Opening the door

This morning at 5:47 a.m., I spit into an Ancestry DNA test tube and placed it into the postage-pre-paid box.

When I was two years old, my bio-father walked out on my older brother, my mother, and me. He left for a younger woman who was a student at the local state college where we lived in Pennsylvania. The story I always heard was that he left my brother and me with a neighbor while “babysitting us,” my mother out for the day. After my mom figured out what had happened, she went to the college and had the “other woman” thrown out of school—she was always proud of that—then she moved with my brother and me to Boston and entered a graduate program at Harvard.

A year or so later she met a fellow graduate student, and they married three weeks later—he was the man who raised me from the time I was four, the man I called Dad. After they finished their degrees, we moved to California where he and my mom taught at a small college. The two spent their lives teaching and traveling the globe, conducting research together in cross-cultural child development. At the same time, they raised my older brother and me and had another son eight years my junior: the half-brother I grew up with.

Meanwhile on the east coast, my bio-dad Paul married the younger woman, and they too had a son, also eight or so years younger than I am. I saw Paul just three more times in my life and met that half-brother only once when I was a teenager, twice as an adult. But when that half-brother was about five, Paul left him and his mother, too—for another woman.

What I didn’t know until about a year ago was that Paul would repeat this pattern—with women, if not with children—at least four times in his life; he died twenty years ago.

To say I had a complicated relationship with my family would be an understatement. My fathers not withstanding. My mother, who died twenty years ago, and I were quite different. Among other things, she was both brilliant and also strong-willed (not that those things are mutually exclusive or that I am labeling myself as not-brilliant). She wanted me to bend to her will, to her high standards for me, and I spent much of my young life trying to live up to her expectations—at the same time fighting like hell to figure out who I really was and what I really wanted to do with my life rather than fighting against what she wanted for me. It’s been a struggle.

The whole time I was growing up, I longed to have a close relationship with my bio-grandmother (Paul’s mother). I felt closely akin to her, I’m not sure why. She, a Russian immigrant, lived in NY City; me, a very-American teen, lived in California. I saw her maybe once a year, if I was lucky. But in temperament, in spirit, I was very much my grandmother’s granddaughter—her only granddaughter. When my grandmother died I was “not invited” to the funeral. As in, I was asked not to attend. I suppose it was too complicated with various of Paul’s girlfriends/fiancés/wives, and at the same time, Paul was notoriously ill tempered—at least one relative told me I should be happy he wasn’t in my life. But to me, it felt like the ultimate rejection. I wish I’d gone to her funeral, and it still stings that I chose not to.

In the past six months, I’ve become active on Ancestry.com. I’ve researched both sides of my family—my biological roots—going all the way back (if I’m to believe Ancestry research) to my fifth great-grandfather Rabbi Eliyahu Zeldovich born around 1850 in Minsk, Belarus. On the other side, to the late 1700s (!!!) in Switzerland.

I’ve also found living second cousins and third cousins and distant “aunts and uncles,” some of whom I met when I was a child, at my grandparent’s lake house near New York City. All told tales of life in eastern Europe and Russia, some told harrowing stories of escaping to the freedom of the United States. These stories fascinated me and still do, so I hope someday soon to visit a cousin and “uncle” whom I’ve reconnected with, who know more of those stories.

But to actually find people I’m related to via DNA? It took me a while to get there. When I first heard about the test, I was skeptical. What would that give me? But as I thought about it, I realized. Paul . . . his various wives, girlfriends, etc., I’ve known men like that. Surely there may have been others. Other relationships.

The younger half-brother I grew up with died five years ago. My older brother and my other half-brother (the one I’ve met three times) are still alive. But . . . the elephant in the room . . . did Paul have other children? One of Paul’s errant relationships (let’s be honest, here—no one likes to think of their parents this way—one errant sperm) could have produced another half-sibling. Another half-brother? Or half-sister? Maybe someone who’s wondering the same thing on Ancestry.com.

But to be willing to open that door. That’s something. That’s what I feel like I did this morning. I opened a door to . . . something . . . or nothing. I won’t start to find out for at least six to eight weeks.

To be continued . . .

Have you delved into your family’s history? Have you (or would you) explore DNA testing?

Lost Not Found

By Patrick aka Herjolf via Flickrs Creative Commons

Yesterday I lost something. To be specific, I can’t find it. This thing—something recently given to me, a tiny book—is personalized. And highly personal. Truly priceless in its contents.

I’ve gone through every obvious place it should be . . . like the table where I last remember seeing it, on bookshelves, and in drawers of paper products. But I’ve also searched not so obvious places like piles of folded laundry and car glove boxes. I searched through the box of batteries and the junk drawer, too. I’ve looked through bags and boxes of all kinds of things.

When my son was a teenager, I lost my favorite pair of sunglasses—they disappeared out of the car. I searched high and low but never found them. My kids laughed along with me as I questioned each of their friends for months about my sunglasses, every time I drove one home from school or a group of kids to the beach. It became a joke, but it bugged me. I never did find the sunglasses and eventually agreed with the likely hypothesis that they fell out of the car.

Once when we were packing for a move—this before we had children—MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I misplaced a hammer (how do you do that?). We looked for weeks but never found it. We’d been using it in the old house, packed the last box, loaded it in the car, but never found the hammer in the new house. We searched both houses to no avail.

