Printer Friendly

Returning Thanks: Re/Defining Identity and Family in the Search for My Father.


She used to call me her cute little bastard. It wasn't until I was in my early teens that I figured out what my Nana (Grandmother) was really saying to me. I was born, as polite people would say, out-of-wedlock, in 1959, Catholic, upstate New York. My mother rarely told me anything about my dad. Sometimes, if I pressed for information, she would say something to placate my curiosity, but in my heart, I knew the stories she told were not true. For example, when I was in elementary school, I asked the ever omnipresent, "Who is my father?" She once said he died in Vietnam; however, we never visited a gravesite and there was no evidence of medals, honors, or more importantly, pictures. At sporadic moments throughout the years of childhood I would try again. The reaction from my usually good-natured, quiet mother would turn to agitation and tears. She would turn brusque and scold me to stop asking. As it upset her greatly, I didn't often ask. At times, she would give me a name and say he was someone with whom she worked.

Even as she lay dying in late 2009, I asked for the final time. Again, she repeated the name I had heard a few scant times before, a name I now understand was not that of my father. Growing up, I could never understand why the rest of the family shunned us and now I realize the mores and norms of those times dictated that parents should keep their children away from tainted families. Traditionally, in White, middle-class, American culture, motherhood and marriage are synonymous. What I learned long after this search was over is that I never felt legitimate. Even the patriarchal term illegitimate to describe a child born outside of marriage is still around today, but has its roots in centuries of law from many societies around the globe. Mary Louise Fellows (1) discussed how the law of legitimacy has developed and changed over time. Once, finding that a child was a man's legal heir meant that man was responsible for the child's support. She noted that feminist scholars stated, "the answer (to legitimacy) may be found by focusing on the relationship of property, gender, and procreative power" (2). In "Anglo-Saxon" (3) culture men were/are soundly in control of their family, what constitutes family and their household. Wanda Pillow (4) noted during the Civil Rights Movement in American history an increase in White women becoming single mothers prompted fears of a "lack of family values" and a "collapse of societal structure" (5). Jane Bock (6) further offered a feminist deconstruction of legitimacy. Historically, families with a single-female head of household have been, demographically, the poorest segment of the nation, with the terms single-mother and welfare-dependent becoming pejorative stereotypes. In 1967, Harry Krauss (7) reported in the Michigan Law Review that, "Illegitimacy is a way of life...a second-class way of life, imposed not only by the fact of birth outside a family, but by law as well" (8). Harsh words now, but through this journey, I realized that I embedded these words, and all the ugly connotations they contain, into my identity.

For much of my life, when anyone asked me about my father, I was often evasive or just straight out lied. I now realize how much it bothered me that I didn't have a father. In the early elementary school years, I recall making Father's Day gifts and the teacher came to me a whispered, "Perhaps you have an uncle you can give this to since you don't have a father." It was as though I belonged to a distant clan the likes of whom she had never encountered. In middle school, there was some snickering laughs from the other girls as they questioned me about my dad and I do recall some playground bullying, in which I never understood what I did to be a target. But the full impact of the ostracization never occurred to me until much later in life. I always assumed I was strange, alien, and quite different from my mother, my sister, or my Nana. My nature thrived in isolation and I had few friends except for the thousands of volumes in the library. But now, as I approach 60-years of age, and because of genetic health problems, the craving to know my father and his family has become a burning beacon in my soul.

Over the decades, the only people who knew the truth about the fact that I did not know my father were my husband and children. At times, it bothered me that I didn't know my heritage, genetic illnesses, or even what my father's family was like. I didn't even bother weaving a fantasy about him because there was no sentimentality involved in relation to a father figure; my identity was carefully woven as the daughter of a single mother. In their research on adoptees and birth parent reunions, Lee Campbell, Phyllis Silverman, and Patricia Patti (9) discovered four reasons given why adoptees look for their birth parents: life-cycle transition, desire for information, hope for a relationship, or a desire for deeper self-understanding. As with those study participants, information about family heritage, genetic health issues, and self-understanding were the impetus to begin my path to know my father. In 2018, as the too quick journey through my middle-age years was rapidly coming to an end, I once again became curious. Not for my children, as none of them have the slightest interest in heritage or ancestry, but for my peace of mind. I guess I just wanted to finally know who he was before I became too old to take advantage of the gifts I possess for research, but I really think it was a matter of identity; that wish to finally understand a piece of me which I knew had been missing from my life; that missing puzzle of identity. Knowledge of my history, my heritage, has always been an incomplete half-circle and I wanted closure.

The aims of this paper are: to tell the personal journey of searching for my identity within my father's family, to give voice to women who went through pregnancy and motherhood as single women and the struggles they endured, and to consider the uses of autoethnography in education. After walking this path and realizing my deeply embedded biases, stereotypes, and fears that I have never recognized, I realized that using autoethnography could be a way to teach about identity and diversity in higher education. Drick Boyd (10) contended, autoethnography is a venue that allows the writer to transform their learning in a pragmatic and contextual way. It is my hope that this will allow for conversations about difference within my pre-service education courses.

Always, We Begin Again

In 2018, on what would have been my mother's 83rd birthday, I decided to take a DNA test. Often associated with crime dramas, the invention of a commercially available, direct-to-consumer DNA test was not offered until about 2003". By 2007, companies offering this testing began to become affordable and aggressively advertised their products. According to Antonio Regalado (12), more than 12 million people have used commercial DNA testing in recent years. There are more than 30 different companies offering quick, inexpensive, easy to use DNA home test kits. The multi-billion-dollar company, is the largest of the at home DNA test and offers the most comprehensive database of family genealogy.

