Heredity: Stories about where we come from

This week, we present two stories about people understanding their links to their past.

Part 1: A question that Laura Spink asked her parents as a kid comes up again when her own child begins to ask similar questions.

Laura Spink is a vocalist/percussionist in the Toronto-based duo, The Young Novelists. She has toured Canada, the United States, and Europe, and the band has won a Canadian Folk Music Award for New/Emerging Artist of the Year. Besides working full-time in music, Laura graduated with a Geochemistry degree from the University of Waterloo and works part-time at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. She is also the proud mom of an amazing 7-year old son.

Part 2: After Denise Coberley brings up her doubt in the Bible to her adoptive religious parents, she finds herself on a journey of self-discovery.

Denise Coberley has been a science educator for twenty-three years. She is now pursuing a Master’s in Science Communication with a minor in Linguistics and Neuroscience. Her acceptance to the graduate program at Greenlee School of Journalism at Iowa State University allowed her to reconnect with her academic roots. Coberley’s goal is to understand how people react and develop science identities and opinions based on their interactions with media, including social, print, and news. Her husband, who works at ISU, and her children, who attend ISU, are her biggest cheerleaders.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Laura Spink

I’m eight years old in the school yard and I’m playing on the jungle gym and I notice these two girls a little ways away.  I don’t know them but they're whispering and one of them is pointing at me.  I’m pretty sure that they're talking about me. 

Then they both come over and the taller one says, “What happened to your face?” 

And the other one says, “Yeah.  Looks like you got hit in the nose with a frying pan.” 

In the days and months after I was born, doctors noticed that there were several things that were different about me.  I had a cleft palate, which meant that there was a hole connecting the roof of my mouth to my nose.  I had really bad vision and hearing so I needed thick glasses and hearing aids.  I had a small jaw with crooked teeth so eventually I needed braces.  And I had a lisp.  And I didn’t really have a bridge in my nose so it was flat and upturned. 

Through the years, I had several surgeries that corrected the cleft palate and built up my nose but no one ever really had an answer for why.  And my issues weren’t life threatening.  They were just things.  At first, it wasn’t really a big deal but, as I got older, what happened in the schoolyard started happening more and more.  It got to the point that every time I noticed someone whispering or pointing, I just knew that they were talking about me. 

A few weeks later, I was in my bedroom.  My parents had just finished reading me a story.  And I built up the courage to ask them, “Why do I look so different from you guys?”  “Why am I so ugly?” 

I could tell that they were shocked.  My mom said, “Sweetie, you are beautiful just the way you are and this is the way you were born and we love you.” 

And my dad chimes in with all these talents that I had.  He was like, “You're a great soccer player and figure skater and singer.” 

As we were, talking I feel this comfort because I know that they love me.  But, at the same time, they're my parents.  Of course they feel this way.  I just knew that the rest of the world did not feel the same way. 

Laura Spink shares her story on our Story Collider Home Stage at Burdock Brewery in Toronto, ON in October 2018. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Laura Spink shares her story on our Story Collider Home Stage at Burdock Brewery in Toronto, ON in October 2018. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

As I got older, I wanted to be a singer or an actor but I did not see any singers or actors that looked like me.  They were all beautiful with these conventional looks and I was ugly. 

And it wasn’t like I didn’t have any friends because I always had a few really great ones, but I just had this feeling with every interaction I had with kids and with teachers and with parents that they're thinking, “You're ugly, Laura.  You're ugly.” 

And I didn’t feel cool.  I didn’t feel like I was interesting.  I didn’t feel like I was worthy of love. 

When I graduated high school I went to university.  Instead of studying music or drama,  like I wanted to, I went into science because that was also something that I was pretty good at.  But singing and acting was just not something that I imagined I could do because I was ugly. 

But my first year of university was actually kind of amazing.  It was a really big school in a big city and people were different here.  I made some really great friends and eventually started dating.  And I started realizing that, to some people other than my family, I was beautiful. 

Then I met Graydon.  He had blonde, curly hair and Buddy Holly glasses and the kindest eyes.  He was one of those people who thought I was beautiful.  He was doing a degree in computer science and I spent a lot of my time in the chemistry building and there was an underground tunnel that connected the two.  That’s where we had our first kiss. 

Graydon was also a musician and he taught me how to play guitar, he encouraged me to get up on stage and sing and, eventually, we started playing open mics together. 