“Maybe I left it on the roof of the car,” MEH mused back then. We’d lost several coffee cups that way.

A pack of peat pots disappeared once. My son’s pre-school backpack (that really did disappear off the roof of the car, but when we turned around, seconds after we saw it fly off in the rearview mirror, we couldn’t find it anywhere). Socks, of course. A favorite nightshirt.

But nothing as irreplaceable as this.

In all other regards, it’s been my lucky month—my son and daughter have both been home. But I’ve been out of my usual routine, so I’m imagining I tossed the book aside as I ran to greet them, to chase the dog, or to pull a boiling pot off the stove.

But I wonder.

“I have a mystery on my hands,” I mentioned to my son when he came downstairs for coffee in the morning. He’d come home in the middle of the night, so the book had already gone missing before he arrived.

My daughter, though, had been home; I’d shown it to her and her boyfriend the day it disappeared. Had it somehow slipped into their things? They’re both in medical school and they always have plenty of books and papers, laptops, bags of more books—endless studying!—maybe I placed it on one of their stacks?

Déjà vu all over again (as an old boss of mine used to say)—like the sunglasses. After they left, I emailed them:Had they accidentally scooped it up? They checked and re-checked their things—

No such luck.

Last night, just before we went to bed, MEH went through the trash. (He’s nice like that; he kindly takes on many of life’s less savory tasks.) Then the recycling. We both looked under the couches and the dog bed, through the sock basket, through stacks of books. My folders—again.

Still no luck.

It’s missing. Gone at least for now.

I Googled missing things (of course I did), wondering—do other people go through this? Big things disappear. The whole city of Atlantis. Blackbeard’s Treasure. There are countless stories about those kinds of losses. But also . . . a story about a woman who lost her wedding ring while gardening, found it sixteen years later growing on a carrot. Another woman who lost an autographed book, only to find it five years later when she ordered a used book on Amazon—it was her very own personalized book.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think either of these extreme things will happen. I think in the distraction of everyday life, I put my lost item somewhere unexpected. Just waiting to be found. I fully expect that someday when I least expect it, I’ll open a drawer I’ve opened a hundred times and there it will be—in plain sight.

At least that’s what I’m hoping.

UPDATE: Four hours after I posted this blog, I found the little book…  it had fallen down into the mechanism of an office chair. Keep your eyes peeled for the hammer, the peat pots, and Blackbeard’s treasure, though!

Have you ever lost anything valuable? And irreplaceable? Did you find it? Any suggestions on where I should look?

A Final Good-bye

Photo by Greg Wagoner, Flickr's Creative Commons

Photo by Greg Wagoner, Flickr’s Creative Commons

Online life can be strange. We “meet” people, friends, and connect briefly…or permanently. We can connect superficially or deeply. Often it’s like our friends IRL—we aren’t really sure what draws us together. Something unknowable, intangible, fleeting. Right place at the right time? Maybe something serendipitous or simply a similar interest.

Like writing.

One such writer I’ve connected with is Tracy Seeley. She was one of my earliest writer friends in my online writing community. I don’t really remember exactly how we “met.” On a blog? Twitter? (Not Facebook, I know that, because we were never friends there.) I only know that we connected deeply over her memoir My Ruby Slippers about a roadtrip to explore her past in Kansas and Colorado, spurred on by a cancer diagnosis.

I wrote to Tracy after reading her memoir, first on email, then on paper…by snail mail. I told her how much I enjoyed her book, and I was honored she wrote back. We exchanged a handful of cards—talking about our shared interests in gardening, places we’d both lived (Colorado and San Francisco), and of course writing.

We also talked about her ongoing battle with breast cancer.

We stopped writing to one another a few years ago. It wasn’t anything in particular that stopped us—not even that we ran out of things we could say—it was just that we both got busy, as friends do.

So today, when quite by accident I stumbled upon Tracy’s obituary, I was caught short. She died last year, and I didn’t know. That’s perhaps one of the cruelest tricks of modern life: someone who you’ve never met in person, who you think you know, feel like you know, can be gone just as quickly as they appeared. And you don’t even know. It feels like Tracy could be alive because I never saw her at the grocery store or on my way around the block with the dog or every year at a family reunion or conference and I never even talked to her on the phone or Skyped or Google-chatted with her as I have with many of you.

From time to time I talk to MEH (My Engineer Husband) about what he should do if I die suddenly. How he will tell my online community…who he will tell who will then spread the word. We’ve never come up with a hard and fast plan. He doesn’t even remember where I keep my passwords. In truth, I keep them on my Macbook, on an electronic post-it, but of course he’d need my computer password to see them—that’s on the same post-it. I’m not sure it would be the first or second thing he’d think of; maybe he’d never think of it at all.

I do. And yet I don’t know what the answer is. For me. I imagine it’s different for each of us.

What I do know is that I wish I’d written to Tracy one more time. To say good-bye. To thank her for her lovely book—which I’ll treasure even more now. To say how much her cards and time meant to me; her acceptance and affection as a writer.

But mostly, I’d say this:

I’m so glad you were my friend, Tracy. You were a beautiful and wonderfully warm woman and lovely writer who I’m so happy to have shared time on Earth with, however briefly. Thank you for being my friend. I will miss you. Love, Julia

My love to you all,

Julia