These DNA kits – oh, these DNA kits. Which one to use? One of them, two – maybe three. A few years ago, I decided to take one of these tests. A little bit of saliva in a tube, send it in, wait a few weeks – at the very least, I would know what kind of blood was coursing through my veins – maybe not who’s blood but at least where said blood came from.
23andMe and Ancestry both done and both showed more Eastern European, a lot of South American, and smaller percentages of almost one-third of the globe. So the Balkans, maybe Russia, possibly Germany, Hungary, and a half dozen other places I wasn’t too familiar with. One test connected me to many third, fourth and fifth cousins; another test showed an uncle/cousin and a great-uncle/grandfather/uncle result. Well this was promising!!
I sent an email to the uncle/cousin match and crossed my fingers. Not too much information, just that I was adopted, looking and did he know any relatives who might have been in New York in the 60’s. I knew from the information in the test results that we shared a female relative, most likely, my birth mother. A day later, I received an email that said he would be happy to help me with my search. As my incredible luck in 2020 goes, my uncle/cousin was extremely well-versed in DNA and genealogy – this almost seemed too good to be true. (I honestly thought it was a program that the testing kit company was offering but, hey, if he could help and was willing, well, I would be happy to accept the help.)
Let’s make something clear, this had not been an all-consuming-I’ve-gotta-know thing every day of my life but if you know anything about me, I’m curious. My favorite word was “Why?” and heaven-help the person who would say “Because I said so” to me. But at the strangest times, during the oddest moments, I would wonder if there was someone who looked like me out there – was my birth mom thinking about me, did she remember my birthday, would I ever get a chance to meet her? So the ride began and I definitely wanted to be in the car!
End of year busy-ness, travel and then a world-wide lockdown. It would be months before I would hear from my uncle/cousin. I gave him my birth mother’s name and the few dates we could find through immigration records. In May, I received a phone call from the Middle East and suddenly, my family has expanded to include an uncle, two aunts, and a grandfather – 95 years young and living outside of Beirut. My new found relatives were closer than I would have ever thought – although “Uncle” and “Grandfather” were in Beirut, my aunts are but a few hours drive from my home.
My uncle spoke to his father who fondly recalled the girl he fell in love with in Germany in the late 40’s. Allied-occupied Germany, “Grandfather” had to return to Syria, while my “Grandmother” left for Paris after she had their daughter. At 95, he clearly remembered my grandmother – “She was beautiful!” he remarked with a smile. He did know of his child but was unable to meet her. Europe to America in the 1950’s and New York in the 1960’s – my “Grandmother” appeared on paper to be an independent soul and she and her daughter forged a life together. Not much more information on where or who they could be but at least it was a start.
I sent a letter in March – not sure if it would reach its destination as it was mailed two days before the lockdown here. My birth mother, the woman who carried me and made what I believe is one of the hardest decisions a women could, was not that far. The distance? Another state over or so. Would she answer the letter? I let it go over the summer. I figured things went so well so quickly, something was bound to get hung-up. But….
Who am I kidding? You know I sent another letter.
My address, my e-mail, my cell phone, and my house phone number. I told her to look me up – check to make sure I wasn’t a crazy nut! In all my letters to my new uncle and to my birth mom all saying the same thing – I didn’t want to bother them or upset their lives in any way. I sent the second letter in September and three days later, the phone rang.
That is my new reality – I have TWO family trees on Ancestry.com
TWO. That’s the theme for this – the SECOND part of my series of posts. TWO. That’s the number of family trees I have on Ancestry.com. And TOO – I hope not to confuse you, too as in also, along the way!
As they would say in the soap operas of old, “When last we left our heroine, she thought about the mysterious envelope that would be resting quietly in the mailbox at the bottom of the stairs….”
