When I got the email that October afternoon, the first thing I did was click on the link titled Your Ancestry DNA Results Are In.
I placed my laptop on the dining table. It was the same table my grandma had in her tidy one-bedroom apartment. My grandmother, Nana, often brewed a pot of Ceylon tea served with cream and sugar. She was English and believed a cup of tea was the answer to every question.
My inbox refreshed and the results email popped up. Click. I logged right into Ancestry. Like 23andMe, I noticed the greater percentages of Germanic Europe, Scotland, England, Southern Italy, and Ireland, until it narrowed to lesser percentages of Sweden, Norway, and Malta, making me, well, me. But something was missing.
My grandfather’s family were Russian Jewish immigrants from a place in the Ukraine called Starokostyantyniv, or “Old Constantine’s Town.” His parents, Chava Ruchel and Yossel, became Rachel and Joseph once they arrived in America.
Besides forgetting to light Hanukkah candles past the fourth night, I didn’t question my Jewish roots. I named my son Benjamin, a Hebrew name, instead of Finn, which made me laugh when his father suggested Finn. “What, name our son Finn Nagle? That sounds like finagle!” I teased. But my son’s Irish father didn’t get the wordplay. We met at a poetry reading in the French Quarter of New Orleans, so I assumed he paid attention to the sound of words as much as I do. After pondering names like Aidan and Finn, I chose my son’s name, Benjamin, a last name in Nana’s family, after my maternal great-great-grandmother, Jessica Benjamin.
I wasn’t attached to Judaism as part of my identity. Ben went on to have a bar mitzvah, and of course, Nana kvelled over him. I often got the comment but you don’t look Jewish when the subject came up. Whatever looking Jewish had to do with it, I had no plausible reason to question if I belonged to my family.
After receiving the results from 23andMe, I read through my ancestral percentiles as ingredients on a package: Northwest European, British and Irish, Greater London, Glasgow, Greater Manchester, Belfast, Merseyside (Nana was from Merseyside, Cheshire). West Midlands, Lancashire, Tyne and Wear, Kent, County Durham. Dublin, Ireland.
But what surprised me was the German. My father’s side possibly. I had a vague recollection of Nana mentioning German relatives. She made a face after she said German and rolled her eyes. Jews of her generation weren’t able to forget what happened. Nana was eighteen when her family left England. My DNA composition analysis broke this section down further: Bavaria, Baden-Württemburg, Hesse, Lower Saxony. I drew a deep breath. Broadly Northwestern. Norway, Finland. I made a concerted effort to exhale.
My eyes darted like a sleuth looking for a trace of fingerprints: Southern European, Iberian, Italian, Balkan peninsula. Malta. The results dusted off a secret passage deep within my soul. The percentages were my set of skeleton keys.
My Italian blood was pinpointed as Sicilian on the given map. A region by the Mediterranean Sea. I parsed each and every letter that spelled out my Italian heritage like a strand of nucleotides. Sicily. Calabria. Campania.
The results went further down the genetic analytics hierarchy, an intriguing amount of Spanish and Portuguese genetics by 1.8%. Northern Africa, Spanish Conquistadors, the people of Arabic descent. Greek and Balkan ancestry.
The description explained: Despite broad cultural and religious diversity, the Balkans’ people are genetically similar to one another, descending from the early Mediterranean and Slavic peoples. Island Greeks lack this ancestral Slavic influence and are similar to southern Italians.
Slavic influence. Southern Italians. That made sense and didn’t.
Reading this, I created an utterly non-sensical story in my mind, a fantasy explanation involving some of my ancestors aboard a ship in Malta. They set out to find their new home, arriving at a Black Sea port, perhaps Odesa. This ridiculous concept was akin to something out of a Monty Python skit if I could see the humor. Our unique blend of genetics can’t be that linear. It also didn’t mesh with the narrative I knew to be part of our family’s immigrant story. If it was part of my father’s side, okay. Yet, the missing evidence pointed to not being genetically part of my mother’s side of the family. Zero percent Ashkenazi Jew.
