The American Historian
An old black and white photo of an older lady with her hands on the shoulders of a young girl.

Writing My Mother's Obituary

Alexander Olson

This past April, my mother died at home in Seattle of bile duct cancer. Her rapid decline was a lousy turn of events made worse by the pandemic that swept the world in the final months of her life. Visitors slowed to a trickle. Those who could see her began arriving in masks and gloves after being greeted at the door with a squirt of hand sanitizer. Her hospice appointments went digital, and her bath assistant took an early retirement. Then came the cruelest blow: she learned on the news that funerals would be limited to less than ten people. My mother had a network of hundreds, and she had planned the program in advance. But a memorial would have to wait. She died with my brother, sister, and uncle at her side. I stayed in Kentucky, present only through a spotty Zoom connection that felt like a deathbed tableau vivant every time the screen froze.

As the historian in the family, the grim task of writing my mother’s obituary fell to me.[1] This genre of historical writing is navigated by thousands of people each day, often with little evidence beyond the writer’s memory and a few family records.[2] What kind of archive do we use when our view of someone’s life is so intimate, yet so partial? It occurred to me that readers of the Seattle Times might wonder if my mother was a victim of COVID-19. She was not. Her official cause of death was dehydration brought on by intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma. On the surface, her body told the story of a cancer that had spread to her lungs and duodenum, causing her belly to fill with liquid (“cancer juice,” my mom called it) that had to be drained each night like a beer tap. But she had never actually gotten a successful biopsy of the bile ducts. Her jaundice, bloodwork, and imaging suggested bile duct cancer in May 2019, but she had to wait four long months for a conclusive diagnosis, after the cancer had spread to her lungs. In the meantime, my mother was convinced that it was a recurrence of her tuberculosis. Her doctors could not move forward with chemotherapy until ruling out this possibility, which proved stubbornly difficult. Bile duct cancer afflicts roughly 1 in 100,000 Americans each year, most of whom suffer from inflammatory diseases of the gastrointestinal system. My mother had grown up in a displaced persons camp in the British sector of Germany, where she suffered extreme hunger during the winter of 1947. After immigrating to the United States, she spent her junior year of high school in a sanitorium with tuberculosis that had spread to her kidneys. Did her cancer represent the long reach of childhood poverty?

Then there was the thorny question of genetics—a can of worms that I had unwittingly opened when I encouraged her to take a DNA test in 2017. My mother was born on February 24, 1944, in Tukums, Latvia, to Irene and Nikolajs Beleiciks. Both had been track athletes in the city of Daugavpils before the war. Both had died of strokes at the age of eighty-five, and my mother was convinced that a stroke was in her future as well. The DNA results turned all this upside down.[3] We learned that she was genetically unrelated to her legal father, my grandfather. Instead, based on her matches, it appeared that her biological father was German, with no apparent connection to Latvia. He was most likely in Tukums in 1944 as part of the Nazi occupation, which would mean my mother was one of the tens of thousands of children fathered by occupying forces on all sides of the conflict.[4] This thought caused my mother enormous distress. On medical intake forms, she began listing “unknown” in the section asking for her father’s health history.[5] To make amends for her stress, but also out of my own curiosity, I took on the task of finding her biological father. The most promising route seemed to be through genetic genealogy, building and triangulating the family trees of her matches to uncover the identity of her father, using the same methods that researchers in California used to locate the Golden State Killer in 2018.[6]

A mom and daughter posing together for a photo
Irene Beleiciks, the author’s grandmother, as a teenager in Latvia with her aunt, Irene Michailovsky, ca. 1931.

My workspace consisted of a giant board with yarn and clippings, like something out of a true crime drama. However, despite the “CSI effect” that makes juries instinctively trust the findings of DNA analysis, I came to learn that biological archives are as vulnerable to wishful thinking and confirmation bias as traditional archives, if not more so. Twice I thought I had solved the mystery. The first breakthrough emerged from a high match with a Latvian man named Udo in his nineties in Australia. After several long-distance phone calls and working together to build out his family tree, I discovered that one of his late cousins was a coach for the New Zealand national track team who had immigrated from Latvia after the war. In the 1930s, my grandmother had competed in long jump and sprinting. This is how she met her husband, a decathlete. Now I had stumbled on yet another man from the tiny world of prewar Latvian athletics, and I became convinced he was my mother’s father even though it cut against all the evidence pointing to Germany from the rest of her paternal matches. I even found a photograph of my grandmother with her track friends in Latvia, relaxing in the grass alongside a man who strongly resembled the coach. This theory came crashing down when I uploaded the results of my uncle Igor, my mother’s half-brother, who was an equally strong match with Udo, which meant he was related through my grandmother.

