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Resident used municipal records, DNA test to find her birth family

Mary Lee Arnold was adopted when she was an infant. After the death of her adoptive parents, she took steps to learn more about her birth family. Along the way, she acquired six “new” siblings! This is Mary Lee’s account of her investigation into her family history.

For the past 35 years, I’ve wondered whether to start my story with my birth parents or my adoptive parents.

I always knew I was adopted — it was just part of our family story. My brother Jeff was also adopted, though from different parents.

I was born in Niagara Falls and adopted from an agency in Buffalo by a couple who were living in Charleston, West Virginia. My dad was a chemical engineer at the DuPont plant, and he and my mom had been married 10 years. Dad’s college roommate was the head of an adoption agency in Buffalo, and he knew my folks wanted children. He called them one day with the news that there was a baby girl available if they could be there within five days. They immediately took off for New York.

Both of my parents were from small towns in western New York, and my grandfather was the dentist in the village of Franklinville. My parents picked me up in Buffalo, and my grandfather’s diary states that we all spent the night in that small town. Every summer after, until I was 17, we spent two weeks there enjoying visits with family and friends.

I had a great childhood. I was given what I needed, but I certainly wasn’t spoiled. When I was 11 months old, I spilled a pot of hot coffee over my left arm. The accident resulted in severe burns that required numerous surgeries. My folks gave me the best medical treatment at the time, but they didn’t allow me to feel sorry for myself.

I don’t remember ever questioning my folks about where I came from until I was grown and expecting my first child. Mom said they didn’t know much about my history except that my birth mother had been very young — we had a life insurance policy that said she was 17 at the time of my birth. I let it go then and didn’t think too much about it.

My mother died of pancreatic cancer in 1968, and my father died from colon cancer in 1972. I was devastated. They were special people, and I had two very young children at the time. I still didn’t consider looking for my birth parents until I divorced my first husband in 1984. By then, my children were teenagers and I felt as though I didn’t have any relatives.

In the summer of 1985, I went to a reunion of high school friends in Charleston and stayed with my brother. We talked about searching for our birth parents, but I didn’t know where to start. Jeff was living with a gal who worked at an adoption agency in West Virginia, and she suggested I inquire at the courthouse. I was meeting a friend for lunch at the new mall, and when I emerged from its underground garage, I noticed the courthouse was across the street. I thought, “Why not try?”  

I told an employee that I was adopted and wanted to open my record. The clerk asked if I knew the year the adoption took place. When I said 1943, she didn’t even have to move to reach for an old ledger. When I gave my family name, she asked, “Are you Mary Lee?”

She had me get a judge’s signature to open the records, which took about five minutes. By the time that was done, the clerk had all my records for me to review on microfiche. I learned the names of my birth mother and maternal grandmother. The rest of the information was interesting but not significant to my history. I returned to Kansas and sat on this information for about six weeks.

Finally, I called Niagara Falls information and asked for anyone with my birth mother’s last name. There was only one listing, which turned out to be a cousin of hers. His wife answered my call, and she agreed to call my birth mother to tell her I was OK.

That night I got a call from my birth mother. As an adoptee, you can never be sure how things might go, but we formed a great relationship over the next 25 years, until her death in 2011. I discovered a whole new family of three sisters and a stepdad. I’m still in touch with the girls and their families.

Much later, my kids gave me the Ancestry DNA kit for Christmas. My birth mother had given me my birth father’s name, but she didn’t know where his family was. She did send me a copy of his obituary from the Niagara Falls paper. The DNA results listed one male as a close relative. I messaged him through the Ancestry site, and he called me the next day. It turned out he was my birth father’s brother, and I had three new siblings on that side. I have yet to meet them in person, but we have communicated via phone and e-mail.

There are many more details about my story that would take far too long to describe. But the important thing is that I always felt loved by both families, which is how all children should feel.

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