LET INGA TELL YOU:
It’s just getting so hard to keep a secret these days.
I never thought of my family as having any deep dark secrets until 1981, when my mother’s brother came down to see me and my widowed father, who was visiting. After a repast that might have included an excess of adult beverages, he mentioned a daughter Susan. This was the first Dad and I had ever heard of her and I was 34 years old.
Upon our persistent inquiry, my uncle maintained she was the product of a “brief war time marriage” which I subsequently discovered had actually been for ten years, and that Susan was born in 1947. I couldn’t believe I’d been deprived of a cousin for all these years.
The reason he could get away with it, of course, is that he lived on the West Coast, we on the East Coast, and he always visited us. Long-distance phone calls in that era were prohibitive. Just as well he fessed up when he did. Although she is now deceased, Susan’s sons have popped up as relatives on Ancestry.com.
I grew up as a blue-eyed blonde in family with brown-eyed brunette parents and siblings. When we met new people, my mother endured a lot of “Oh, is she yours?’ queries about me, and not a few milkman jokes. My mother had three children in three years before becoming one of the world’s foremost proponents of birth control so I would have been genuinely impressed if she’d had the energy to get it on with the milkman while caring for my three-month-old brother. Still, I confess to a certain relief when Ancestry.com clearly matched my sister and me as siblings.
Which leads me back to my initial statement: how truly hard it is to keep secrets anymore. Between my mother’s death at 54 and my father’s remarriage ten years later to Fang (not her real name), Dad underwent surgery for cancer. This absolutely precluded any possibility for further offspring. Fang, aware of this, was 30 and had made it clear she wished children. Now, I was already an adoptive parent of Rory, and I knew plenty of people who had availed themselves of AID (Artificial Insemination by Donor) so these seemed reasonable possibilities. But Fang maintained they couldn’t be married in her lifelong church unless they were able to procreate.
Of course, they did, in fact, require the services of a sperm donor facility, and on my 36th birthday, Gwennie was born. The official story was that Gwennie was a “miracle of God” even if it rivaled the virgin birth. Publicly, I was willing to go along with it but Fang lost no opportunity to constantly point out to my siblings and me, “she looks so much like her daddy!” We’d shoot each other looks like, “We’re sure she does. It just doesn’t happen to be our father.”
From the get-go, Fang couldn’t bear that Dad had previous children (all older than she) and wouldn’t even acknowledge his four grandsons who retaliated by drawing pubic hair on Gwennie’s Barbie doll (an incident I still feel was totally overblown). Sadly, Dad’s cancer returned and he died in 1992 when Gwennie was eight. It was radio silence from them thereafter. I was happy to note on Google that Gwennie seems to have made a good life for herself.
I sincerely hoped that Fang would at some point fess up to Gwennie that our medical history was not hers. Did she? I just wish they hadn’t put so much shame on, and religious constraints about, using AID. Kids are fine with what they know from the start, as my older son Rory is about his adoption. It’s the “tangled webs” that get you.
So fast-forward to 2019, Ancestry.com, and Miracles 3.0. Gwennie is now 36. Has she signed on to Ancestry or 23andMe? If so, did she find her expected two first cousins on her mother’s side but probably a few dozen half-siblings (none of them us) on her genetic father’s side? Is the jig up? (She’s not learning it here; they live 3,000 miles away, I’ve had no contact in 27 years, and I write under a pseudonym.)
I also remembered that when my first husband was in medical school in the 60’s that he mentioned that selling sperm to the institution’s fertility clinic was a not uncommon way to make money. Did he ever do it? When my younger son Henry signed up for one of the DNA services, might he discover a bunch of half siblings himself? (Fortunately, he didn’t.)
Meanwhile, I asked Rory if he wanted a DNA kit for Christmas this last year. I’ve written before about our ultimately successful search to find his biological mother ten years ago. His father’s history is more vague. His reply: “Heck no. I’ve got enough problems with the relatives I already have.”
— Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in La Jolla Light. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org