I always knew some information about my mother's family lineage and ethnic/racial heritage as my Nana carefully wrote down all she could remember from both her side of the family and my mother's paternal side. She even created a peg board game with the names and dates of birth and death of these long-ago relatives. She often told stories of the old country and how her mother and father came to America. Keeping the past alive was deeply significant to her and she hoped she could preserve this heritage to pass to her children and grandchildren. To her, it was the one incorruptible inheritance she could give. She was raised during the American Great Depression and had no savings, real estate, or valuable jewelry to give to her children, but, in her eyes, the knowledge of the family history was worth far more than gold. Therefore, with much anticipation and even trepidation, I waited until the results about my paternal heritage came back.

Using Autoethnography

I decided to tell my story through autoethnography. Autoethnography refers to "researching and writing about personal lived experience and their relation to culture" (13). The researcher's focus is on their personal interpretation of culture and understandings (14). In using this methodology, my gaze was turned inward, and I acknowledged that while I jumped into this pool of my own reflection, this is a story told from the gaze of my own biases and experiences. Deborah Crow (15) explained this practice uses the self and personal narratives to untangle cultural beliefs and practices. My journey was couched in a personal narrative around an issue which shaped and defined my identity. This frame allowed the reader a glimpse into a personal aspect of my life that told a unique "human experience and social sense making" (16).

Using autoethnography is also a way to empower voices who have been historically marginalized (17). Michael Patton (18) highlighted critical autoethnography as a means to break through constructs of White, colonialist privilege, questioning power imbalances between the researcher and the researched. Autoethnography takes away the concept of other as the focus of study and turns the lens inward. Carolyn Ellis and Arthur Bochner (19) elaborated the core of this methodological process is self-awareness connecting the personal and the cultural. They also cautioned that autoethnographic writing can require difficult, intense introspection and self-reflection, "The self-questioning autoethnography demands is extremely difficult, so is confronting things about yourself that are less flattering" (20). I found this to be true in my struggles as I began to unearth ugly truths about myself; revealing long hidden prejudices, anger, and resentment about some of my family history and deeply embedded prejudices hidden within me. But as Laurel Richardson (21) posited "writing stories about our 'texts' is a way of making senses of and changing our lives" (22) (5), I found my sense of self and my identity shifting with the new knowledge of my father and his family, experienced through a somewhat painful emotional roller coaster of introspection.

Re/defining Identity and Family

My journey was, and continues to be, one focused on identity. I relied on social identity theory as defined by Dominic Abrams and Michael Hogg (23) as a lens to understand how I (re)/defined myself and my concept of family. Vivian Vignoles, Seth Schwartz, and Koen Luyckx (24) introduced the theory of identity. Identity involves internal and external meanings of self. Identity also consists of levels of definition: individual, relational, and collective. Individual refers to the aspects of self-identification which include beliefs, values, and behavior. Relational identity refers to one's role in connection to others. It also encompasses how an individual interprets that role and assumptions. Collective identity refers to peoples association with groups and social categories. It also defines how the person gives meaning to these groups.

Growing up in a lower socio-economic class, Catholic, White, female-head of household shaped my identity for over a half century. James Cote (25) constructed a framework that explained the connection to identity and culture. The supposition is that individuals in most societies can actively strategize their identity through their means and access to capital. This can represent various forms, e.g., wealth, education, etc. and is closely tied to Pierre Bourdieu's (26) social-class reproduction theory with the goal of social-class mobility. James Cote (27) further articulated that social institutions such as the family, schools, and the workplace weave a complex and tightly inter-woven tapestry in the formation of individual identity. He used the term "tribal differentiations" (28) are those that tradition-based patterns of behavior that are shaped by many factors, such as: gender, race, ethnicity, religion, geography and age. Cote coined the termed "identity capital" (29) to delineate how a person negotiates the multifaceted whims of societal tradition. While cultural and human capital are beneficial, they may not be able to sustain an individual throughout a life-time. A person's strength of their identity capital through a "stable sense of self" (30) is required when other forms of capital wane. In this theory is the belief that the self is interpreted and categorized through comparison to others who are similar and are categorized with the self. (31) Jan Stets and Peter Burke (32) elaborated two processes involved in social identity formation: self-categorization and social comparison.

My path was also one of privilege. Social capital, as defined by Bourdieu (33) is actual or potential resources which "provides each of its members with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a 'credential' which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word" (34). It was this credential to which I attributed the ease of my journey to find my father. Without the social capital I have banked, my education, my technical knowledge, understanding of social media, and finances, I may not have ever found the identity of my father's family. Amanda Barrett Cox (35) recognized that social capital is unequally distributed in our society and is usually only available to those who occupy more privileged positions in a given social hierarchy, e.g., White, male, and those with more education. These privileges offered access to a broader social network both in social and financial resources. This search would have been much more difficult if I had not had social standing (PhD), money (Middle-class) or racial privilege (White). This journey was laden with access to knowledge and resources, e.g. buying and sending about two dozen DNA kits to people, purchasing access to American and International record databases providing birth, marriage, and death certificates, baptismal records, and census information,, (which provides access to numerous newspaper archives), FOLD3 website, (which provides historical military records), and SPOKEO, (an online search engine that provides information such as phone, email, and social media records). I also obtained the knowledge to be able to download the raw DNA data information from and upload it to, The GENI project, and GEDMatch which provides DNA and genealogical analysis tools. Coupled with the knowledge of how to navigate these technologies, I also used my standing as an associate professor in a well-respected university to gain access to people who may have otherwise shut me out.

