So Many Secrets, part 2: A DNA Match
It was Christmas of 2016 when my wife, Rebecca, bought me an Ancestry DNA kit. She’s a genealogy nut and knew I was interested in tracing my family tree one day. In all honesty, I didn’t think I would come up with much because my family background is rough.
In my last post, I told you about the last time my mother saw her father, as the police were taking him off to jail, where he would commit suicide later that evening. That part of the story is fairly clear because I was able to find newspaper articles documenting the events of the day. Less clear are the events of my grandmother’s life before that time, but we know she came from a less-than-ideal upbringing and that she was a promiscuous woman. There was a short-lived marriage to a man named Lester Ward in Ohio, and we believe he may be the biological father of my uncle Jim (my uncle spent most of his life in prison, which you can read in the next chapter). Later, my grandmother moved to the Wilmington, Delaware area, and we would find out many years later that she gave birth to a number of children who were given up for adoption. My mother would be a grown woman before she found out she had an older brother named Jack that she never knew about. She would also find out she had a sister she never knew who was born a “mongoloid” and died in an institution, and another brother who she was raised to believe was her cousin.
In light of that background, you can imagine why I thought it would be impossible to trace my family tree. At any rate, I sent my DNA test back to Ancestry and waited for the results. I got them about 90 days later, and while it was interesting, there was nothing earth shattering. My genetic background was largely as expected.
At risk of sounding like a shill for Ancestry, I’ll say this. The great thing about an Ancestry DNA test is, once you’ve done it, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Every couple of months I receive an email alerting me to a new genetic match. Usually those matches are to extremely distant relatives, people with whom I share a common ancestor 6 or 12 or 20 generations back, and many times twice or four times removed. However, in June of 2017 I received a message from a woman named Cindy who had taken an Ancestry DNA test. Cindy had a last name I didn’t recognize, but our predicted relationship was first cousins. I emailed Cindy and told her “I’d love to correspond if you like and see if we can figure out how we’re related.”
Over the ensuing weeks, Cindy and I exchanged emails and she shared some details of her upbringing. She had virtually no information about her biological family. She was born in Delaware County, Pennsylvania and immediately adopted out.
“It was a private adoption, and my adoptive parents refused to tell me anything,” she wrote. “I actually didn’t find out I was adopted until I was 36 years old, and only found out through my adopted brother.”
Cindy went on to tell me that her adoptive parents had since passed on and she had petitioned the state of Pennsylvania in 2017 to unseal her adoption records, but that she didn’t know for sure when that would happen. We were still operating on the assumption that we were cousins, but when I analyzed the information I had, I wasn’t so sure. Cindy was about 14 years older than me, just a few years younger than my mom, and she was born in the same geographic area where my mom and her family had lived in the fifties. I suspected our relationship might be that of an Aunt/Nephew rather than first cousins.
I sent Cindy another email and told her I thought we might be related through my grandmother. I gave her my grandmother’s maiden name, Dunn, with an additional list of surnames from my family tree , in case any of them meant something to her. When she responded, things began to become much clearer.
“Troy, What you just told me has stunned me to my core,” she wrote. “The one piece of information my adopted father told me was my last name was Dunn. I know there is no way you could have known that. And I thought he had lied to me all these years. So what you are saying makes total sense to me.” I was in shock at Cindy’s response, but it was confirmation of what I suspected. “I now believe I am one of Ruth’s children that she gave up,” Cindy wrote.
I contacted my mom to let her know about the family drama that was unfolding.
I asked her, “Mom, do you think you have any other siblings that nobody knew about?” She said she did not, and I was a bit surprised to find her skeptical. My mom was about 5 years old when Cindy was born, and she said “Troy, I don’t remember grandma being pregnant.” I reminded her that my DNA test said Cindy and I were close relatives, which meant she was also closely related to Cindy.
My mom and I had a number of discussions over the ensuing months, and I furnished Cindy with my Mom’s email address, and my mom with Cindy’s, but there was no communication between them right away. Cindy was waiting for her documents to be unsealed in Pennsylvania, and my mom was waiting for the same.
I’ll admit, I felt a bit frustrated, because it seemed to me that something monumental was going on, but my mom was still skeptical. She clung to her memories of the childhood she had, and insisted my grandmother had not been pregnant around the time Cindy had been born. I couldn’t figure out why my mom didn’t want to believe the story that was unfolding. I thought maybe she was angry that my grandmother, who died in 2015, had gone to her grave without ever revealing the secret of another child, but my mom insisted she wasn’t angry.
Later, my mom and I had a text exchange about our ongoing effort to get to the bottom of it, and her messages were revealing.
“Sorry, just a little overwhelmed with the news!” she wrote. “My mother had so many secrets.”
“I know, mom,” I wrote back. “But her secrets were likely borne out of shame. It was a different time. It’s not a reflection on you.”
“I know,” she responded, “but it makes make wonder why she kept me!”
Things became clear to me then and I understood my mom’s skepticism. She felt shame that she got to stay with my grandmother, but all the other kids ended up somewhere else, in the care of adoptive parents, and that shame contributed to her not wanting to believe that this was happening again. She had survivor’s guilt. For the fourth time in her life, there was a dark family secret coming to light — another child that nobody knew about might soon be revealed.
There were additional complications, too. There were questions about the timeline of Cindy’s birth and how it correlated with my grandfather’s suicide in jail. Could he have been her father? We didn’t know yet, because Cindy had been understandably reluctant to share her birthdate with complete strangers. If my grandma Ruth was really Cindy’s biological mom, there was a good chance we might not ever find out who Cindy’s biological father was due to my grandmother’s promiscuous lifestyle. We wouldn’t know for sure until Cindy got her birth records from the state of Pennsylvania.
That day came in February of 2018. I got a message from Cindy’s husband Joe that I should call because she had some very interesting information to share.
I called right away and Joe and Cindy put me on speaker phone. They had just spoken with a representative of the state of Pennsylvania and Cindy had been given the identity of her birth mother and father. Her mother was Ruth Dunn, and her biological father was George Elliott. She was my mom’s full-blood sister, and my aunt.
I was overwhelmed with emotion and my eyes welled-up with tears.
“You’re my Aunt Cindy,” I said.
Since that time, my mom and Cindy have exchanged messages and talked on the phone on a number of occasions, and I’m told Cindy and her husband would like to visit my mom in Texas, and also come to North Dakota to meet me, and her half-sister Tammy, who was born to my grandma and her husband Bob in later years. I look forward to that day.
In closing, I’d like to say my Grandma Ruth was the best grandma a kid could want. She was a gregarious lady with bright red hair and who was never caught without a coat of bright red lipstick, which she was happy to rub off with kisses on her grandkids. Like all of us, she had challenges in her life due to her own upbringing, but she kept her head down and worked hard and became a better person for it. My mom has said her only regret is that she lost over 60 years of getting to know her sister. Let’s hope that ends soon.
Troy Larson is a father, author, and photographer originally from Minot, North Dakota, now residing in Fargo.