(August 24, 2020)
Last month I promised to share some info about how my journey into genetic genealogy got started. Back in 2014, I didn’t know that term existed, much less what it really meant. But once I’d done a DNA test out of a curiosity to know more about my own genetic background (I had been adopted at birth), and when a distant cousin with expertise in building family histories had contacted me to talk about our family connections and to help me put all the pieces together, things started to move really fast. In fact, within a few days of contacting me in the spring of 2015, this cousin (my search angel) had all kinds of ideas for how he could help me find my birth mother from the single clue I had. Our email correspondence was detailed and voluminous, and of course I saved it all because I wanted to be clear about everything he was saying, though at the time I had no ambitions other than wanting to remember everything he was telling me and teaching me about genealogy research and about interpreting DNA test results. It was all happening so fast that I had to reread messages with some regularity to keep up with the ideas and leads I was being given.
I won’t give you the play by play of what happened on my journey into the work of genetic genealogy (that’s what the new book does), but I will say that before the end of 2015, I was able to connect with and meet my birth mother and maternal half-sister in person, to confirm the relationship with my birth mother via DNA testing, and to hear some of the story of how and why I was given up for adoption when she had a child out of wedlock just a few weeks before her 20th birthday. I also discovered what happened to her in the years following my birth and learned I had three maternal half siblings, though one had died in infancy and another was deceased some years before I came on the scene. To say I couldn’t have done it without my search angel cousin would be an extreme understatement. This distant cousin was incredibly helpful and taught me an enormous amount about how DNA testing works and how it can be interpreted and used to connect various family members.
After the first excitement of meeting my mother and sister, the trail went cold on finding my genetic father because my mother, in her middle 80s when I met her, was struggling with dementia. My maternal half-sister, April, was incredibly helpful in our conversations and very supportive of my search, but my mother could no longer remember the name of the man she’d been dating and who’d gotten her pregnant in the summer of 1948; it made her cry every time we tried to ask new questions about him. She remembered that he was a pilot, though she never “went up” with him and wasn’t certain what kind of planes he flew, and that they met at a dance, but that was about all. She died only a few months after I met her, but whatever she had known about my father was mostly gone even before she passed, which made me sad, not so much because I needed to know but because it made her so sad. And since birth certificates in that day didn’t include the name of the child’s father unless the couple was married, there was no paper trail on him, either, even when I finally did get a copy of my pre-adoption birth certificate. I learned through newly discovered relatives who knew the family history that my birth mother had herself been an adoptee, so another layer of mystery was added that would eventually have to be explored to get the whole story.
After this flurry of initial excitement, nothing at all happened for another year to help me get closer to any information about my mysterious birth father. Actually, I think that’s the rhythm of genetic genealogy: hurry up and wait; hurry up and wait. Then out of the blue, a surprise genetic match popped up for a close relative, a paternal half-sister who didn’t match with my mother. She had also been born out of wedlock and subsequently adopted, and I discovered that my mother wasn’t the only girl this guy got pregnant during the summer of 1948 because I’m only four days older than this sister! I’m not a person who keeps journals, but I was keeping every single email message that I sent or received that had anything to do with my search for genetic relatives (thank heavens for email folder systems!), and this new development got me thinking that there might be a larger story to write someday. It took almost another year before I was able to meet this other new half-sister in person, and we had little luck in finding serious candidates for our genetic father because neither of our birth mothers would (or perhaps could) reveal his name. Finally, we decided to both take a new DNA test with a second provider (DNA testing services don’t share their data with other testing services) and different matches that we shared started to surface in this new database that eventually would lead us to the man we had started calling Mr. X.
It took us several more months to communicate with these new matches, to get the potential relationship sorted out in our heads, and eventually to find possible relatives who were willing to take a DNA test at our expense before we were able to find enough close relatives that we became quite sure of who our father had been. Unfortunately, our Mr. X had died in a crash piloting his own small plane during a heavy fog just days before his wedding and before either of his illegitimate daughters had turned two years old. We suspect he never knew about either of us.
Eventually, I also found a likely candidate for my genetic grandfather through multiple DNA matches in a different clan, matches that my paternal half-sister did not share. So now the challenge became how to tell this rather remarkable story in a way that other people would be interested. That’s what I’ll write about next month. Enjoy the rest of the summer.