Let Me Tell You About My Other Mom

My biological mother, Donna Mary Turner, circa 1969.

I have kept this close to the vest for quite a while for numerous reasons but I am finally comfortable with sharing at least part of the story.

In December 2018 I spit into a tube and mailed that tube off to 23 and Me hoping to discover my ethnicity. Part of me hoped to learn something of my biological family. I was adopted during the first week of my life and I was raised by John and Yung Hi Knaak, then of Erie, Pennsylvania. My parents John and Yung Hi never kept my adoption from me, on the contrary, they told me when I was four years old. Not that I really understood what it meant at the time, but I’m sure the information was intended to explain why a Caucasian boy’s mother was Korean.

As I grew up, I often wondered about my biological family, my mother in particular. However, every time I brought it up, my mom Yung Hi would get upset and question her parenting skills and my love for her. My dad John would try to placate her and assure her it was just the curiosity of a child and nothing more. He was right. And believe me, I got into plenty of scrapes defending her honor and nationality and my status as one of the adopted. I loved my parents; I couldn’t have been raised by better people. They passed away more than 15 years ago, and I still think about them every day.

Even as an adult, I felt weird about seeking out my biological family. I thought it would have been an insult to John and Yung Hi. I wasn’t what you’d call a model teenager, I put them through the wringer even into my early 20s. When they died in 2006 and 2007 respectively, I decided that maybe it was time to launch a search. You see these TV programs featuring emotional family reunions between long-lost relatives all the time. I started to investigate it.

Until 2017, Pennsylvania was Draconian with regard to adoption records. When I took up the idea in 2010-2011, I would have had to spend $150 and petition the court, and even then, they still could have said “no,” especially if the birth parents were still alive. We had just bought a house in 2008 and we were cash-strapped at the time and couldn’t afford the $150 to take a run at “maybe.” I was also still skittish about the whole thing, disrespecting my parents’ memory and all that.

Fast forward to December 2018 and a 23 and Me Christmas present from my wife that led me to a biological cousin on my father’s side. She said that Pennsylvania had changed the law and all I had to do was fill out a form and send in a check for $20 and I could get my original birth record. Well, a quick Google search confirmed my newfound cousin’s information. I am one of those old-school guys who keeps the emergency husband check in his wallet. I couldn’t fill out the form and write the check fast enough. Still, my birth record may not have existed. It was a shot in the dark and it could take up to 45 days to get any kind of response.

My biological mother Donna Mary Turner at approximately age 15.

Exactly 45 days later my original birth record arrived. The information printed on it was sparse, but it was enough. My mother’s name was Donna Mary Turner, she was 23 when I was born, my name was Baby Boy Turner, and my father’s name was left blank. The detective work began rather quickly. After a few dead ends and unreturned Facebook messages, I found someone who turned out to be my mother’s first cousin, my first cousin once removed, Melissa Turner. Melissa made a phone call to my mother’s widower and within hours told me that I had indeed found my biological family. And an Ancestry DNA test further confirmed what we already knew.

I spoke to my mother’s husband on the phone shortly thereafter and although I came away with some answers, I was still left with several questions. That call also led me to another with my grandmother who is still alive. I was a bit surprised to learn that more people than just my mother were aware of my existence. My great-grandmother was in the room when I was born. My mother’s widower knew about me. However, my mother took my father’s identity with her to her grave.

When it comes to the Knaaks, at this point in time I have well over 100 cousins, most of which fall into the second cousin category. I have taken over responsibility for the maintenance of the Knaak family tree and this has further kept the genealogy fire burning when it comes to learning about my biological family. The Knaaks are predominantly German, while I am not. I am English, Irish and Scottish.

I left my hometown of Rochester, New York, at age 18. I knew at an early age that my future lay elsewhere. At age 53 my wanderlust has been satiated for the most part, it’s more of a mental and emotional journey at this point. Yet, I have much more of my adopted state of Washington to explore. Interestingly enough, most of my Knaak relatives still reside in western New York, and most of my Turner relatives still call north central/western Pennsylvania home.

And that brings me to my point. I have been Facebook friends with my biological cousin, Melissa, for three years or so, and as luck would have it her son and daughter-in-law now live in Seattle. Just this past week, Melissa had the opportunity to visit, and she had a free day that she chose to spend with me. I gladly drove the 2 ½ hours to the Emerald City.

A meeting 53 years in the making, me and my biological cousin Melissa.

Melissa and I conversed over food and adult beverages for more than four hours. We discovered that we have much in common, including similar personalities and a shared sense of humor, and we are both fluent in sarcasm. We have traveled along similar career paths and we each live on an ocean, on opposite coasts mind you, but an ocean, nonetheless. I felt like I have known her forever, and we fell into easy conversation. It wasn’t forced and it didn’t feel like a first-time meeting, it just felt like the most recent visit among many.

My mother Donna, who had three brothers (Melissa’s father being one of them), married her husband 15 months or so after I was born. She attended Bryant and Stratton in Buffalo, New York, after graduating from Port Allegany High School in Port Allegany, Pennsylvania. She died of cancer in 2010 at age 64. Ironically, my mom who raised me also died at age 64. By all accounts, I take after my mother Donna quite a bit, except for the Elvis Presley fandom. Photos Melissa was kind enough to provide show where I got my curly blond locks as a toddler.  

Again, as many answers as I have, I still have more questions. Who was my father? Why did my mother eventually decide to give me up? I am zeroing in on who dad was. I am pretty sure his last name was Taylor and we have narrowed it down to two possibilities. That cousin on my father’s side who helped propel me down this path has stopped responding, perhaps her life has gotten in the way and she doesn’t have the bandwidth for me and my quest, or maybe she was told to shut up and stop asking questions. Regardless, we’ll have to get more aggressive and persistent if I am to answer this question.

Of what information does exist, there is so much more to learn. Genealogy is a shared passion and Melissa is quick to teach me the family history. On the other hand, I do not believe that I am going to make up 53 years of lost time with any of my biological relatives. I think it’s a fallacy and misguided to think that anyone who finds long-lost relatives could ever do that. However, you can have and enjoy whatever relationship you choose with those you do find.

Sitting across from my cousin Melissa it was readily apparent that we are indeed related, cut from the same cloth as it were. Yes, we already knew about the shared DNA and family tree connection, but the more we talked and spent time together, I came to the conclusion that Melissa is family, my family. She is the first biological relative I have ever met in person, and it took quite a bit of resolve to keep my emotions in check.

This meeting drove home the fact that I still have a living grandmother and that I have much more to learn about my mother and my people and where we come from. Beyond a window into my mother’s life, I have gained a friend and cousin in Melissa.

I wish I could have known Donna Mary Turner. It sounds like I would have just missed her had I started looking when I finally had the mind to. I take little solace in that knowledge.

In January 2019, I wrote, “I am still a Knaak. And I always will be, and I am proud to be.” That still holds true, but I am also a Turner and from what I have learned so far, I am proud to be and proud to be Donna’s son.