Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Finding Our Roots

Last year, my brother Galen wanted some help in finding his birth father so he asked me to submit a DNA sample to Ancestry for analysis. He had already done one and wanted a way to eliminate some of the many, many, matches he had been given. It took me way too long to get my DNA kit sent in & processed but eventually, we had a list of common matches and uncommon matches. It was, and still is, a very long list (we're talking 400+ pages, each with more than forty entries) but narrowing it down by eliminating our shared matches helped immensely.

I don't know if you have ever done research on your family tree but it can get really confusing, really fast and that's when you have solid information to work back from. When you're trying to build a tree without knowing anything about anyone who is in the tree, you're essentially building a puzzle while blindfolded...Luckily, Galen had two matches fairly close to him that weren't shared by me so that's where I started.

Galen had reviewed some the matches he had been given and had reached out to a few of the closest connections but was still having trouble figuring how to put all the information together and how to use it to find his dad. Ancestry's relationship predictor has a habit of calling everyone cousins, even though the degrees of separation could constitute an aunt/uncle relationship; they offer charts with varying degrees of separations to help explain the distance and show possible common ancestors, which helps when you have literally nothing to go one. I started with the two closest connections; a father and a son whom Ancestry predicted to be 2nd & 3rd cousins to Galen. I copied down the tree they belonged to then I checked to see if these two connections shared any other connections with Galen. They did.

That was it. My curiosity was piqued. I dove in head first & wholeheartedly. This was a mystery I was going to solve.

I grabbed a notebook and again started copying down trees, tracing them back until I could find a common ancestor, every common ancestor adding strength to the connection. I wanted to 'practice' my new-found tree building skills some more so I went back to our shared matches and started building a tree of shared matches, gaining confidence in my investigative skills along the way. I contacted a few matches, shared our story and asked questions; I copied down more trees, traced back more shared matches, found more common ancestors, contacted more people; I had my mom submit a DNA test and added all three of our profiles to another DNA analysis site called GEDmatch.com.

Turns out, Galen's father wasn't the only mystery I was going to solve.

My mom, our mom, is also adopted.

Born in 1949, she doesn't have any of the information about her parents that Galen had about her. Her adoption wasn't done through an agency; it was more of a black market baby-buying kind of deal. A nurse at the hospital where my mom was born knew my adopted grandparents, knew they wanted to have a family but couldn't have their our children and she knew my mother was going to be put up for adoption so she tipped my grandparents off to my mom. They hired a lawyer, drew up adoption papers and walked out with my mom. My mom has never requested her original, pre-adoption, birth certificate so her parentage has remained a total mystery.

Until this hunt began...

One thing about DNA: it might be confusing and difficult to understand but IT DOES NOT LIE. If you share DNA with someone, guess what, you are related. So now with shared matches for all three of us & our varying degrees of connection to them, we had a pretty clear picture of who was who, how we were related and a list of 'suspects'. Excluding our connections to each other, the closest connection for each of us, was a cousin; three in total. As it turns out, each cousin belong to a different side of the family: one on each side of my mom's family and one on my brother's father's side. And that father/son connection of Galen's? We determined the father is his great uncle and the son would be his 2nd cousin, which was a prediction Ancestry did give as a possible relationship. I talked with cousins on both of my mom's sides and eventually found my mom's uncle on her mother's side; I exchanged numerous emails, confirmed secret pregnancies and adoptions, revealed the existence of unknown children & siblings and got two more DNA samples submitted (results are still pending!)

Confident I was now on target, I searched and scoured for every bit & scrap of information I could find on the man I believed was Galen's father and took it to him. I told him I wasn't positive but I had a few leads for him if he wanted to pursue them: three names, children of the man I thought could be his father, and a place of death for him, in Texas. He Googled the names & city and found an address that had two of the names plus three more and a couple Facebook profiles so he took a chance and sent out a message with his phone number. There hadn't been any activity on the profile in a while so he wasn't sure he would hear back. When my phone rang later that same day and his number popped up, I answered right away.

"We found him."

He'd gotten a call back, just hours later, from his father's ex wife. She had met his father in Vegas, they'd been together 10 years, married for one, had two kids together. His father had also had another child with a third woman, gotten custody of the girl then taken ill and passed in 2011. The kids are now 23, 21, and 16 years old. The youngest two are daughters, living in Texas; the oldest, a son, is living in Missouri, I think. The youngest daughter was adopted by a family who attends the same church as the half sister & her mother so they are all pretty close, it seems. They were very excited to hear from him and are looking forward to building relationships.

I couldn't believe it. I cried of course. I hadn't realized during this process how much of myself I had put into it but I really put my entire heart and being into this project. I had neglected housework and spent literally days at a time on Ancestry, searching through documents, pouring over trees, filled all the blank pages of two different tablets with family trees and connection charts and started filling in pages of a third. It had become a bit of an obsession and while I knew the whole goal was to find the answer, I was still stunned that we actually had it.

I am sure enough to write this post that I have indeed found my mother's birth parents and my brother's father but I am still waiting on the DNA results from what would be one of my mom's half brother and the uncle on her mother's side, both of which will be definitive and leave absolutely no room for doubt. After completing this adventure, I would highly encourage anyone who is adopted and wanting to find birth families to submit a DNA kit to Ancestry for analysis. It could very well change your life.

A lesson for all of us here is this: talk to your family. Share stories and histories with each other; grandparent to grandchild, parent to child, with your nieces and nephews; get to know one another. Time is a very precious commodity and once the source of vital information, oral histories, is gone, all the information is lost. Both of my grandparents have already passed, as has my brother's father. My mother's uncle, her only remaining connection to her mother, is going to be 82 in March.

 We need these wells of knowledge, these depositories of memories long forgotten, to connect us to the past we share so we don't unknowingly repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.


-- If you or someone you know would like help or information about using Ancestry DNA, finding your family or creating a family tree, please contact me --

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