Saint Francis social worker gets a much bigger family, thanks to DNA test
July 2022 · Forward in Hope, Foster Care / Adoption
Mary Gaston was just a little girl when she discovered a birth certificate with the name “Margaret” on it. It had to be her. The only other kids in the family were her older sister, Monica, and her younger brother, Bill. She knew that she and Bill were adopted, so by process of elimination, that meant her birth name was Margaret.
“My parents adopted me through Catholic Charities shortly after my birth,” said the 30-year social work veteran. “They didn’t know anything about my birth family except that my mom was a single mother who couldn’t care for me.”
Her parents, Bill and Irene Gahl, never hid their adoptions from Mary and her brother. They provided her with “a wonderful family and an amazing childhood.” They also supported her interest in tracking down her birth family. Unfortunately, St. James Orphanage in Omaha had burned down years ago, destroying adoption records in the process. Not that it mattered since adoption records were routinely kept closed.
Then, a few years ago, Mary’s daughter bought her a 23andMe DNA testing kit for Christmas to help identify potential health issues. Still, nearly a year passed before she finally took the test and sent it in. Within a few days, she received an email from a stranger who had also taken the test and who identified herself as her first cousin. Mary shared her adoption story, and within another few days, her cousin wrote back saying she knew who Mary’s mother was and that she could put her in touch with her siblings. Mary quickly learned that she had seven biological siblings.
“The next thing I know, my sister’s calling me, then a brother’s calling me,” she said. “We decided we all needed to get together and meet at an Air BnB in Arizona. We were excited about meeting and spent a week together, just getting to know each other. My daughter also went because she’s the one who got the ball rolling with the 23andMe gift. We both feel like we’ve known them all forever. It all seemed so natural, like it was supposed to happen. It’s weird that it took me so long to do the DNA … I wonder if my (birth) mother helped push everything along.”
Mary received her results in December 2020, but her biological mother died in January 2021 – before she had a chance to meet her. She also learned that her eldest sister, Reyna, had passed on Christmas Day several years prior. She did, however, have time to meet her big brother Michael before he passed last October. Of her living siblings, he was the only one who knew of her.
“He said to me once, ‘You know, I’ve met you before.’ He was just a couple of years older than me, but he remembered Mom being pregnant, calling me ‘Margaret.’ He recalls sitting beside my crib at the orphanage.”
Michael shared to his long-lost sister how one day his mother dropped he and Reyna off at a grocery store, telling them she’d return in a minute. She never did, and child protective services took them to the orphanage. They took infant Margaret directly from the hospital.
“And then one day I was gone,” said Mary. “Michael knew I was his sister and kept asking, ‘Where’s my sissy?’ They told him that I went to live with another family, and after a few months, our mother got back with his and Reyna’s dad, and they returned home. A couple of years later she had our brother, Pat, and moved them all to Washington State.
Her mother never got over giving up her daughter for adoption. Although she never shared with her other children that they had another sister somewhere out in the world, they sensed something was “off” every holiday season. They told her that growing up, they found the months of November and December miserable because their mother couldn’t stand the holidays. Turns out, Mary/Margaret was born and adopted in November.
All that’s behind them now, as Mary and her five remaining birth siblings make up for lost time.
“We talk and text all the time and get together as much as possible. Last April, we got together for Michael’s celebration of life following his death from COVID. My granddaughter flew out with me for that. At least we had the closure of seeing each other again.”
A kinship support worker for Saint Francis Ministries in Omaha, Mary has spent a lifetime in child welfare – serving as a case manager, juvenile services case manager, and home-based mental health practitioner, and more. She understands how family shapes a child and how families come in all shapes and sizes. In recent years, her family has grown to include new siblings, nieces and nephews, and aunts and uncles, while she remains connected to the family she’s known all her life. Her adoptive siblings, Monica and Bill, have met her birth siblings, and they all get along great – one big family.
“Growing up, my parents never tried to hide anything from me,” said Mary. “They always said that my birth mother loved me, but she couldn’t take care of me. Even though they gave me a loving home, as a child you wonder, and you feel an empty spot. That’s why I advocate for open adoptions. It’s important for families to know one another. If you’re a foster parent and considering adoption, follow through with it, but know they may be dealing with some issues. Be honest with them, because every child deserves a family, a place to belong.”
Photo: Mary with her birth siblings, from left, Kate, Teresa, Cecelia, Pat, Mary, and Michael. Missing – brother Chris.