Back to square one, I eventually connected nearly all of my mother’s highest paternal matches to a single family of ten siblings born between 1836 and 1861 in the German province of Pomerania, which is today located in northwestern Poland. Two of these siblings, Robert and Hugo Kath, had immigrated to the United States as young men. Robert Kath volunteered for the Civil War, serving in Company H of the 155th Regiment of the New York Infantry, and was present at Appomattox Courthouse when Lee surrendered. Hugo arrived a few years later, briefly living in Pittsburgh before moving across the country with his brother Robert to Seattle, where they raised their families. One of their eight siblings who remained behind in Germany—I have yet to determine which one—is very likely my mother’s grandparent. They lived in the tiny village of Rackow (now Rakowo), located 4.4 km outside Bewerdick (today Komorze), which has a current population of sixty. My mother was excited to learn that this was the same town where Robert Mueller’s great-great-great-grandfather August Müller had lived, and she began jokingly referring to the former FBI director as “my cousin.” But the consequence of this pattern of migration was that some of my mother’s highest paternal DNA matches, the cousins of her father, were fellow residents of Seattle. Was this simply a bizarre coincidence? Or was it a clue to why my grandmother ended up there?

We think of obituaries as the final chapter of a book, a tribute to those we know and love. However, genetic testing had unsettled some of my mother’s most basic assumptions about her own life story. Four months before her death, a man named Andreas in Germany appeared in my mother’s list of matches. He was such a high match (they shared 12.9% of their DNA) that he was almost certainly my mother’s half-nephew. This would mean that his grandfather was my mother’s biological father. Andreas and my mother bonded quickly despite her declining health. He had lost both of his parents as a teenager and could relate to her story. They were kindred spirits—sharing a bright sense of optimism—and my mother found great joy in video chatting with him. She reported feeling great comfort, as if they were healing the wound that had been opened by the knowledge that her father had abandoned her. The connection grew so deep that Andreas and his wife Julia purchased tickets to fly to Seattle in March, which they had to cancel due to the pandemic. And then my mother died. 

I included none of this in the obituary since it was altogether too recent, and my mother had never thought much of genetics. She often joked about the absurdity of two track athletes producing a daughter so unathletic. Her father, Nikolajs, had moved to England after divorcing my grandmother in 1949. With him out of the picture, my mother was raised in Seattle by her mother and great-aunt. During my search to identify her biological father, one of my mother’s main sources of discomfort was her concern that the fuss over genetics was erasing the memory of the women who actually raised her. Indeed, historians like Stephanie Coontz have long argued that the model of the family that dominates genealogy in the United States is better understood as a myth of “the way we never were.”[7] Like my mother, my grandmother never knew her birth father, who was sent to a concentration camp in Russia when she was three years old. Adopted by her stepfather in 1923, my grandmother was raised with the help of her aunt (my mother’s great-aunt), who eventually followed her to Seattle to help with the children. When my own father was diagnosed with cancer when I was five years old, my great-great-aunt again stepped in to help. I remember her as a kindly woman in her eighties who did laundry in our basement. A few years later, after both she and my father passed, my grandmother and uncle took their place as backup parents. Their caregiving labor underscores one of the main illusions of DNA as an archive. The true complexities of family history—the messy stories of death and friendship and surrogacy and love—are flattened, even erased, by the orderly world of genetic genealogy, where biological lineage rules all. 

Yet the pull of genetics is difficult to ignore. In 1967, my mother took a trip to England to meet her father for the first time, when she was 23 years old. She surprised him at his work, and she recalled that he stood in the hallway in shock, convinced that he was seeing an apparition of his ex-wife, my grandmother, when she was younger. My mother’s visit was the catalyst for reconnecting him with his family, and they kept in touch through letters until his death in 1998. I have a trove of love letters that he sent to my grandmother in the 1960s-1980s, writing longingly of their lives together in Latvia, before the war and before their divorce. He signed each of them with the location listed as Svešumā, which roughly translates to “in exile” or “in foreign lands.” I met him on a visit to England in middle school, when he gave me a small card where he wrote “It is this: The Secret of Life” and included a list of five lessons to remember.[8] Even though he surely knew that my mother was not his biological daughter, he fully accepted her as family after her visit, never revealing the secret of her parentage. At the same time, my mother could never shake a vague feeling of sadness about their relationship. When she received the DNA results in 2017, it threatened to unravel the sense of meaning she had built fifty years earlier, on her visit to England in search of her father.

The author's mother in a white dress holding an old camera
Irene Olson, the author’s mother, in 1965.
 