I started to think maybe this music thing was something that I could do so, when we graduated university, we were still together and, eventually, we got married.  We knew we wanted to have a family so when I got pregnant we were thrilled. 

Laura Spink shares her story on our Story Collider Home Stage at Burdock Brewery in Toronto, ON in October 2018. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Laura Spink shares her story on our Story Collider Home Stage at Burdock Brewery in Toronto, ON in October 2018. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Twelve weeks into my pregnancy, I’m in the car and I’m listening to the CBC.  There's an interview with this woman who’s talking about all of these medical challenges that she has had in her life.  She says that she has a cleft palate, she has really bad vision and hearing, and she has a small nose.  She says that she has this genetic condition called Stickler Syndrome. 

I had never heard of this before but all of a sudden it hits me.  I have that.  So I did a bunch of research and got an appointment at Mount Sinai with a genetics counselor.  They did some testing and the results came back and they said, “Yes, it looks like you have this syndrome.” 

I was so excited because, finally, there's this reason for why I have all these things, and that was kind of amazing to me.  But then they tell me that it’s an autosomal dominant condition and there's a fifty-fifty chance of me passing it onto my baby.  I am floored and I feel this dark and heavy feeling of guilt flooding my entire body.  I don't know what to do. 

I know that I will love this baby no matter what but I don’t want them to go through what I went through or feel limited the way that I felt limited.  So when I was in the hospital room after just having given birth to this beautiful baby boy we named Simon, my dad stuck his baby finger into Simon’s mouth and felt his palate.  He looked at me and he said, “He's fine,” and I was so relieved. 

Seven years later, we’re in Simon’s room.  Graydon and I are cuddled up.  We had just finished reading him a story.  And Simon seemed kind of bummed out. 

Graydon asked him what was wrong, how his day was, and Simon told us that a kid at school wasn’t very nice to him and that he didn’t feel like he was a very good person. 

And I say, “Sweetie, you are a good person.  We’re so proud of you and we love you so much.”

And he said, “Well, I’m not proud of myself and I don't love myself.” 

I just felt floored.  And I said “Sweetie, you are kind and caring and empathetic, and you're great at breakdancing and soccer and singing.”  But I could tell that he was totally not convinced. 

Then I said to him, “i know that feeling.  I know what it feels like to not love yourself and it really sucks.”

All of my life I have struggled with my ability to truly love myself and I don't want Simon to feel that way.  But I want him to know at least that if he does, that he's not alone.  Thank you.


Part 2: Denise Coberly

I was born in a small, conservative, religious town out in Western Kansas and, by religious, I mean there were five churches for 900 people.  We are the belt buckle of the Bible Belt, and I didn’t fit in. 

When I was little, I remember going to family events, family reunions and we would always run into someone who hadn’t seen our family in a while and the conversation it always goes something like this. 

They’d see my little brother.  “You're a spitting image of your father at that age.”  They’d see my little sister.  “You look just like your mother.”  And then they’d see me.  “Oh, you must be the adopted one.” 

Now, it wasn’t like being adopted was a bad thing.  My parents never ever made me feel like it was a bad thing but I didn’t look like them and I didn’t look at the world like them either.  You see, I wanted explanations.  I wanted to know why, so I asked questions. 

“Mom, why do caterpillars turn into butterflies?” 

Denise Coberly shares her story with us at The Maintenance Shop in Ames, IA in October 2018 in our show presented in partnership with Iowa State University. Photo by Mark Looney.

Denise Coberly shares her story with us at The Maintenance Shop in Ames, IA in October 2018 in our show presented in partnership with Iowa State University. Photo by Mark Looney.

My mom would say, “Because God made them that way.” 

“Mom, why do we have rainbows?” 

My mom, “Because of God’s promise to Noah.” 

“Mom, why are boys different than girls?”  That one got ignored entirely. 

But those weren’t answers, they weren’t explanations and they didn’t tell me why. 

Now, there was one place where I was starting to get some answers, at least most of the time.  It was a small, conservative, religious town.  And that was school. 

I loved school.  I could read all I wanted, I was learning math, I was learning history, I was learning science.  It was awesome.  Things really fell into place for me, though, my sophomore year of high school when I took biology and fell in love.  I loved everything about it.  Mitosis, respiration, photosynthesis, ecology, evolution, natural selection.  It was the real stuff, not the biblical form that I'd been learning. 