A Path of Brambles and Roses

As I considered writing about my private journey, I realized I was exposing my innermost secret, that of bastard, to the world. While the term does not hold the same derogatory connotation today as it did decades ago, when conveying my search to close friends they responded with shock, "You don't know who your father's is?" Their responses were constant reminders of my perceived incomplete identity and the secret I instinctively knew I must always protect. However, in telling my story, I am also exposing past sins of my relatives who are no longer here to defend themselves. As Lucy Bailey (36) cautioned when unearthing sensitive family issues, and "knotty entanglements involved in conducting research with, on, though, and sometimes for family members" (37), I have given careful consideration regarding the power of my position in writing this autoethnography. Family histories are laden with "absences, secrets, hauntings, materialities, and affect" (38) possibly best left undisturbed. Pat Sikes (39) reminded writers of autobiography to consider the ethical considerations of publishing names and pictures of those long gone and to use great caution in respectfully depicting those images. Lesley Neale's (40) lovely words echoed in my soul as a reminder of the responsibilities of writing about family that it "requires the writer to balance diverse responsibilities: those to the subject, to family members and to the integrity of the narrative" (41). Therefore, although I believed this is a narrative worth sharing, I have decided not to use any names or identifying information at all in this study and I have given intense reflection and thought into which stories should be told, and which should remain buried.

I knew that this investigation could unearth the worst sins about my mother, my father, my family, and myself. These secrets my mother felt so strongly to protect she kept quiet even as she knew she was dying. In my unveiling of them, I risked exposing her self-created shame to the world; tearing off her protective veil of privacy she so carefully guarded. In learning family secrets, I also risked being judgmental in my interpretation of those who are no longer alive to defend themselves. Through much reflection and peer counseling, I hoped to convey this story accurately and fairly. Disclosing facts associated with an out-of-wedlock birth had the potential to embarrass those involved, or exhume skeletons long forgotten or laid to rest. I decided to go forward with my story as a tribute to my mother and all single mothers who experienced shaming, isolation, and abuse. There is a greater value in telling my story and those of my family. Marybeth Drechsler Sharp, Jose Luis Riera, and Susan Jones (42) wrote that autoethnography is a uniquely appropriate avenue for the discovery of identity and how this can be a tool for social justice learning.

My hope was also to bring light on a reprehensible cultural time which Valerie Andrews (43) referred to as the "Baby Scoop Era" and the mothers as "BSE mothers" (44). Through much introspection and reflection, I determined that my story could be told in joy, surprise, and hope. I have reflected on the circumstances of my conception and the various family histories on both maternal and paternal sides and endeavored to respectfully portray these secrets and hauntings. My story may help others who have gone through the same circumstances. Feelings of legitimacy, shame, and inferiority can be all too real to those of us born to single women, but like me, many might not be aware of those feelings.

During my journey, I talked with many relatives. I found a first cousin who had just taken a DNA test that her children bought her for her 70th birthday. A few years earlier, her mother was about to undergo surgery for a heart aneurism. She gave my cousin a letter and told her to read it if she died during the procedure. Her mother did pass away during surgery and my cousin read the letter telling her that the man she always assumed was her biological dad, was not. According to the letter, in 1948, her mother attended a party at her friend's house. She met my paternal uncle who had just broken up with his girlfriend. There was quite a bit of alcohol and he became drunk and violent. Her mother said that he forced her into relations. She never used the word rape, but that is what happened, and she became pregnant. Although she had a boyfriend, they had not engaged in sex, so he knew the child was not his. Her parents put her into a home for unwed mothers. Wanda Pillow (45) discussed how these ironically termed homes, were thinly veiled incarceration centers that were influential in defining the single mother as deviant. These homes were often built and managed by religious-based organizations and the focus was on rescue and the women who came were often "assumed not to have had the benefits of exposure to moral and decent living" (46). The staff at these institutions were often abusive and judgmental as they viewed this as an opportunity to rehabilitate fallen women.

The conditions of the home for my cousin's mother were that she could not leave with the baby unless she had an offer of marriage. Desperate to keep her child, her father went to her boyfriend and begged him to marry her, so she could keep her child. He did, but the marriage only lasted 2-years and my cousin spent decades never knowing this truth until the day her mother died. The letter named my uncle as her biological father and the DNA test confirmed it. When I reached out to her, she was happy to know about him and wanted to see a picture, she was lovely and kind, and even invited me to her home. Yet I could hear the pain in her voice; the unforgotten pain that her mother endured and the pain she discovered in conjunction with her mother's passing.

Many of the stories I heard were not unique. As chronicled by Valerie Andrews (47) homes for unwed mothers we not uncommon in post-World War I and II America. An unmarried pregnant woman clashed with the constructed ideal of a married mother and violated the societal expectation regarding sexuality and motherhood. Unwed mothers have been variously thought of as deviant, feeble-minded, or ill throughout the first few decades of the 20th century. A post-World War I social experiment proposed to offer unwed mothers a chance to redeem themselves through the creation of homes which often violated the Civil Rights of these women. The institutions labeled these women as inmates although they were not technically incarcerated and closely monitored all communication with the outside world. Andrews emphasized these women were subjected to "physical, psychological, and emotional abuse" (48) and told their babies would be better off with a respectable family. Although my mother was not placed in a home, I know she was subjected to the same judgmental attitude about single-motherhood. A stigma she may have rejected, but certainly harbored deep in her soul.

