Several months ago I sent away to have my DNA tested. If you've ever done this, you know that it's all a bit surreal. For about $100 you receive a little box with a plastic vial, that fits in a plastic bag, that fits in a cardboard box. Into that vial, you spit. A lot. I've never spit so much spit in one sitting, but there it was... I sealed the containers up, one inside the other, like Russian dolls and sent it off.
It takes about a month to get your results. Adoptees aren't the only ones who do this... They’ve become very popular lately for a lot of people interested in digging into their family past. But when your own origins are a mystery, as so much of mine are, there is something strange and exciting about the whole thing. It's like waiting for a combination of your medical test results and your latest online shopping spree all at once. And then there's the question of who you are...
Who am I? What makes this person I call me?
One of the challenges for me of being adopted is the envy I sometimes have for people who can answer this question with certainty and confidence. “I’m proud of who I am,” they say. And there is no question mark.
For many of the people I knew growing up, ethnic heritage played a huge part in this identity. It was imprinted in the way they looked, the way they talked, the foods they ate, and the traditions they observed, the tribe that surrounded and supported them. They had roots. For me and for many other adoptees I know, this experience often feels like something we glimpse through a window, on the outside looking in. We often think of identity as something unique. And yet, so much of one's identity comes from being a part of something bigger and feeling grounded in some history.
As adoptees, we look in the mirror and see a face that looks like no other. We are told that we are "special." But before you use that word with someone who is adopted, know that "special" can also be a curse. And many of us would prefer to not feel so special. I think that it's is why so many of us place such high expectations on reunions with birth families. I've always wanted not to feel unique so much as connected.
On the flip side, there is something exciting about the blank slate. There is something empowering about patching together who we are and telling our own stories as they unfold. My sister, adopted as well, has etched some of this idea onto her skin in a tattoo… Pieces of a heart torn apart and sewn together again over a cracked triangle symbol of adoption.
You can see this symbol as a loose patchwork of broken pieces. Or you can see it as the sum of its parts – a symbol of strength and resilience – a new creation, made stronger from the newly formed bonds between broken pieces. I prefer the latter, and I know she does too. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
As far as ethnicity is concerned, though, I always thought of myself as Polish and Slovak. If there was culture that gave flavor and a sense of identity in my family and hometown community, these were the ones that stood out. And so, even though a part of me was always unsure of where I belonged by blood, I always felt ready to embrace this culture of Eastern Europe.
My Aunt Helen made a kielbasa and sauerkraut dish, Polish-style, that made my mouth water just to think of. She bought the sausage from a Polish butcher, made with the most subtle flavors and spices, cooked it so that it practically dissolved in your mouth. It balanced perfectly with the strong pungent flavor of the sauerkraut, creating a succulent flavor combination. When she passed away, my mother did her best to re-create the secret recipe and have it ready and waiting for me when I came home to visit. Pierogies, kielbasi, czernina (Duck's blood soup... Don't be squeamish). None of it was "heart-healthy." All of it was hearty and soul-nourishing.
And by the way, If you're in the Cleveland area, you won’t want to miss the experience of Sokolowski's University Inn, a Polish cafeteria-style restaurant that's been serving the same recipes of pierogis, kielbasa, and chicken paprikash since 1923. Passing through Slovak Village? Visit the Red Chimney for some stuffed cabbage.
See how proud of all of this I seem? Why is that? It's more than just Cleveland hometown pride. These are the flavors and the aromas I have come to know and love as part of who I am. Does it matter whether or not I have any blood connection to the Eastern European ancestors who invented these dishes?
Well, here are the facts according to my Ancestry.com test results:
18% Eastern Europe
18% Mix of other
And 23 and Me:
29.9% Northern Europe
7.8 % French and German
14.5 % Mix of Other
According to this, I should be craving corned beef with my cabbage, not Polish kielbasa. How accurate is this?