There could have been other reasons for this discrepancy in percentiles. But not having Russian Jewish blood and having quite a lot of Southern Italian, well, maybe it was erased by a lost timeline? It reminded me of when I used a pregnancy test stick, and no blue lines showed at all. No result appeared in the test stick window. Instead of not-pregnant or pregnant, I was just blank. So the Russian or Slavic genetics, however you put it, was absent.
The smaller percentages identified as Broadly Southern European, 1.8%, Eastern European, 1.1%. The Black Sea. But this didn’t match up with my mother’s family lineage. 1.1% isn’t enough for just two generations of Russian Jews out of the shtetl.
“Did your pour yourself a glass of wine?” Deb asked through the cell speaker. She had been waiting for my test results so we could link our family trees.
I sat down with my cup. “I made tea,” I replied. Debra explained that Ancestry links your matches to other relatives, helping you build out your own family tree.
“Okay, then go into your dashboard,” Deb instructed. I scrolled from the Home Page to the DNA category at the top of the navigation bar. “Click on DNA,” she said. I saw the dropdown to DNA Matches and clicked. There it was, an immediate family match.
“The username is DEB, is that you?” I asked. Debra went silent, taking a deep inhale and pause. “Steph, look again. What does it say?”
“It says: You and DEB, shared DNA: 3,455 centimorgans across 25 segments.”
“That’s a lot of shared DNA,” Debra stated. My eyes locked on the username without taking in the rest of the results. “That’s not my username. Steph,” Debra paused. “You were adopted.”
I squinted to make out the type on the screen, but my eyes rearranged things into blurry code until I couldn’t decipher the written description. My head spun as letters blazed in digitized shapes.
There must be a mistake. As a two-year-old girl, I read store signs and freeway exits aloud. I was reading phonetically before kindergarten. But it was difficult to decode these two key phrases: Parent/child match. Shared DNA.
The laptop glowed in the afternoon light. I blinked back at the screen cursor, clicking on the Ancestry website details to know more about this parent/child match. The username was his initials, my father. I had to wrap my mind around the fact that this mystery parent was my biological father.
Deb explained what little she knew of my adoption story she was told as a young girl. She recalled asking her parents why her aunt and uncle had a new baby after their first baby died. Her mother explained that Auntie Sherry’s younger sister had a baby with her musician boyfriend. Since her sister was too young to take care of a baby, she gave the child to her older sister, Auntie Sherry, whose baby died. In her mind, it made sense enough to not ask again. Debra wasn’t sure which one of my two aunts was my mother, but that was the story she was told.
However, the absence of Jewish ancestry didn’t match up if one of my aunts was my mother. But it did open up some lifelong questions I had about my mother. Why didn’t she love me? Upon realization that my mother may not be my biological mother, it made me much more forgiving of her. A puzzle piece found, a door unlocked.
I sat in the same chair where my dad sat the last time I saw him on Father’s Day. It was a month before he died of cancer. I sensed his ghost as if I was betraying him with this other father, this biological father. There were so many unresolved questions brewing inside, I even questioned my birthday. The idea of being adopted felt unreal. I was an unwanted child or a wanted child. Which one was I?
This man, my biological father, logged into the Ancestry website two days ago. Wait, I remember thinking, I’m not ready for this existential crisis. I’m turning fifty soon.
Months earlier, my 23andMe results linked me to a first cousin I didn’t know about. This unknown cousin emailed me through the internal messaging system, just as perplexed about how we were related. The only first cousin I knew to ask was my cousin Debra, who wanted to tell me but didn’t. She knew the test results would explain what our family had kept secret for almost fifty years.
As I sat there gaping at the screen, my boyfriend Eddie peered at the results over my shoulder and made wisecracks in his false Darth Vader voice, I am your father, you know the scene. Then he sensed the gravitas of the results and gasped, Oh, now you’re one of those people.
There are growing numbers of people like me unexpectedly finding out they were adopted. Thousands upon thousands of at-home DNA test results have revealed all kinds of family secrets way crazier than mine.
