“Go Fish”

Byrd’s in my family tree. The Universe grins sardonically at me, pleased with its simple play on words.

I eagerly contact Susan to play what we like to call “Go Fish” with our DNA matches. We converse at great length over the familial possibilities. However, it always came back to Mom and Susan’s father, Bill. We could only guess Bill was falsely told his birth father was Thomas Camm. Why would he question it? Thomas was the man that married his mother, Martha, in 1925, after all.  Bill was born in November of 1925, and …” well, hold on, we don’t know the month. What if Martha got pregnant and told Thomas it was his– so he had to marry her?”  I asked Susan. “Anything is possible….as we keep finding out!” she retorted.  With no more spaces to turn we emailed our closest Byrd match in 2015 and started mining the rest of the Byrd vein.

Months flew by (no pun intended–it just keeps happening), Susan and I continued to speak daily, go on trips, and enjoy our families.  Before we knew it 2017 arrived without notice.  Our closest match, who paid $100 to test his genetics, sure didn’t seem interested in his family I thought.  I had tried to make contact with him at least six times within two years. I was surely becoming a pest.  All the while we were getting an abundance of Byrd matches with the same great-grandparent’s names. We also had some Byrd lines that seemed random. You would think we could just trace them down to date, place, and common sense. Unfortunately, we also came across people who either were adopted themselves or had big blanks in their own family trees.

I couldn’t help them and they had no idea how to help me.

In the month of April, Susan and I talked about cleaning up our research notes and setting the Camm surname aside for good.  I also think we were silently conceding to the fact that we may not get any detailed matches for a while. In fact, just a month prior we had been informed that our closest Byrd match had passed.  My research was starting to ebb and I was feeling like I was knocking on my own door. “Hello, it’s me again,” I would say to myself going over the same names and dates. I soon became indifferent about opening the door and needed a fresh perspective.  I circled back around on the 24th, making a mini tree that included our closest deceased match. Again, the same great-grandparent names echoed on the screen.  It was obvious there was nothing left to unearth…so I nonchalantly switched over to my Ancestry DNA page.

As I sipped my coffee, I glanced up at my monitor. I caught the name “Nicholle” out of the corner of my eye.  Her expected match to me was 1st to 2nd cousin. I thought I was on the wrong page and immediately hit refresh. There she was again. I excitedly called Susan who had not yet seen her matches of the day. “Susan, go to your DNA matches RIGHT NOW!” I said. “Okaaay, whhhhy? Lemme get my tea.  I have to let the dogs in. Who is this person? Wait, I have an email from her!” As she read the email to me, some aloud and some under her breath, I sat stunned.  “She’s my niece! Her father was put up for adoption….and he… oh, he passed away.”   Susan said, in shock.  “Your mom and I just found and lost a brother on the same day. I don’t know how to feel.” My heart sank for her… for all of us. But Susan, being the resilient one bounded back, “But I have another niece, how exciting!”

That same evening I decided to reach out to Nicholle. The words flowed effortlessly, either because I did not have an expected outcome or simply because I was jumping in with my whole heart. Either way, I welcomed her into the family on any level that she felt comfortable. Her immediate response was this:

“I’m totally overwhelmed!!!  But oh my GOODNESS– so excited and full of love. I’ve been waiting for this day for my entire life, truly!”

Nicholle is beautiful, inside and out. Her father, Greg, was a Methodist minister and she says he would have been absolutely thrilled that Nicholle found her way to us. Next to God, family was everything to him.  We have known each other almost a year now, but have never met in person. We have psychic check-in moments, a love for health and fitness, and a penchant for little white dogs. More importantly, we are both fully accepting and excited about the future of our blended families.

People ask me almost daily if DNA is worth it. I cannot answer that for you. Everyone has a different set of apprehensions and circumstance.  My only piece of advice is this: please don’t let fear hold you back from the unknown. Your perception of the past is just that. Try and get the facts. They aren’t always pretty but you may just feel more whole knowing that those who combined their efforts towards your existence have an amazing story to tell you.

 

Nicholle Union Station
Nicholle 2018

 

greg
Uncle Greg

 

 

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Susan, Nicholle and Megan. 2018- St.Petersburg, Florida

 

 

Byrd Irruption

Jen Research VA

Me researching family in Roanoke, VA.