Drama aside, I was waiting for that envelope. So antiseptic, so “NYC Record”-like. When I saw it, my heart started beating fast – it also sank a bit as I came to the realization that once I opened that envelope, my life and the life of the woman who gave birth to me would most likely never be the same. I was nervous (fast heart beat) but the sinking of my heart held with it so many things – what was my name? What was her name? Where was I born? Who was my father? Where did they live? Were they both alive? Am I going to look like them? And the scariest part of all, would either of them want to know me?
You see, as a child, my parents, Mary & Ernie, always told me I was special. I was the “gift someone gave to them so we could be a family”. I was an only child: the sixth grandchild of seven on my mom’s side, and the ONLY grandchild in my dad’s family. I was doted on by my grandparents albeit with disciplinary hands and my parents’ expected much and made sure I knew it every step of the way. I loved both my mom and my dad, my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. This was now something I never thought I would have to think through, nevermind live through – but just like the rest of 2020, here it was.
The mail was in, the envelope there. I brought it into the house and stared. Should I wait until Rae got home? What if the information was shocking? Well, how shocking could it be – I mean, it wasn’t like I was going to find out my parents were ostriches or something. Just open the envelope, I convinced myself.
And as my curiosity always does, it got the best of me – and open the envelope I did.
For all the things I knew already – they all checked out: 10:35am (time of birth), date was right too; born in Brooklyn – not at the hospital I thought but rather at Long Island College Hospital on Atlantic Avenue (that’s no longer there). Big blank spaces where my father’s name would have gone – surprisingly, I was not surprised and was mostly okay with it. My mother? An eighteen year old, in 1965. I always knew she was young and I could never imagine myself in the same position but my parents always talked about “the gift” she gave.
I now had her name – a unique one at that. And as I put the paperwork back in the envelope, I immediately took to 2020’s best private detective firm, Google, to see what I could find.
Alright, the song goes "Late December back in '63". Bear with me here - its all relevant!
Sometimes, we find ourselves connected to the strangest things – not getting rid of an old piece of junk, that you know is junk, that you know should be thrown out, but still, you keep it, time after time when cleaning out the basement or attic.
Funny how these things sometimes defy logic. But mind doesn’t always win over heart and a small token someone gave you can hold a treasure trove of emotions.
Some of us do indeed separate from things – others, rest on a scale somewhere between “saver” and “out of control hoarder” (hopefully, not one ready for a prime-time TV show). My mom was an extreme saver; I think an elementary hoarder as well because some of the things she became attached to and kept made absolutely no sense to me.
Cleaning out her house, I found a crayon drawing I made of our family when I was in kindergarten, many old pictures, two identical pink glass sugar bowls (replacements for the one we used, should it break), and a box marked “Janie’s Baby Clothes from Angel Guardian”. Inside, cleaned, pristine and kept as if it was Princess Diana’s wedding gown were the “onesie”, a slip, the dress and yes, even the shoes I came home from my first home, Angel Guardian, in Brooklyn. My father always talked about putting me in the car seat and my foot resting on the steering wheel. My mother’s “best day in her life” and for me, a day in transit with my little stuffed rabbit.
And while 2020 has been a year of distance, missed celebrations, illnesses and loss for so many of us, the year of the pandemic has made the connections I have had with family be a longed-for-continued-next-year occurrence, I have built my business during this year, making connections with some amazing people and companies and I have made connections I never thought possible.
Say what you will about our governor here in New York, but I will forever be in debt to Andrew Cuomo. You see, on January 15th of this year, he signed legislation that unsealed all the adoption records here in the state. So off my application and $15 check to the Office of Vital Records went and I waited patiently. I would finally have the piece of paper that everyone else has – no more “Certification of Birth” – an honest to goodness Birth Certificate. The name given to me at birth; the time I was born; what hospital I was born in.
So many answered questions. And the answer to one I had never thought possible – the name of the parents I never knew.
A month later, the envelope was in the mailbox.
As a StartingBloc Fellow, I sat in sessions less than one year ago and heard how the racism, marginalization, and outright criminal behavior of some members of our communities who were initially trusted to serve and protect went horribly wrong.