And I did, I loved it, but it also scared me because, you see, hell is a very real place to the people in my community, especially my parents.  And evolution is a one-way ticket. 

But I was convinced.  The more I learned, the more it just made sense.  So one day, I got up the courage. 

We were sitting in the pickup.  I looked at my mom, I took a deep breath and I said, “Mom, I don't believe the Bible.  At least not all of it.  And I don't think the earth is only 6,000 years old and evolution just makes more sense and I think it’s real."

My mom, without skipping a beat, looked at me and said, “You know, you're going to go to hell for thinking that.” 

I learned two things that day.  One, I realized I didn’t care if I went to hell anymore because biology was worth it.  And, two, there were going to be things in my life that I wasn’t going to be able to share with my parents and there were going to be conversations that we just never were going to have. 

I graduated from high school.  I went to college and I majored in biology.  The more I learned about evolution, about behavior, about genetics, about epigenetics, the more these questions kept coming up, questions that had always bothered me growing up.  That was why was I so different?  Why did my brain work so differently from everybody else?  Why couldn’t I just accept what my parents had told me? 

I was pretty sure I was never going to get that answer.  I was born in a closed adoption state, which means I have no access to records.  And my birth parents, well, that was one of those topics that fell under the category of we never talked about it, so those questions just hung there. 

They hung there as I got married, as I graduated from college.  Yes, I did it in that order.  They hung there as I became a high school science teacher, biology.  And they hung there as I had my own kids. 

Now, if you know a science geek, you know that having a question you can’t answer is like having an itch you can’t scratch.  My husband knew that and so about two years ago, for my birthday, he decided to help me scratch that itch, at least a little bit.  He got me an kit.  So I spit in the tube, I sent it off and I waited for my results. 

I got my pie chart back and I was mostly Northern European with a whole bunch of other stuff thrown in there.  But what I didn’t know about and what my husband didn’t know is that matches you with other people that have sent their DNA in.  And I had matches.  I had people out there that had the same genes that I did.  And one of those matches messaged me. 

She was a high probability second or third cousin.  She says, “Hey, I’m doing this genealogy and I was wondering what can you tell me about your side of the family.” 

So I message back.  “Absolutely nothing.”  I apologized and said, “I’m adopted.  I really am sorry.”

Denise Coberly shares her story with us at The Maintenance Shop in Ames, IA in October 2018 in our show presented in partnership with Iowa State University. Photo by Mark Looney.

Denise Coberly shares her story with us at The Maintenance Shop in Ames, IA in October 2018 in our show presented in partnership with Iowa State University. Photo by Mark Looney.

So she messaged me back and she said, “Really?  Well, tell me what you know.  Maybe I can help.” 

Well, I didn’t know much.  Remember, this is a topic that we didn’t talk about.  But I did know my birthday, obviously, and I knew what hospital I'd been born in.  So I sent off the message and figured that was that.  Until I got the next message. 

When I opened the message, I read seven of the most powerful words I've ever read in any order in my entire life.  “I think I found your birth mother.” 

It went on to say that she wanted to talk.  Here was her phone number.  Here was her email.  And I could contact her if I wanted to.  At that moment when I was about to have all those questions answered, I wasn’t sure.  I hadn’t told my parents anything.  And I love my parents and my parents love me, but I didn’t want to hurt them.  I had no idea how they would react.  I figured this was just going to be one of those things that we just never talked about. 

but the guilty child in me won and I called my mom on a drive home one day and I just said, “Mom, I think I found my birth mother.” 

Silence.  You know that silence where you're pretty sure a nuclear bomb is about to go off? 

But she surprised me.  She just said, “I’m happy for you.” 

Now, we've never spoke of it since but at least I felt like I had permission.  I also wasn’t sure because what if my birth mother was exactly like my parents?  What if she wasn’t like me at all, and I was never going to get any of these answers? 

So I did what anybody does in this day and age when you want to try and find out something about someone.  I Facebook stalked her.  And when I opened up her Facebook page, my faith in science was renewed.  I was her.  She was me.  The same politics - who knew that was genetic - the same love of reading, the same love of science, it was all there. 

Then I opened her photos and I scrawled through and I found a picture of her when she was about 35.  For the first time, I knew what it was like to have someone say, “You look just like your mother.” 

So I messaged her and I said, “Well, it looks like you're my mom.” 

Thank you.