Finding family with DNA

One thing that I know for sure about having your DNA tested: You will find relatives you never knew you had.

This has been proven many, many times now since this journey began in 2014. I have tested with each of the Big Three: FamilyTreeDNA (which is on sale for $69 presently!), AncestryDNA and 23andMe

Of course, everyone realizes that you'll find third, fourth and distant cousins doing this. (Be aware, however, there are some people who test but haven't quite understood what it means to match DNA – that these people in your list are, indeed, your relatives.)

But, most people who test do find closer relatives they weren't aware of previously.

Learning about DNA for genealogy has opened my eyes to the sea of people who were adopted at birth, abandoned or whose conception was unknown to everyone but the mother. That's called a "non-paternal event," and sometimes that means the father of the person you match may have not even known they'd had a child.

And there is the reality, too, that some of your matches were the result of an extramarital affair.

Next month, we are planning a family reunion so that I can introduce a previously unknown cousin to the rest of her biological relatives. 

Shari showed up on my kits as a second-cousin match, but her surname and other personal information were totally unfamiliar to me. When I contacted her, she wrote back telling me that she had been adopted at birth from a home for unwed mothers in Kansas City, Missouri, where original birth records have been sealed for decades. Though advocates are working to change this law, as I write this, an adoptee has to prove his or her birth parents are deceased. That's tough to do when you don't know who they are.

And it's a tough thing for people to admit, but Shari – like almost everyone else, adopted or not – wanted to know WHO she was and who her parents were, and she put it out there.

Some people, I've found, don't take the news well. Me? Well, I love a good puzzle and this was the ultimate mystery for me to solve.

The good news is that we matched at 211 cMs on 10 segments at Ancestry, 220 cMs (with 40 cMs as the longest block) at FTDNA, and at 23andMe, we share 2.93 percent across 10 chromosomal segments.

Pretty solid evidence that we are, indeed, closely related.

This was the very first case I've solved using everything I've learned over the past three years of courses taught by Cece Moore, Blaine T. Bettinger, Debbie Parker Wayne and Angie Bush – all of whom are pioneers in this brand-new field of genetic genealogy. 

Solving the problem didn't happen over night – it took me awhile to narrow down who the potential candidates were. Our common matches showed that Shari was related to me on my mother's side – but was that cousin male or female? I had no idea at first.

She did have non-identifying information about her parents – height, age, hair color and occupation. A kind person working for the state pointed her toward Ohio for her mother's residence, but by law could not say more.

The first thing I did was create a simple spreadsheet. I went through all of my mother's first cousins and entered their names and the year they were born. The spreadsheet automatically then gave me the age they would have been in 1943.

That narrowed it down to about for men and women who would have been the right age – IF the information she had was correct. 

We also contacted the administrator of a kit for a first-cousin match to Shari named Bernard. This match and I clearly were not in common, so I knew this man, now deceased, was on the other side of Shari's family. The kit administrator was far from helpful and didn't seem interested in knowing where this would lead. I think he was afraid of the "unknown" of the situation. Or maybe he knew, but didn't want to share for whatever reason. People can be funny that way.

So, starting with information I'd found in obituaries and anything else Google served up when I searched for Bernard's name, I began to build out Bernard's family tree. I went backward at least to his great-grandparents and then built forward to find all of the cousins – first and second and as close to the present as possible.

The next step was much more difficult: Determining which cousin to ask to do a kit. Fortunately, I became Facebook friends with Rose, who lived in the town I grew up. Her husband is my first cousin once removed. Rose, at the time, knew my sisters, but I have not met either her or her husband. But she convinced him to test for us, and I sincerely thank her for that.

Waiting for results is probably the hardest thing of all. But when they came back, it showed Shari and Dave matching at first cousins! Yay! Just as I'd predicted.

We had suspected the surname Morgan as her maternal surname, because that was one other piece of information Shari had from her adopted mother. Until now, she had always suspected that was a fake name.

But we located a living first cousin of Bernie's. I made the mistake of asking Bernie's son if he minded us calling the cousin and he was against it. We hesitated far longer than we should have, but with everything I've learned so far from the experts, it really wasn't this person's right to say if we could or couldn't talk to the cousin.

I encouraged Shari to call and to Shari's delight Marge, who is 95, was thrilled to talk to her. And she knew the entire situation and exactly which of the daughters had had a baby out of wedlock. They have become good friends. 

Unfortunately, Shari's birth mother had been deceased for several years, and while she eventually married, she had no other children. We confirmed that "M" didn't want to give Shari up, but was forced to by her parents. 

The best candidate I had for the father was "L", who had died in 1951. We are fortunate that Norma, "L's" youngest sister, agreed to test after she found out David's results.


Norma matched Shari at 1,700 cMs, meaning Shari is, indeed, Norma's niece.

Norma doesn't remember everything, but when I spoke to her on the phone after her results came in, she told me she recalled her brother had wanted to marry Marie, but, because she was Catholic and Lowell wasn't, his father refused to allow it. 

A very sad situation, and, of course, not all that unusual. 

So know this: When you test, you are possibly going to find relationships that were hidden from other family members – perhaps for generations.

The goal is to not allow these discoveries to break families further apart. The most important thing we can do is help those with unknown parentage feel welcome. The circumstances of their birth was nothing they could control, and it is not their "fault" that they are related to us.

That's just how it is. Love them as your own.

I know I do.



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