If you want to understand what it’s like to realize the truth about your origins and existence after living so many years in the dark about it, this is what it’s like. Try to imagine your parents, and after forty-eight years, you find out they weren’t yours, biologically. Your true identity is a secret. And it wasn’t even a question in your mind. You had reasons to believe that you were their flesh and blood. All of those childhood years, you knew something was missing. There’s a sense of longing and sorrow.
You’re not sure yet if this is a reason to be happy or to feel betrayed, maybe both. You don’t know how this will turn out, but you have questions. You may wonder, as you look in the mirror, which one gave you hazel eyes, or the shape of your mouth, or the way your nose wrinkles when you laugh.
I hadn’t called my mom in two months since I visited her in the small Central California town where she lives. She left Los Angeles for a small town off Highway 99 near the Sequoia National Park. Perhaps it was a good place to forget and start fresh. Her sister, Denise, and mother, Nana, recently died, as did her father, my grandfather. Before the Ancestry test results revealed my biological father, I drove two hours to make a last chance effort for a mother-daughter connection. After Nana’s funeral and Denise’s sudden death, I thought I might try harder.
I wasn’t an adored daughter, but a child she once accepted to replace the one she lost. If I’m cynical, I’d say it was like getting a puppy right after your dog died. But I know that wasn’t the case.
There were, more often than not, times when everything felt right. We had family dinners, parties with laughter, dancing, summer vacations at the beach, Dodger games, merry-go-rounds, and amusement parks. We put on disco albums and moved the furniture out of the way for a make-shift dance floor. My aunts told funny stories with my mom while they poured glasses of wine. We’d open up a large paper bag bursting with tacos and burritos from Mama Yuca’s stand on Hillhurst and sit out on the patio to feast.
My dad grew a vegetable garden one summer. We had a bounty of the ripest tomatoes, zucchini, and buttery ears of corn. On hot weekends, I spent hours in the ocean, body surfing and boogie boarding. We saw movies like E.T. and Star Wars in the theater. I went roller skating at the rink and swimming at friends’ houses. Not to say it was all Disneyland, but we did have those happy family moments, sun-kissed beach days, and strawberry birthday cakes. All the while, my mother did the best she could to love me.
My preschool days were filled with crayons and paints. Cool Whip. Glitter. Blue monster cake. Elephants on craft paper made with dried pinto beans and glue. Six-fingered people with happy faces riding horses flying into clouds. My favorite album was Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I loved the sound of the guitar.
Before the big move from Los Angeles, there was an epic family vacation in Cape Cod, where we rented a large beach house with a deck that led to the sand. It was a two-story New England-style cottage on Hyannis Harbor.
We were celebrating my Aunt Denise’s wedding in Manhattan. A caravan of us all headed to Cape Cod for a whole month on the beach in Hyannis Port.
I can still remember everyone crowded around the picnic table on the wooden deck, feasting on buttery lobster, as the setting sun cast a pinkish glow. My mom was euphoric. I watched her eat lobsters with slender fingers covered in garlic butter, cracking claws and digging in for tender meat, her wine glass full of Chardonnay on the table strewn with lobster shells. It was one of the few moments I remember her being blissfully happy.
A few of us went for a drive after dinner to get ice cream from a local ice cream parlor. I took the back seat as the last minutes of sunset made indigo silhouettes out of pine trees along the highway. I felt heat from my sunburnt cheeks while I made creamy swaths into a melting scoop of Rocky Road with my tongue. A cold trace of ice cream dripped from the end of the waffle cone down my elbow.
I noticed the reflection of my face in the car window against the darkness. I saw someone else looking back at me. It was the face of a young girl lost in a forest of trees. In these moments, I’d wish a upon a star, hoping for some unknown mystical part of me to return. Clues can be found anywhere, even in the reflection of my face upon the glass.
Random thoughts drifted from that summer day. I tried to sense whatever it was in the pit of my being. Maybe it was just the emotions of being a twelve-year-old girl, but I felt something was about to change. A shadow moved into my heart like an unexpected rain cloud.
I can recall that summer beach house filled with sunlight and laughter and salty ocean air. Those peaceful nights on the deck watching the water melt into liquid silver upon the sandy dunes, and the bluest midnight blue of night-colored sand, and oceanic wave shapes like a Wham-O Magic Window.