First Lessons in Genetics

At the beginning of this journey to discover my father's identity, I only had partial information about my maternal family lineage and heritage. Based on information from my Nana, I understood and embraced my Dutch and Belgium heritage as part of my tribal identity. When asked about my heritage, I could answer this part in certainty. Weekly, we visited several relatives who had migrated from Holland and took great pride in seeing me continue with the traditions and dress of the old country.

Although my mother was a single woman raising two daughters in the 1960s our Nana was more affluent. We lived with her, on and off, throughout my childhood. My mother worked two, and sometimes three jobs, as a keypunch operator, to support us. I never saw her go on a date or go to parties; I never heard her talk on the phone with a man, but our lives were full of activities that bound us together with joy. She arranged horse-back riding, ballet, skiing, music, and ice-skating lessons. We went on picnics to local parks almost every weekend, in all types of weather. My mother made sure to have a family vacation every summer which included trips to Civil War battlefields in Virginia, the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania, and many National Parks, zoos, and aquariums in upstate NY and Ontario, Canada. My identity was shaped around these two amazing women who defied traditional norms of marriage and family.

Mom always told us she never wanted to marry because her mother, my Nana, had been married five times. My mom was the oldest of four children and when Nana left her first husband and married number two, he was abusive to my mother. She vowed she would never marry, but she wanted kids. I recall her saying that even though we were poor and sometimes went hungry, we were still better off without a father in our lives.

Road to Appalachia

When I received the email containing my DNA results 2018, I remember looking at them thinking, "They really messed this up; must have switched my DNA with someone else's." My mother was born in the mid-1930's in upstate NY. To my knowledge, she never left the state until we were young and travelled to visit my Nana after she moved to Pennsylvania. My DNA ethnicity estimate was as follows: Great Britain - 55%, Ireland/Scotland/Wales - 16%, Scandinavia - 13%, Europe West - 8%, Europe East - 5%, Caucasus - 3%. Under the migrations, they stated, "Central Appalachia Settlers" and Southwestern West Virginia and South eastern Kentucky and Virginia settlers. My response was "What?" I know, (at least I thought I knew) that my mom's side was all from Holland and Belgium and they all settled in New York. Perhaps a little German here and there, but where on earth is the Scot, Irish, British ancestry who moved to central Appalachian coming from? Certainly, it had to be a mistake.

I knew what my Nana had told me, the ancestry of both my maternal grandmother and maternal grandfather going back generations from Holland and Belgium. So, I expected to be 50% Dutch and I expected to see most relatives living in New York. I called and spoke to a DNA specialist. I asked her if there was some way the lab could have mixed up my results with someone else's. She went right to the point, No!" She was very polite, but stern as she explained that the lab runs the test 40 times. If there is an irregularity with any of the results, in other words--if anything varies from the other--they ask for another sample from me. In a tear-choked voice, I explained that I didn't know who my father was, but my mom told me it was a man from New York, a guy with whom she worked.

BUT....None of my DNA matches were from any kin in NY except for moms' side of the family.

The DNA specialist calmly and concisely gave me my first lesson in genetics. She gently explained that most people think, "Well my mom is 100% Greek and my dad is 100% German, so I must be 50/50 each.' The problem with that is most people are not 100% anything anymore and genetics do not work in such a predicable manner. We can inherit as much of our DNA from our 10th Great-granny as we can from our mother. Since I knew the genetic past of my mother, she told me, I inherited most of my DNA from my unknown and elusive father. I think I cried for an hour after this conversation. I felt heartbroken, lost, and confused because I imagined I would be able to figure out the puzzle of my father's identity. Instead, what lay before me was a labyrinth of more unknown. I had no clue where to begin or what to think. My heart was devastated. As I wrote to my new-found cousin a few weeks later, I thought this process of identifying my father's family would be straightforward. I would do the DNA search and, while it was possible that my biological dad had passed, certainly one of his children, my half-brothers or half-sisters would match. I would call them, and we would live happily ever after. I was soon to learn that genetics and family searches are not easily inclined to give up their secrets. I was able to connect with a handful of my mother's DNA kin through email and by telephone, but the remainder were all from this ephemeral father figure. The closest DNA relation was not a father, sibling, or even aunt or uncles, but second cousins. So, I sent three dozen emails to various biological relatives inquiring if anyone knew my dad.

Was Mom a Racist or Just Angry with my Father?

Initially, I felt quite indignant being told about that much of my DNA make-up originated from Appalachia, an area of the United States that follows "the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. It includes West Virginia and parts of 12 states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia" (49). More than geography, this region of American is wrapped in a culture of mining, forestry, and agriculture. Many of the people who settled here are fiercely private and this area of the country once had the highest poverty rate in all of America. I felt the earth shift under me. The realization that there was a kernel of prejudice within me was shocking. An in-depth investigation into my, surprisingly, judgmental feelings was necessary. When I was young, I was never allowed to watch the weekly country and western variety television show, Hee Haw, an American television show situated in the fictional "Kornfield Kounty" and highlighted country/bluegrass music and comedy skits. In 1972, the movie Deliverance came out, which was about four inner-city men who decide to go canoeing in rural Georgia. The plot is that they encounter back wood locals who terrorize and violently attack them. This seemed to confirm in my mother an uncharacteristic hatred and prejudice towards mountain folk. I didn't realize it growing up, but upon closer investigation I recalled she disparaged the bluegrass music I loved as "shit-kicking" music. She never used a racial epithet against any race or culture except for "hillbilly", which she reserved for her most venomous contempt. This derogatory term envelops, what Anthony Harkins described as an "amalgamated cultural icon" (50) and pictures lazy, uneducated, violent, and primitive people. The people of Appalachia have been cast in the role of "other" by wealthy Northerners, especially in the industry heavy region of New York state, and industrialist seeking to exploit the abundant land and resources, e.g. timber, minerals such as copper and mica, coal, etc. (51) It was not until I began to chronicle my journey that I understood how detrimental the term is and how it stereotypes working class, southern, Whites.

