This was read by me to the Tuesday Night Club of Newburyport, Mass. on Nov. 13, 2018. It has been edited for clarity.
Mary Ludlow Duket had her DNA tested by Ancestry.com in late winter, 2017, searching as millions do for answers about her ethnicity. Months later, when she casually opened the tab for DNA matches, she got much more.
Born in May, 1949 three months before me, Mary was adopted and knew little outside of a few basic facts about her biological parents until going through a painful divorce in 1995. That’s when she wrote the Children’s Aid and Adoption Society of New Jersey to find out anything she could about her biological parents. A social worker sent back a detailed and warm two-page letter about her biological parents. Imagine her trying to digest its contents, reading it for the first time.
Fast forward to 2018 when her DNA matched up with a first cousin’s, a discovery which would lead to meeting her new relatives at a memorial service for her late mother’s younger sister. The last time Mary had locked eyes with a biological relative – her mother – was when she was three months old. I’ve known Mary casually as a friend since the mid-70s, but we have not socialized much until the past few years with common friends in Maine.
Such profound discoveries are made every day by simply spitting into a tube and mailing it off to firms that decode your DNA. Then they match it with the DNA of others who’ve been tested. Somewhere between 7.31 and 13.8% of Mary’s DNA matched that of a first cousin, who unaware of Mary, had also signed up with the same Ancestry.com service trying to trace relatives back to the Mayflower. Mary’s Ancestry report identified a first cousin with high probability.
According to the International Society of Genetic Genealogy, a second cousin has a match ranging from 2.85 to 3.13%. A parent is a 50% match…only an identical twin is 100%. And so it goes. Three years ago, I used the 23andMe service, which shot back 974 matches, but landed nothing closer than a second cousin once removed whose DNA matched 1.63% of mine. I said to Mary, “What does it matter? I know my immediate family.” Her response? “You think you do.”
A spokesman for Ancestry told me 99.5% of their 10 million customers find at least one close relative, meaning a fourth cousin or better while 23andMe claims 95% of its five million customers find a third cousin or better. Five per cent of those are adoptees, frequently in search of close biological relatives. Others stumble across siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles they never knew they had.
As the biggest consumer DNA testing services, Ancestry and 23andMe provide the largest pools of potential relatives. I was underwhelmed by 23andMe’s rather broad and expected ethnological findings in my case. I am 99.7% European and 48.4% British and Irish, two races I would have liked broken down. I was mildly surprised to find that I was 7.8% Scandinavian and 7.5% French and German, but chalked that up to raping and pillaging over the centuries and countless invasions.
Other DNA testing services to investigate are CRI Genetics, Family Tree DNA and Living DNA. Some of these services identify more regions than others. DNA also identifies genetic variants to determine what diseases you might pass on or have passed to offsprings. The services are still largely barred by the FDA from revealing genetic information that suggest an increased likelihood that certain diseases will befall you. Last year, though, the FDA relaxed those rules and allowed 23andMe customers to see information indicating genetic variants for breast cancer, Celiac Disease, late stage Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
With DNA information in hand, Mary mustered up the courage to email her first cousin on December 3, 2017 and told her what she had found. Her cousin, Colleen, lives in Seattle and subsequently contacted Mary by phone (Mary requested that I not use her last name). Thanks to Facebook, they instantly learned about each and used that as an ongoing communication medium.
Colleen told Mary that her mother Dorothy or ‘Doty’ as she was called died in 1980 from breast cancer. Colleen’s mother Alice was Doty’s sister and nine years younger. It’s probably no coincidence that Mary has battled breast cancer.
After giving birth to Mary, Doty married at 34 and lived with her husband Bud in New Jersey and worked as an executive secretary at a law firm in New York City. They had no children. Neither Colleen nor her mother Alice ever knew Doty had a child so Mary came as a surprise to her new first cousins.