That summer was the last of when we were all together as a family.
When I was a kid, my grandparents threw lots of parties. Their house was often packed with at least two dozen of their friends. The place buzzed with everyone sharing funny anecdotes over cocktails and howls of laughter heard as far as the backyard.
There was a lot of grownup talk. “Hey George, tell me, how’s it going with that timeshare?” and “Oh Betty, you gotta come here quick, Bob’s telling that story again!” and “Ellis, you make the best martinis!” and “Francine, tell Ella about the couple that was doing it in the elevator at the salon,” all the while I’m snacking on deviled eggs and bite-size quiches loaded with bluish chunks of Roquefort cheese, and downing at least three Shirley Temples.
My favorite place was in the parlor at the billiard table. Two of my uncles, my grandfather’s friends, not really uncles, prepped cues with a cobalt blue cube of chalk. I’d gather up stripes and solids from the netted pockets after their shots and rack them up inside the triangle. I’d listen in on their banter while stuffing my face pink with maraschino cherries.
Our house was up in the Los Feliz hills, situated against the green sprawl of Griffith Park. On walks home from school, I carried a stash of quarters in my pocket, counting how many coins I needed for a Nestlé Crunch bar with each step. I’d finger dimes and nickels within the soft fabric, adding them up in my head, while I saved the quarters for a few games of Pac-Man at the roller rink. It was far, the walk uphill to our house. Most of the time, Nana or a babysitter picked me up after school unless my grandparents were away on a trip.
The streets had big tarry cracks in the road from earthquakes. I’d come rolling down one of those hills on my pink Schwinn bicycle, knees propped up on handlebars, hollering wildly into the wind. I took a few spills, scraped up my hands, skinned my knees, and once, the jagged foot pedal caught my ankle and ripped it wide open.
My mom’s first date since her divorce pulled up in his shiny Cadillac Eldorado while I fell right there in the street, my pink bicycle capsized next to my bloody foot. Instead of their evening out, I was raced over to the hospital. It took two layers of stitches that night. The doctor joked he’d design my stitches to look like Princess Leia holding a lightsaber. My mom’s date didn’t stay for the ordeal. Mom sighed, “Well, guess he’s not cut out for having kids.”
I recall one dinner when both of my aunts were talking about boyfriends. Aunt Pam goaded her sister, “Oh come on, Neese, he’s a talented musician, and he loves you.” Denise laughed, wrists jingling with silver bracelets. “Yeah, okay, he’s a great guitarist, and I wanna marry him, but he’s so fucking short,” her hand illustrating her point with a salute to her chest. “I’m too tall for most guys anyway. They stare right at my boobs. Ya know, like that Randy Newman don’t want no short people song.”
After dinner, the English tea set was brought to the table on a silver tray. There was coffee served to those who wanted it. I said yes to dessert, a heaping plate of lemon chiffon pie. I was content to listen in on grownup conversation, wondering if I might date a guitarist like Denise, or sing Puccini arias like my other auntie.
Denise was six-foot-one. I was already heading toward tallness — the awkward girl with glasses, the tallest girl who won the game for the other basketball team, the lanky tall monster. “Too Tall Jones,” the boys laughed, pointing at me on the basketball court. It was easy to beat other kids at tetherball because they couldn’t reach. I played the double bass in the orchestra instead of the cello because I was the tallest and could handle the fret and bow.
I worried I’d be as tall as Denise when I grew up.
In the seventies, tv sitcoms like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island made me wonder why grownups made falling in love so sappy. I thought my mom was beautiful, like Farrah Fawcett in Charlie’s Angels beautiful. If my mom went on a cruise like The Love Boat, she might come home in love, like the end of an episode, happily ever after.
After their divorce, my dad moved into a small apartment in Santa Monica. My mom casually dated a few different men until one hung around longer than usual. I remember her smiling at him affectionately as he held his vodka gimlet in one hand like a microphone, serenading her with the Bee Gees’ How Deep is Your Love.