Although I was always musically inclined and played several instruments while growing up, she forbade the banjo. It was only after I left home that I was able to play the instrument that beats with my heart. Her best and closest friend's husband played bass in a bluegrass band, but she dismissed this as something vulgar and offensive. Not until I began this journey into the search for my father, did I realize that I internalized some of this prejudice. It was a quiet cancer deeply embedded in my psyche and emerged vehemently when I saw the DNA results stating that my paternal kin settled in Appalachia. However, this also brought up the question as to the roots of my mother's apparent classism and racism. Did she really know my father's family and resented him because of his family? Did her prejudice encompass more than ignorance of the peoples of Appalachia or was she projecting hatred at my father and his family? I will never know the answers to these questions and can only speculate. However, there was something I could do about my prejudice.

My internalized identity said I was not a racist person. My children are Mexican-American and I proudly boast of my social justice writings. But why have I harbored this judgmental attitude against people from Appalachia? A few years ago, I never would imagine being so proud of having a strong Appalachian heritage but now it feels so natural. I believe this is an example of that constant shifting of our identity as we grow and learn. In her lovely autoethnography, Raquel Cepeda (52) said "More than anything, this place feels familiar. I bury my hands in the hot sand and think about the embodiment of memory or, more specifically, our natural ability to carry the past in our bodies and minds" (53). This quote loudly echoed in my thoughts as I discovered the identity of my father and his heritage. It was in me all the time. It was a part of me; I just didn't know it.

Strings in my Bones

After four months of inquiry, that seemed like decades, calling strangers who matched as cousins on Ancestry and leads from those cousins, and ordering DNA kits for those potentially closer relatives, I was rewarded with the knowledge of my father's identity and although he passed away in 1991, I was slowly able to piece together the history of my paternal family. One day in May 2018, I found a new cousin who matched on one of the DNA sites. She matched as a first cousin, which meant that her father and mine were probably siblings. I sent her a message and told her everything I knew so far. This most frustrating question for me was how my mother and father could have met. In the middle of the conversation, she asked where I was born. I told her and there was a long pause. I thought she hung up the phone, but she quietly said that her father had a job at an electronics factory in upstate NY in the late 1950s and that four of his brothers would often visit him. Tears and emotions overwhelmed me and kept my voice silent...because I remembered that my mother worked at that same factory during that timeframe! This solidly solved the enigma of how my parents met. My cousin told me that her father, my uncle, was from a family of 10 children, but only the four youngest boys would visit him in NY. The others had families and careers and did not travel. I was overjoyed about this connection. I assumed from this new information that my mother met my father through a coworker. The biggest problem was that all but one of the brothers, including my father, were dead. My challenge was to find their children and see if they would take a DNA test.

The turning point in this query was third cousin. She reached out to me through social media. She matched as my 3rd cousin and she said she never contacted people this far related from her, but there was something about me that made her want contact. She stated, "Yes, I would be one of the Appalachian relatives. The first thing that caught my attention when I turned to FB to find you, was the photo of you on a horse. Made me smile, I thought, yes we are for sure related." This cousin owns show horses and said that our family has a long line of owning horses for riding and not just farm work. She sent me this picture of my paternal distant cousin. Beside it is one of my mother with my children.

This cousin was also adept as DNA and genealogical research and she suggested I join a social media site dedicated to genealogy. This site is run by dedicated and knowledgeable people who assist others in finding lost family members through DNA searches. This represented another part of the social capital I have been accruing in that I have knowledge of social media and technology. Having this cousin recognize me as part of the "Appalachian clan" gave me a unique insight, but my Ph.D. was the badge of access needed for most people to be open to talk with me. I had access to the internet and social media and the resources I needed to allow a smooth search. My financial stability meant I was able to pay for the databases in various genealogy sites, pay for a phone and email information database, and buy an account for newspaper and obituary databases. I had the knowledge and technology to be able to upload my raw DNA data to other sites, thus reaching more possible kin. When I did reach out to these complete strangers with a request for information about their family, I always began with my privilege, "Hi, I am searching for information about my father's family. This isn't a scam. I am an Associate professor at a well-known university and you can go my website and check me out." My cousin cautioned that hill people, as she referred to our family from Appalachia, are very protective of their own. If they see a stranger, they will build a wall around their kin and shut them out. My cousin was my voucher into the family circle. As I discovered, sometimes people have a protective instinct about themselves and their families.

At the end of May 2018, a volunteer genealogist with whom I had been working, identified my paternal grandmother from the results of the many cousins who had taken DNA tests. My grandmother had 10 children, but the most likely were the four youngest boys who visited my uncle in N.Y. My grandmother's oldest daughter died in the 1918 influenza epidemic at the age of 2-years old. The two oldest sons had jobs in the coal mines and families to support, so they rarely left West Virginia. Two daughters had been married, but never had children. This left a set of twin boys, and the two youngest boys who could potentially be my father as they often visited their brother. Using a private detective, I was able to obtain the names of the children of the four brothers. Three of these men had since passed away, but one was living and one's wife was living. I called them, and all agreed to take DNA tests. My aunt, the wife of one of the twins, was in her 80's but was warm and welcoming. She gave me much information about the family. She gave me names of people to contact who could be my siblings. One of the men who agreed to take a DNA test was later identified as my half-brother. When I called and gave him the spiel about the search for my father, his comment was, "Well, knowing my dad you could well be my half-sister!" He volunteered to take a DNA test and has embraced me as a long-lost friend. When I met this new brother, we instantly bonded. We have the same blue eyes, the same mannerisms, the same sense of humor, and the same love of banjos. When I was with him, I felt as though I had known him my entire life.

