For years, Amanda Miller peered into strangers’ faces.
If they had a round nose like hers that tilted upward to a little crease, she wondered, “Are we related? Could you be one of my lost sisters?”
As an infant, she’d been adopted by a Pensacola family with three biological sons.
“It was a loving family, I had a wonderful upbringing,” said Miller, who lives in Boynton Beach with her wife, Debbie McEldowney.
But a question dogged her. “Who am I,” she wondered. “Are there people out there who look like me? Did I get my musical ability from them?”
“No one in my adoptive family could carry a tune,” said Miller.
(She would have toured with the Marine Corps Band, but got forced out in 1982 for being gay.)
Her own searches had reached dead ends, since Florida adoption records, like most states, were sealed. Miller placed her name on a registry that allow both parties of an adoption to find each other if both give prior consent, but got no response.
Maybe, she thought, her cells could provide a road map to her biology.
Perhaps her DNA would unravel the mystery of herself.
She swabbed her cheeks with Q-tips and send them off to three DNA genealogical testing companies.
A few weeks after getting the results, she sat at her computer on a Sunday morning in late May.
Her finger paused over the email “send” button.
Her DNA analysis had located a cousin in Atlanta. But it was too late to find her mother. She’d died of Alzheimer’s disease three years earlier.
Yet, in her mother’s obituary, she found an email for Linda Richards, her oldest sister.
Miller typed in the address and wrote, “You may be my half-sister,” in the subject line.
Her letter, she knew, might expose secrets hidden for more than half a century.
But at 54, she’d lived too long with the mystery.
She hit the button.
Linda Richards was 14 the day in 1962 when her mother, Mary Frances Tidwell, her third marriage breaking up, went to a Pensacola hospital to deliver her sixth baby.
She came home alone.
Her mother couldn’t take care of the children she already had, so she gave up the daughter who was the result of a brief marriage to a serviceman.
“I sat and watched mom cry when she came home without the baby,” said Richards, a retiree who lives in South Gate, California, a Los Angeles suburb. “I always knew I had a sister out there somewhere.”
Her mother made Linda promise to keep the baby’s birth a secret. Her other siblings were too young to understand.
“We ended up all being split up,” said Richards, who still speaks with a North Florida drawl. “It was really a mess.”
Richards said her mother had a total of 10 children, three of whom died at birth. She kept a son who was born after Miller because she was in a stable relationship.
But she never forgot the little girl she gave away.
Every year on Miller’s birth date, she whispered to Richards, “Do you know whose birthday it is?”
“I always counted Amanda as part of the 10 of us,” said Richards.
When the email from Miller arrived that Sunday in May, Richards immediately fired back a message.
“OMG! I pray you are the one sister I have wanted to find. Mom spoke of you often and hoped you were alright. Please contact me asap,” she wrote.
By the end of that first conversation, Miller’s family had expanded by nearly 20 people as Richards told her about her three half-sisters and three half-brothers (one deceased) and their extended families.
“I went from a rather small adoptive family to a huge birth family,” said Miller.
Richards also told her that there is no such thing as half-sisters or half-brothers in their family.
“We don’t do halves,” she told Miller. “You’re my sister.”
But Miller was cautious. She wanted to get to know her new relatives slowly.
She is liberal and gay, while most of her siblings are conservative Southern Baptists. She told them, “This is who I am. Contact me if you want, and if you don’t, that’s OK, too.”
One by one, all her new family members sent welcoming emails.
“They’ve all been giving, loving and curious,” said Miller.
Except one: her uncle, a Southern Baptist preacher in a small Alabama town.
“I wasn’t surprised not to hear from him because I read his writings on the abomination of homosexuality,” said Miller.
Richards said most family members are ready to embrace their long-lost sister.
“Some are excited and a few are put off by the gay part,” admitted Richards. “But I love my sister and I’m so glad she found us.”
She said one of her brothers was more worried about Miller’s political affiliation, saying, “I think our sister is a Democrat.”
