trying to get out of something.  Getting a positive strep test was like winning a small lottery to me and always made me happy. 

Once when I was eight or so, my mother found an open packet of Sweet Tarts candies on a file cabinet in the family room.  I don't know how long it had been there -- it was a hoard house after all -- but she mistook them for antibiotics and got very upset at me for not taking them.  "Those are candy," I explained.  They weren't even mine.  Dante might have left them there, but they were from one of the communal baskets of candy my mother left scattered around the house, so it's anybody's guess.  I always took all my medicine though.  It never would have occurred to me not to take a dose of the medicine she gave me, let alone leave them scattered on top of a file cabinet.  To this day, I have never stopped taking a course of antibiotics before they ran out.

I was also about eight when I got my first vaginal yeast infection as a result of the antibiotics.  My entire vulva felt like an inflamed mosquito bite, and it itched so badly I writhed on my bed and cried.  I didn't know what was happening, but my mother did.  When she took me to the pediatrician and announced that I had an yeast infection, the nurse asked, "Oral yeast infection, I assume?"  When my mother said, "No, vaginal," the nurse raised in eyebrows in surprise.  When she left the room, I asked my mother why she had done that.  "Vaginal yeast infections are normally just from having too much sex," my mother told me.  "But yours is from all the antibiotics." 

She bought me Monistat antifungal treatment from the drug store later that day.  I didn't need the vaginal suppositories, she said, just the cream, but she insisted on applying it herself.  When I asked uncomfortably why I couldn't just do it myself, she argued that I wouldn't be able to see where to apply it.  "I don't need to be able to see it," I told her.  "I can feel where it itches."  She denied my request and rubbed in the cream with her fingers while I laid on my back on my bed hoping she would stop soon.  Not knowing how to explain the creepy, skin crawly feeling that was upsetting me, I told her, "I don't like it.  It doesn't feel good."  "It's not SUPPOSED to feel good!" she barked.  "If you liked this, there would be something wrong with you!"

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Good Memory of My Dad

He used to drive me to White Castle.  We would roll the windows down because my mother wouldn't allow it when she was in the van.  He always played jazz or blues on the stereo because they were his favorites, and my mother wouldn't listen to anything but oldies when she was around ("the best of the '50s, '60s, and early '70s!" the radio ads used to tout).  My dad and I listened to Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass and Muddy Waters.  He liked guitarists because he played the guitar, or maybe he played the guitar because he liked the sound of it.  I didn't like or understand jazz or blues at the time, but he seems to have planted a seed that grew up with me.  Scarcely a day went by in the first 18 years of my life that I didn't hear "Misty" or "Willow Weep for Me."  I have the voice for them now too.  I didn't even know those songs had words back then.

We would order our tiny cheeseburgers at the drive-thru and then sit in the parking lot with the windows rolled down while we ate.  I always took the pickles off mine, and he would add them to his own.  I was a picky eater back then.

Monday, April 18, 2016

My Piece on the AnonymousUs Podcast

I wrote a piece about my sister a couple of weeks ago for (and posted it here too because I crave attention and recognition), and Hattie Hart did a very nice reading of it for their podcast this week.  Mine is the last of the three stories, starting at the 5:45 point.  (Thank you, Hattie!)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Good Memory of My Childhood Home

When I was in elementary school, when it was cool enough, back before styrofoam insulation and clear plastic covered every window of our house for years at a time, sometimes my mother would open the windows.  I can only remember it happening on a handful of occasions.

I remember riding the bus home from school once and, when it pulled up to my house, seeing that the heavy wooden front door was open wide with the screen door visible behind it.  I felt a jolt of happiness.  The windows would be open.  My mother must be in a good mood. 

My parents' house usually smelled of stale air.  My mother liked to keep the air conditioner cranked up and the house cold inside, but it still managed to feel stuffy.  Just being inside it with its unnaturally dark rooms and cavelike dankness made me feel drained.  From childhood to college, I remember having that feeling, like something in the house was sapping me of my energy.  I think my mother felt it too.  When she wasn't asleep, she often wanted to get out and go somewhere, and when we went out to dinner in my teen years, she was as loath to go home as I was.

On the rare occasions that my mother opened the windows, she also turned on the house's attic fan, which I can only vaguely remember because the last time I remember seeing it in use was when I was in elementary school.  I remember a large metal vent in the ceiling that would open when the attic fan was on, allowing me to see the fan spinning behind it, whipping up what I remember as strong winds through the hallway.  It was loud and powerful.  It felt nice to be surrounded by so much moving air. 

