One Person; two Stories

back to Family Stories, Spring 2020

by Matthew Clarkin

In 1942, poet T.S. Eliot wrote: 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Surely, he was talking about genealogy: the careful and dedicated work of personal discovery and the adventure that I have had the pleasure of continuing through my research for MSE 2212. In the last several months, I have expanded my family tree, analyzed my DNA ethnicity estimate and matches, and learned about the general biological principles about genetics. But my desire to take the course was driven by the want to explore one important aspect of my family story: the adoption of my maternal grandmother. 

Adoption genealogy, one of the many topics covered during the course, has a two-fold focus. On the one hand, you want to know about the family that the adoptee knew and loved without consideration to genetic relation. On the other hand, your objective is to utilize DNA results and vital records to determine the blood connection of the adoptee. It is the search for two (often vastly different) sides of a story that belong to the same person. 

I’ve learned that my grandmother, Sheila, was born with the name Ellen to a nineteen year old girl by the name of Helen in rural New York. She was adopted not long after her birth by John and Margaret Mary, who raised her with their other two children (by birth) in Albany. For seventy-five years, she knew nothing of her birth family, genetically or historically. My grandmother took an AncestryDNA test to learn about her ethnicity and soon found that it brought far more connections that she anticipated.

My grandmother learned the name of her mother only, as her birth father’s name was not listed on the adoption records. Unfortunately, her birth mother passed away in 2013, long before my grandmother took her DNA test. But with her name came so much information. My grandmother learned that she had a half-brother, Brian, who was the result of her birth mother’s later marriage. With that one name, I was able to discover more about my grandmother’s grandparents and great-grandparents, connecting dots she never knew existed. 

It was so exciting to learn about a family that we never really knew. Better yet, it was an experience I got to share with my grandmother. And that’s what has been the biggest takeaway for me from this semester in MSE 2212. Genealogy is more than DNA code or census records; it’s about bringing people together. In more ways than one, it allows us to connect with and learn from one another. We have the opportunity to build new relationships, to pass down traditions, and to discover at the most fundamental level who we are. And it will always do that, just as long as we keep searching!