Miller says she understands their thinking, “because I grew up in Pensacola in the ’60s and ’70s.”
None have met yet, but they’ve exchanged dozens of photos.
“Amanda has a whole lot of mom in her,” said Richards. “Her mouth, that crease across the nose. There’s definitely a resemblance.”
Like Miller, one of her nieces is a sports fan and techie who can take anything apart and put it back together again.
“She stole my eyebrows,” said Miller.
The siblings’ entwined genetics include an anomaly on the right hand.
“We all have a crooked pinkie on the right hand,” Miller discovered.
DNA tests have been the stuff of CSI episodes as well as the fuel that animates the screaming paternity test revelations on The Maury Povich Show.
But increasingly, DNA tests are being used for genealogical hunts, spurred in part by fans of the PBS program, “Finding Your Roots.” Celebrities submit their DNA in advance and host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. surprises them with family trees and stories about their ancestors.
The show ran into trouble in 2015 when Gates acquiesced to actor Ben Affleck’s request that any reference to his slave-holding ancestors be withheld.
To cast a wider net over her family’s DNA, Miller sent cheek swabs to three companies: 23 and Me and Ancestry.com, which maintain separate data bases, as well as FamilyTree DNA, which allows clients using other testing labs to post on its registry. Miller said she spent about $500 total.
Two data bases could find no matches for her.
Although it’s the smallest of the three with slightly more than a million people on its registry, Family Tree DNA untwisted the strands of her DNA enough to match them to a cousin in Atlanta.
Through her cousin, Miller learned most of her biological family is spread over the South, from Georgia to Alabama to Texas, with others in Colorado and California.
She also discovered that her musical talent, like her button nose, lay encoded in her DNA.
Miller is a descendent of the Brown family of well-known 19th century Southern fiddlers. Another branch of the Brown family maintains a 10-generation-old folk pottery company in Alabama and North Carolina.
Miller was reeling.
“It was as if my life was coming into focus for the first time,” said Miller. “It answered so many of my questions.”
“Sometimes the process works and sometimes it doesn’t,” cautioned Bennet Greenspan, the CEO of Family Tree DNA. “But when it does, we’re enabling the story of you. Your history book is written into your cells. We’re helping decipher what makes you, you.”
While DNA answers many questions, he said, it can also pose them, too, in the form of what he calls “unexpected non-paternal events.”
In other words, “dad” may not really be dad.
“If you don’t want to know the answer to the question, don’t ask the question,” warned Greenspan.
It also helps to know which questions to ask.
A Y chromosome test will reveal a man’s patrilineal (father’s) line back hundreds of generations. It’s mainly used for paternity tests and to show to which ethnic group a client belongs. A mitochondrial test investigates the mother’s line.
“Through that, I can place you in your spot on the female tree of mankind,” said Greenspan.
An autosomal DNA test is what most adoptees choose, casting a wide but shallow net over available DNA, sometimes reaching back as far as 150 years.
“Why wasn’t I loved, why was I discarded, they just want to know,” said Greenspan, who cautioned that genealogical detective work is still required in most cases.
In addition to acquiring an expanded family, Miller now knows more about her health and predilection for disease.
She already knew her birth mother was overweight and had diabetes. She has since learned that the disease runs through much of her biological family.
Since her mother died at age 84 of Alzheimers, Miller has had a baseline cognition test done with plans to follow up every year.
She’s found she’s grateful that Mary Frances Tidwell had the wisdom to know she couldn’t raise another child. She feels only forgiveness and compassion for the troubled woman who gave her a better life.
“I wouldn’t be less happy if I hadn’t found them, but it’s a missing piece of the puzzle of my life,” she said.
Earlier this year, one of her sisters sent her a card.
“It was my first-ever birthday card from a blood relative,” said Miller. “That was very cool.”
Want to learn more through DNA analysis?
Here are three companies to try:
23andme.com, ancestry test $99, ancestry and health genetics, $199.
Family Tree DNA, from $79 to $278.