The day after I graduated the sixth grade, I was told we were moving from Los Angeles to Arkansas. That night, there was talk in the kitchen. It was about the move. I heard mom say hell and rednecks. Denise burst out in snorts of hysterical laughter. Pam said quizzically, “But why a small southern town on the Mississippi River?”
I wondered why my grandfather decided to move us all to this podunk town on the map. “Helena,” he said flatly. “it’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.”
When we moved to Helena, we were plucked out of big city life and plunked back in time when segregation was still an invisible line. In the eighties, that part of Arkansas, especially Helena, was untouched by modern cultural changes. Helena — or as I called it, “hell-in-a-handbasket” — was a dinky town the size of an antique salt spoon compared to the enormous melting pot of Los Angeles.
Little did we know my grandfather’s motives for uprooting us from Los Angeles to this hell of a town so aptly named. One reason we learned was due to his new position as the chief radiologist at Helena Hospital. The other reason for the move to Helena: my grandfather was having an affair.
After the 23andMe results, I tried to emotionally locate where I was brought into the family to where we all broke apart.
My grandparents sold the house during their divorce, a decision that came as swiftly as my first period that June. I was thirteen, turning fourteen. They tried to rent it out while we lived in Arkansas, but it was trashed by shady tenants, as I overheard drug dealers and prostitutes. “Horrid, absolutely horrid. There were filthy mattresses on the floor, and paraphernalia,” Nana said dramatically into the phone receiver to one of her friends. I imagined the solid wood front door with the brass lion knocker opening to reveal our empty house littered with used syringes and dirty mattresses and all kinds of things I couldn’t yet fathom.
For days, this emptiness echoed in my mind as I rode my beach cruiser down the sandy path near our new house. The rotating rubber tires upon sand made a hollow sound. It was in those summer months when I began to notice the absence of what once was and the sense of becoming someone else.
Nana wanted me to have the table. It was smaller without the center leaf, pushed together as a circle rather than the long oval-shaped dining table that supported hundreds of family dinners throughout my childhood. The divorce left her with fragments of their married life, antique furniture, and items fished out of my grandparents’ stately 1930s Spanish four-bedroom home.
Before their untimely divorce, if there is ever a good time for one as shattering as theirs, the dining table stood underneath the chandelier. I didn’t know the details of how my grandfather told Nana he was having an affair, but she handled the news with grace as only a lady born to an upper-class family from England could. She did not fall apart. Thanks to her, best not to talk about it and keep your chin up way of handling things. And she began to swear more often. Fuck, damn, and whatnot.
It was decided to place her in an assisted living home. Nana had a few falls, tripped over things, landing her in the hospital with a broken hip. She was now well into her nineties.
My mom stuck a bright yellow post-it note on the dining table surface with her name, Sharon, written in perfect ballpoint script. There were other yellow post-its on every piece of furniture and item in Nana’s small one-bedroom apartment off Barrington Place.
But it was a mistake. Nana wanted me to have the table. I was also instructed to take the blue-green vase, the opera house painting in the ornate gilt frame, Nana’s family recipe book. The whole thing was awkward to talk about that day in the hospital. My mom perched on the edge of Nana’s bed, talking about who will take the crystal, the silver, the china dishes, did I want the television, Denise wants the marble rolling pin and the Georg Jensen sterling silver candy dish.
“Take the table, honey,” Nana said weakly after my mom left the hospital room. “Take the table, the vase, and the Paris Opera House painting. I know you love that one,” she smiled.
My mom didn’t want the dining table. But she stuck the post-it note on the tabletop with her name on it. The way she saw things was merely to clear out the apartment before the lease was up. Maybe I was making a big deal out of it. Denise left several voice messages, “Hey, I know you’re busy, but when are you going over to Nana’s apartment to pick the damn thing up?”
It wasn’t as easy as just going there and picking up the damn table. I had my two young daughters to wrangle, a toddler and one in kindergarten. I needed help to get the table into my minivan. It was much heavier than it looked, not flimsy IKEA-pressed particle wood, but solid cherry. The leaf to extend the table was kept in her closet, which I was told not to forget.