Sometimes when the windows were open, my mother even cleaned.  This is one of my favorite memories of my mother.  She put a Dolly Parton record on the big turntable in the family room and blasted the music through the house.  Because closed doors and narrow doorways were tricky for my dad in his wheelchair, our house had an open floor plan back before it was fashionable.  My mother hated how she had no way to close off portions of messiness to visitors, but the music carried well.  I don't remember if she mopped or dusted or what -- I remember being too young to be of use myself, maybe four or five -- but she sang along to the music, and I loved it.  She seemed happy and full of energy -- so rarely did she have any energy -- and it made me happy to be close to her with the music and the breeze playing around us.  The air smelled fresh, and cleaning products always smelled better than the heavily clove-scented air fresheners my mother used to cover up the other smells of the house for company. 

It's warm here today where I live now.  I have the windows open, and the house smells fresh.  I can hear birdsong and some of my neighbors talking outside, now that the drone of what sounded like a dozen lawn mowers and weed wackers has ceased.  None of the lights are on because the sun makes it brighter in my white-walled home than any amount of electricity could achieve when I was a kid.  I'm glad I don't live there anymore.  The good days were too rare, and they were still worse than the bad days are here.  Here I can clean and open windows whenever I want.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The First Time I Remember Being Blamed for Getting Hurt

When I was four years old, my best friend was named Kimmy.  Our older brothers were the same age and were friends too, which was how Kimmy and I had playdates -- I was deposited at Kimmy's house most of the times Dante was.  I remember Kimmy calling me outside to see something her brother and some other boys seven years older than us were doing. 

When I got outside I saw a thick, knotted rope hanging, probably from a tree though I don't remember for certain.  One of the boys pushed or dropped the end of the rope and it swung toward me, the hard knot landing hard on my nose.  Suddenly blood was gushing down my face.  (I still don't know what they had been doing with that rope.  I had only been outside for a few seconds.)

Kimmy pulled me inside to her mother.  Kimmy's mother called my mother to come pick me up and tended to me until the bleeding stopped.  It was my first of many nose bleeds, but my nose wasn't broken and there was no permanent damage.  When my mother arrived, she was mad at me for injuring myself playing.  Confused at being in trouble for something that I didn't even do, I explained that I had only been standing there when the rope the boys were playing with hit me.  I hadn't even touched it.  "Obviously you were somewhere you shouldn't have been or you wouldn't have gotten hurt," my mother snapped.  I cannot remember a time I got hurt that she didn't operate under this logic.

I was thirty years old and pregnant with a child of my own when I saw a school-aged child running across cobblestones at a local festival.  She fell and burst into tears, and her mother comforted her and told her she would be okay.  I had been reading books on parenting for the last year or two and expressed surprise to my husband that her mother had comforted her instead of scolding her for having been running in the first place.  How is she supposed to learn if they comfort her instead of correcting her behavior? I wondered.  Comfort is something children want.  It's certainly something I wanted.  Comforting a child when she cries just trains her to cry more, doesn't it?  I'd assumed my parents reprimanded me instead because they wanted to decentivize me from ever doing anything dangerous.  It was either that or they were angry and emotionally stunted to the point of being illogical, and I used to assume my parents had reasons for  everything they did.  I knew by age thirty that they had been emotionally neglectful and not always made the best choices, but the scolding after injuries was something I simply hadn't thought about in years.  What else hadn't I thought about in years?

My husband looked at me like there was something wrong with me.  He explained that it's normal to comfort a child until she stops crying before correcting her behavior as necessary, if she had been misbehaving at all.  I also learned that not every parent thinks running is always bad behavior like mine did.  I also learned that not everyone blames their children to their face every time something bad happens to them.  That was when I realized I was way out of my depth when it came to parenting, I was already pregnant because I had thought I was fine, and most books on raising children didn't even address the "scratch" from which I needed to start.

Another Good Memory of My Mother

The table in my parents' dining room was usually too covered in hoard to use.  Subsequently we usually ate at TV trays in the living room.  But one day when I was nine or ten and had a friend over at dinner time, my mother set up a card table and chairs in the living room and told us we were going to play restaurant.  She pretended to be a waiter and told us the special of the night was spaghetti.  She set the table with napkins and silverware, which seemed very restaurant-like since we never set the table at home.  She even brought the meal out to us from the kitchen in courses with bread first, just like at a restaurant.  It was fun and exciting doing something different and seeing my mother be playful. 

A Good Memory of My Mother

When I was in Girl Scouts in elementary school, my mother became a troop leader.  I had previously attended Girl Scout meetings at another girl's house where her mother was the leader, but my mother had volunteered to join as assistant leader or something of that nature, followed by a fight between the two mothers about something still unknown to me, followed by a schism of the troop.  The girls who were my friends came with us and joined our new (and admittedly better) troop, and other girls from school joined too.

