October 30, 2017. I remember the date well. It was the day I met my birth mother again after 52 years of separation. There were tears and hugs, there was family and medical history, there were questions answered about how they met and why I was put up for adoption. There was healing. Partial healing. I’m still waiting for whole healing. My birth parents stayed together and ended up getting married 25 years after my birth. They live 6.5 miles from the loving home I grew up in. I have a full brother 13 years younger than I, born in the same Sacramento suburb I lived in until I went away to college. He knows nothing about me. For some reason my birth father (whom I have not met yet) doesn’t want my brother to know about me. I get all sorts of advice to just go ahead and contact my brother on my own (or do a DNA test at the company he tested at), but I don’t want to break the newly formed connection with my birth mother or ruin a yet-to-be connection with my birth father. So I wait…mostly patiently…and I pray. I realize I may very well have to wait to meet my brother after my father passes, which may come sooner than later, but for now I remain a secret to all but my birth parents.
So let me tell you how I came to be a volunteer search angel. (And if you’re bored, scroll down to the DNA tips in capitalized and bold letters - I won’t be offended!)
Let’s go way back… to my childhood. I have known as long as I can remember that I am adopted (at just under 3 months old). But I always felt I was an important part of the family I was in, I belonged with them. They weren’t perfect, but they are my family and I love my parents, older brother and younger sister more than I can describe. I had a happy childhood for the most part, and never had the desire to search for my birth parents. I did have a half sheet of typed information from what was then called the Department of Social Welfare which served as my non-identifying information. Every few years I’d come across it and read it then put it away again. It wasn’t until I suffered a miscarriage in 1996 that I thought about looking for my birth parents. I filled out paperwork that went into my adoption file with Sacramento County that would allow the County to release my contact info to my birth parents should they inquire about me. I got pregnant again a few months later, and the desire to actively look for them was gone.
I started doing genealogy in 1993 in Japan. Our little family was living there for 2 years and my mom who raised me had given me the names, dates and places of my ancestors. At that time, genealogy for me was inputting that information into a database to make a pedigree/tree. Upon returning to the U.S. we lived with my husband’s parents while he interviewed for jobs. I had just had our second child, and I made a deal with him. For every hour he golfed, I got to go to the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) to do genealogy (looking at microfilms and microfiche). I got quite a bit done! Then we moved and I had 2 more children and genealogy went on the back burner.
Forward to about 2010 – I discovered doing genealogy on the Internet, from home!! In my pajamas! Boy, it had come a long way. I have been doing traditional genealogy for some time now. I just love being able to use my brain to figure out puzzles and be an investigator.
I attended RootsTech in February 2017 with a good friend who had done DNA testing. Of course DNA kits were on sale at the conference and she piqued my interest enough that I bought 3 kits – one for me, one for my sister (who is also adopted but we’re not biologically related), and one for my husband. My primary interest was the ethnicity estimate (or so I told myself). My husband didn’t feel he needed to test since he knew his ancestry, but he humored me anyway. Now his parents and most of his siblings have tested!
TIP #1 – Ethnicity estimates are just estimates! Segments of your DNA are compared by computers to reference populations of different geographic areas in the world and an estimate is made based on which populations those segments most closely match. I used one raw DNA data file (downloaded from Ancestry – subject of a future blog post) and uploaded it to FamilyTree DNA and MyHeritage (for free - another part of that future blog post) and got 3 different ethnicity estimates!! So, take the percentages with a grain of salt! What you can rely on is the different regions (Scandinavia, Europe East, Iberian Peninsula, etc.) your DNA matches. The technology is not good enough yet to tell you specific countries or accurate percentages.
TIP #2 – Shared DNA is not an estimate! Each segment of DNA you share/match with someone has a measurement, called centiMorgans (cM), and each of those segments over your 23 chromosomes is added up to be your total shared DNA. The more centiMorgans you share with someone the closer your relationship to them. My favorite chart that shows possible relationships based on shared DNA is the DNA Detectives Autosomal Statistics Chart.
You also get probability statistics on each of those relationships at https://dnapainter.com/tools/sharedcmv4 (thanks to Jonny Perl and Blaine Bettinger). Note: on the link you can use the % that some DNA companies give you and it converts it to the total number of cMs.
TIP #3 – A company’s estimation of your relationship to a DNA match is not always accurate! Ancestry underestimates relationships (you are usually closer than what it says) while others overestimate. Use the tools in TIP #2 to determine the possible relationship based on the amount of cMs you share.
Back to my story – Remember, I told myself I was only interested in the ethnicity estimate, but when those DNA matches come up you can’t help but be curious. The closest match I had was a 3rd cousin, and I just wasn’t ready to do that much research yet. However, I did join some Facebook groups, and learned that for free I could upload my raw data to other DNA testing companies (mentioned previously) and a third-party site called GEDmatch to find more matches. So I did that and waited…mostly patiently…and I prayed.
TIP #4 – Join these Facebook groups to ask questions and learn more about how to use your DNA data more effectively: https://www.facebook.com/groups/DNADetectives/ (created by Genetic Gene