 

Bridging the Ancestral paper trail forward to the year 2012, all efforts were exhausted on mom and Susan’s biological father, Bill.  Camm was his surname and Susan and I tossed that name backwards, forwards, and inside out.  We collected death records, birth records, and land deeds. We took pictures of gravestones and reached out to any potential relatives…though something never quite fit.  It shouldn’t be this hard I remember thinking. After all, I had researched my mother’s maternal line back to Isabella of France. I am sure Susan was rolling her eyes at the other end of our phone conversations. All the while, she maintained she knew something wasn’t quite right. I was forcing a piece of the puzzle that looks ALMOST like the shape, but even if I squint my eyes, it just won’t conform.

As we seesawed about the possible plots of Bill’s paternal line, we often jumped off into his maternal roots. There we were deeply satisfied with all the black sheep stories of our Appalachian Mountain heritage. Miscreants of the South… Susan and I have always loved the dark side of Genealogy–minus the pedigree collapse.   This is where we dive into bootleggers, houses of ill repute, and fermented kin. The Rebel Queen, Isabella of France, is on my X chromosome and “Florentine Clementine”, my third great grandmother on Bill’s side, was a bona fide courtesan! My cup runneth over with interesting women.

Queen Isabella
Isabella of France
Florentine Clementine
Florentine Clementine Saunders (circa 1871) with her son, Christopher Columbus Saunders

Later in 2012, I caught wind of a DNA study via 23andme. They were offering free kits in an effort to isolate and study the Parkinson’s gene. I didn’t know much about DNA at the time, or what it had to offer, but I decided to throw my mom’s name into the hat, nonetheless. Since my mom had gotten the disease early I thought she might be a good candidate. 23andme agreed and off went the kit. It felt like months as we waited for the results. To kill the angst I researched what we might gain from this study. Yes, we will see if she has the Parkinson’s gene but it wasn’t our main interest. I was mainly looking to attach evidence to our paper trail….in hopes of making the Camm piece fit.

I remember the day the results came in. It felt very clandestine with the “unlock here for this result” and a second and third pop up basically telling me I couldn’t un-see said result.  I was beginning to think I was going to need to chant something to get through. Finally, the first thing I see is that my mom DOES have the Parkinson’s gene and they are extremely interested in her for further research. I decide I am not shocked by this result and scroll down to her genetic admixture: 99.1% European. I click on the map icon and individual countries come up with a breakdown of percentages: 10.3% Scandinavian, 5.5% German /French, 52% British/ Irish and the rest is a mixture of Jewish, African American, and Sardinian. I stared blankly at the screen. I thought I was going to get all the answers in this one sitting.  Words like haplogroup, allele, centimorgans, and autosomal start clanging around in what felt like my tin head.  Turns out I didn’t know how DNA worked and I wasn’t at all sure I would ever be able to figure it out.

After the admixture results were the cousin matches. The list was high in number, at least 800. I scrolled through surnames people had built into their bios. I narrowed them down via the search engine. No Camm. Not one. My squint eased and I mentally put Camm on the backburner…for the time being.  This was a whole other avenue that I was going to have to try to navigate, but I was determined not to give up.

In the coming years, I Googled until I could Google no more. I learned the genetic terms I needed, read books on genetic genealogy, joined DNA groups, and volunteered to help others find their families through DNA Detectives. I started indexing for Family Search.org and even started looking for people’s relatives that had passed, alone, and homeless. I have overtaken a great many conversations with DNA rhetoric and made a handful of you spit into a tube like a mad scientist. It is my passion now; I hope you’ll forgive me.

Since 2012, Susan, her daughters, myself, and my son have all taken DNA tests. We have uploaded and downloaded, graphed, charted, and just plain exhausted ourselves in finding Bill’s paternal line. It wasn’t until Susan and I did a test through Ancestry.com that we got a close hit we didn’t recognize. Byrd. Expected relationship to Susan was anywhere from half first cousin once removed to second cousin. And so it began, Byrds in my Belfry.

Definition: Bird irruption- A sudden surge of birds.

Re: Lost Family

The weeks following the letter to my biological grandfather were spent cornered in my own mind. I was not only going over every possible scenario as to how the letter might be received but also, how we might sidestep awkwardness based on what Aunt Doll had shared with us.  What do we say to a man who allegedly tried to drown my mother? The story was trying to play itself out in my head but got stuck in an echoed groove. Every time I tried to jump it I just came up with more questions. I was midair when the phone rang.

It was my mom, her breath seemed eager. “Are you sitting down?” she said.

