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Five years ago today I was in a condo on a beach in Panama. I was on an adventure and life was great. It was my seventh and final trip to that country in less than three years. I was enjoying the warm tropical air and didn’t know I was about to have a DNA shock that would transform my life by events that happened 59 years earlier. On the 23rd of January 2017, I received an email regarding a DNA match on Ancestry.com. In checking the match I realized that this was more than finding a new cousin. This match would prove that I had a different father than the man who raised me.

Sunset in Panama on 23 January 2017. When I took this image of the setting Sun, I had just learned that I wasn’t a Kiser by blood.

The news did not impact me immediately. It took me about an hour to understand what the DNA results meant, days to realize that I had no blood connection to my last name, months to realize that my birth certificate was wrong, and years to learn who knew and when they knew.

Everyone involved in this affair has passed away. Firsthand accounts are not possible, but I have pieced together enough information to understand how this situation played out.

The Trauma of My Conception and the Resolution at Birth 

In 1957, Vernon Kiser was 37 years old and had married Frances Barrick seventeen years earlier. He had worked in a coal mine, worked on road maintenance, and even started his own small construction company with a dozer he owned. At some time around 1957, he had given up his company and began work for another small town construction company.

Frances became pregnant in the Spring of that year. According to the account of a witness, after Vernon learned of her pregnancy, he became distraught and even moved out of his house for a week or so. He knew he was not the biological father and that the real father was his boss. Everything would appear to be heading to a life-altering crisis for all involved.

However, months later, I was born. Vernon Kiser officially claimed to be my Dad on my birth certificate and he continued to work for his boss, my biological Father. Among the evidence of the reconciliation is a picture of me sitting on my biological Father’s lap when I was about seven months old. This picture was most likely taken by my Dad as he had the only camera in our family. All of this indicates that a reconciliation had been in the best interest of everyone involved.

Me sitting on my biological Father’s lap. July 1958

DNA Shock and the Aftershock 

In 2017, the DNA news was a shock, but it was also transformative. Aspects of my life and my relationship with my parents that didn’t make sense suddenly were in a new light. Despite the resolution after my birth, I believe the trauma of the event rippled through my childhood.

I was the fourth and final child born to Frances. My birthplace, Craig, was and still is a small town located in the sagebrush of northwestern Colorado’s high desert. As I grew up I had friends but none that ever lasted for more than a few years. I was a loner most of the time probably because my interests were rarely the same as most other kids my age.

The Kiser family sans me. I would have been an infant when this picture was taken.

I was the ‘Caboose Child’ of my family and I was four years younger than my next oldest brother. By the time I was in Kindergarten, my oldest brother was heading off to Vietnam, the next oldest was in high school, and my closest brother was in four years ahead of me in elementary school.

Parenting Style: Apathy or Shame?

My parents were…parents. Vernon worked all the time and Frances kept the household functioning. It wasn’t a child-centered family. I did my homework and I had a few chores, but mostly I was left to do what I wanted to do.

I eventually noticed that while my parents always attended the sports events of all three of my older brothers and the plays of my next older brother, they rarely showed support of my school activities in public.  

After I left for college, I realized that my upbringing was slightly different than many other people my age. Others had parents that were strongly connected to their children whereas my parents had been largely uninvolved. For example, some parents were enthusiastic to have their children go to college. My parents didn’t stop me from going to college but they were apathetic about it. My mother did provide some money for college but I was expected to pay my own way.

I had no other models of parents to really compare my Mom and Dad to, but over time I began to question their parenting style.

College Days. First independence.

I was frustrated at times over what I considered a lack of interest, but I finally decided that they must have been tired of being a parent by the time I came along. My mother had raised children for twelve years before I was born. By the time I graduated from high school, she had been a parent for thirty years. When I did the math, it all made sense.

Small Town Gossip

What I hadn’t considered was the possible impact of shame and embarrassment in a small town where gossip is a natural part of life. It is now apparent that many people were aware of the circumstances of my conception. Whether that shame and embarrassment became a factor in my parent’s public support of me is impossible to know. Again, I was the last child of four in the family so simple parent fatigue could be the main factor in their parenting style.

Within months after I left for college, my Dad abruptly took a demotion from a senior position at the Moffat County Road Department to live in a remote location outside of Craig. At the time, I assumed that they had a secret longing to go back to country-style living; however, now I wonder. Did my departure from their daily lives give them permission to get away from the gossip of the small town? No one will ever know the truth.  

Seeing the Bigger Picture

There are many questions that I have about my childhood, but what is significant is that I now can respect the trauma they likely endured. The irony is that they made a major sacrifice in order to do what was best for everyone involved. I don’t know how I would have reacted if I had known the truth while my parents were still alive, but I would like to think I could have appreciated my Dad’s decision to raise me as his own.

My biological Father died in a dozer rollover accident when I was a small child. It would be interesting to know how my life might have been different if he had still been around as I grew up. Once again, no one will ever know the answer.

The past five years have allowed me to reexamine my life with the knowledge of how it began. Some of my revelations have been humorous. For example, my mother kept insisting that I must have Native American (she said, Indian) blood. She maintained that my paternal grandfather was half to three-quarters Native American. He was not. In addition, my Dad was blonde-haired and blue-eyed. It was an absurd idea. Now I know that she was attempting to throw me off the trail of my true family history by feeding me false information.

The Things That I Now Understand

  1. My parents were trying to ‘save’ or ‘protect’ me by keeping the truth from me. They were also trying to protect themselves.
  2. My parents believed that I would never know the truth.
  3. It was a time and place when the truth would have been devastating to both families.
  4. It was an affair, a small town, and it happened over 60 years ago. No one needs to be ashamed or needs to try to explain why it happened.
  5. The longer I wasn’t told the truth, the harder it became to do so.

After the DNA Shock: The Lessons

  1. The measure of a person is not what happens to him or her, but by how he or she responds to the situation.
  2. All relationships must be grounded in BOTH respect and love. Love doesn’t exist without respect as the foundation.
  3. Blood is less important than the heart but blood is not unimportant. Knowing your true ancestors is part of your history. The future remains to be created.
  4. A surname and a birth certificate shouldn’t be what identifies you as a person.
  5. Knowing a secret that impacts another person but not sharing that knowledge with that person defines your relationship or lack of it with that person.

[SEE:  Familius Inturruptus to read the article I wrote a week after I learned of the DNA match.]