We all count our blessings during the holiday season, with family usually topping the list. After a remarkable journey, an adopted San Rafael woman found her birth mother and an entire extended family, giving her yet another reason to feel thankful.
Wendy Gallagher, 54, grew up in Sausalito, knowing her parents adopted her as an infant. No one knew that her birth mother, coincidentally, lived just two blocks away at the time.
In 1965, Mary Lynn, a single woman, worked at a real estate firm in San Francisco. That summer, she unexpectedly became pregnant and decided to give her baby up for adoption through the Children’s Home Society in San Francisco. Margaret and Dr. Clifford Raisbeck adopted Wendy in April 1966, when she was three weeks old.
Wendy spent an idyllic childhood in a large Sausalito home with her parents and three siblings. Her eldest brother, 10 years her senior, was her parents’ only natural child. They also adopted a boy in 1963 and another girl, after Wendy, in 1967.
“It was paradise growing up,” Wendy said. “Our house was on a half-acre with a swimming pool and a treehouse. On the Fourth of July, my dad would drive his 1911 Model T in the Sausalito parade and then we’d have a big party at our house.”
Unfortunately, Margaret passed away in 1991, when Wendy was only 25. After her death, Wendy’s adopted brother and sister searched for and found their birth families. Their father was supportive; however, Wendy sensed his discomfort during photo sessions with her siblings and their birth relatives.
Wendy had little interest in finding her birth parents, though as a child, she sometimes wondered if she might receive a birthday card from them. None ever arrived.
Her curiosity about her birth parents’ health information increased as she grew older, especially when she married and had children. Her daughter was immunocompromised, causing her to contemplate whether it was a genetic trait from her side of the family.
After her father died in 2013, Wendy thought more about searching for her birth parents. Still, she did not act.
In the fall of 2015, while attending one of her daughter’s tennis matches, Wendy chatted with another parent about her growing desire to find her birth parents. The woman suggested she check out 23andMe, a genetic testing company. A customer simply places a saliva sample in a tube, sends it to the company and waits a few weeks for the DNA results. The 23andMe online database then provides the names of family members also registered with the company.
“For $100, I found 900 relatives,” Wendy said.
Most were distant relations, except for Mike, a first cousin living in Oregon. Coincidentally, he was also adopted. The two cousins, who share 15.6 percent of their DNA, corresponded and learned that neither knew anything about their birth parents.
Even more determined to locate her birth parents, Wendy sent away for her adoption records from the Children’s Home Society. In April 2016, eight pages arrived from the nonprofit agency, but the report did not reveal her parents’ names. The actual birth record containing that information was sealed by the state.
She learned from adoption records that her mother grew up in Kansas, spoke two languages and had one sister. Her father was an only child.
From these facts, Wendy and Mike deduced their mothers were sisters. Wendy spent many hours on the internet and made several visits to the Marin Civic Center with her clues, yet she gleaned no new information. In effect, she had reached a genealogical dead end.
Wendy discussed her dilemma with her brother-in-law, who worked on computers. As if by fate, his roster of clients included Phyllis Garrett, a genealogist in Novato. Wendy hired her in May 2016 to find her birth parents.
It was the best $400 Wendy ever spent, because the following month, Phyllis sent her a photo of her maternal grandmother.
“I felt like I was looking in the mirror,” Wendy said.
Phyllis identified and contacted Wendy’s birth mother over the summer. Mary Lynn was excited about the prospect of reconnecting with her daughter. Unfortunately, there were roadblocks finding her birth father.
After more than 50 years apart, the mother and daughter began a tentative relationship, communicating through email and Facebook for several months. Wendy gained a younger half-sister and half-brother, who she also contacted online.
Mike, too, received good news. Mary Lynn’s sister, Patsy, was indeed his mother.
“It was very cool. Like reading a spy novel,” Mike said after learning about his birth mother. They were soon in touch, as well.
Wendy made the trip to Texas in November 2016 for a joyful family reunion. She had never even spoken on the phone with her newfound relatives, yet there she was, meeting her mother, sister and brother for the first time.
“There’s a lot to nurture versus nature,” Wendy said. “My adoptive mother was detailed, neat and organized. Always on time. That’s nurture, because I’m the same way.”
“My birth mother and I have the same mannerisms and dimples,” she continued. “One of my half-sister’s daughters is the spitting image of my daughter at that age.”
Wendy and Mary Lynn discovered they both love to travel and have visited the same places. They enjoy doing puzzles, always drink Diet Coke and never drink coffee. And, that autoimmune disease that plagued Wendy’s daughter when she was younger? Wendy’s half-brother had it, too.
The relationship between the birth relatives has grown steadily. In 2017, Wendy’s new extended family traveled to San Rafael for Christmas and met her adoptive family.
“I have three siblings and a step-sister who I’m close to,” Wendy said. “That’s my family, the people who raised me and took care of me. My birth mother, half-sister and half-brother, they’re a wonderful bonus.”
Wendy recommends using the genealogy websites and the services of a genealogist to anyone seeking their birth family. In fact, she now has 1,500 relatives on 23andMe.
“I would do it all over again,” she said. “It’s amazing what you can find out from a vial of spit.”