My son was at a baseball practice that Saturday afternoon when I stepped into her empty apartment. And there it was, the table, with a fresh post-it smack dab in the center. The handwriting was changed to Stephanie, with four chairs as witnesses to the scenario.
Everything I thought I knew about my life spiraled into a double helix. I stood for some time in the bathroom staring in the mirror, examining every detail of my arms, hands, and face. I wanted to find some semblance of my mother’s likeness reflected back, or something of my father’s. I thought of how invisible ink markers reveal the outline of a face when traced over in magic coloring books. I could never have imagined I’d visually trace the shape of my own face to reveal the mystery of two people who made me.
I even had the same bump on my nose — a Roman nose, as Nana called it, just like my mom’s Jewish nose. We looked like mother and daughter.
I went into my desk drawer and pulled out a stack of old family photos, sifting through each one for a clue. My eyes scoured a picture of my mother’s face in 1979. I noticed a sadness in her eyes. Her mouth is frozen into a Mona Lisa smile, feigned happiness outlined in frosted pink Revlon lipstick. She argued with my father that afternoon, so he refused to come outside and join us.
My parents hired a portrait photographer to take family photos in our backyard that day. Of course, they were fighting when the photographer arrived.
“If your father would just get his ass downstairs, we’d have a family photo already,” my mother muttered under her breath. She took a drag off her Benson & Hedges cigarette and blew the smoke into a plume above her head. I noticed she had touched up the smudged mascara from under her eyes, but it was still apparent she had been crying. I remembered how we plucked a few purple verbena flowers from the bushes, and she gently placed one cluster behind my ear. The photo of my mother dissolved into small imprinted circles of textured photo paper as my eyes bore into it, looking for a hint to understand her more. I always felt so separate from her.
I sat at that dining table, searching the tea leaves in my cup for answers.
Nana raised me as her own after my mom and dad divorced. It was because my mom worked, came home exhausted, opened a bottle of wine, and passed out on the couch. If I was home alone after school, I ate whatever was available, like frozen Swanson’s T.V. dinners. I’d go through a few yogurt containers while playing Atari video games. Nana’s leftover casseroles, eggplant parmigiana, noodle kugel, and lasagna were usually kept in the fridge. There were Rice Krispies, Cocoa Puffs, Fruity Pebbles.
After Nana’s funeral, I visited my mother with a glimmer of hope for whatever it was worth. She bought some small toys, packets of Crayola crayons, and coloring books for my two teenage daughters. They whispered in my ear, Mama, who is she again?
As my two daughters splashed around in her swimming pool. I sat with my mom under a tree and tapped the 23andMe app on my iPhone. “Did you know we’re Italian?” I asked emphatically, sharing the view of the screen. I scrolled to the map outlining Sicily. “There,” I pointed, “Calabria, Sicily, and Malta.” My mom’s eyes remained fixed upon my daughters in the pool. She asked if I wanted iced tea and got up from her chair to fetch the drinks. I closed the app.
As a kid, I’d sass back that I felt like an employee instead of a daughter when she asked me to do anything. Once, I think I was maybe nine or something, I spent the day at the pediatrician’s office where she worked. I was, for the most part, well behaved. My mom put me at a section of her desk area behind the counter where patients checked in. I had one of those rolling office chairs to spin around on, and I loved it. I kept myself busy drawing imaginary landscapes, sketching trees, mountains, and clouds, next to the other receptionist who was shuffling papers in files and folders. Muzak played with the swoop of the file cabinet opening and closing. My mother and the other receptionist greeted parents coming in with their children. “Hi, the doctor will be right with you,” and “here’s some paperwork to fill out.”
I scooted the chair up and down and up and down until my mom whispered, “Stephanie,” in an irritated tone. “Stephanie,” she said again. “That’s my name, don’t wear it out,” I replied in a sing-song voice. I had heard some kid say this at school and thought to try it. Her eyes flashed a mean side glance. “Don’t you give me that,” she snapped under her breath.
My mother spelled my name Stefanie with an f instead of a ph. I still explain at the DMV, or any other official place asking for my driver’s license, why I spell my name with ph because legally, it’s with an f. “Oh, yeah, my mom spelled it with an f on my birth certificate,” I’d casually explain to a disinterested paper pusher behind the counter.
