An Ever-Important Attitude of Gratitude

One wintry day in February 1960, an unmarried young woman named Rose gave birth to a healthy, handsome baby boy. She named him Louis. Rose and her family lived in Verdun, Quebec, Canada on the Island of Montreal. Rose could not provide for her son. She had no choice but to relinquish her parental rights. The infant was adopted by a French-speaking couple who gave him the name, Marc . They raised Marc in a French-speaking community in Welland, Ontario. Welland is located on the Niagara Peninsula between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, barely 26 miles from Buffalo, New York.

Marc at 10 months with his Mom

Marc had a happy childhood. He lived with his parents and his brother and had a close extended family. In his career, he specialized in Information Technology (IT) and worked for a major company in Ottawa, Ontario. Over time, Marc’s curiosity about his birth family grew and he decided to get his DNA tested. FamilyTreeDNA posted his results sometime around 2010, I believe. Unfortunately, he did not receive a high match for years and stopped checking regularly. 

I had tested only with AncestryDNA until a friend recommended I branch out and test with other companies, especially because AncestryDNA was not yet available in Canada. Having been born in Montreal, I realized she had a great point. In 2016, I tested with FamilyTreeDNA, Marc’s company. My results came back with our high DNA match!  I was elated, shocked, and mystified—who was this person? While I waited for Marc’s response to my email, I asked folks in Facebook’s DNA Detectives and Free Canada Adoption/Family Search and Reunion about our match. Everyone agreed that Marc’s birthfather and my birthfather were brothers—we were first cousins! 

It was a Hallelujah moment! We were both very excited. We’d found the needle in the haystack—our shared DNA. Marc lives in Ottawa, I was living on Long Island, NY at the time and through DNA, we learned that our fathers grew up together in Verdun, Quebec. It was magical! I was also thrilled that Marc speaks both French and English.

However, even better than finding our DNA link was finding Marc—friendly and funny, down-to-earth, kind, and smart. Everything that intimidated me in our search became a simple to-do task for Marc. I keep telling him to this day, we’d be back at the beginning if he hadn’t followed the leads the way he did. Today, we message, text, FaceTime, and talk on the phone for hours. He has visited us here in Western New York and we got together last summer in Montreal to meet new biological family. We became partners in the search for our identities, determined to unlock the secrets in our closed adoption files. Now, we have become cousins. Thank you, Marc.

Music in the Berkshires and Blueberry Pie!

Here in Western New York, there are buds on the trees and the spring flowers will bloom any day. When I was in high school in Amherst, Massachusetts, we also welcomed the warmth of spring and the chance to be outdoors. In the summer, my parents loved to drive to the Tanglewood music festival in the Berkshires. On Saturday mornings, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed open rehearsals. As I recall, there were folding chairs on a lawn under a huge tent. The music was beautiful. I was fascinated by the conductor as he paused the orchestra and spoke to his musicians. 

Dad loved classical music. He bought the best turntable and needle he could find, and even built the record player console himself. Dad also played the clarinet and my mom played piano. We were all very familiar with classical music. However, during one summer rehearsal at Tanglewood, I didn’t recognize a contemporary piece at all. Eventually, I turned to my dad and asked when they were going to stop warming up and play something. I can still see his smile.

On the way home, we traditionally stopped at a blueberry farm. Pick your own—so much a quart! I can’t say I loved picking blueberries, but the reward was delicious. My mom made the best blueberry pie. She made her own pie crust from years of experience—without a recipe. “You have to get the feel of it so that the crust will be light and flaky. Adjust the flour if it’s a humid day.” Oh sure, I thought. Easier said than done!

Over the years, I received various non-identifying information about my birthfamilies. I learned that I had English and Scottish roots, similar to my parents. And I learned that my birthmother and birthfather also came from musical families. It is clear to me that my parents and I were a good match—one’s DNA is only part of the story.

Mom and Dad at Our Wedding, 1970

My Search for a Foundling’s Identity

There’s searching and there’s researching. Searching may require a lot of research, unless you ‘win the lottery’ when your DNA and your birthmother’s DNA match  immediately, as one lucky gal recently shared on Facebook.  I remember the day I decided to research my maternal great-grandfather, James Thurnall. On my family tree, he appeared to have no generations before him. I needed to search for James to learn his family history.

