After she retired from teaching theater at a Florida college, Julia Gagne’s life took on its own unexpected dramatic arc.
Although she’d been adopted at birth more than 65 years ago, Julia hadn’t spent much time searching for her biological family. When she tested with 23andMe a few years ago, it was more to simply learn a little about her ancestry. She was a little curious about what else she might learn, but she didn’t expect it would change her life. She understands how all that sounds overly theatrical – she’s directed enough plays to know – but this plot twist is real.
“It sounds dramatic,” Julia said, “Because it is dramatic.”
Julia was raised in a loving family. She didn’t really pine for her biological family, but in the early 1980s she did get some records from the state of Michigan about her adoption. There was nothing in the records that would help her identify her birth mother, but Julia learned her mother’s age, what she did for a living and her level of education. That and a few other facts were all she found. She filed those papers away for a few decades and went on with her life. Then a few years ago, Julia signed up for 23andMe.
“The results were interesting,” she said.
She didn’t find any close relatives, at least not at first. And then about a year ago she got a close relative match, someone listed as a first cousin. For Julia, who had never met or known any biological relative, finding a first cousin was a big deal. She was taken aback.
“What?” she thought.
So using 23andMe she sent the man a message, explained who she was, where she was born and when. And, of course, she told him that she’d been adopted. Then she waited.
“A few weeks later, I received a message that would change my life,” Julia said.
She’d actually been out with a friend, getting ready to go into a movie, when she noticed she’d gotten an email. She opened it up and read.
“I think you are my aunt. I think your mother was Beatrice,” her newfound nephew said. “I think you have a half brother who is alive, and a half sister who has passed on. But let’s figure it out.”
And there was more.
“He gave me a phone number, and told me my brother was waiting for me to call,” Julia said.
Of course, she called. On the other end of the line was her brother, Douglass Fiero, also a retired college professor, although he taught literature, not theater. The connection was immediate. Doug hadn’t known of Julia’s existence, but the timing of her birth suddenly made sense. A few years older than Julia, Doug remembered a time when he was nine and his sister six and they spent two months sleeping in the kitchen of his father’s small apartment. His parents had been divorced, and his mother who’d been raising him and his sister, had left the children with their father for a time. That’s when Julia was born. On the phone so many years later, Julia and Doug spent a lot of time trying to get to know each other. He told her about her half sister, who’d passed away, about his sons and his work. But most of all Doug wanted Julia to know about their mother.
“Probably the most intelligent person I’ve ever known,” he said.
Julia saw a little of herself, but also some of the same traits that so distinguished her own adoptive mother. Both her mother who raised her and her biological mother attended college in Kalamazoo. And both women ran businesses and raised kids on their own at a time when that wasn’t common.
“The main thing I wanted to do when we first talked was to tell (Julia) about our mother,” Doug said. “She is really important. Someone, who along with my wife, is the most significant person in my life. I was really excited to share that with (Julia). It’s been a wonderful and startling thing to be able to do that.”
Julia eventually visited Doug and his wife in New Jersey. They shared their own histories, and the coincidences in their lives: Julia’s love of theater had been sparked by a summer stock theater, uncannily the same theater to which their biological mom took Doug and his sister when they were children; moreover, Julia spent all of her career and Doug spent the major portions of his career teaching at the university level.
For Julia it’s the kind of drama that would be hard to make up, and she’s still a little shocked that after so many decades she’s pieced together the story of her birth.
“My birth mother had told no one of my existence,” she said “Without the DNA analysis at 23andMe, I would never have found any members of my birth family. No adoption registry would have provided answers ever. I am very grateful, incredibly surprised and delighted by this turn of events. It is still somewhat incredible to me that this could happen after more than six decades of life. Amazing.”