Growing up in Rochester, New York, Barbara Adler used to gaze at the mirror and ask herself whose features she was seeing there. Were those her father’s eyes? Her mother’s lips?
Adler knew from an early age that she had been adopted in infancy, but the couple who raised her gave her only the basic facts about her birth parents. She knew, for instance, that her birth father was Jewish but her birth mother was not, that her parents were in college when they met and that they had to give her up for adoption; that was about it.
She never felt resentful, Adler says today. The couple who raised her were loving, caring people who gave her and her brother (who was also adopted) a solid middle-class upbringing, and she always thought of them as Mom and Dad. Still, sometimes her mind would turn to the question of her personal origins.
“When we were kids, we used to play orphanage,” said Adler, now 64 and living in Corvallis. “I don’t think all kids play orphanage.”
As she grew older, she sometimes thought about trying to track down her birth family but always dismissed the idea, partly out of loyalty to her adoptive parents and partly because she didn’t want to stir up painful memories for the mother and father who gave her up.
Yet she remained curious about her ethnic background, and her attitude about researching her family tree started to shift some years back after her adoptive parents and brother died.
About a year ago, Adler decided to take the plunge. She joined Ancestry.com, an online genealogy research service, and sent in a saliva sample for testing. The company sent her a list of other Ancestry subscribers who might be related to her, but none who could be closer than third cousins.
Intrigued, Adler used Ancestry’s in-app messaging service to reach out to the people on the list, providing what little she knew about her own background and asking if any of them knew someone who had been put up for adoption in Rochester in 1952.
No one did, but a woman named Amy Sanchez wrote back to say Adler might be related to a family named Dudman. That was interesting, as far as it went, but Adler’s search seemed to hit a dead end at that point.
Then, on May 4, Adler got an email on the Ancestry service from a woman named Joan Hall who said they might be related. She wanted to know Adler’s birthdate and whether she had been adopted.
The questions were telling, but what really caught Adler’s attention was the notation on the email from Ancestry.com. Based on information the sender had provided, the company said, there appeared to be just a single degree of separation between Adler and Hall.
“I knew it had to be my mother,” she said.
Adler responded with the information and soon got a reply.
“I’m very certain you are my daughter,” the email said, “and I’m very glad that I found you.”
Adler wasn’t sure what she would find when she set out to investigate her roots, but the unexpected email exchange filled her with powerful emotions. Even now, weeks later, she struggles to describe what she felt in that moment.
“There are not adequate words,” she said. “‘Happy’ is not enough of a word. ‘Awesome’ is not enough of a word. I don’t know how to express it very well.”
The two women exchanged phone numbers, and Hall promised to call her daughter soon. “My heart,” she wrote, “is full to overflowing.”
Their first phone call lasted for an hour as mother and daughter filled each other in on six decades’ worth of intimate details from lives that each had imagined but knew nothing about.
For the first time, Adler learned that her father was a man named Harlan Dudman, a schoolteacher from Rochester who died in 1974. He and her mother met in college and fell in love. When they learned that she was pregnant, they decided to get married, but religion was an issue. Dudman’s family was dead-set against his marrying outside the Jewish faith, an attitude his brother made abundantly clear.
“If you marry that girl,” he said, “we will hold a funeral for you, and you will be dead to our family.”
Bowing to his family’s wishes, Dudman never saw his pregnant lover again. She delivered the baby at a local hospital and put her up for adoption as “Baby Girl Martin,” using her great-great-grandmother’s maiden name.
Adler also learned that her mother, whose own maiden name was Cornish, went on to marry a man named Hall and give birth to two girls and a boy, who all lived near her in the Rochester area.
Things moved quickly after Adler learned that. On June 29, Adler flew to New York with one of her two grown daughters for a long-overdue reunion. She visited a local cemetery where five generations of her mother’s family are buried. She met her half-siblings Beth Thomas, Julie Jugle and Andy Hall, as well as their children and a smattering of grandchildren. After a lifetime of separation, the whole clan chattered away together as though they’d never been apart.
“Remarkably, I’m the only person who did not cry,” Adler said. “I was trying to take in as much as I could and remember it.”
She learned that while she and her Hall relations had all kinds of things in common, there was little in the way of a physical resemblance. Then she saw a photograph of her father.
“I always wondered who I looked like,” Adler said. “Now I know.”
And now she has another family reunion to attend.
After reconnecting with her mother over Ancestry.com back in May, Adler emailed Amy Sanchez, the woman who had first suggested a possible Dudman relationship, to tell her she had just learned that her father’s name was Harlan Dudman. The response from Sanchez came as a shock, Adler recalled.
“She wrote back, ‘What? You are my sister!’”
Like Adler’s mother, her father had gone on to marry and have three kids, all girls. But unlike Hall, who had told all her children when they were in high school about the baby she had given up for adoption, Dudman never shared that information with his own kids. For them, Adler’s revelation was a bolt from the blue.
Adler’s Dudman half-sisters are scattered around the country — Sanchez in Texas, Sherri Bauer in New York and Tracie Decker in California — but all are planning to gather this October in Chicago, where Adler will travel to meet them for the first time.
She’s not quite sure what to expect from the get-together, and she’s still processing the avalanche of new information she’s learned about herself over the last two months. She confesses to feeling a little overwhelmed by it all.
“For awhile it was like: Who am I? Am I Barbara Adler or am I not?” she said.
But now, she added, she feels like she’s beginning to come to terms with her new identity — and reconcile it with the one she’s had all along.
“I have just a ton of Adler history I always have been fascinated by — it’s who I am,” she said. “I’m not giving it up — but I have two more families now.”