There was a Girl Scout special event held in our church's basement one Saturday.  About a dozen troops from the area came.  Each troop had been assigned a table and chairs where they would each represent a different country.  We were supposed to set up a booth for our country where the other girls in attendance could do a craft or activity native to that country, or eat a food native to that country, or learn something about that country.  Most of it ended up looking about as interesting as a job fair.

My mother's troop represented Switzerland.  I didn't know what we were going to be doing that day until we arrived at the church.  My mother scrapped the traditional "booth" style everyone else used.  She set up the folding chairs side-by-side and then covered them with a large gym mat she'd brought from home (previously part of the Swamp of Sadness), creating a medium sized hump.  We would be offering people the chance to scale the famous Swiss Alp called the Matterhorn, she told us.  As each girl scrambled over the gym mat mountain and came down the other side, my mother congratulated her and presented her with a chocolate.  "Switzerland is known for its chocolates," my mother explained.  As the only booth offering both not-sitting-still and candy, ours quickly became the favorite of the day.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Show Everyone What a Good Actress You Are"

Up until my late teens I thought I wanted to be an actress.  I was in school plays and church musicals and even the occasional summer Shakespeare program, but after enough of them, I realized I didn't like performing or even rehearsing.  I liked attention and I liked pretending to be something I was not.  If I could have skipped the plays and gone straight to being hugged and told I'd done a good job, that would have been my ideal situation, but I didn't realize that at the time.

When I was in high school and depressed and had to speak publicly or mingle with strangers or do something social I desperately didn't want to do, my mother would urge me, "Show everyone what a good actress you are."  It worked.  I didn't want to fake happiness for the sake of making my mother happy.  My mother vastly preferred complaining to strangers over feigning happiness, and it irritated me that she wanted me to be a shiny happy person while she said whatever she wanted about me right in front of me (sometimes comically flattering, sometimes cruel or mocking) and continued her reign of martyrdom.  But I didn't want to be like her either, and I'd already learned that being cheerful made me dramatically more popular, so I "showed everyone what I good actress I was." 

I felt painfully shy growing up, but behaving as though I were shy tended to get me yelled at and publicly humiliated, so I'd learned to shut down my shyness along with my depression.  They were still there, but I locked them in a room of my brain where they temporarily couldn't get out or show themselves. I knew they were there, but I temporarily couldn't feel them.  I wouldn't have been able to function the way I was expected to if I could have felt them. 

It was a sort of pleasant dissociation in which the feeling part of me went on lock-down and I wore a smiling mask set to a socially acceptable autopilot program.  I don't think I said anything particularly charming or clever on autopilot, but I knew how to smile and respond politely and ask simple questions.  Based on people's reactions, I seem to have done fine.  I don't even think my mother had a socially acceptable autopilot program.  She simply smiled and laughed a little too loudly while she complained and overshared ("How are you today, Annie?"  "Oh, fairly partly cloudy.  My hips hurts, my son's unemployed, and my daughter is a moody teenager who can't wait to spend all my money a thousand miles away at college.  Kids and dogs and husbands!  Ha ha ha ha!")

I remember once in high school I won a small scholarship award and my mother told me I'd have to give an acceptance speech at the scholarship luncheon like it was the Oscars or something.  I'd learned to perform songs and plays from memory without panicking years ago, regardless of the audience size, but I was horrified at the idea of having to come up with my own words.  Writing always made me freeze up, even though I always eventually got through it.  I can't remember if she told me in advance or sprang it on me in the car on the way to the function, but I panicked until I had formulated a plan for something vague and sweet and humble to say.  When we arrived I, of course, learned my mother had been lying.  None of the other scholarship winners gave speeches or even said a word beyond, "Thank you."

I asked when I got to the podium if I should give a speech and the person in charge said, "If you like," in a surprised tone of voice.  Whatever, I thought.  I've panicked and written, and I might as well say what I wrote.  I also knew I'd probably be in trouble with my mother on the car ride home if I didn't give an acceptance speech after she'd expressly told me to.  So I gave my acceptance speech.  I pretended what I was doing wasn't absurd -- that I'd been so moved by their generosity I simply had to speak -- and I beamed and thanked everyone present and pandered to the organization so effectively that they gave me the scholarship again the next year when I didn't even apply for it.  I'm proud of that.  I was an average actress in theater, but I'm pretty good in real life.  I know how to behave anyway.  My mother should have thought about that before she started slandering me to her few friends and family in the years that followed.  She doesn't know how to behave.  It was yet another valuable lesson she taught me despite never learning it herself. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Time My Dad Rolled over My Arm with His Wheelchair

When I was a child -- old enough to be in school but not old enough for high school -- I remember my dad rolling over my arm with his wheelchair.  I keep thinking I must be remembering this wrong.  Wouldn't a 250 lb man in a wheelchair rolling over my forearm break my notoriously bird-like bones?  Regardless, I remember it happening.  