There was one final surprise that arrived in the final weeks of my mother’s life. In order to confirm which of his grandparents was my mother’s biological father, Andreas in Germany tested his maternal and paternal aunts. His own parents had died when he was a teenager, so he could not test them directly. When the results came back, it turned out that Andreas was not a match to his father’s side of the family. Instead, he is the son of an unknown father, who is the son of my mother’s unknown father—Andreas’s unknown paternal grandfather. Even more than we realized, Andreas and my mother shared a common experience. They were the product of two generations in a row of men who fathered children but never claimed paternity. In the end, this news only strengthened the bond that was forming between them. Before she died, my mother chose a print with two lines from a well-known German poem for Andreas. “Hab Sonne im Herzen, ob's stürmt oder schneit / ob der Himmel voll Wolken, die Erde voll Streit.” Have sun in your heart, whether it is storming or snowing, whether the sky is full of clouds or the earth is full of strife. Since the coronavirus had prevented Andreas from traveling to Seattle, my mother kissed the image and bequeathed it to him so that he could always have a kiss from his aunt Irene. 

Perhaps better than the obituary, these lines of poetry distill my mother’s open and accepting outlook on life—her extraordinary ability to maintain a positive attitude even through hard times. Her decision to bequeath the poem to Andreas speaks to the power of DNA to transform ideas about family. For my own part, I see little that is sunny about the world of genetic testing, even as I continue to search for my biological grandfather. I believe my mother was right to be concerned about the power of genetic testing to undermine non-biological relationships like adoption or friendship. The ethnic pie charts produced by DNA testing companies are particularly hazardous, helping fuel the resurgence of ethnic nationalism, as if genes can lay claim to parts of the earth. Nevertheless, I was moved by the kindness that Andreas and Julia showed toward my mother in her final months. It was their generosity that gave substance to the idea that we had indeed stumbled across a new and expanded family. Considering the unknown paternity of both Andreas and my mother, it is astonishing to think we have connected. In this respect, genetic testing has opened a vast new archive that can recover histories of sex and reproduction that have been hidden from view by what Nancy Cott has called “monogamy as the law of social life.”[9] But it also threatens, in turn, to delegitimize forms of social organization that are not organized around biological kinship. As historians, we must be vigilant against simply trading one illusion for another.

Author

Alexander Olson is an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the History Department at Western Kentucky University. He is the co-author, with Philip J. Deloria, of American Studies: A User’s Guide (2017).

Notes

[1]“Irene Anna Olson,” Seattle Times, April 20, 2020. 

[2]One of the sobering reports from the first wave of the pandemic came from Bergamo, Italy, which saw the obituary section of its local newspaper balloon to ten pages. Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli,“In an Italian city, obituaries fill the newspaper, but survivors mourn alone,” Washington Post, March 16, 2020. 

[3]Nara Milanich notes that this storyline of uncovering unexpected information through DNA testing reinforces “the central idea of Euro-American kinship: that it exists in nature, that it is sometimes hidden whether deliberately or accidentally, and that truth consists of uncovering the natural facts.” Nara Milanich, Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father (2019), 257. A growing critical literature is examining the implications of DNA testing on social projects ranging from reparations to citizenship, including Keith Wailoo, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, eds., Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collison of DNA, Race, and History (2012); Kim TallBear, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (2013); François Weil, Family Tress: A History of Genealogy in America (2013); Alondra Nelson, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome (2016); and Patrick Geary, “Genetic History and Migrations in Western Eurasia, 500-1000,” in Nicola di Cosmo and Michael Maas, eds., Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity: Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppe, ca. 250-750 (2018), 135-150.

[4]Brooke Blower notes that during the Second World War, women “found themselves in the path of the world’s armies and navies” throughout the world—including the United States. Brooke Blower, “V-J Day, 1945, Times Square,” in Brooke Blower and Mark Philip Bradley, eds., The Familiar Made Strange: American Icons after the Transnational Turn (2015), 87.

[5]Brett Walker has explored the complexity of family medical history in his extraordinary memoir of a rare immunological disorder. He refers to the historian’s archive as “the cultural extension of the physiological neuronal forest that underlies our ability to remember and grow beyond the natural lifespan of the human brain.” Brett Walker, A Family History of Illness: Memory as Medicine (2018), 14.

[6]Tim Arango, Adam Goldman, and Thomas Fuller, “To Catch a Killer: A Fake Profile on a DNA Site and a Pristine Sample,” The New York Times, April 27, 2018. 

[7]Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (1992).

[8]The lessons were: “Breathe deeply, walk tall, eat simply, relax regularly, think deeply, act with sincerity, and you will sleep peacefully.” He added in in margin “ticība, cerība, mīlestība,” or “faith, hope, love.”

[9]Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000), 105-131.