Little by little, as I learned about my Appalachian kin, I realized the things that made me odd in my mother's family, were common and embedded in my father's family. For example, I am the only person with blue eyes. I am the only one with musical talent. But dare I mention that I am also the only one in my mother's family who enjoys a drink? My mother was a teetotaler her entire life, and so was Nana. If either of them had a glass of wine at Christmas, it would knock them out cold. I have a deep love of the mountains and really don't enjoy the beach, or the seaside and I just come to tears when I hear an old bluegrass song. I always had horses, although no one in my maternal line owned a horse as a pet. These small differences represented tangible symbols of an identity of which I could never connect to my mother's family. My cousin suggested to me that a sense of place and geography is imprinted in your genetics; that you feel a sense of home in one place over another. She stated that the West Virginia hills and the culture of the Appalachians has been deeply embedded within me and was calling me home.

Certain aspects of my identity came into focus as I talked with more and more relatives. During a phone conversation with one of my many warm, welcoming cousins, I found out that my first cousin played the banjo and he toured with many bluegrass bands. He told me that the entire family played an instrument and every night they would sit together and play. They didn't own a television or even a radio. He said my grandmother played the 4-string banjo and that "strings were in our bones". Early in my first conversation with my brother, I asked him what his favorite music was. His response, "Anything with a banjo in it!" My brother also plays the banjo and was surprised that I do, too! To me, this explained how music, especially the banjo and bluegrass, have been an integral part of my identity from childhood.

Mothers, Grannies, and Ghosts

My Paternal Grandmother was a complex woman. Born in 1901, she was the 4th child in a family of 10 living in the hills of West Virginia. Her father was a farmer and her mother a midwife. She married at 14 and her first child in 1916 at the age of 15. This little girl succumbed to the virulent flu epidemic of 1918. She had 9 other children who all lived to adulthood, among whom were a set of twins. It was a loosely held family secret that her husband frequently took up with other women and rarely worked. My Granny had to support her growing children with little education and limited opportunities. She started a speak-easy, an illegal saloon or drinking establishment, during the time of prohibition. A curious profession for her as her husband was an alcoholic. I learned that she had several paramours and that her four youngest children were not her husband's; however, his name was put on all the birth certificates because to have done otherwise would have exposed her and given uncontested grounds for him to file for a divorce.

In 1944, her oldest daughter earned a bachelor's degree and moved them out of West Virginia to Maryland. The two oldest boys refused to leave the hollow, a term for the area between the mountains, as they were working in the mines and had established families. My aunt wanted to give her mother and siblings a better life and move them away from their abusive father. My paternal grandmother died in 1954 from cancer and the more I heard about her, the closer I felt to her. Learning more about my father's family was creating new bonds within me to them. She had a rough and tumble life, but she kept all 9 of her children alive under the most horrific of circumstances. All of them became financially successful and went on to raise wonderful families. She married young but made the best of her situation and did what was needed to take care of her children. I had a growing affinity for this woman I will never know.

However, as I learned more about my granny, I was also becoming more uncomfortable with my mother's past and her secrets. More and more troubling questions filled my mind: Did she even know my father's name? Was it a one-night drunken tryst? Was she protecting me from an image of love and perfection I had crafted around her? The fact is, I'll never know, and it does not matter. Ironically, drawn to the life of my paternal grandmother, I found myself becoming increasingly depressed at the thought that my mother may not have been the sainted figure I had created in my mind. When I confessed this to my cousin, she chided me in that while I was feeling a strong bond to my paternal grandmother, I was judging my mother. I realized that the story of my conception and circumstances surrounding it are my mother's story; not mine. All the questions I had are her secrets and hers alone.

Implications of my Journey

As I walked this trail, I reflected how autoethnography can be a pedagogical tool for teaching about diversity. As a future project in graduate special education courses, I would like to utilize autoethnography for this purpose. Researchers Caroline Albon (54) and Melissa Tombr (55), among others, have shown this is a unique way to help people understand themselves and others at a deeper level. The use of autoethnography can disrupt traditional ways of thinking about identity (gender, race, social class, ability, and family). Sheila Trahar (56) discovered anecdotal writing does have a place in higher education as it can generate new knowledge through an individual's unique perspective and view of the experience. Julie Pennington (57) found similar results when using autoethnography with pre-service education majors to disrupt assumptions about White privilege and create more understanding of culture and difference. Using autoethnography created a space for White pre-service teachers to dialogue about race and culture. Heewon Chang (58) explained some of the different interpretations of culture. Some people view culture as being associated with a group of people who have common location, languages, and norms. Others see culture as individual, the self-culture that in which my culture begins with me. My beliefs, my behaviors, language, and values defined how I viewed the world and experiences. This perspective made me an "active agent" (59) of culture. Boyd (60) found the use of autoethnography in education, "created disorienting dilemma and led to a process of reflection and transformative learning on the impact of whiteness on my behavior, language, and attitudes" (61). I certainly found this true of myself in this personal journey of mine and I can see the power autoethnographic pedagogy could have at all levels of education. This could be a way for students to understand and appreciate identity formation in those with difference from them, or those who do not have the advantage of equitable social capital. In his work with students in a social work program, Stefan Battle (62) stated:
In using autoethnography to share our stories with students, we model
for them how to confront and contemplate their own painful pasts and
how they can do the same for their future clients. This sharing process
allows us to enhance a person's personal growth and may help to erase
harmful, stigmatizing pain and shame. The process of helping students
get to know themselves will transfer into their work with clients who
are socially different from themselves (63).