As a person who has an ambiguous look to them, I have been on the receiving end of hearing how “privileged I am as a white woman in this country” and also been asked as I stood in the store I co-owned holding a broom, “Can you tell me if the owner is in?”. I have had a person of color tell me I was racist because we put the wrong date on a printed ribbon and could not move fast enough for her when we said we would redo all 30 favors.
I have been in a McDonald’s when someone has randomly said that the white people standing there were the cause of the latest attack on a person of color, only to walk out of that store and be stared down by the police sitting in a patrol car outside the place.
When I was in high school, I was told by an NYPD officer that if I ever dared to walk away from one, I would be “shot in the back”. Just the thing that would leave an impression on a 15-year-old – one who was terrified of everything and just walked where you were not supposed to.
Yet, I took the Entrance Exam for the NYPD ten years after that incident. I was told by the officer proctoring the test that day that this was not the job for me after he grabbed my hand and read the side of my school ring – “MS?”, he asked. “What the hell do you want to this job for?” His question made me want to do it even more, but my life had gone in a different direction by the time I was called.
I am Italian, Spanish, British, and Scottish – adopted and raised in a family of all that mixed. I have come to learn that my birth family includes Lithuanian, German, Syrian, and Armenian citizenry and a mix of Guatemalan and Honduran as well. I feel like the United Nations, but people see what they wish to see.
I am frightened for my niece who rides an ambulance each day during these violent clashes. I worry as much for the other children in my family, some of whom were also adopted and some who were not and are people of color. I hear news anchors say that they do not know how to have conversations about what is going on in our country with co-workers because they are so afraid to say the wrong thing. I think back to conversations I have had with women who say they had trouble telling their Hispanic families that they were dating a person of color – a person not the same color as they were. I remember one of my first friends in kindergarten who I was friends with pure and simple – I had no idea there was a difference in the color of our skin.
Over the last few months, I have been told that I am overtly political by people who are not of the thinking that I am. I have been called a “liberal”, a “Democrat” – as if those words were profanity in and of themselves. The disdain and vitriol those words carry for the people using them, absolutely amazes me. But when I ask for factual data or statements backed by data, those same people seemingly change the subject or deflect to a different line or phrase because they cannot back their claims up. While the whole world is on lock-down, I hear some of those same people saying it is a hoax, a scam, and we are all being led like sheep.
The plain and simple truth is this. George Floyd died. All the medical examiners agreed it was a homicide. There should have been no waiting – ALL the officers involved should have been fired AND arrested immediately. If it were you or I perpetrating the same crime on a street in Anywhere, USA, we would all be locked up. The saddest part is that no one is realizing just how many people each of us knows that could have been the man on that pavement. Why it may even have been YOU!
Our police departments are simply a microcosm of society – there are countless good cops who do good things, who sacrifice their lives to protect ours. Just like in society, there are bad cops who do bad things. The system has to change, training has to change, laws have to change. But the biggest change must come in MINDSET. However, when you go against the “accepted”, the “norm”, you are fighting a losing battle unless the change is drastic, pervasive, and equal.
I see posts on social media that have Dr. Martin Luther King pictured, which say “Looted nothing; Burned nothing; Attacked no one. Changed the World”
Has it really changed?
It is fifty plus years from HIS death at the hands of a maniac with a rifle. We still have that scenario playing out, but the victims now are children in school buildings. We still have oppressors with no good reason other than THEY CAN, committing the same senseless crimes against unarmed people – people of color. Data shows more white people are killed by police – according to my detractors – but those statistics do not state whether they are killed when handcuffed over suspicion of passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. Proportionally, there are more white people in this country so until you give me a more broken-down statistic where everything is equal, I will not accept that as an argument.
I worry about everyone I met in StartingBloc – regardless of color, race, religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, or any other classification needed to make us different. I worry because this group of people struck me as so young and so determined to change the world. I pray that they do not get jaded – I pray that they have the energy to continue the work that needs to be done in their communities all around the world.