My name change gradually occurred while writing it at the top of my school papers in neat cursive — Stephanie, with ph. I’d loop the p and the h together in subversive slant. My mom chose my name Stefanie with an f after the actress Stefanie Powers. Later, she said, “Okay, write it with ph, if you want, like Princess Stephanie of Monaco.”
There was a brief moment of signature handwriting experiments, like putting a heart or star in place of the dot over the “i” with each letter overwrought in curlicues. I went through this phase where I wanted to use my middle name as my first, but it was too late for that. Later, as an adult, I’d sign paintings with my last name only, not adding the girly Stephanie or Diane. But my middle name wasn’t quite my favorite either. If I gave it a lot of thought, my name Stephanie didn’t feel believable, like it wasn’t really my name. Maybe I only acted like a girl named Stephanie.
At some point in the mid-to-late nineteen seventies, my parents divorced. My mom pulled a cigarette from its carton, and with the click of a Bic lighter, she sank like a record needle into the lyrics of Joan Baez. I didn’t know much about my adopted mother’s life. I knew she stashed her saddle shoes in the bushes and changed them on her walks to school. She was born in San Francisco, a tow-head platinum blonde, and grew to be tall — five-foot-ten. She made herself even taller with a high poof of bouffant hair paired with those impossibly long legs. Her large, dark brown eyes were made larger with winged black eyeliner and false lashes; she chain-smoked cigarettes and was called Sherry by her friends, maybe because of the Frankie Valli song.
My mom was seventeen when she married my father. I kept the black and white photos of their wedding at the Sheraton in Beverly Hills. After their honeymoon, she worked as an x-ray technician, taught nursing at the Bryman School, and then entered a medical accounting career. She was gifted with numbers and organization and might have had a career as a doctor or a surgeon. But after their divorce, she became a single mother working as a pediatrician’s receptionist.
I’d found a gold locket my mother kept in a jewelry box, indented from baby teething, with a baby photo inside. I knew my mother could not stand the smell of mashed bananas because it was all her sick baby could eat.
I often hoped for voicemail, but this time, I wanted her to answer. The phone rang twice, and on the third ring, my mom picked up.
“Hi, it’s me.” I paused, waiting for her to recognize my voice. “I just got my DNA results. There’s a match, my biological father, not dad.”
I could feel my mother reassembling her emotions into perfect segments, like parting her shoulder-length blonde hair into curlers, one section after the other.
“I can’t talk about this,” she sighed impatiently. “I closed that chapter a long time ago. Your father and I separated so many times. We were so young.”
She went quiet for a moment.
“Look. It brings up… I really can’t think about it anymore,” she said flatly and hung up.
The mother I knew as my mother was a pretty stranger of sorts. Her real face was hidden behind a visage of Clinique foundation and bronzer. Every morning she’d spend an hour with the blow dryer, round brushing her salon-perfect hair, freezing it into place with a final mist of Aqua Net. A dab of perfume at the nape of her neck. Chanel №5. Revlon Moon Drops lipstick in Moonlit Mauve. Honey Blush pressed powder by Clinique. Bronze Satin eyeshadow for her lids with Ivory Bisque for the arch of her eyebrow.
I’d often wondered what my life would be like if I had an older brother, like the blond boy who looked like my mom’s baby pictures. My mom told me she lost her first baby. I wasn’t sure what losing a baby meant.
A young woman in her early thirties who matched genetically as my first cousin reached out through the 23andMe website a few months before my Ancestry test results came in. We couldn’t figure out how we were closely related. Wr emailed each other a list of family names, and she sent me a photo of her parents. Nothing made sense. I had written her back about a scientific article I’d read explaining a rare occurrence when two people are genetically similar but not actually related. We couldn’t find the link between us, and I had exhausted all possibilities, unless one set of our shared grandparents had a child they had given up for adoption. Or if one of them had an affair, but the DNA amount wouldn’t make us first cousins, so that theory was out. What I hadn’t realized was, I was the family secret.