“Yesss,” I drawled apprehensively, feeling behind me for an actual chair.

“I received an interesting phone call tonight, from a woman named Sarah, who apparently is, or was, my father’s girlfriend.”  “He got the letter, Jen– he got the letter the day he died. He never read it!”

My midair leap had heavily landed but I was now stripped for words. “WHAT?” was all I could manage to say as my thoughts bounced the dice of probabilities.

“Yes, and there’s more,” she continued.“Sarah asked if I knew I had a sister.”“Her name is Susan, and she lives in Savannah, Georgia!”

Before I knew it my voice promptly went on autopilot. I shelved all tips Terri  (from People Search) had so thoughtfully laid out for us. “I’m going to find her email address and see if she knows about you!” Mom laughed but gladly consented. “I will be out in just two days for the holidays, we’ll start then.”

After Christmas, my mom and I sat in my study on December 27th and carefully drafted a message to a woman who may or may not know of our existence. “Lost Family,” I write in the subject line and then proceed to introduce myself and tell her about the new knowledge we have been given. Short, succinct, and hopefully well written. I send the message and wait. On December 30th, a reply from Susan comes through. It basically says: who are you and what do you want?  I cringe. Maybe I had leapt too soon? We don’t know anything about her, and maybe I assumed too much. I reach out again and apologize for coming out of left field.

She responds…more warmly this time. “You’ll have to excuse me,” she wrote. “I was adopted too. I found Bill back in 1986. He told me he didn’t have any other children ‘that he knew of’.”

My mom and I are dumbfounded by that statement. Bill was married to my grandmother. The adoption paperwork states they surrendered her together. Too many jumbled questions swirl in this space, but we push it aside while we correspond with Susan a few more times via email. The next night Susan calls us, she sounds like Annie Potts from Designing Women…  I am half paying attention and half thinking about how far we’ve come.  She is “ready to meet us tomorrow,” she says.  A smile spreads across my face. My mom and I instantly feel more whole, somehow, but I also can’t help but feel that this is just the beginning.

 

Bill
William “Bill” Camm

 

 

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Susan (1965)

 

 

Aunt Susan Roanoke
Susan (present day)

 

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Megan (Susan’s daughter)

 

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Pamela (Susan’s daughter)

 

 

 

The Drive

The hour trip to Elmira, New York is one my mom has literally taken thousands of times before. I can just imagine her as a child, chomping on gum, watching the many farms pass by, playing “punch bug” with my grandmother until my grandma’s arm was sore –or until she redirected my mom,  “oh look, cows!”  My grandmother might feel bothered by an interruption of her latest book, but to herself, she smiled at my mom’s playfulness. Someone was inevitably holding a bowl of potato salad on their lap, a pie, or maybe even a present. I can almost hear my mom squeal as grandpa pulls into the drive of our cousin’s house, jumping out to play in the sunlight, without a care in the world.

My mom is older now; this drive is not like the thousands that came before.  It is pensive and silent. I don’t suppose the hour needed a fill with all the thoughts racing through her mind. The farms are still there, but they blur by without her noticing the cows. There is not a potato salad today, but maybe something with a bow for a person she calls Aunt but does not yet know. As she pulls up to a small white house on Roe Ave. she is unaware that this was the house where she once lived, where affecting decisions were made and lives went about their boring business long after the day she was removed from it.

A petite woman with alabaster skin, round blue eyes, and faded reddish hair anxiously awaits at the window of the house for my mother to step out of her car. “Aunt Doll”, a petite woman, very thin, opens the door and greets my mom warmly, but with reserve. She is shy but wants to make a good impression.  She walks with a cane and tells my mom she was crippled by polio at age 18. She apparently picked it up at the local swimming pool. Her fiancé left her over it. She never married and owns this house now. All of these rambling facts from Aunt Doll tumble out in nervous chit chat in between awkward silences.  My mom’s Uncle Loring is there as well. He pokes his head out to greet her. He is tall, wiry and even shyer than his sister.  Loring lets Aunt Doll do all the talking with a few “yeps” in between Doll’s pauses. “We never knew what happened to you, Nancy. Your mom took you to be adopted because of an incident,”  Doll explains.