I hope that each person on this planet would truly take a walk in another person’s shoes. In another time, another place – with one slight change in how the universe operates, all of this could be very different. The oppressors could have been oppressed; the privileged could have been without. Living for yourself gets lonely – living for each other brings focus and meaning into life.
I have always taken inspiration from the women in my life.
From when I was a very young child, I always noted how people interacted with each other. I knew what my mom meant and she didn’t have to say much, to me, my father or anyone else in the family. My aunts conveyed love in different ways – one did it with brownies, the other, with challenges to me, her children, and my cousins.
I had cousins who were very influential and more relatives in an extended family who led without ever letting anyone know that they were being led. Women who did what was expected, did a bit covertly to get what was needed for the sitjation, some who achieved just by believing in the power of support.
This past week, for me, was the end of an era. I had said goodbye to my mother’s sister, my uncle’s wife. And although I still have the gift of many of my mother’s friends from younger years (some from her childhood), on Sunday, we lost the last of my wife’s aunts.
So why are you writing this post, you ask….
I write this post, along with the others I have written here for my Aunt Flo, Mother Theresa, and my own mother. I write this post with the title “How fortunate were we” because her name reflected that – Fortunata; we all called Fay, Aunt Fay, even Uncle Fay (my brother-in-law’s pet name for her).
A long and winding history with Aunt Fay and her family, I had known her for at least the last thirty years of my life. She went from being my friend’s aunt to a welcoming hostess, to a business advisor and confidante, to one of the best friends a person could have. And although we were quite different in age, I looked to Aunt Fay because she embodied so much of what women of her generation were never supposed to achieve.
She was the second child of three, born to immigrant parents in Brooklyn. She lived through The Great Depression, World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, 9/11, and plenty of global issues, good and bad; technology, transportation, and communication innovations along with the change empowerment, education, and expectations for everyone. She wanted to go to college and did, with her parents’ blessings and encouragement. She changed majors and found a life-long love for numbers and business.
She was Valedictorian for her graduating class; she earned her CPA license in 1961, which she held until a few years ago. She served on the Board of Directors of a prominent hospital and volunteered at many school functions. Along with her husband, she ran one of the most successful dealerships in the Northeast for decades. A mother to five children, grandmother of seven, and great-grandmother of two.
Her faith was always one of the most prominent things in her life. She drove to Mass every day until a few years ago. She took great joy in celebrating with her family, her extended family and was always ready to reminisce about the “good ol’ days”.
But here’s why I have to write about Fortunata, Aunt Fay…
She welcomed me into her family from day one. She didn’t question why she simply said “Grab a plate and help yourself!” And as our friendship grew over the years, Aunt Fay would sit with me for hours and talk about my business, her business, and where things were headed in the world of business. We usually had our conversations over a nice glass of wine or a long after-dinner drink. We often went for dinner with our “Gang” – Age, Mother Theresa, Rae, Grandma – and although our group got smaller as the years went by, we always raised a glass to toast the ones who were no longer with us.
Welcoming was one thing Aunt Fay did so well. The other, for me, was supporting. She supported me like my own mother. She always had words of encouragement for me. When I graduated from the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program, she came to the ceremony and told me that she was so proud of me and my accomplishment. We spoke the language of business, the language of women who were ofttimes marginalized, and understood how important it was to have a sounding board, a mentor.
So here’s to my friend, my “drinking buddy”, my Aunt Fay. She was the last of a long line of characters in my wife’s family whom I can say I had the honor of meeting, the pleasure of knowing and the gratefulness of their friendship. When I saw her for what would be the last time a few days before she passed, I said to her “Aunt Fay, we have to go for a drink soon, right?”, she perked up, smiled and said “Absolutely!”
Cheers to my friend who brought me nothing but Buona Fortuna in knowing her.