Liz Kellner loves puzzles, but piecing together the hardest one of her life required a little help from 23andMe.
“This was the first time I was one of the pieces,” said the 48 year-old entrepreneurship specialist.
Abandoned as an infant, Liz said her origins were always a mystery to her.
She’d been found on a cold December day in Minneapolis almost 50 years ago. She was only a few days old when a rookie cop discovered her in an apartment laundry room wrapped in a kimono.
Looking back now, Liz doesn’t see her story as a tragedy – quite the opposite.
“I was lucky enough to have a birth mother who, when she realized that she couldn’t take care of me, left me somewhere safe, and warm, given that it was in December and in Minnesota.”
Then there was the young cop who found her, the nurses who cared for her at the hospital, the foster mother who took her in, and the loving parents who ultimately adopted her.
Liz says she was fortunate. If she hadn’t been abandoned she never would have had the wonderful parents who raised her, or the younger sister who was born nine years after her adoption. Her family, she said, is the “best gift ever.”
Liz wouldn’t want to change any of that even if she could. But that never altered her desire to know more about herself. It never changed wanting to know about where she came from or why she’d been abandoned as a baby.
Over the years, Liz searched for answers. She always knew she’d been adopted. As she was able to piece together the story of how she was found, she also did her best to find and thank those who’d been so good to her.
“Sort of paying it forward, you know,” she said.
Liz found and thanked Officer Jannsen, one of the police officers who found her. She also tracked down the foster mom who cared for her until her adoption and thanked her for taking such good care of her and being a part of the system.
They all remembered Liz.
“I guess I made an impression,” she said.
But the trail ended there, until, that is, she tested with 23andMe.
Initially the most important part of her results had to do with her ancestry. Liz quickly found out that despite being raised a Catholic, her heritage was 100 percent Ashkenazi Jew. Surprising for Liz, but the real surprised didn’t come until the summer of 2014 when Liz signed into her 23andMe account after not looking at it for awhile. She immediately saw something she’d never seen before.
“”I log in and …(the) screen says I have a cousin, and an aunt, and a half-sister.”
Stunned and thinking it was a mistake, she quickly logged out. She waited and then logged back in.
“Yup, still there,” Liz said.
It was the first time she’d ever been able to identify close biological relatives, in this case using 23andMe’s DNA Relatives tool.
This alone was huge, and Liz didn’t dare hope that she’d be able to answer the questions that have been there her whole life about who her mother or father was.
But she was also skeptical. Her first thought was that it was a mistake, so she emailed her sister, and her best friend, who is a bit of a genetics buff. Then she sent a message with her data to a friend who is a genetics professor. She wanted to know what they thought. Was it correct? Did she really just find her first close blood relatives?
Her sister’s response was immediate: “Oh My God!”
Then the professor weighed in.
“Congratulations, you have more family.”
Liz felt her head spinning.
Then things got really interesting.
Liz connected with her newly identified aunt, Abbieann. Abbieann had also been adopted. As they talked they realized that rather than Abbie being her aunt, they were actually half-sisters and they shared one other sister, who was also adopted. Because Liz’s two new-found biological sisters had been adopted in a more traditional way, they had birth certificates with names on them.
The two had used that to find their biological mother, who is also Liz’s mother and who was still alive. Liz’s full sister had also tested. So in a short time Liz went from having one sister to eight siblings, and identifying her birth parents, who were both still alive.
“So unreal,” she said. “There’s no way to describe my emotions. I think my heart stopped.”
While this was way more than Liz had ever hoped to learn, the new connections brought up difficult questions and histories. Her birth mother is still alive but has dementia. Liz’s siblings who share her father worried about the impact meeting Liz would have on their mom. Cautiously Liz moved forward and introduced herself to her new found cousins, aunts, uncles and siblings, most who seemed to welcome her into the family, even though “they didn’t even know I existed,” she said.
Liz also met her father, who had also been unaware of her birth. When they finally met, Liz saw in him some of her own quirks and habits.
Sitting across from him, she had the same strange sensation she had when she sat with her sisters. Here she was looking at someone who shared features and mannerisms with her, someone who looked totally familiar, but who was also a stranger.
“To sit and talk with someone who is your sibling, or your biological parent, at age 48, who you have never met … incredible,” Liz said.
This had all been more than she’d hoped for, but the encounters also left her with some lingering questions that may never get answered. She couldn’t ask her biological mother about what happened. Even if she’d been able to ask her mother those questions, she’s not sure she would be able to tell her why she’d been left in a laundry room, what day she was actually born or whether through all those years, her mother ever thought about the child she abandoned.
Liz’s biological family’s story is a complicated one, filled with emotional landmines. Her biological parents ultimately got married, but that was almost 19 years after Liz’s birth. Her biological father said he didn’t know of her existence or that of her two sisters who share the same mother. He had raised another family during that time, and only married Liz’s biological mother after his first wife passed away. As Liz figured all this out, she felt compelled to protect some of those family members who didn’t know about her and this complicated history. But that also meant that she didn’t get the opportunity to ask some of the questions she wanted to ask.
“At least I was conceived out of love,” she said.
She felt lucky to have made these connections. They’ve triggered all this thought about nature and nurture, she said. She found that she could see many of her traits in her new found siblings and birth father. Making all these connections helped her explain a little bit more about herself as well, she said.
Liz said she doesn’t know what will come from all this, but learning this history and meeting her biological family has helped her. Liz doesn’t know if the relationships with her biological family will endure, the bond she has with her family hasn’t changed and only become stronger.
Liz said she shared her story, in part, because she and her new found sisters believe that there may be at least one other sibling out there who Liz wants to find. She believes her sibling would have been adopted in the Chicago area through Jewish Services in late 1954 or early 1955.
Liz is still trying grapple with what these new connections have meant to her.
“So unreal,” she said. “(There is) no way to describe the emotions.”