Returning Thanks

Lee Campbell, Phyllis Silverman, and Patricia Patti's (64) study sought to discover the motivations and how learning about a birth parent could impact the adoptee's self-esteem and identity. Although I was not adopted, and I knew my mother, I related to the people in this article as they searched for their heritage; finding that missing piece of identity and sense of self. The outcome of their interviews with adoptees revealed that most of those who found their birth parents reported little negative effects and, in fact, reported that their self-esteem greatly improved. Following the reunions, the adoptees were asked, "What would you change, if you could do it over again?" (65). The majority responded that they would not change a thing and I feel the same way about my journey.

In October of 2018, I met with two of my 2nd cousins in the hills of West Virginia. With a backdrop of vibrant fall colors and the mountains which one side of my family has called home for generations, we sat down for a meal. I was asked if I would like to return thanks. Indeed, I would. I would like to return thanks for this marvelous path that has led me to an acute self-awareness about my mother, myself, and the father I will never meet. As the great philosopher, Ziggy Marley once said, "I was born by myself but carry the spirit and blood of my father, mother and my ancestors. So, I am never alone. My identity is through that line." (66) I realized how my identity and my self-culture has dramatically shifted during this year long sojourn. For so much of my life, I was the child of shame and illegitimacy, leading an insular life without extended family ties. Suddenly, strangers who were somehow familiar to me, drew me into their circle of love with warmth and acceptance. Many of them did so with gratitude for gaining information about their families of which they had not previously known. Where I once had a cousin or two who were social media friends and little else, I now have dozens of cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews who are delighted that I found them, and they have affectionately welcomed me in.

So now, how does this shift my self-image? Honestly, and with some embarrassment, I feel legitimate. I want to scream to my elementary teachers and those classmates who bullied me in the playground, "See, I really do have a father!" Although, my father died in 1991, I have met my brothers. I am the oldest of my father's children and the only girl. My brother told me that his father wanted a girl and even refused to go to the hospital when his 3rd son was born. It was surreal to look at my brother and finally see someone with my exact same eyes; my smile, and my laugh. It made me feel special to know that my father would have wanted me and would have loved me. This journey has taught me that family and the concept of family, is a fluid and everchanging miasma. For all of us, as we change and grow, parents, grandparents, and siblings may die before us leaving us to constantly re/define ourselves and our identities and to re-assess where we belong in the family we have built for ourselves.

For the first time in almost 6 decades, it is my honor and privilege to proudly say, here are pictures of my mother AND my father.


(1) Mary Louise Fellows, "Feminist Interpretation of the Law of Legitimacy," A. Tex. J. Women & L., 7, 195-206, accessed on November 30, 2018,

(2) IBID., 196

(3) IBID, 197

(4) Wanda Pillow, "Teen Pregnancy and Education: Politics of Knowledge, Research, and Practice," Educational Policy, 20, no. 1, (2006): 59-84.

(5) IBID., 63.

(6) Jane D. Bock, "Doing the Right Thing? Single Mothers by Choice and the Struggle for Legitimacy," Gender & Society, 14, no.1 (2000): 62-86.

(7) Harry D. Krause, "Equal Protection for the Illegitimate," Michigan Law Review, 65, no.3 (1967): 477-506.

(8) IBID., 477

(9) Lee H. Campbell, Phyllis R. Silverman, and Patricia B. Patti, "Reunions Between Adoptees and Birth Parents: The Adoptees' Experience," Social Work, 36, no. 4 (1991): 329-335.

(10) Drick Boyd, "Autoethnography as a Tool for Transformative Learning About White Privilege," Journal of Transformative Education 6, no. 3 (2008): 212-225,

(11) Paschal Borry, Martina C. Cornel, and Heidi C. Howard, "Where are you going, where have you been: A recent history of the direct-to-consumer genetic testing market," Journal of Community Genetics 1, no. 3 (2010): 101-106,

(12) Antonio Regalado, A. "2017 was the year consumer DNA testing blew up," MIT Technology Review (February 12, 2018), accessed November 23, 2018,

(13) Robin M. Boylorn and Mark P. Orbe, Critical Autoethnography: Intersecting Cultural Identities in Everyday Life (New York, NY: Routledge Press, 2016), 12, 16.

(14) Kim Foster, Margaret McAllister, and Louise O'Brien "Extending the Boundaries: Autoethnography as an Emergent Method in Mental Health Nursing Research." International Journal of Mental Health Nursing 15, no. 1 (2006): 44-53.

(15) Deborah Crow, "Exploring Occupational Inheritance while Standing Together on the Precipice of Dementia." Vitae Scholasticae 34, no. 2 (2017): 88-110.

(16) Bryant Keith Alexander, "Autoethnography: Exploring modalities and subjectivities that shape social relations," in Qualitative research methods in special education, eds. James L. Paul, Jeannie Kleinhammer-Tramill, and Kathleen Fowler (Denver, CO: Love Publishing Company, 2009): 277-334, 286.