My mom was puzzled by this news. Except for the “college kids couldn’t handle a youngster”, reported by her grandpa Albert, we never really heard much about the WHY my mom was given up.  I think sometimes my grandmother, Mildred, knew something about the adoption but never told us. She did say that when mom came to live with them she was terrified of the bathtub, and refused to get her hair wet. “It was such a shame to have to cut off her curly, auburn hair, but she just wouldn’t let us wash it often enough. She screamed bloody murder if I tried.” Grandma said.  My mom still hates to get her hair wet; we just call it “a Nancy thing”.

A lot of information was loquaciously given about family lineage coming from Holland on one side and New England on the other. A veritable who’s who of the red-headed Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins. Finally came stories of my grandmother JoAnne’s fun personality and adventurous spirit.  “She met your father, Bill, at a military dance; he was a Marine recruiter in town. He was very charming… a mama’s boy.”  “So what about this incident?” My mom asked. “Oh, yes well, the story goes that your biological father, Bill, tried to drown you in the bathtub.”  My mom’s eyes widened. “My father, your grandfather (Loring Sr.), was home at the time and saved your life.” Doll said. “Your mom took you to be adopted after that, but she stayed with your father for quite a few years afterward. Your Aunt Kippy and I tried to find you and get you back, but had no luck,” she said.

I am not sure what my mother thought at that moment, or if she had time to think with all the pictures, new names and family history abuzz. Of course, she had questions and asked what she could; but Doll had forgotten many details of that whole time period, unfortunately.   So, even though we had another piece of the puzzle, mom was not sure of what to do with the placement. I am guessing she probably now wished she hadn’t sent a letter just two weeks prior to her birth father, she never really said. Though I do know, in the present, she never regrets a single moment.

 

Mom, Doll and Loring
Aunt Doll, Mom and Loring Jr. 2001, Elmira, NY

 

 

marsh kids
Aunt Doll, Edna Mae “Kippy”, JoAnne and Loring Howard Jr. growing up in Ithica, NY

 

Josephine and kids
Aunt Doll, Loring Jr., Kippy and my great-grandmother, Josephine, 1948 Elmira, NY

 

 

Loring H Marsh
My great-grandfather, Loring Howard Marsh Sr.  1918

 

joann
JoAnne Marsh, my grandmother. 1941, Elmira, NY

 

 

 

 

Not a Baby

Before I introduce you to my mother’s maternal biological family, you might be wondering about how her adopted family is taking all of this news so far. My adopted grandparents, Bill and Mildred, were both deceased by the time our journey began, in 2001. I knew we would have had their blessing; we wouldn’t even have had to ask. My mom will always be their only daughter, and I their only grandchild, blood or not. Nothing can erase our time with them. They knew that, and so do we.

As I said in an earlier blog, The Baldwin branch likes to fondly recount about how they “ended up” with my mom.  You see, my great-grandmother, MiMi Baldwin, worked at Catholic Charities in Elmira– where my mom was placed in 1949. MiMi was there the day Mom was surrendered.  “A two-year-old little girl with big blue eyes and auburn ringlets is here”; my adopted grandfather, Bill Baldwin, recounts hearing from his mother over a phone call. “I think you and Mildred would just love her!”  My extended family all knows the story by heart. Deep down we all feel there must have been divine intervention that placed my mom in what was (in my biased opinion) the most loving family on the planet.

After my grandma Mildred died in 1991, my mother inherited some old journals that my adopted great-grandfather, Albert (Mildred’s stepfather), kept from 1943 to 1957. My mother did not seem very much interested in them, so I scooped them up to peruse what I thought was just the history of an old man. I was told there were mostly uninteresting facts about the goings on in Binghamton NY.  Weather forecasts, Albert’s prized roses, the daily grind at the EJ Shoe Factory, and all the dishes my great-grandmother, Irene, was trying out. There was an oyster casserole thing that really sounded awful, and by the way, Albert said it absolutely was.

“June 9, 1949– “Looks as if we might have a baby in the house and are to be grandparents.” Albert writes, “A deal thru Elmira for a 3 (she was actually just over 2) year old whose parents are going through college and can’t handle the youngster.”  The week in between the 10thth and the 16th were just a couple of updates about “the baby should be here soon” and then an entry on June 17. On this page he writes, “Well the baby is here, Nancy Baldwin, a cute and pretty child, very likable… came to me at once”. Can talk some, will have to wear my audible to understand her. Rather light, not a decided blonde, with blue eyes”.  “I asked the baby to come here and she reprimanded, “I’M NOT A BABY, I’M NANCY!”