I often laid around on the floor of the living room back then, coloring or snuggling with my dog Angel while the TV played.  It was a hoard house with limited clear spaces for sitting -- a couch and three chairs in the living room, two of which were usually covered in miscellany and faced away from the television anyway -- and since my mother spent multiple hours per day stretched out on the couch napping or trying to nap, the floor was the obvious choice for me. 

I remember crying out in pain as his wheelchair rose up over my arm like it was a speed-bump.  I remember my dad yelling at me that I shouldn't have been in his way.  I remember looking down at my arm and being surprised that it was okay.  Nothing was broken.  It didn't even hurt for that long.  I was mostly surprised.  I assumed at the time that he hadn't seen me there at his feet and that his indignant response had been a reaction to the guilt he felt for having hurt me.  I'm not sure though, looking back, if he could have run over something as three-dimensional as my arm without some effort. 

Now that I think about it, it would have only been one wheel of the chair that rolled over my arm.  My arm wouldn't have had to withstand all 250 lbs of my dad.  Plus, he was in a lightweight manual chair back then, not the heavy-duty electric one that weighs more than me that he got when I was a teenager.  Plus my forearms have always been pretty flat, as far as human limbs go.  I guess it's not so hard to believe I came out unscathed.  I still would have preferred it if he'd said, "Sorry.  I didn't mean to do that."

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Time My Dad Started Recording Over Videotapes of Me

My family's video camera from the '70s broke before I was born.  We never got another one, despite Dante's and my pleas for one throughout the '80s and '90s, so the only videos that existed of me before adulthood were from public performances where copies were sold en masse.

I was in annual church musicals and some school plays.  I started taking private voice lessons in sixth grade.  I remember when my parents made that decision.  I had just sung my first solo in a church musical at age eleven (the musical was "My Way or Yahweh" and I played a slave or possibly a very unimportant priest of the god Ba'al), and my parents apparently felt I had done a surprisingly adequate job.  I remember sitting in the back seat of my dad's van while they sat in the front discussing whether I should take private singing lessons in an effort to pursue this talent.  They decided I should.  I remember feeling excited.

The first time those lessons really paid off was an eighth grade talent show.  I had two years of lessons under my belt and had finally worked out the kinks of my voice that made me sing too sharp or sound worse than someone without training at all.  I sang "On My Own" from Les Miserables, and it was the first recording of a performance I recall listening to afterward and thinking I actually sounded good.

I was in high school when my dad came to my room with the VHS from my eighth grade talent show and asked if I minded if he taped over it.  I don't recall what he wanted it for -- a bad '80s movie or a rerun of MacGyver based on what I know of his taste.  We had a hoard of recordable VHS cassettes -- multiple cabinets of them -- and even now my dad has multiple hard drives filled with terabytes of old movies and entire series he has recorded from TV and never gotten around to watching.  I guess I either asked why that particular tape or paused too long because my dad prompted, "I mean, it's not like you're going to watch it again, are you?" 

I said, "I guess not," and he was one VHS cassette of old reruns richer.  I don't know if my dad taped over all the old videos of my performances, but I recall seeing others that had been relabeled in his handwriting before I moved out for college.  I've considered asking my high school classmates on Facebook if they have any old videos of performances I was in, but for now it seems awfully self-indulgent and pointless to collect old videos of myself mostly singing when I'm not sure I'll ever want to watch them.  Much like old family photos, they were simply something I wanted to be able to look back on and show to my daughter when she is older.  For now though there are simply no videos of me before adulthood.

Monday, March 28, 2016

My Sister

My half-sister Simone texted me over the weekend and it got me thinking.  I wrote the following to submit to AnonymousUs:

When I first found my biological father and his family through DNA testing, I found my only known half-sister.  Our father told her about me at my request.  She was in shock.  "I always wanted a sister," she told me.  "I can't believe I've had one all this time and didn't even know."  I knew how she felt.  We'd both grown up with only brothers.      

My sister and I look a lot alike:  same pale skin, same hair, same eyes, same jaw.  We like a lot of the same things:  hiking, baking, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  We're both half German, though only she grew up learning the language, and only she feels a connection to the culture.  And there are even more things we don't have in common -- the way we dress, the books we read, the music we like.