On a rainy Sunday in September, Mary, alone, drove to West Chesterfield, N.H., a rural hamlet between Keene, N.H. and Brattleboro, Vt. to meet Colleen and other family members at the memorial service. She gave me the following accounts via email, one directly to me and another to a friend which Mary shared with me:
“The cousin reunion went very well. What’s most striking about it was how “normal” it seemed. I stood out a bit, maybe because I was the only one in black! It was a very casual affair.
“I didn’t spend much time talking with Colleen since we’re going to get together in October, but talked at length with the other cousins. They were most interested in knowing if I’d had a happy childhood. Definitely, yes. I heard more about the childhood years of Doty and her sibs, Robert and Alice, which were not easy once their parents died.
“After the reception, I went back to Colleen’s family home which made me realize how different my life could have been from growing up in a rectory in Newark, Del. I also realized how rough Doty and her two siblings had it to be left with nothing when their parents died.”
Mary’s adoptive parents were comfortably upper middle class, her father an Episcopalian minister and her mom an elementary school teacher. Mary enjoyed a happy childhood, rarely thought about being adopted, was a good student and graduated from Hobart and William Smith College in 1971. She also earned an MBA specializing in hospital finance administration from Boston University and held down a good job with Partners Healthcare for many years, retiring only recently. She owns a house in Newton and raised and educated three children as a single mom for much of their upbringing.
Meeting her cousins filled in a few gaps in the 1995 letter and provided some rich anecdotes. Aunt Alice married the best man at her wedding after divorcing to her first husband. Her cousins regaled her in stories about holidays spent at Bud and Doty’s New Jersey apartment. Mary was also looking for resemblances to her biological relatives given there’s little between her and her children. Alas, there was nothing obvious.
Mary discussed all this with me forthrightly and in her usual good humor. No emotional lapses. How could outsiders possibly know everything she thinks about it? Most of us come from more certain backgrounds: Living it is another matter entirely.
The letter containing the details about Doty and “Red,” her father whose last name she has never learned, arrived on September 22, 1995, a week before her husband moved out. He asked to see it. Mary has shared it with her children, but not her ex. Even though she had no reason to believe her birth parents weren’t living in 1995, she chose not to pursue them given everything else in her life at the time.
“If someone had told me I was going to get upset about this (learning more about her birth parents), I would have told them they were crazy. When I got the information in 1995, I told a couple of friends. I had been seeing a psychiatrist who clarified that my sudden focus and emotion on my adoption was that it was another rejection just like my divorce. I was floundering,” she says. Learning a lot about your birth parents for the first time and simultaneously going through a divorce is nothing short of traumatic.
The letter started:
“At the time of your birth, Dorothy was 21 years old. She was described as extremely attractive with straight blond hair and deep set violet blue eyes. Dorothy was Presbyterian and of English, French and Welsh descent. She spent her childhood in Vermont and attended a one room school through the 8th grade. After two years of high school, she moved to New Jersey where she completed high school, graduating 7th out of a class of 200. She played the piano and sung in the church choir. She was described as her case workers as poised, intelligent, dramatic, and sophisticated.”
You’d think Mary would have jumped at the chance to meet Doty, but she was cautious until learning more about her from the 1995 inquiry. after all, her mother could have been needy, a sad case or a burden.
“What if I didn’t like her? There would have been more downside to finding my birth mother. I wasn’t an adoptee that spent my life hoping to meet my birth mother,” Mary says. Doty was gone so meeting her was not option, but the letter helped shape a positive view of her birth mother in Mary’s mind.
“Dorothy’s father suffered from polio starting at age 12 and was a hunchback. He took a correspondence course in electrical engineering and worked for the power company. Musically talented, he played the violin, piano and trumpet.” Having completed two years of college, Dorothy’s mother taught grammar school until she married. Consider also that Mary never knew her biological grandparents.
The letter continues: “Dorothy’s parents died within a day of each other when she was 15 in 1943, her father from double pneumonia and mother from the flu. Dorothy was sent to live with nearby relatives, but rebelled and subsequently resided with an aunt in New Jersey.” A few years later, she met Lawrence nicknamed “Red” and got pregnant in 1948.
