This week’s prompt is ‘lucky’. I’ve given the topic much thought this past week. Which ancestor had good fortune? Which Irish ancestor truly had the ‘luck o’ the Irish’? Thinking about genealogy and luck, it is my own luck that springs to mind. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort researching, but I cannot deny there has been an awful lot of luck involved. When I began researching my family history, I never expected to learn all that I have. I have made some amazing discoveries, through both traditional research and DNA testing. When I started out, I had far more questions than answers. Questions I thought would be impossible to answer. Now, most of them have been resolved, but there are still a few answers out there waiting for me.
My father was adopted. The adoption was closed and we had no information about his birth family. Incredibly, I was able to find my father’s birth family. The first huge piece of luck I had was finding a sympathetic Chief Judge who unsealed my father’s birth record and mailed me a copy. My father was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1950. I knew the agency he was adopted from, but as it was a sealed adoption, they could not provide any information. I could not even obtain his non-identifying information, despite the fact my father was deceased. Rhode Island gave adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates (OBC) on 01 July 2012. Unfortunately, this did not extend to the adult children of deceased adoptees. One day a woman in one of my social media genealogy groups posted a comment about her mother who had been adopted in Providence in 1910. I asked her how she got access to her mom’s OBC. She answered that she simply sent an email to the Chief Judge of Rhode Island Family Court.
I procrastinated for a while. Surely my circumstances must be different… Maybe she got her record because there was no chance her mother’s parents could still be alive… Eventually, I sent an email. A few weeks later, I received an envelope from the court. Inside was a blank form to complete and return. The form had clearly been designed for another purpose, and most of the questions did not apply. I filled it out the best I could and sent it back, refusing to get my hopes up. I was still afraid that somehow the judge had misunderstood my request, and I would get a response telling me to get lost. It could not possibly be that easy. It was! Within a couple more weeks I had my father’s OBC. The was no father listed, but my grandmother finally had a name – Rita.
My luck continued, and I found an online obituary for my grandmother’s sister. One of her sons still lived in Rhode Island, so one Sunday, I picked up the phone and made my first phonecall to a stranger to request family history information. My new-found cousin so dearly wanted to help, but the sisters had lost touch over the years and he did not have much information about his aunt. He knew my grandmother had remarried, but not what her married name was or even if she was still alive. I left my contact details in case he remembered something, or spoke to another family member who did. I was surprised to see his number pop up on my caller ID a few hours later. It was his wife, calling to tell me that she had once written for a newspaper, and could not let a story lie. She had called her sister-in-law, who knew quite a bit about my grandmother. I furiously scribbled down notes as she talked. By the end of the call, I learned my grandmother’s married name, and the names of her seven (!) other children. My grandmother had been married and had 2 children before divorcing her first husband. She later remarried and had another 5 children with her second husband. Wow! What luck! How fortunate I was that I found people willing to help.
A quick Google search showed a local address and phone number for my grandmother. Before I could even think about what I was going to say, my fingers started dialing the phone. The number was probably disconnected… OMG! Someone answered! I asked to speak to Rita. The woman who answered replied, “My mother is on death’s door and cannot talk on the phone. Can I help you?” All at once, I had more thoughts than could comfortably fit in my head. This is the right number! My grandmother is alive! She’s on death’s door! This is my aunt I am speaking to! Even though the timing was terrible, I could not let the opportunity get away from me. I gently eased into my story. I told my father’s sister that I was doing some family history research and discovered my father was related to her. I told her my father had been adopted, and told her his full birth name. “That’s my big brother’s last name.” I then told her the name of his birth mother. She had never heard about a child being placed for adoption, and was having a hard time comprehending. We talked for a bit, and when I hung up the phone, I felt that she would probably just dismiss me as a kook. I know if someone called me to tell me I had a sibling I did not know about, my first reaction would be to think they were crazy. My next reaction would be to demand proof.
The next day, I made a copy of my father’s birth certificate and adoption paperwork. I wrote a letter telling a little of what my father was like as a person. I also included a few pictures of him at various ages. A few days later, I got a phonecall from another of my father’s sisters. She identified herself as Gail, and then added, “I guess I should say, Auntie Gail!” She said her sister had shown her my letter. From their pride in making homemade tomato sauce, to their love of reading western novels, she could not believe how similar my father was to his mother. She said my father was the spitting image of her older brother. We spent over an hour talking. From her, I learned that my grandmother had suffered a stroke the month before, and was non-verbal. Even though I dearly wanted to meet my grandmother, there was no way I would even think about suggesting we meet. I could not bring myself to possibly upset a sick, elderly woman at the end of her life.
My grandmother passed away about 6 months later. I continued to stay in touch with Gail. Gail and I finally met about a year after our first phonecall. She had told me that Rita’s first husband was not her father. Rita had told Gail that her father was Rita’s childhood sweetheart. His name was on her birth certificate and he even paid support until Gail was 18. Gail and I speculated about whether or not she and my father had the same father. Fortunately for me, Gail agreed to take a DNA test. Regardless of whether she was my full or half aunt, we were family. It did not really matter, except to show if her father was my grandfather.
I was immediately welcomed into Gail’s family. From the first day meeting them, it was as though I had known them forever. Once a month, she gathers her loved ones for a family supper. It’s an open invitation, and extends to neighbors, and friends of the family. Everyone shares what has been going on in their lives, and spends the evening eating delicious food and catching up. It’s a wonderful gathering – loud, crowded, and lots of fun. Auntie Gail cooks for days, and everyone leaves with a plate of leftovers. Every time I go, I meet another member of my new family. I am blessed to have found them.
When the DNA results finally came in, it was confirmed. She and my father were full siblings. I now knew the identity of my paternal grandfather! He has already passed away, but his daughter is still living. I’d love to reach out to her and learn more about him, and I would love to see photos of him, but I do not think the ends justify the means in this case. I can only imagine how she would feel finding out that her father had fathered two other children whilst married to her mother. Maybe it would not upset her, or maybe she already knows, but I don’t think I have the right to potentially destroy her memories of her father.
Learning about my father’s birth family took a lot of research, but there is no denying there was a large amount of luck. From seeing the right post on social media, a sympathetic judge, people willing to talk to a total stranger about their family, to a wonderful woman willing to spit in a tube, I was truly fortunate. Learning my father’s family origins was only the tip of my lucky iceberg. I’ve also had the good fortune to find an unbelievable amount of information on my mom’s paternal side. And my biggest piece of luck – finding out I have a sister, and having the opportunity to get to know the amazing woman she is. Such a blessing for this formerly only child! So, when it comes to luck, I don’t think any of my ancestors could’ve possibly been any luckier than I.