We've never met.  I was in kindergarten when my sister was born and moved a thousand miles away.  It was another 25 years before we learned of each other's existence.  We've texted, Facebooked, talked on the phone -- tentative efforts to become "real sisters" like ones who've grown up together.  Her parents don't approve, but we're adults and it's out of their hands now.  My mother forbade me from ever seeking out my biological father's family too.  "He was just 'a donor,'" she told me.  "It's different."  Still, even if you believe family is only who you choose to include, my siblings and I have chosen to include one another.  As far as they're concerned, I count.  I feel like their opinions on this matter hold more weight than mine since they aren't donor conceived like me. 

Families aren't exclusively made up of intended parents and the children they choose to raise.  That's a family, sure, but sometimes children -- certainly donor conceived and adopted children -- have additional family beyond the ones who raised them.  Sometimes family means shared blood in two people who look alike but grew up apart.  Sometimes two strangers are family simply because they are sisters.  I don't think it's as "different" as my mother believed.

Friday, March 18, 2016

DC Pride

There is a thread right now about what makes us proud or happy about being donor conceived.  This is my sincere and unsarcastic reply:

On Not Fitting In

I watched a documentary on Amazon Streaming the other day (free with Prime) called "Adopted."  It follows two different stories:  an adult Korean-born woman who was adopted into a white American family at the age of 4 months, and a white American couple in the process of adopting a baby girl from China.

I like reading blogs and watching documentaries that feature adoptees.  While my brother Dante is the only adoptee I've been close to, we were never close enough to talk about it.  I knew almost nothing about adoption before I found my biological father.  What I think interests me most about adoption -- or, more accurately, adoptees -- is that, while it's distinctly different from my donor conception, a lot of adoptees and donor conceived people seem to share a lot of the same feelings of genetic bewilderment, wanting to know where they came from, and wanting people to stop telling them they should be grateful to be alive. 

I know a fair number of donor conceived people who feel adoption is different primarily because the children exist before the "intended parents" find them, unlike in donor conception, but the more I read, the more I believe children (and often mothers) are commodified in adoption just like in donor conception.  Most adopted children are not actually "saved" from some unspeakable fate (though some people like my mother like to tell them they were).  The bigger difference, as far as I can see, is not between intent but between how many biological ties are broken at birth, and in some cases of donor conception and surrogacy, all biological ties are broken just as in a typical adoption.  Lines start to blur.  We have a lot in common.  There are very few blogs by donor conceived people that have been updated in recent years, so I read adoptee blogs and breathe a sigh of relief that someone else gets it.  Someone more daring than me is blogging the outrage I'm afraid to show.

I enjoyed the "Adopted" documentary.  I don't share much in common with Jennifer, the Korean-American adoptee, but I related to her.  She grew up with white parents who had been raised "not to see race" and refused to recognize that she was any different from them, as well as classmates who mocked her for her physically Asian qualities.  As I've heard many transracial adoptees say, she felt white.  She wanted her outsides to match her insides.  She wanted blue eyes and blond hair and felt somewhat bewildered looking into the mirror as she grew up.  As a white donor-conceived woman who has experienced this phenomenon -- aspects of my face and body looking "off" because I can't place them in the context of my family, long before I knew this was a phenomenon that existed -- I can only imagine how Jennifer must have felt.  As she got older and attended a high school where she wasn't the only Asian student, she tried to pass as a "real Asian" since her new friends wouldn't immediately know she hadn't been raised in an Asian family.  When she reached adulthood, she even moved to Korea for a time, but still she did not fit in.  In Korea, where she'd been born, she was too American.

My best friend Jerry and I were talking about "Adopted" when she mentioned the fact that no one ever feels like they fit in -- that the very idea of fitting in is a fantasy that only makes people sad, like finding the meaning of life or finding one's soulmate.  While I agree with her to a certain extent, I think there are different levels of Not Fitting In that we experience.  I don't feel like I fit in most places or with most people -- I think I'm pretty common in this -- but I've got this Great White Halloween Costume I wear everyday that usually makes it look like I do.  I think my problem is less serious in part simply because it's less visible.  I don't expect everyone with "costumes" like mine to feel that way, but blending in has always meant a lot to me.  I've been in situations in which I stood out uncomfortably because of my race, and I've been in situations (most situations) in which I blended, and having the option to blend in simply by changing my clothes or hair or behavior -- whether or not I feel like I fit in -- makes a pretty huge difference.  This is only one of the struggles facing transracial adoptees, and it didn't even occur to me it existed until I started reading blogs in which people talk about it.

A lot of parents take their children's life challenges as personal insults.  As a parent, I get that.  It's annoying though, both for parent and child.  It makes parents defensive and children either angry or overprotective of their parents' feelings or both.  It creates an unhelpful barrier to communication.  Jennifer wanted validation from her adoptive parents, who she loved and cherished and cared for both physically and financially, but they seemed to treat her problems as a transracial and transnational adoptee as made up problems she'd invented to garner attention and pity.  What did she want them to do about it now?  They'd done the best they could.  They'd been raised not to see race and they never saw her as any different from them.  How could she ask for any more than that?  And these were good parents.  Loving, adoptive parents. 

