The Lottery Winner: A Man Discovers His Lost Family After 73 Years
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Thank you to Norman Cutshall of Bouse, Arizona for sharing his story with us.
In March 2011 I had no interest in genealogy. For 73 years the knowledge that I was adopted as an infant satisfied my need to know my origins. My adoptive parents were a loving, nurturing couple who always made it evident that I was an important part of their family. From before I knew what ‘adopted’ meant, I knew that was what I was. Under the care of my adoptive parents I grew up, went to college, married and raised a family. My education opened the door to a rewarding career that provided adequate income, interesting work and travel. Who needs more? Not I.
Then my wife Cheryl, who had studied family history for 30 years and who was a member of the Bouse Genealogical Society (aka Bouse Genies), asked for my help. Genies leader Carol Brown had declared a computer learning day at the library on March 25. Because my technical career had exposed me to use of computers, Cheryl asked me to accompany her as a ‘personal computer nerd’ to help manage those frustrating machines. Only when we were in the work session did I fully learn the duties of a computer nerd. I was expected to turn the computer on, start Ancestry.com and get myself out of the way. She was self-sufficient from that point on. After standing by for a long time (several minutes at least), I became bored and started to tinker with another computer.
I knew my birthplace, birth-date and my mother’s name—but nothing more. Could I learn more? I entered just her name and pressed ‘Search.’ Immediately, the 1930 census results came up, showing 15-year old Barbara Z. living with her younger sister and parents in Fayetteville, a suburb of Syracuse, New York. Suddenly, I had grandparents’ names! That was interesting. And I had turned a corner. It was lunchtime so I logged off and walked home.
I had located my birth mother and, for the first time, my grandparents in Fayetteville, NY in the 1930 census. After lunch I turned on the laptop at home and, still curious about my grandfather, I set off a search for his name. Among the multitude of hits was the “Fayetteville Registry,” a site created and maintained by E. R. Hutchison. Mr. Hutchison had recorded all the residents of the community for much of the 1940-1960 time span. This unusual site listed not only my grandparents but also both of their daughters who had married and still lived nearby. In addition, it listed the names, birthdates and other information about the grandchildren. I had found what I then knew were my half-siblings and nieces and nephews. What a discovery! Another corner turned and I was becoming increasingly interested in what could be learned about my family using the Internet.
I queried Mr. Hutchison about his motivation to track and record the thousands of people in the Registry. He explained that as a teenager he had lived in the Fayetteville area with his father who was a construction worker. He had liked that experience so much that, when he needed something to do as therapy for a serious health issue, he set about assembling the information and posting it.
Most of my family names were not very unusual and I knew that simply searching for them would yield far too many hits to reasonably explore. The one exception was my sister who had a less common married name and who lived with her husband in my birthplace. That might be useful. So I searched for her. The website for a yoga studio showed up. I felt sure that one of the yoga instructors pictured on the website was my half-sister. Now committed, I dared write an e-mail to her in care of the website. I introduced myself and named my mother, birth-date and location, then settled to wait— possibly forever—for a reply. It did not take nearly that long. Although Wendy had not previously known of the possibility of my existence (and she actually thought I could be just a lost soul searching in vain for a family), she courageously replied within minutes. She also had called her brother John and sister Suzanne to shock them with my news. Within six hours, we were all vigorously e-mailing back and forth. I had turned another corner.
On Friday, March 25, I had contacted my known half-sister and begun exchanging e-mails with her and her sister and brother. We wrote back and forth several times over the weekend. Early Monday morning our telephone rang—“Frank (her husband) went over to City Hall this morning and we have a copy of your original birth certificate. You and I have the same father.” I was unable to respond, overtaken by emotion. These were my full biological sisters and brother—and it only took seven decades for us to connect! I had rounded a third corner.
In the State of New York, each city has a Historian who maintains records of births and such matters. Although these records must be sealed for 50 years to protect privacy, that time had long elapsed and my family was able to access them. The birth certificate not only named my father but also contained what I consider to be a coded message from beyond in the way my name was recorded (Figure 1). I had been named for my father and my maternal grandfather but, because my parents were not yet married, my surname was changed to that of my mother. It turns out that John and Barbara were married six months after my birth. Circumstances as they were in 1938, I was given up for adoption and exceedingly fortunate to go to a wonderful couple who greatly wanted a child. The story paused for 73 years but, in the fast-forward Internet world, I had covered the gap in less than 72 hours. The marvels of online communication and two highly fortuitous website finds had converted me from indifference to a total addiction to genealogy.