My mom has always had resoluteness about herself. It’s palpable, charming and frustrating all at the same time. I’ll bet the Baldwins now thought so too.

not a baby

 

M&B
Bill and Mildred Baldwin, 1948

 

Nancy Jo

While my mother and I nervously awaited a response from my grandfather, I tried to fill the gaps with researching what we knew about my deceased grandmother. When I sat down to type in her name and residence, I honestly had no expectations. I wasn’t trying to be cynical, but as you can imagine, I was guarding myself a bit after so many dead ends. My mother didn’t have a computer so this part was my job now. No pressure.

I took a deep breath, typed in her name and pressed enter.  My first hit was an obituary, “Jo Anne Marsh Camm”.  I scrambled to get a pen, Died…. Norfolk Virginia…daughter of…SURVIVORS INCLUDE!! I had to stop and literally catch my breath. I felt like I was shaking from too much caffeine, and my heart and mind were definitely getting ahead of me.  “Survivors include a sister, Dorcas and a brother, Loring Jr. of Elmira NY.” Elmira, New York?! I immediately thought of the countless trips we had taken to Elmira to see our adopted cousins. Not only that, but my mom was only living an hour away from her birth family at this very moment.

I promptly called my mom to plan the next steps.

Excited by the possibility of living extended family, my mom and I discussed the obituary I found- which was now four years old. I know we both sensed an imaginary looming clock above our heads.  “Hey, Mom? What do you think about giving Jo Anne’s siblings a call?” I asked. “I know Terri said not to, but…” “Yes,” she said, “just give me a day or so to think of what I want to say.” I agreed and supportively handed off the baton.

The day after I told my mother about Dorcas and Loring she got out the White Pages and manually looked up their names. As she slowly pushed in the numbers (she recalled to me) she noticed that her “what have you got to lose” attitude was wavering. Nonetheless, the phone was ringing now, and she had gone all in. An older woman with a small voice picked up the phone and said, “Hello?” My mother introduced herself, “Hello, my name is Nancy. I am sorry to bother you, but I have reason to believe you might be part of my biological family. I was adopted out of…”  Dorcas immediately cut her off with an almost wailing urgency, “NANCY JO, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?!?

My mom, stunned, and caught off guard, paused a moment because the woman the other end was asking a question that didn’t have a boiled down answer. There was stammering on both ends of the line for a moment, and then Dorcas pulled herself together and continued the conversation with a few details about my birth grandmother, as well as asking a few questions about my mom.  I am not sure how long they spoke, but I know in the end there was a plan to meet the following weekend, and a warm insistence on calling Dorcas, “Aunt Doll.” No pressure.

Nancy Jo

 

What’s the Worst Thing that Could Happen?

“Do you want the good news or the bad news first”, the woman on the other end of the line hesitantly asked me. Her name was Terri, and I think she was just as nervous as we were.  My mother, who was sitting next to me listening, nodded to me like I knew the answer. “Go ahead with the bad news first.”  I said, “I think we would like to try and leave this on a positive note.”  Terri continued, “I’m so sorry, but your grandmother unfortunately passed in 1997.”

My mom’s eyes shifted away, and I knew that although she had initially resisted this deep dive into her past, she couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with a sense of ambiguous loss.  I was stuck in information overload at that moment and was never going to wholly understand how those words hit her emotionally, mentally or spiritually.  It has been 17 years, and I still don’t.

After the news of my grandmother, Terri then informed us that my grandfather was still alive and living in New Kent, Virginia. The sense of heaviness lifted from the room and we knew what our direction was, at last.  Terri went on to tell me that it wasn’t wise to call the birth family because you don’t want to catch people off guard. “I would send him a letter,” she said.  We spoke to Terri for another hour, scribbling down any detail we could about how to proceed.  Terri was nearly in tears, “Good luck you two, I wish you the best possible outcome!” What do you say back to a person who just handed you the keys to your past, present, and future? One thousand thank- you’s just didn’t seem enough.

While I made a flower delivery order to Terri’s office, my mom decided she would pen a letter to her birth father that evening. It was amazing to see how brave she acted. I guess she felt like she had nothing to lose. She has always been an optimist in that sense. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”, is my mom’s motto. Whether that is a “fake it ’til you make it” trick or not, it has helped us through many dark times.  I never read the letter; even though I had come this far with my mom, I knew it was her platform and voice to ask the past 48 years worth of questions, good, bad or ugly.