Ancestry found him, and I quickly discovered how our lives were similar. James’s name appeared on a class list when he was ten years old, living in the London Foundling Hospital (LFH) in 1880. A foundling is a child who has been abandoned or relinquished. The LFH was actually a children’s home for foundlings. Now I was on a mission to find out why James Thurnall was a foundling. All the records from the hospital are kept at the London Metropolitan Archives. For a reasonable fee, they located James’s records in the archives and mailed copies of everything to me! 

James’s mother, Mary Anne Wingfield, was seventeen when he was born. One of eleven children in a very poor family, she was employed as a housemaid. James’s father, Charles Davis, worked at the same estate. Having promised to marry Mary Anne, Charles fled to Australia soon after James’s birth. Mary Anne had no way to support her baby. She turned to the Foundling Hospital for help.

The large envelope I received from the London Metropolitan Archives included INSTRUCTIONS and a complete copy of Mary Anne Wingfield’s PETITION to relinquish her baby to the LFH. There were handwritten references from her employer, parish minister, and family doctor.  James Twiddy, a Governor at the LFH, wrote a detailed statement of support. The cover letter to my packet explained what the committee was looking for. “The Foundling Hospital would only care for illegitimate children when their mother made a sufficiently strong case for her ability to make a new start in life.” Mary Anne succeeded—her PETITION was accepted. At three months, baby Charles Davis, named after his father, entered the LFH. He was baptized and renamed James Thurnall. At the age of fourteen,  James left the LFH and was apprenticed to a “hairdresser to be instructed in his business.”

James’s mother and my birthmother were unwed and without the means to support themselves and their infants. Mary Anne relinquished James to the LFH. I was relinquished to foster care and then adopted by my family. Both of us received an education, got married, and had children of our own! Similar paths in so many ways.

With the addition of James’s family, my family tree has grown. And when I search my AncestryDNA for the surnames Wingfield and Davis, I get many matches. Identity is both complex and sacred!

Domine Nos Dirige
 “Lord, direct (guide) us”

London Metropolitan Archives
(logo on my cover letter)

That was Then…This is Now

We all know how dramatically technology has changed our lives. Was anyone smart enough to predict the present day, widespread use of smart phones? Many people actually prefer text messaging to talking on the phone. In 1983, I began my search for my birthmother. We had one home phone and one television. I sent handwritten letters to the adoption agency, government offices, newspaper, and search angels. I checked out adoption books from our neighborhood public library. Long distance phone calls were very important, but also expensive back then. Eventually, I had an Apple IIe computer—definitely an improvement over our old typewriter. We lived in Buffalo, NY. When I finally had unlocked a few crucial clues to my birthmother’s identity, my husband and I drove up to the Toronto Reference Library to read microfilms for final answers. That was then…

This is now! The Apple IIe has been replaced with various computers and laptops over the years. We still have a landline, but texting on my smart phone and relying on its GPS and camera are now a part of everyday life. I have newspaper archives at my fingertips, messaging on Facebook, I can share old and current photos, and create family trees online. AncestryDNA, 23andMe, My Heritage, and FamilyTreeDNA are just a few of the DNA testing companies today! AncestryDNA began selling test kits in 2012–a little saliva mailed back the old fashioned way and six-eight weeks later, your genetic identity pops up in your electronic mail—email! Mind boggling! My first close DNA match was with a first cousin, Marc. Our match was a turning point for both of us—two adoptees from Verdun, Montreal! The DNA results indicated our birthfathers were brothers. We became search angels for each other—friends for life.

There are a couple of variables in searching that have not changed over the decades. In many states and Canadian provinces, adoptee files remain sealed. Where it is lawful to learn your birthparents’ name(s), the adoption agency or government wait times can be painfully frustrating. Another unchanged variable is that the adoption agencies or government still make mistakes. Some mistakes provide excellent clues for which we are grateful! Other errors contain misinformation and can take a long time to unravel. The last unchanged variable is curiosity. Adoptees may experience disappointments in their searches, but curiosity brings us back to the search until we have our answers.

My grandfather was an amateur photographer. He’s caught me here curiously eyeing something!