Genetic Detective

How I Used DNA To Find My Birth Family

My adoption records were sealed and I had few clues to my birth family’s identity. How a DNA kit broke my search wide open.

Simone Golob/Corbis

Last January, I sat cross-legged with the box in my hands, something inside me tilting and swaying, rising and catching in my throat.

“Ancestry DNA,” the box was marked—so official, so scientific, with little molecules dotting the cover.

This was IT. This bounty was going to be the end to a lifelong struggle that had consumed me for as long as I could remember. Inside the slick, sterile packaging lay the answers to the biggest questions I’d ever asked. My whole world was going to change now, in ways that I’d imagined in a thousand different scenarios.

I had always known I was adopted. I had also known I didn’t have a place to belong, people to whom to belong, or a soft place to land. I was raised by a J&B scotch bottle and a bottomless tumbler glass brimming with vodka-soda on the rocks. Containers of alcohol don’t love, don’t nurture, and don’t protect little girls, and under such conditions, said little girls grow like a badly-set broken arm.

I had no place and no people. Where was my birth mother? Where was my big brother? Did they know where my father was? Did I look like them? Did they have the same close-set, saucer eyes I had?

Do I have her eyes?

Alongside my mother and brother, my straggly long brown hair, pasty-white skin and big hollow eyes would match. If I matched, I wouldn’t be mismatched, and therefore, couldn’t be as ugly and inconsequential as I saw myself. People who belonged together could not be ugly, I mused in my misshapen logic, because only ugly people had no people. We somehow weren’t worthy, like the sock that loses its partner in the wash and is thrown into the mismatched sock bin until the other can be found—a pair made, good enough to return to the drawer with the regular socks. I was just a sock-bin sock.

I began to realize if hadn’t yet been found, I needed to set out to do the finding. I began to post flyers on poles in New York City. I asked random people in the subway who bore any resemblance to me if perhaps I couldn’t be theirs? Some Saturdays, I dragged a folding table all the way to the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a small tape recorder and my “Annie” cassette, and belted out the songs and held a sign asking if anyone had lost a baby girl in 1971. Surely someone would recognize my eyes, that my face was her face, too.

People stopped, curious, wished me luck. Several times I tied notes to the strings of balloons and let them fly out of my bedroom window, telling my birth mother and my older brother she’d had before me where to find me. The balloon had to land somewhere. I wrote on dollar bills and put them into circulation: “Melodye, born on [my birthday] in NYC…I am here. 212-xxx-xxxx.”

I was utterly plagued.

As I matured into a teen, my searching prowess developed.

I delved into the non-identifying information provided by my adoption agency, wrote letters, dialed random people I found in the White Pages across three Southern states, harassed the agency to help me beyond what was allowed by law.

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When the Internet became a thing, my pleas were splattered everywhere a person could post. My words mingled with thousands of others whose postings all started in the same vein as mine: “I was born March xx ... in Bellevue Hospital. Seeking any member of my birth family…” This was followed by the small amount of details I knew about my mother’s family.

I was astounded by the number of other adoptees and birthparents who were out there, posting the same messages. I had never dreamed there were so many of us. I joined local and national adoption support groups, registered with every mutual consent registry I could find, sent letters to my agency to keep on file should my family come back for me there. When I was surreptitiously slipped the contact information for a fleabag “investigator” who was somewhat known in the New York adoption circle to have connections and ways to obtain information illegally, such as original birth certificates and other records, I gave him a call. He wanted $2,000 to find my mother and brother. I wanted proof that he knew what he was doing. He wanted to meet me in a seedy part of town to “try to work something out.” I told him in detail where he could shove it.

By then, I was living in a girls’ home in Newark, which severely hampered my search efforts for awhile, though I was able to go back and forth to the city from time to time. As I moved through young adulthood, I wrote to television talk shows, was called back by several, and was even lucky enough to have a private meeting with the producer of The Montel Williams Show, who tried to help in my search. But, as gracious as they all were, everyone hit a brick wall. There was just not enough information, and without the information, there was no show.

Around 1996, I once got drunk and dialed a psychic hotline. The seer told me I would not find my family for 10 more years. “You’re a liar,” I slurred, followed by a string of expletives in the kind of spiritless desperation that comes from a drunk girl aware that she was a drunk girl trying to gain traction in her search with a dial-a-psychic.

Who was I?

I was raised to believe I had no right to know. My birth records were sealed by New York law, and I was assigned a new birth certificate and identity when I was 3 years old. I was told my birth mother had the choice to keep me as any mother had, but she chose not to, and therefore my rights to know anything more were relinquished with her signature, on papers I would never have the right to see.