I got the impression what might have helped was if they'd recognized that any daughter who loved them and cared for them as much as theirs always had was not baring her soul to hurt them.  She loved her parents and wanted to feel seen by them in her entirety.  She wanted them to understand and love her for all of who she was, and that included being Korean and an adoptee and not just a chameleon who could and would change who she was to gain their approval.  I get that.  I'm a chameleon too.  I think it might have meant a lot if they'd said, "I had no idea.  I'm sorry you've felt so much pain.  I did the best I could, and it's hard to hear you felt this way, but I understand that you didn't have the words to express these feelings earlier.  Thank you for trusting me with this now.  I've always loved you as my daughter, and it didn't occur to me that you might still feel adopted or want to know about where you came from.  Is there anything I can do to help?"  Empathy is important.  Validation is 50% of every cure. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Sherri Shepherd Remains Legal Parent

The Pennsylvania state Supreme Court has decided not to hear Sherri Shepherd's child support appeal.  She remains the legal mother of the child she and ex-husband Lamar Sally commissioned to be born with his sperm and a donor egg via gestational surrogate, and she will continue to pay monthly child support.  She has still never met the child.

I wonder whether Shepherd will eventually file for shared custody under the logic, "I'm already paying for it; I might as well use it" (or sole custody under the logic "spite").

I look forward to Lamar Sally Jr.'s tell-all book thirty years from now.

Satirical Rhyming Verse

One of the ways I've processed my anger since childhood is through satirical rhyming verse.  This is the sort of passive-aggressive, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog coping mechanism I learned growing up with my family.  Where sharing your feelings would get you in trouble for inadvertently offending a parent or for "being too sensitive," mocking whoever upset me didn't seem to have a downside back then.  Not even my parents wanted to lash out just to be accused of "not being able to take a joke."

I remember turning in a poem in elementary school about going out to dinner with my family.  Each stanza featured a different dish my mother sent back for its unexpected imperfections.  As I recall, she was more regal in my version, but also less embarrassing.  I drew a picture of her cheeseburger and chocolate malt "with dots in it," as she'd complained repeatedly to the waiter, to accompany the poem.  I got an A on the assignment, as per usual, and it even hung on display for my school's poetry month, to my mother's relatively quiet embarrassment.

In high school I penned a series of mocking poems about a character named Fattie.  Sometimes Fattie was my mother; sometimes she was a classmate.  They were vague enough in terms of detail that the people I wrote them about could never seem to identify themselves.  I encouraged them to read the poems and then, when they laughed at my depictions of them, I fed off their reactions in a Palpatine-esque fashion.  One particularly difficult classmate who had bullied me from before I knew who she was started collecting my poems to make into a Fattie Anthology, never knowing the first one she'd read had been about her.

A December or two ago I started writing a Christmas song about my dad.  It includes lines like "My asshole dad, my psycho brother / I wonder how long till you kill each other," and ends with "Merry Christmas / I won't care when you die."  It's cheerful and up tempo.  I never finished it.   

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"Don't You Even Know How to Use a BROOM?!"

There wasn't a lot of regular cleaning in my house growing up, as is typical in a hoard.  At least once a week my mother or dad would demand, "Go clean your room!" but I wasn't allowed to get rid of things I'd inherited from Dante (like entire collections of books) or anything someone had made for me (such as nursery decor).  I had no idea "getting rid of things" was something most people did.  As far as I can tell, when I was in elementary school I still had every toy and piece of decor I'd owned since birth, which made tidying up problematic.

I remember my dad helping me clean my room by parking his wheelchair in the doorway so I couldn't leave, watching me, and occasionally yelling at me to clean.  I remember my mother helping me once by actually sitting down in my room with me and then rifling through my belongings until she found something I had written, read it aloud in a mocking voice, and laughed. 

On one of the few occasions that the floor of my room was mostly clear, my mother presented me with a broom and told me to sweep.  I was maybe seven at the time.  I had never seen someone sweep in real life since you can't sweep hoard, so I brushed from side to side haphazardly like I'd seen Cinderella do in the Disney animated movie.  My mother stopped me, shouting, "GAWD!  Don't you even know how to use a BROOM?!" and took the broom away to show me the "right way," the way janitors do it on TV (my frame of reference for normal household behavior will forever be what I've seen on television, I just realized). 