Ancestry seems more right on, because here are some facts I have dug up in the last few months of real research:
My maternal birth grandmother was, indeed, Slovak. It is believed that her birth father was part Polish, but his name is unknown. This took some digging around, since my birth mother was also adopted. But, being her natural born son, I was able to get her original birth certificate from the state as well as my own. And with the help of an amazing genealogist, I also found the following photo from the book Cleveland Slovaks by John Sabol. The man on the far left playing bass fiddle is my great grandfather, Simon.
Day by day, more pieces of me are added to the patchwork.
I wonder, though, if any of this would make a difference if the results were, say, 90% French and Belgian… if this photo had never emerged and instead I found a very different one. Would I still think of myself the same way?
That I have Slovak and Polish blood makes sense on a visceral level. But could it be that these feelings are simply me grabbing onto some confirmation of what feels familiar? The foods? The accents? The cultural cadences with which I grew up? Or is it something deeper?
And what about my Other Half?
One thing's for sure. I can no longer write about these issues without seeing the paternal Irish elephant in the room... DNA and my Catholic Charities report agree on one thing for certain. I am half Irish. I don't know my birth father's name. Judy wouldn't reveal it because she didn't want him contacted. But she said he was Irish Catholic.
Until very recently, compared to my drive to learn more about Judy, I have had little desire to find this man. But that is beginning to change. And thanks to DNA, I may be starting to close in. You see, these DNA results tell you, not only your likely ethnic makeup, but also who else in their database that you are likely related to. On Ancestry, I have 4 probable 2nd cousins.
I’ve had some luck and am now in touch with one of them. We don’t yet know exactly how we’re related, but we both have roots in Cleveland, and we’ve written back and forth quite a bit. For a while, she had a pretty good theory of who my birth father might be. And for about 2 days, I stared at a photo she sent of a deceased man who almost matched the profile. But it didn't quite fit. Looking back, as I studied that photo, there was a lot of wishful thinking, a desire to believe… But there was no feeling of recognition. Not in the same way I felt when I saw Judy’s face mirroring my own. But I don't always trust my perceptions.
If my spit proves true and the results are sound, I am Irish more than anything else. And I do often wonder… if I find this man, if I meet him face to face, will something wake up inside me that recognizes myself as Irish too?
For a while, in college, I had a passing romantic attraction to Ireland. I visited in 1993. I had friends too growing up and in college that were so proud of their Irish heritage. I envied them, having no idea at the time that I shared this blood connection with them. But aside from my continued love of Samuel Beckett and The Pogues, it seems to have passed. It was a place and an identity, I believed, that didn’t belong to me. And I didn’t belong to it.
Even now, with the DNA proof in my hands, it feels foreign to me... That 47-48% that says I’m Irish. I look in the mirror and say, Sure. Why not? But it hasn’t fallen in place yet, and I wonder if it will.
In less than two weeks, I will be attending the Adoption Network Cleveland’s Annual Gathering in Westlake, OH. For one weekend, I’ll be gathered with adoptees like me. I’ll learn new ways to navigate these uncertain waters, hear more stories, and see, face-to-face, some of the amazing people whose support I’ve known only online or on video chat. I will also have a chance to meet and have dinner with Dee, my birth mother's adoptive cousin, the one who sent me many of the pictures I have of her.
I look forward to this time, in many ways, as a kind of family gathering. Sure, there is nature and there is nurture. But there is also right here and right now. I have friends and I have adoptive family. And I’m an adult adoptee. That’s part of my identity too. There are gaps to fill and mysteries to uncover, but in this moment, I have everything I need.
This snapshot, here and now, missing pieces and all, is who I am.
I look forward to the trip. I look forward to spending time with these other oddly shaped puzzle pieces, because when we talk to each other, we seem to find a way to fit. I look forward to sharing my grief and sharing my joy without having to explain either one.
I also look forward to seeing my hometown again... the place where roots known and unknown lie. I may even have time to squeeze in a trip to Sokolowski’s for some kielbasa and sauerkraut