Of course, I was keeping our daughter apprised of each step in the search. At this stage she said: “OK, Dad. When are we going?” We traveled to New York in July.
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Following the intense three days of discovery in March when I first acquired grandparents, then half-siblings and finally a complete family, we exchanged many pictures and family discussions. We also planned a trip.
In July Cheryl and I rendezvoused with our daughter in Atlanta and traveled on to Syracuse and Glens Falls, New York. The next 10 days were an informational and emotional overload as we tried to compensate for a lifetime of separation. Even though no surviving family members had been aware of my existence, they were uniformly warm and open with us and shared so many items. Among these treasures were the love letters that my father had written to my mother during brief periods when they were separated. The letters openly state deep love and the intention to marry. My brother had many of these mushy, handwritten documents from 1936 when the love-birds were courting and from 1939–40 after they were married. There are no letters from 1937 or 1938, the period when mother dropped out of her fourth year at Syracuse University and spent time in Glens Falls carrying and giving birth to me. Someone had censored the collection or (less likely) no letters were written.
My sister told us that after she and her husband moved to Glens Falls, mother visited and revealed that she had previously spent time in the town. She did not say what she was doing. In accordance with the practices of the time, I had been a well-kept and never revealed secret. Knowing how careful my parents had been to maintain their secret makes it easier for me to accept the fact that I did not make contact while they were alive. It had to have been an incredibly difficult matter for them and I would not wish to add to the pain. I feel extremely grateful that I was accepted fully by all the family members I met in New York and could not ask for anything more.
In addition to joyous family gatherings where we met and visited with nieces and nephews and their children (see below), we visited four cemeteries where four generations of my ancestors are buried. During the March–July period I had researched family history for each of them so I was somewhat prepared for these visits. We were not prepared, however, for our somewhat accidental visit to the Fyler Community Church and Cemetery.
I knew that my great-grandmother was Cora Fyler so the Thruway exit marker for Fyler Road caught my eye. Cheryl and I drove out Fyler Road on a brilliant Saturday morning and parked near the church. We were greeted by a gentleman who, after we told him why we were there, opened the old building for us and took us through the cemetery before letting us explore on our own. It turns out that the Fyler legacy goes back to Walter Fyler who arrived in Massachusetts aboard the vessel Mary and John in 1630. Other ancestors on board included Thomas Ford, his wife Elizabeth Charde, their daughters Joanna and Abigail, Roger Clapp and John Strong. The Ford daughters married Roger and John to begin lines of American descent that I am still learning about.
Since our emotional New York visit in July 2011, communication with my new family has attenuated to a more normal level but has continued. We are still finding many things in common. The owner of the website where I found my sister has visited her cousin, our daughter, in California and we plan to return to New York in the future.
My activities have largely turned to the realm of genetic genealogy. Genetic genealogy is the combination of conventional piecing together of ancestral records with analysis of DNA. This exciting, relatively new area is growing explosively owing to technical advances that reduce cost of testing and the databases that are increasing very quickly. As more people ‘test’ themselves, it drives costs down and increases the data available for comparison which, in turn, causes more people to test. Tempting as it is, I will not attempt to explain the ins and outs of genetic genealogy here. I will only report highlights of my own findings that fuel my enthusiasm.
First, my y-chromosome data most closely matches three people with the same surname as my father. Since y-chromosomes, like surnames, are transmitted only from father to son, this bolsters confidence in our solid identification of my father. None of the three matches appears to share a common North American ancestor with me but we know that somewhere in Ireland or England he existed. Mitochondrial DNA results have been less informative although I’ve learned that my haplogroup (V) probably originated in Northern Spain and is quite often found in parts of Finland.
Autosomal DNA, tested by Family Tree DNA under the heading “Family Finder” currently provides the most entertainment. New “cousins” identified as matches to portions of my autosomal DNA, appear at the rate of about one per week. With each of these, we strive to find common ancestors by comparing family trees. None of my matches so far is to a very close relative. Most of them are traceable to the Puritan group that arrived in Massachusetts in 1630. The Fords, Clapps, Strongs, and Fylers intermarried and procreated as though they were trying to fill a continent, which they largely have.
That is my story so far. In just under two years I have gone from complete disinterest to a fanatical engagement in genealogy and I love it. Although I have never bought a lottery ticket, I call myself “the lottery winner of birth-family searchers.” It is inevitable that most other adoptees will be less fortunate. Some will find only frustration and heartbreak. But some will no doubt share my elation at finding oneself part of a marvelous family. The Arizona Lottery advertises “You can’t win if you don’t play.”