I don't understand why she thought I would know how to sweep a floor when I had literally never seen it done.  She had similar reactions to other chores, such as getting angry that I "never washed the dishes without having to be told" when I was eight and had literally never washed dishes before, or been told to wash dishes, or been permitted to wash dishes.  Wanting to help out also tended to get me yelled at for getting in the way or doing things "wrong."  "Why don't you know how to do this?" she asked me about various skills throughout my life.  "I remember teaching Dante this when he was six!"  Dante is seven years older than me.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The First Time I Self-Injured, I Thought I'd Invented It

[Trigger warning:  This post is about self-injury.  Also, I lifted most of the title from a Chuck Palanhiuk novel.  That's probably not a trigger, but I want you to know I know.]

When I was in high school, I started hitting myself in the head.  Slapping quickly progressed to closed fisted punching.  Eventually I escalated to banging my head against the wall of my bedroom.  

The first time I did it was fairly instinctual -- I think.  I don't remember if it was before or after I'd first heard of cutting, but the idea of cutting was unappealing to me because I was self-conscious enough about my body already and didn't want to add scars to the list of attributes I felt I had to hide.  When I hit myself though, it was instinctual.  I didn't know anyone had ever done that before.  The physical pain anesthetized my emotions.  It was immediate.  It felt good simply because I didn't feel as bad anymore.

I don't remember what prompted each occasion I hit my head, or any of the occasions.  I had a hard time living at home with my parents, especially after the dawn of adolescence, which also coincided with the start of my mother's prescription drug abuse.  I had plenty of friends and did well in school, but I was not entirely well and home was not a happy place.  I hit myself a lot the year I was, I think, seventeen.  Seventeen was hard.  I remember dreaming that I was graduating and moving away and then awakening to find myself still a junior in high school.  I cried and cried.  The cheap wood-paneled walls of my bedroom gave a satisfying vibration when I slammed my head against them.

I eventually developed a dull, lingering headache that lasted for weeks.  I don't often get headaches, so I was a bit alarmed.  I think now, in hindsight, I had possibly given myself a minor concussion.  At the time though, I thought I might have caused a brain bleed.  My grandmother suffered a brain aneurysm not long before this time, and I worried that I might have caused some kind of hemorrhage in my brain that was going to kill me.  My primary concern wasn't so much the dying as the possibility that God would count my self-initiated brain hemorrhage as a sort of "long con" suicide attempt and that I would burn in hell for all eternity for instigating it. 

In a panic, I bargained with God that I would stop hitting myself in the head if he would excuse me from dying of a brain hemorrhage and burning in hell.  I stopped hitting myself, and within a couple of weeks my headache subsided.

I took up banging my head against the wall again in the final year or two of my contact with my mother.  I don't remember the circumstances.  My mother was at her worst in terms of leaving me raging voicemails and waging campaigns against me with family at that time.  It was around the same time I started drinking and actively researching suicide techniques (spoiler alert:  the most effective ones sound horrifying).  I don't remember any of this in reference to self-injury though.  I just remember the apartment where I lived at the time.  My bedroom had an exposed brick wall, and I made the mistake of banging my head into it.  Just once.  It hurt.  It hurt really, really bad.  There was no satisfying vibration or echo or even a thud.  It barely made a sound and it HURT, and the bricks were actually sharp.  I remember that wall.  I stopped not too long after that and haven't taken it up again. 

Now I know that 45+ minutes of high intensity cardio creates the same numbing effect in me, except my head doesn't hurt and the only physical sensation is a sort of warm, sore, jellied feeling in my muscles.  It isn't as immediate an effect, but it's close enough.  This end note sounds off here to me, like it doesn't belong with the rest of the story, but I think it's worth noting it's hard to quit self-injuring without finding a coping tactic with which to replace it.  I didn't come up with exercise right away either.  I don't remember that time all that well, but I probably just drank more for awhile, until that stopped helping too.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Get Rich Quick Scheme #2: Mailing People Money

Get Rich Quick Scheme #1 was the paper route, by the way. 

When I was in middle school or so, my mother stumbled across another get rich quick scheme.  I don't know where she found it -- the mail maybe? -- but it involved mailing two dollars each to a long list of people.  If I recall correctly, she requested a second list because she wanted to earn double the money.  I remember my mother sank over $500 in postage and envelopes stuffed with two dollars a piece.  It seemed like a massive sum of money to me back then, and I questioned how she could possibly recoup her costs. 