I stumbled around for years, gathering minuscule pieces of information, sporadically outwitting people in the know to give me more knowledge than I had before. I learned my mother’s name was Diana. Her name was the first piece of information that gave her a definitive shape, like an out-of-focus photograph I couldn’t quite make out, but knew was her all the same. Her name was something I could hold.

Who was she?

When I was small, the image of my mother mirrored “Ma Ingalls” from Little House on the Prairie. As I got older, it diminished into less of a vision and more of a hope that she’d be found alive, and would even want to talk to me. My brother never changed from the image I had as a little girl. Right into adulthood, I imagined he’d love me, be protective of me in some way, have sentiments all his own unscathed by our shared history. He’d tell me we were innocents, and that the decisions others made for us had nothing to do with who we would be to each other. This seemed a reasonable dream, through the decades of collected maps, folders stuffed with notes, and records printed and photocopied year after year. Puzzle pieces.

This is how I found myself sitting as a middle-aged woman with that DNA box in my lap, feeling like that scrap of a girl again, filled with emotions I could not decipher. I opened the box carefully, and found the process simple. I filled a little tube with my saliva, capped it, mailed it off and waited six weeks for my life to change.

When my results were released, the start of the life that visited me only in dreams began. The results were only the beginning. I bounced off of the highs and lows, suffered tremendous disappointment from cousins (mostly distant) who refused to help, some even declining to speak to me at all. The lows smarted, and often far outweighed the warmth of the highs.

I glimpsed the girl I was when I was young: Ugly. Small. Invisible.

All I wanted now was to know. I wanted to know that my brother was okay. I wanted to know if my mother had ever gotten to see me the day I was born. I wanted to know if she held me. I don’t think I had ever been held as a child, or at least, could not remember a time when I was. If she had held me, I’d have that knowledge. It would be mine, and no one could ever say I wasn’t entitled to it or take it from me.

I wanted to see my mother’s eyes, to see if there was a message within them just for me. I needed to have a picture of her. I wanted so little by then. There were so many false leads, so many twists and turns.

And then I found a search angel by pure coincidence. I had befriended David’s wife, Shirley, on a Facebook ancestry group. Shirley took me home like a stray cat to her husband, who was a whiz at reading DNA and scientifically matching the possibilities to the ancestral “tree” we began to build for me. Among a host of moderately distant cousins matches (3rd or 4th cousins or greater), my DNA results yielded one “Close Family” and two “2nd Cousin” matches, the Holy Grail for an adoptee whose best hope was usually 3rd cousin matches or more distant.

But these matches weren’t answering my emails. In fact, the matches took several months and a trick or two to track them down, and as we inched along, Dave spent hours and weeks and months working to rule people out, manipulating the DNA results to find where I belonged on my own tree. Shirley always stayed close by. For my part, I worked as obsessively as Dave did, sorting out the possibilities and the genealogy, building out maps of families and potential relatives who warranted a closer look. I never gave up, though I wanted to, because Dave and Shirley and our small group of supporters never gave up—including my husband, Dino. He went many nights with no dinner and spent a lot of time on his own during my search. He never complained and held me when I cried and soothed me. He is my best friend.

One day, I heard from the “Close Family” match. He was a younger brother, also adopted, with little information about our mother and family. We have been chatting ever since. He is beautiful, strapping, strong, and smart, and has given me two perfect little nieces and a sister-in-law. Then I met cousin after cousin. More doors opened, slammed shut, opened again, and Dave helped me weave through groupings of cousins and do-gooders who kept pointing us in the right direction. I started with just me on my own ancestral tree—a little box that bore my name but connected to empty boxes above that remained empty and nameless. Dave helped me grow it with our research to over 900 people related to me in one way or another. The boxes closest to me still remained empty, but the ones beyond those began to fill up.

I found several first cousins with receptive and engaging hearts, and myriad other relatives who can’t wait to meet me. I found and spoke to two younger sisters, and I finally found my big brother, the one I sought for 30 years, and he is what I had hoped: the kind who would watch you as you went down the street to make sure no one snatched your purse or bonked you on the head, the kind whose eyes would mist as he took in the sight of his little sister and heard of her arduous, decades-long search for him. More than I hoped, he is as lovely as my four other siblings.

My mother, Diana, died two years ago in 2013. I wasn’t leveled by this news, but cried for her when I was alone and able to process the loss and the “I’ll never get to’s...” It is, however, impossible to dwell long in this headspace. I have been ready to accept whatever was given, in whatever way the universe saw fit to give it. Everyone who knew her told me about my mother, regaled me with stories of her soft, blue-gray eyes, how she liked to help bathe her baby sister, how generous and kind she was.

I eventually got the picture of her I needed. I am now a part of the picture.

Because I do, indeed, have her eyes.