My twin sister, Michele, and I were adopted together at birth. Since this was explained to us at age 7, we’ve naturally wondered about our roots, but never very seriously (which is a testament to our loving parents).
But growing up, and even as adults, we were constantly asked that all-American question: So… what are you? Probably because Michele’s blond (Polish? Norwegian?) while I’m darker (French? Lebanese?).
I’d heard that getting genetic testing done was easy these days, so I approached my sister, who offered to pay for it if I would provide the required spit that we had to send in to get our results. Why not? It’d be fun, right? Since our parents had died (our father in 2007 and mother in 2011), nobody’s feelings were going to get hurt. So, at 45, we decided to finally learn our ethnicity. Six weeks later, the results popped up in my inbox.
At first it seemed like your basic discovery: Euro-mutts (Italian, British, German, French). But then an accompanying notification dwarfed those results: You have an unusually close match!
We had never considered looking for biological relatives because we never had any interest. Contrary to depictions of adoption in Afterschool Specials, we hadn’t suffered identity crises as kids. Our older sister was also adopted (with different birth parents), as were several of our classmates, so we had never felt particularly different or special.
I’d always assumed searching for biological family would end in disappointment. What if they were racists, moochers or just needy strangers expecting sudden love? Surely, the whole thing was a potential Pandora’s box.
And now we had opened it.
“I immediately thought about a TV show where celebrities learned they’re descendants of Nazis or slave owners. I took a deep breath and tried to prepare myself.”
A man named Anthony was marked as our “first to second cousin.” His profile had a family tree and photo. He was dark, bearded like me, with similar features. It was strange. Sure, I had Michele, but we had never had extended family who sort of resembled us. I decided to sleep on it and talk to Michele first, but Anthony beat me to the punch by messaging that night: “I was just going through my DNA results and saw that we are possible second cousins. I would be incredibly interested in where our genetic link is.”
Luckily, he was immediately likable when we spoke on the phone, confessing himself to be a lineage nerd. After we chatted, he friended me on Facebook, promising to reach out if he had any inklings about our relationship.
Before I got a chance to talk to Michele about any of this, Anthony called again the next day and told me to sit down. I immediately thought about the TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?” where celebrities have learned they’re descendants of Nazis or slave owners. I took a deep breath and tried to prepare myself.
His mother knew who we were: her cousin Kathy’s secret.
I had always envisioned our mother as a teenager, but Kathy was 36, married twice before we were born. After she graduated high school and left home, contact with her cousins dwindled. But they still had photos.
She had my face, my eyebrows, my unruly hair. She seemed joyful, stylish, confident. Just grateful our birth mother had gotten us to our parents, I never needed her to be a saint or sinner. But seeing her smile now — so reassuring — I suddenly wanted to believe we had all come out winning.
According to my cousins, my birth grandmother Ruth had been disowned for getting pregnant at 16 out of wedlock (in 1934) — but her parents had raised her baby, Kathy.
I went to the gym after that call. I’m on this treadmill. In this gym. In this city. On this planet! Because a girl in the 1930s made a mistake. Or fell in love ― who knows? I had come to exist because Kathy had come to exist. All because of Ruth.
I felt so selfish. I was always so busy congratulating myself for harboring no resentment over being given up that I’d never imagined what my birth family might’ve endured. I decided to visit Ruth’s grave.
But before I could arrange the trip, another match from the site popped up — this one closer than Anthony! I called him, asking if this “Laurie” was on his list, too. Within minutes, he forwarded a Facebook link. I was floored. She looked more like me than Michele.
“She does!” he said. “And get this — she has a twin!”
Then it all came back: the other twins my parents had mentioned when they told us we were adopted. At 7, we were more curious than upset. Were our other biological siblings boys? Girls? But the lawyers had told my mother only that another set of twins had been given up before us. For days we wondered — their age, location, names — before moving on and eventually forgetting about it. As adults, we rarely recalled the other twins, and considered the story family folklore when we did.
I scrolled through Laurie’s Facebook, a little afraid of what I might find, but she was a singer/songwriter, and a Democrat and a black belt. I found her twin’s page: Joyce. Joyce was an animal rights activist, a massage therapist and also a singer/songwriter. Not wanting to scare them, I sent Laurie a casual looks-like-we’re-related email, offering my number to chat.
“But what if they don’t call?” Michele asked.
The fear of rejection in her tone made me worry that this DNA thing would be more trouble than it was worth. Our parents had worked so hard to make adoption simple: We were chosen, wanted. Would new sisters undo all that?
“Our parents had worked so hard to make adoption simple: We were chosen, wanted. Would new sisters undo all that?”
Two days later, Laurie called, introducing herself as a cousin from Ancestry. Her deep voice gave me chills. I heard mine in it. I told her my mother’s name.
“But Kathy was our mother. Joyce —Joyce, we have a brother!”
“And I have a twin,” I said.
“But we’re twins! We’re twins!”
Once they caught their breath, details gushed. They were born in the same city as we were, five years earlier, and raised a couple towns away from us. (The proximity would make Michele weep.) They had searched for biological relatives years ago, before DNA tests, finding but never meeting Kathy — who was sickly, living in a hotel in Florida. When they spoke with her by phone before she died in 2008, she expressed guilt over giving them up but never mentioned us. Why? Was her shame more important than uniting siblings? I might’ve been angry if it wasn’t so clear how lucky we were. What would our lives have been? Had being born of a teenager who couldn’t raise her motivated Kathy to give her two sets of twins better chances?
Now I’d never get to thank her. Another regret, courtesy of my DNA. But I had two new sisters.
When Laurie and Joyce friended me, to view photos of Michele, they were relieved to see I was progressive. A feminist. “And… you’re gay?”
“Yes,” I said.
“So are we!”
After several long phone calls, we gathered this summer at Michele’s. It was uncanny how fast they felt so familiar. Smiling in disbelief around the picnic table, we studied each other over drinks, noting the obvious similarities: our eyes, the texture of our hair, our predilection for vodka and our creative streaks.
Joyce and Laurie, songwriters, Michele in interior design and me, a poet. We wondered if Kathy was an artist herself, stifled in a time when women had fewer opportunities. She created us.
When friends ask if we feel robbed, being separated all these years, I remind them you can’t miss what you didn’t know you had. So instead, this feels like a magical bonus. Having lost the parents who adopted us, we found each other, midlife, without the baggage that might’ve accumulated had we grown up together.
It’s unbelievable how they arrived through the ether. Who knows who else is out there in the not-so-secret-anymore strains of our DNA? I’m plenty satisfied with my treasure trove of sisters but caution anyone considering these tests: You just might discover a whole range of new emotions too complex to fit in a pie chart.
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