"Why are you doing this?"  I asked.  "What is this supposed to do?"  She claimed she would receive $2 each from even more people, and it would be like winning the lottery.  What were they paying for?  What were they being paid to do?  It sounded fishy to me.  And nonsensical.  If someone mailed me $2 and some instructions, I'd put the money in my wallet and throw the instructions away (those charities that mail people nickels and address labels must hate me).  My dad explained that it was a pyramid scheme.  This was my introduction to pyramid schemes.  My primary takeaways at the time were that it was a scam and that only the people at the top of the pyramid would make money.  Everyone who joined later -- like my mom -- was going to lose their money.  We had this conversation in front of my mother, but she did it anyway.  She was sure she was going to be rich. 

Ultimately my mother received one envelope with $2 inside.  She argued that the net loss was actually less because several of the envelopes were eventually returned to sender.  

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Genetic Counseling for the Donor Conceived

I'm getting to the point where I'm posting enough stuff my half-siblings know that, if they stumbled across this blog for whatever reason, they would be able to identify me.  This makes me nervous, but not nervous enough to stop posting.  Obviously.

My half-brother Hans emailed me the other day to say our uncle had tested positive for some sort of mutation that puts people at higher risk for specific types of cancer.  He said our father had asked him to let me know in case I wanted to get myself or my daughter tested.  Below Hans' note was a series of emails between my biological father and my uncle's wife.  She had the job of informing my uncle's family members that they might want to get tested.  There was a limited amount of information exchanged.  The emails were from several months ago, but the dates showed my biological father just had forwarded them to Hans to forward to me this week.  It reminded me vaguely of how people who find out they have an STD are supposed to reach out to everyone they've been intimate with.  "Hey, it's Joseph.  Yeah, the Joseph who sired you about 30 years ago.  Good times, huh?  So anyway, I tested positive, and it turns out you might want to get yourself tested too..."  I wish I had more known half-siblings, just to add to the comic effect.

I had a check up scheduled with my doctor for just a few days later, so I brought a print-out of the email chain to my appointment and asked my doctor what he thought of genetic testing.  I'd assumed he would say there wasn't much point in it if I'm not planning to have more kids and there is nothing actionable I can do with the results anyway.  When I'd brought up prenatal testing before conceiving my daughter, my OB/GYN at the time had said, "What for?  If you don't even know your family medical history, how can we know what tests to run?"  I hadn't known who my biological father was back then or anything about his family medical history, but I thought there were standard tests doctors could run for common disorders. 

To my surprise, maybe because I have more family information now, my current doctor had a different reaction.  He referred me to a local cancer center that does genetic counseling and strongly recommended I do it.  He said that, while there isn't often something actionable to be done with a heightened cancer risk, there might be more screening options in the future, and the field of genetics is progressing constantly so it would be good to have my results on file.

I called the genetic counselor to make an appointment.  She asked me if I had a copy of my uncle's report because there was relevant information in it that they could use in testing me.  I told her I might be able to get a copy.  She stressed the importance of it until I finally explained that my biological father was an anonymous sperm donor and I'm still a secret to most of his family, said uncle probably included.  I told her I would ask my brother for the report, but I wasn't sure I could get it.  She told me it was okay.  While it's useful information and would inform what genetic tests would be done on me and would probably make my testing cheaper, they can work without it. 

Then she asked me to compile a list of every  member of my extended family who has had cancer too, as well as which type of cancer and at what age it developed.  I know some of that.  I know what I know anyway.  I don't know when their various cancers developed, but I know they all died soon thereafter or as a result of the cancer, and I know when they died, so surely that counts for something.  My information isn't lacking enough that I would try to ask for more anyway.  Most of the cancer in my family is on my father's side.  All of the "lady cancers" are, and those are the ones whose risk are heightened the most dramatically by this particular gene mutation.

I told my brother thank you for the information and thank you when he got me the extra pages from our uncle's report.  He's always very prompt in his replies.  I didn't mention that I already have heightened risk for colon cancer, which I inherited from our father's genes, in spite of our father pointing out in the email chain that he thinks he got "the good genes" because he hasn't yet had the same colon issues his brother or mother have had.  I'm not going to tell any of them the results of my genetics testing either, both because I don't think they want to know and also because I want to have information they don't have for a change.  I'm not mad at my half-siblings.  They are nice and kind to me, but I'm angry at my father every time I remember he exists, not just for this.  I get so angry when I think of him that I often cry in impotent rage, and I don't want anyone in his family to know that.  I want them to think I'm calmer and cooler than them, as I've always pretended to be.  I do not want them thinking I'm irrational and ungrateful or expecting too much.  I will take what I can get.  I will take months' old forwarded emails indicating that my daughter and I might want to get ourselves checked out for new and exotic cancer risks, carefully funneled through a third party so that I don't dare take liberties with my father by responding to him directly.  I know I have more than most DC people already.  But I'm still angry.  

Bright Side:  At least it's not ALS.  I scoured my raw genome data from 23andMe, and I'm definitely not getting ALS.