(17) Krista McQueeney and Kristen M. Lavelle. "Emotional Labor in Critical Ethnographic Work: In the Field and Behind the Desk." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 46, no. 1 (2017): 81-107.

(18) Michael Quinn Patton, Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods. 4th ed. (thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2015).

(19) Carolyn Ellis and Arthur P. Bochner "Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: Researcher as subject," in Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd Ed.) eds. Norman K. Denzin & Yvonna S. Lincoln, (Thousand oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2000): 733-768.

(20) IBID., 738.

(21) Laurel Richardson, Fields of play: Constructing an academic life, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 5.

(22) IBID., 5.

(23) Dominic Abrams and Michael A. Hogg, "An introduction to the social identity approach." Social identity theory: Constructive and critical advances (1990): 1-9.

(24) Vivian L. Vignoles, Seth J. Schwartz, and Koen Luyckx, "Introduction: Toward an integrative view of identity." In Handbook of identity theory and research, eds. Seth J. Schwartz, Koen Luyckx, and Vivian L. Vignoles (Springer, New York, NY, 2011), 1-30.

(25) James E. Cote, "Sociological Perspectives on Identity Formation: The Culture-Identity Link and Identity Capital." Journal of Adolescence 19 (1996): 417-428.

(26) Pierre Bourdieu, "The forms of capital," in Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. John G. Richardson (Westport, CT: Greenword Press, 1986): 46-58.

(27) Cote, "Sociological perspectives..." 424.

(28) IBID., 424.

(29) IBID., 424.

(30) IBID., 425.

(31) Jan E. Stets and Peter J. Burke. "Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory." Social Psychology Quarterly 63, no. 3 (2000): 224-237.

(32) IBID, 225.

(33) Bordieu, "The forms of capital" 51

(34) IBID., 51.

(35) Amanda Barrett Cox, "Cohorts,"Siblings," and Mentors: Organizational Structures and the Creation of Social Capital." Sociology of Education 90, no. 1 (2017): 47-63.

(36) Lucy E. Bailey, "Introduction: Methodological Entanglements in Family Research: Researching With, On, Through, and For Family." Vitae Scholasticae 34, no. 2 (2017): 3-13.

(37) IBID., 3.

(38) IBID., 4.

(39) Pat Sikes, "Ethical considerations in autoethnographic research." Specialist Research Ethics Guidance Paper (2015), accessed November 23, 2018 from,!/file/SREGP-Autoethnography-2015.pdf

(40) Lesley Neale. "The Ethics and Intentions of Writing Family." Vitae Scholasticae 34, no. 2 (2017): 110-127.

(41) IBID., 111.

(42) Marybeth Drechsler Sharp, Jose-Luis Ricra, and Susan R. Jones, "Telling our stories: Using autoethnography to construct identities at the intersections." Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice 49, no. 3 (2012): 315-332.

(43) Valerie Andrews, "Crimes Against the Unmarried Mother in Canada Post WWII: The Collective Consciousness of Society." Adoption Circles (2011): 1-6.

(44) IBID., 1.

(45) Wanda S. Pillow, Unfit Subjects: Education Policy and the Teen Mother, 1972-2002. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004).

(46) IBID., 22.

(47) Valerie Andrews, "Crimes Against the Unmarried Mother in Canada Post WWII"

(48) IBID., 3.

(49) Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) (2018). The Appalachian Region accessed November 23, 2018 from:

(50) Anthony Harkins, Hillbilly: A cultural history of an American icon. Oxford University Press, 2003.

(51) Elizabeth Catte, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing, 2018).

(52) Raquel Cepeda, Bird of paradise: How I became Latina. (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2013).

(53) IBID., 188.

(54) Caroline Allbon, "Down the rabbit hole"--"curiouser and curiouser" Using autoethnography as a mode of writing to re-call, re-tell and re-veal bodily embodiment as self-reflexive inquiry." Journal of Organizational Ethnography 1, no. 1 (2012): 62-71.

(55) Melissa Tombro, Teaching Autoethnography: Personal Writing in the Classroom. Open SUNY Textbooks, Milne Library (IITG PI), State University of New York at Geneseo, 2016.

(56) Sheila Trahar, "Autoethnographic journeys in learning and teaching in higher education." European educational research journal 12, no. 3 (2013): 367-375.

(57) Pennington, Julie L. "Silence in the classroom/whispers in the halls: Autoethnography as pedagogy in White pre-service teacher education." Race Ethnicity and Education 10, no. 1 (2007): 93-113.

(58) Heewon Chang, Autoethnography as Method: Developing Qualitative Inquiry, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).

(59) IBID., 20.

(60) Drick Boyd, "Autoethnography as a tool for transformative learning about white privilege..."

(61) IBID., 213

(62) Stefan Battle, "Black Men, White Teachers, White Colleagues: An Autoethnographic Triangulate of Racial Profiling Interaction and Closure." Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping 22, no. 2 (2016): 46-56.

(63) IBID., 55.

(64) Lee LI. Campbell, Phyllis R. Silverman, and Patricia B. Patti, "Reunions between adoptees and birth parents: The adoptees' experience..."

(65) IBID., 333.

(66) Ziggy Marley, Ziggy Marley Greatest Quotes and songs, accessed October 15, 2018 from:

Donna Sayman

Wichita State University
COPYRIGHT 2018 Caddo Gap Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sayman, Donna
Publication:Vitae Scholasticae
Date:Sep 22, 2018
Previous Article:An Act of Necessity: Witnessing and Learning Through a Legacy of Objects.
Next Article:Feminist 'Narrative In*her*itances:' Revisiting, Pondering, Stretching a Concept.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters