Friday, October 28, 2022 at 4:44 PM
About my father
This is a long, personal story about how I discovered five years ago at age 45 that my dad wasn't my biological father, who he was, who I am and the effect it has had on my life and mental health. It helped a lot to write it, hopefully it might be of interest for someone to read it.
My family and I
By 2017, I had suspected for a decade or so that maybe something wasn’t exactly as it seemed in my family. First, I’m 6’3” and don’t look anything like my dad or only brother David (he’s 6 years older), who are both short and stocky. Every family has a black sheep, so I just assumed that was me.
But when I was 13 and started my rebellious stage, and having had my growth spurt, I started using my longer reach and size to fight back against my dad, whose form of discipline was always physical and usually involved his belt or "lathes" - long pieces of splintered wood taken from the walls of the 200 year old houses my family renovated. At one point we were about to get into a fist fight at the top of the stairs when my mom broke it up. She was screaming at me, saying that she chose her husband, but didn’t choose me. That's a quote. You might think I was some sort of teenage hellion, to earn that sort of treatment, but I wasn’t. Especially in hindsight as a parent of a teen, I can see what a decent kid I actually was.
My parents continued this sort of attitude throughout my teen years, refusing to support any extracurricular activities I did at school like sports because it was a “waste of time”. They wanted me home after school so I could do manual labor for whatever they needed - to help their business or otherwise. At school though, I was well liked and a successful athlete, eventually becoming the NH state champion in the 200m in track as well as captain of the team. My parents never came to see me run once. I'm still quite bitter about it.
My reaction to their lack of support or interest was to do really badly in school, mostly out of spite, but also because of untreated ADHD and other emotional problems. After I graduated high school I hadn’t gotten into college. My parents refused to help. They said that my older brother had gone to college and what had his degree done for him? Nothing. College was, in their opinion, another “waste of time.” I immediately moved out, but after a summer and winter living on my own, I managed to con my way into a small college in Vermont (based on my SATs which were relatively high) where I spent a semester getting good grades before transferring to a bigger state school back in NH. I quit after a few years once the bills started getting too high to manage on my own and realizing that the college was basically filled with unambitious kids mostly looking to party. I was editor of the college newspaper in my second year there - something that wouldn't have been possible at any other college.
Life went on and I decided that my parents were who they were and I wasn’t going to obsess over how unhappy my childhood was. And it was definitely unhappy. But, I forgave them, really. My parents and I had a normal long-distance relationship where I called every month or so and visited occasionally. And when I got married and had a kid, I wanted them part of my son Alex’s life, imagining some happy extended family I didn’t have growing up.
But my parents weren’t really interested in being grandparents - unsurprising in retrospect, given how little they wanted to be my parents - so I gave up on that idea and explained to Alex that they were just older, far away and just weren’t that sort of attentive grandparents who baked cookies, and that was that. He has a whole other family back in Spain that dotes on him when he visits like he’s a little prince, so I wasn’t worried about it.
DNA and my dad
At some point over the years, my dad and I had a weird conversation that I never forgot. His older brother Ken had come up to NH from Florida to take a DNA sample from my dad. (This was years before DNA testing was an online consumer thing). My dad’s family had a history, because his mom was a young widower with a baby son when she remarried my dad’s father (who I am named after) and had three more kids. Ken, the oldest of the new family, wondered if he really was Russell’s son or not and wanted my dad to give him some DNA to test. I happened to call while Ken was visiting, and though usually I just talked to my mom, and almost never had a conversation with my dad, I ended up chatting with my him that time and he asked me, out of the blue, “Would you care about this if it was you?” He explained that my cousin Bobby - who was adopted - had no interest in finding his parents, and my dad thought Ken was being silly. A little taken aback, I of course told my dad what he wanted to hear, which was “Nah, of course not. Why would that matter now?”
But after I got off the phone I immediately thought, “Huh. Well, that would explain some things!” and from that point on I assumed I may have been adopted (unlikely given how much I resemble my mom and her family) or that Dad wasn’t my biological father. Over the years I confessed this to both my ex-wife and my brother, who both said I was being overly suspicious, but maybe...
In 2011, the online service 23andMe launched their DNA service and as I'm a geek, I thought it was pretty cool, so I signed up and got my genome sequenced. Not thinking about my parentage or anything, just for fun. Later, my aunt Dottie (one of my mom’s two sisters) got really into genealogy, and joined the same site, then got her two daughters (my cousins Cheryl and Nicole) to join as well as her grandkids too! Then she started tracking down distant relatives and getting in touch. Being part of the same service, I would get updates as new relatives were detected.
A few years later, I thought my brother David might like to see his genome data, and thought it would be nice to have him linked up to the rest of us, so I got him a DNA kit for Christmas in 2016. We both joked that this would tell us for sure about Dad, but neither of us really thought much about it.
It takes a few months for the service to get back to you after you send in your spit in a test tube, and David took a month to get around to it. A few months later, in April, I was out food shopping when I get a call from him: “Hey there half-brother!” I immediately knew what he was talking about. So right there in the store, I pulled up the site myself to see the new link. Sure enough, we shared 25% DNA and we’re clearly marked as half siblings.
So, now what? Talking to my brother, I decided to talk to mom privately first, then give him an update so he could talk to her, and then go from there. But we forgot about my aunt Dottie, who in her retirement is online every day doing genealogy stuff.
Dottie immediately got an email about a new relative online - her nephew David. So she opens the website and sees that he and I are half-brothers and she’s shocked. Apparently, she actually started to doubt the science of DNA or questioning the accuracy of 23andMe, because to her, it was impossible. Dottie and my mother have talked once a week for literally their entire lives (my grandfather drowned when mom was only 3yo, and my grandmother never got re-married, so my two aunts, Dottie and Barbara, and my mom were all very close).
So, Dottie immediately calls my mom (before I do) and says, “What in the world? This can’t be right. Should I call that company and give them hell?” and my mom, who is an incredibly secretive and private person, apparently responded, “Shut up. Mind your own business. Richard doesn’t know. That’s the last we’re talking about this.”
But then, of course, my aunt calls my brother - not me for some reason - to tell him about her conversation with our mom. And David then calls me and tells me that mom knows what's coming This all happened within the space of a few hours... Joy.
I email mom and ask her to call me when Dad’s not around because I wanted to ask her something. She responds that she can guess what I’m going to ask, and tells me to call Saturday morning. I do and we have a very short conversation.
She tells me that when she was in Massachusetts in 1971, her and my dad were having troubles and she had a short affair with her boss. She couldn’t remember much about him (as it was 45 years ago), besides that his name was John (she thinks) and that he worked for a sketchy weather proofing company where my mom was a secretary. The place was sketchy because it tended to overbill or do work that wasn’t needed, hard-sell tactics, etc. He was also much older than her (she was 25 at the time) but she wasn’t sure how much.
Mom then told me that her and my dad made amends and basically within the week she had quit the job. Later when she realized she was pregnant, she thought at first that the baby was my dad’s. She said it wasn’t until a couple years later she realized the truth. (Not sure how much I believe this.) She decided to not tell my dad, but did write a note to me, which she had left in her will, so I would have found out some day. Really mom? The call was short and awkward - as expected of the Puritan New England family we are.
What’s crazy about this story is that after she quit, her and my dad went out and bought a new truck and decided to move to Florida and get jobs in the restaurant business (my dad is a trained chef). I had heard this part of the story for my entire life. They packed up my brother, who was 5 yo, and drove south. When they got there, they couldn’t find any work and were forced a month later or so to move back to New England where they had family and could get work. They had no money, so they lived in a campground in Vermont, where they stayed until the snow started falling in November. I was born in Brattleboro in January. My mom talked about being 8 months pregnant, ironing my dad’s shirt in the middle of a campground so he could go to work as a waiter. What had been left out of that whole story was that days before they left for Florida, apparently, they had been having problems which had lead to me.
Lots of things are apparent in retrospect. My parents definitely weren’t planning to have another kid, ever. They never really liked being parents and considered my older brother simply free labor - he was washing dishes in their busy restaurant kitchen when he was 8 or 9. My arrival six years after him wasn’t something they were overly excited about, and this was clearly communicated to myself in so many ways. It also influenced my brother who hated me for a long time. I always assumed his dislike of me was something I had somehow done when I was younger, so I made a major effort to fix my relationship with David in my mid 20s, but if I hadn't, we would never had spoken as adults. He still doesn't particularly like me very much, but there's nothing I can do about that, despite "loaning" him thousands of dollars over the years - he's got his own issues.
OK, so now that my lifelong suspicions had actually been confirmed - which I never really thought would happen - I wasn't about to just not find out more. Going on the few details of when and where my biological father was in 1971 and started trying to track him down, looking up old businesses, sending emails, etc. What I also did was to sign up to Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com and a few others to see if there were any DNA matches.
At this point, I should briefly explain how DNA family matching sorta works: You share 50% DNA with your parents, basically half from each. The best metaphor for this is a deck of cards. You need a full deck to be a person. First your mom shuffles her deck and gives you about half of them. Then you ask your dad to help fill in the cards that are missing. The end result is that you have about 50% shared with each parent, though exactly which bits were shared, and the exact number might be off by a bit.
Here is the standard relationship chart:
- Full siblings and parents: ~50% DNA shared
- Aunt/uncles and nieces/nephews: ~25%
- First cousins: ~12.5%
- Second cousin or First Cousin Once Removed: ~6.25%
- For half relationships like a half-brother, divide it by half. So, ~25% for half siblings.
Also, to explain cousins, the terms first, second, etc. is about your shared grandparents, great grandparents, etc. Grand = first, great = 2nd, great-great = 3rd, etc. The term “once removed” is about children of cousins. My aunt’s grandkids (my first cousins’ kids) are my first cousins once removed.
On Ancestry I got a match with a woman named Imani Coppola, who is African American and shared 11% DNA with me, which was labelled as probably first or second cousin. That was a bit confusing, but not impossible, so I sent her a contact request and then tracked her down off the site by her profile pic, but she didn’t respond as she didn't use the service much. Amazingly, it seemed that she had a minor hit song in the 90s called Legend of a Cowgirl.
Here, check it out:
On 23andMe I had lots of 3rd and 4th cousins, but it’s hard to determine which side of the family they’re on and they’re too distant to be of much use. How much do you know of your great-great grandparents or more? I sent some messages but didn’t get any response.
Then in August, I got a hit on MyHeritage from a woman named Jennifer from New York who had just signed up. We shared 13% DNA! This meant she was probably my first cousin. Wow!! We immediately connected, I told her my story, and happily she responded with incredible kindness and we started trying to figure out where I fit into her family.
I told her everything I knew, and we soon narrowed it down to her father’s family. Jennifer was the same age as I was, and from a very large Italian family that had emigrated to New York in the early 1900s. Her father Jerry is one of four brothers and sister: Jerry, John, Jeff and Jane. Sadly, her father had only recently passed away, as had her uncle Jeff. They were both in their 70s. Jane never had a family, and her uncle John is a sort of hippie musician type whose second marriage to an African American woman produced a bunch of kids, including another John, Maya and Imani the rock star.
At first, we thought, “Well, I guess my biological father must be Jennifer's uncle John” as that’s the name my mom gave me. But wait, his daughter Imani and I shared 11% DNA. If she was my half-sister, we'd share around 25%, just like I do with David. So that didn’t make sense. We couldn't ask Jeff as he had already passed away, so Jennifer sent a message to his two children Jeff Jr. and Angela. It turns out that Angela was also on Ancestry, but had her details hidden. She turned access on for me, and it turns out I shared just 12% DNA with her as well.
So, Jane has no children, and I only share ~12% DNA with the rest, which each of the services insisted meant they were my first cousins.
Then I ask a couple questions which finally cleared everything up. How old were her uncles in 1971? Well, it turns out the oldest would have only been 22, and my mom said she definitely remembered my father being much older than her. Then I asked, “Are there any other men named John in your family?” And she said, well, her grandfather is named John as well. It’s a family name.
Jennifer, Imani and the rest aren’t my first cousins, but my half-nieces/nephews! What would normally be a 25% shared DNA is only 12.5%, just like a first cousin. Apparently, all the online services want to pretend half relationships don’t exist, so they don’t point it out, and thus the labels of first cousin were wrong.
After some more analysis – including a primer on DNA I just explained - and online conversations with my half-siblings John and Jane (who took a while to convince I wasn’t some con artist, since I'm some random guy on the internet as well as the fact that my existence means that her father wasn’t faithful to her mom), I finally got a clear picture of who my father was.
Finding my father
My biological father is named John Coppola. He was born in Reggio Calabria, Italy in 1920 and came to the U.S when he was 3yo with his older brother and parents. I found the Census from around that time and can see where he was listed. Most likely there’s an entry in Ellis Island as well. He grew up in New York and Long Island, served in the Military during WWII, was a salesman (thus his work in the waterproofing company), had four kids and stayed married his entire life. He died in 1999, so sadly I'm 20 years too late to meet him. He's buried in a military cemetery in New York.
(Holy shit, I'm half Italian! For someone who grew up thinking they were a boring New England WASP with the most exotic relatives being from Canada, this is quite the revelation.)
After we figured this out, I had several conversations with some of my half-nieces and half-siblings John, and I got added to a Coppola family group on Facebook - where I found I have some first cousins still living in Italy. My long-lost family is pretty cool - a combination normal and weird in the usual ways. They have all been very warm and welcoming to me.
In June 2019, I took a weekend to go to New York and visit them on Long Island and Manhattan where they live. I met half-siblings John and Jane (both in their 70s - my father around 50 at the time of my conception, so his other kids are all my parents age), and we visited some of my half nieces and nephews including Jennifer and Tom and my first cousins Liza and Jo-Ann and Jo-Ann’s daughter Marissa. They were all New Yorkers to the bone.
It was quite the whirlwind tour, but it accomplished what it was meant to and gave me some answers and a bit of closure. I confirmed to myself that I hadn’t missed out on some alternative life that would have been drastically different from my own. It wasn't a big worry or anything, but the thought was there. The Coppolas are your typically unique American family and have their good and bad like any other family. Again, I wasn't expecting otherwise, but confirming that was nice. Apparently I take after my father in a lot of ways, which goes to show that the question of nature vs. nurture isn't as clear cut as it may seem.
As for my mom and Richard. Well, the last time my mom and I talked a few years ago, she said that she had told my dad, and that he was OK with it, said that I shouldn’t worry as I was still his son (thanks?), but – quite damningly - that he had suspected it all along.
I wasn't happy about that at all. My parents acted like they didn’t want or even like me my entire life, and now I know why. They never supported me in any endeavor except out of a basic level of parental responsibility - I still have health and dental problems from their neglect during my childhood. They actually encouraged me not to go to college, then later didn’t understand and vaguely disapproved of my career in tech.
But worst of all, and unforgivably, they basically treated their only grandson Alex as if he was someone else’s kid, or more like a pet I owned. On phone calls they’d rarely ask about him and if I talked about what he was up to (a topic I love to talk about), they’d hmm and not really pay attention. They'd send thoughtless gifts at Christmas, and worse, send birthday cards during the wrong month - twice!! - or not at all. When they did bother to mention their grandson during a conversation, they'd give me ominous warnings about what terror was coming when he became a teenager. Every single conversation. "Just you wait," they'd say.
This is how they eventually rationalized their treatment of me. I remember having an unhappy childhood filled with fear, shame and guilt, but it's just moments. But my teens I remember clearly, and the neglect and dislike I received from them (“I didn’t choose you.”) is still clear in my mind. My parents claimed I was an uncontrollable, horrible teen, and I was completely ready for this to happen to me when Alex got to that age. But it didn’t. Of course, it didn’t. He went through his teen years of course, but he was no worse or better than I had been, and since that wasn't bad at all, it wasn’t all that difficult to manage for any adult with half a brain to deal with. Especially if you love your kid as much as I love my son. My son was and is a great kid – no crime, no bad influences, no drinking or drugs, lots of friends, did OK in school and always college bound, where he is today. Exactly like I was at his age. I love him like crazy, and proud of him in every way.
The only good thing about my parents is that whenever I've needed to handle a parenting situation, I think back to how they would have done it and then do the exact opposite. It hasn't failed to be the perfect solution yet.
I decided it was best for both Alex and myself to just stop reaching out or responding to them. I didn’t cut them off or make some big announcement. I just stopped responding. It didn’t take them long to stop sending messages or calling regularly – and even in the emails my mom did send, there wasn’t even the slightest mention of the most important thing in my life, my only son and their only grandson. Soon they stopped all together and just like that, they were out of my life. I assume they stopped responding so quickly because, after 46 long years, I was finally out of their lives. So now they don’t bother emailing or calling me - or Alex of course, though he never had anything to do with my silence - and that’s honestly great. I’ve told my brother I don’t want to hear about them, and I haven't regretted it.
It wasn’t until a couple years later that I realized what a mental time bomb this really was. At first, it was a sort of interesting topic. I'd tell people at work what I discovered, or women I was dating, and they'd inevitably ask, "How are you doing?" And I say, fine, why wouldn't I be? It was just an odd thing that happened. In fact, if you look online it's almost a stereotypical part of life now that DNA testing is common. So many articles about people discovering half-siblings or other family secrets thought long buried. In the past year or so, I've mentioned it only to have the other person say, "Oh, that happened to my sister-in-law," or similar. It's almost a cliché.
But that's if it hasn't happened to you personally. After a while, it started really eating into my head. Every memory I had from growing up – mostly very bad memories of screaming and crying and begging Richard to stop hitting me – was now given a different context and I realized how unloved and unwanted I truly was. I wasn't being punished because I was a bad child, I was being punished for my mother's infidelity. The sense of not being wanted wasn't imaginary, it was real. The reason my brother hated me so much didn't have anything to do with what a jerk I was as a teen - in fact I idolized him, Alex's middle name is David - it was because of my parents subtly communicating how little they thought of me and he obviously picked up on it. The context for everything I remember when I was young, every lesson I thought I had learned, every instinct I developed ended up being re-evaluated. Turning 50 didn't help this process at all - it was like a mid-life crisis on steroids.
Anyways, my mental health has suffered more than I thought was possible as a result of this discovery. It went from being a curiosity, to something that really hurt, and caused a slow, steady depression that increased over time. It wasn't so much that I had been lied to for 45 years, it was the gradual understanding of what had been really going on in my childhood, and why my parents would have preferred that I never existed. It's sort of hard to explain why this really got to me, but one example is that I look a lot like my mother, as one might expect. As I get older I can see it more and more. So for a while - like a couple years - I'd look into a mirror and if I caught the resemblance for some reason, I'd get really upset. Not being able to see your own reflection without being overcome with waves of depression is sort hard. The same goes for my own voice, or expressions I might use. I'd get into a downward spiral just from an exclamation I might blurt out, suddenly realizing where I had learned it from. I'm finally past this all now, thankfully.
Five years after first learning the truth about my father, I'm finally feeling better and moving on. But the past couple years were pretty hard as a result. This craziness, plus turning 50, plus Covid ended up with me leaving a job I loved and leading to a full on mental breakdown last year, which I'm only now starting to finally recover from.
If you're like I was a few years ago, you might think this is all sorta silly. Who cares? Such drama over something that happened so long ago! You're an adult now! Jesus, get over it and move on already! I totally get it. I probably wouldn't have even read a post like this all the way through, quite honestly. I'd have read to the bit which revealed who my father was and then skipped all the touchy-feely bits as exaggerated whinging. So that's fine - I think something like this is pretty hard to relate to unless you've had something similar happen to you.
But in general, I agree. It's time to move on. It took a long while to get my head in order, but it finally happened. I'm even over the bitterness about how much time I lost to dealing with it. I have to admit though, now that my head is back on straight, the rest of my life is a mess, which I now I have to start cleaning up. I'm broke and alone and have all sorts of social issues I still need to work out (my fear of rejection has been off the charts for a few years now), but hopefully the hole isn't too deep to climb out of. Or, well, at least I've stopped digging.
Thanks for reading.