Dorothy gave birth to Mary at the Florence Crittendon League maternity home in Newark, New Jersey, and from the sounds of it, no other family members knew except Red who denied paternity — easy to do in those days. DNA testing would have busted him today. Sadly, Dorothy appeared to go through pregnancy and the birth alone save the staff in the maternity home.
Dorothy never told her sister Alice that she had a child and possibly not even her husband, Bud. Unwed mothers in those days were stigmatized, shamed and even shunned. I recall my father telling me that his dad warned him that if he ever got a girl pregnant, he’d have to marry her. Old school.
There’s no reason to disbelieve the glowing characterization of Dorothy, but Mary also points out that her adoptive parents exaggerated Red’s bona fides and said that he went to MIT. That morphed into a story that her biological parents were academics at University of Vermont. It turns out Red was a postal worker.
Societal intolerance alone didn’t compel Dorothy to give up her baby. She had no place to live, no means of support and felt she was too young for motherhood. Daycare as we know it was still decades away. She mothered Mary for three months and visited her in the foster home afterward. Again, from the letter: “Dorothy gave her worker a locket for which she hoped you would get. Dorothy showed pride and interest in you. She requested that you be placed in a good home with intelligent, religious parents.”
Dorothy named her baby Tirzah, which in Hebrew means “she is my delight.” Mary’s birth certificate wasn’t issued until November, 1950 after she was adopted and renamed by her new parents, the Ludlows. Learning she had been named Tirzah triggered one of Mary’s more emotional moments although she harbors doubts about going through life as Tirzah Brown. Mary points out she has the unique distinction of being born in Newark, New Jersey and raised in Newark, Delaware. Indeed, a sense humor provided comic relief to Mary’s upheaval in 1995: her life was being turned upside down by divorce and the impact that would have on her three children, then 16, 13 and 7.
To Mary, her birthday is significant to more than just her. “There was some other person remembering that day every year. No matter how fleetingly, you don’t forget the day you gave birth.” Mary surmises that date held a special place in Doty’s heart until her passing.
My motivation in writing about this was as a journalist trying to land a good story. When I first heard the DNA aspect of this story as related to me by some friends early this year, I suspected Mary would be reluctant to tell her story. Seeking out cousins and learning about long gone birth parents struck me as an intensely personal journey. When Mary told the story to a roomful of us in Maine last summer, I asked if she wanted her story published. To my surprise, she approved of the idea and has not backed away since.
I pitched the story to an editor at the New York Times who had worked for me at PC Week about how DNA testing can connect people as never before. He was interested, but his boss nixed it, claiming they wanted to come at the consumer DNA testing story from the privacy invasion angle. Both angles are important, but they are different stories in my estimation. DNA testing leading to health and family discoveries can be controversial, but can just as often be positive. There will be many stories about what DNA tells us and who will have access and ownership of such powerful information.
An editor I’ve written for at The Boston Globe said they’ve done DNA relative discovery story already. And he was hesitant to base a story from a friend who might be offended or hurt by some of the more interesting vignettes – a legitimate point.
I still wanted to do the story even though I already had another idea for my TNC paper. I found Mary’s story of DNA and birth parent discovery compelling. How can an adoptee not be curious about her birth parents? Her easy articulation of the story made the reporting enjoyable. It takes guts and a keen perspective to open up about such seminal events, eclipsed perhaps, only by giving birth to her three children. I am grateful she gave me the opportunity to write a thoroughly human story given that, as a journalist, I’ve flogged technology and business for forty years – in and of themselves much dryer topics.
Then again, you can run, but can’t hide from technology. Technology is unraveling our DNA and sending us in myriad directions and sometimes, reeling. DNA decoding is a highly technical topic which in the case of Mary led to very human discoveries. Fashioned as a tool, what is DNA if not the expression of humanity itself?