Surprise! Surprise! Genetic genealogy upends the past

So, My Daddy Wasn’t My Daddy?

It all began in 2009 during a lakeside weekend and a random conversation among friends and family about blood type.

“I think I’m AB,” I said. My younger sister later whispered in my ear, “You can’t be — Mother was A and Daddy was O.” Oh.

The irony is my AB statement would have passed unnoticed if Bonnie hadn’t remembered a lesson from her early ’70s freshman biology class. Plus, she was the last of us four siblings still living at home in Brunswick where the topic of Daddy’s rare blood type would come up whenever there was a blood drive.

The week after, I made a beeline for the bloodmobile at the farmers’ market, and sure enough — my AB blood type was confirmed. Well, well. Mother took that secret to her grave. She and Daddy had died nearly 20 years before.

The four of us pondered the new information. Bonnie always thought my hands were very different from everybody else’s. My older sister Ann, 10 at the time of my birth, and my main babysitter, recalled that she used to joke that they’d brought the wrong baby home from the hospital. She had dark coloring; I was blond as a baby.

Interestingly, my two sisters seemed to think I, the third child, was Mother’s favorite. In retrospect — while I never noticed any overt favoritism — if I had thought about it, I would have said yes, that she and I have more of a bond.

What now? We were all curious, but none of us were shocked. In hindsight, Daddy might have had Asperger’s, a type of autism that can affect a person’s ability to form close relationships and to insist on rigid routines. Whatever it was, Mother could only endure — divorce was not an option at that time.

As we pondered this revelation, Bonnie and I recalled talking with Mother after she’d had a stroke, playfully asking if she had ever considered stepping out. Mother chuckled, like the cat who swallowed the canary.

At the end of the day, our only clue was that my older sister remembered mention of a Mr. Burch, the manager at J.C. Penney’s where Mother worked after the war. We confirmed the manager’s name through a much younger friend who had worked with her at the store.

In the meantime, life interfered and I didn’t get around to following up on that clue until after I moved to Athens in 2013. I hired a genealogist, but our one clue was a dead end. The man wasn’t in Brunswick in 1946. At the same time, my younger sister, older brother and I had our DNA analyzed by 23andme, one of the consumer genetic testing sites. It showed we shared only half of our DNA. More frustrating, a female couldn’t trace paternal heritage through 23andme because the service only analyzed mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited only from our mothers.

Ancestry.com analyzes autosomal DNA, which is inherited from both parents, but the service cannot track maternal and paternal heritage independently. Again, I was at a dead end.

Although I accepted that I’d never know my biological father, I couldn’t resist thinking about the differences between me and my three siblings. For one thing, all of them had stayed in one community their whole adult lives, and committed to one employer, compared to me and my peripatetic career. And that’s where it stood until I read an article in 2018 about The Golden State Killer.

Cold case murder solved with genetic genealogy

It was all over the news. A man responsible for numerous rapes and murders decades before in Sacramento, California, had been tracked down using a new methodology called genetic genealogy. It’s been used many times since. Using multiple DNA databases and traditional genealogical methods, law enforcement has been able to infer a genetic relationship between certain individuals and identify the perpetrators of violent crimes and sexual assaults.

When I read about this, I decided it might be worth a try to solve my own mystery. I did some Googling and came up with the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG), where I found three people on the site who did consulting work for a fee.

I e-mailed Phil Goff in Durham, North Carolina, on April 10, 2019, with my meager clues: The mystery man had to be in Brunswick in the summer of 1946; my mother was working at Penney’s at the time; my parents were living in war apartments on the south end of town.

He answered back on April 12 that he had been successful in similar cases to mine and that he could do the work for $500. That was a reasonable risk to me. He then directed me to download my raw DNA data from 23andme, and then upload it to four other databases. He ran that data through a software program that kicked out a probability tree of 20 DNA kits in which some segments of my DNA matched some parts of the DNA of the people in those kits.

By April 22, he had solved the mystery. A first cousin once removed in Virginia had submitted her DNA to one of the databases and built out her family tree in a public profile. She and I shared the most DNA. Her grandmother was my biological father’s sister.

Part of the clincher was that my biological father’s wife worked at J.C. Penney, and the couple lived not two blocks away from my parents’ apartment complex. Unexpectedly, the city directory showed my parents living in separate apartments. Were they separated or was it a clerical error?

I learned through his obituary that my biological father had owned a popular restaurant, which he started the year I was born; incredibly, although I passed it thousands of times, I never ate there. He owned a plane and flew all over the country and South America. I would learn more about him through inquiries to a 1960s high school email group. He was known to be “a ladies’ man,” and, in fact, would marry four times. His one son and one granddaughter pre-deceased him, apparently suffering from alcoholism.

I’ve met with his adopted daughter who is the repository for family memorabilia, and we plan to go through her storage unit, perhaps this year. She shared photographs, and there’s a definite resemblance.

Since then, I’ve had one second cousin from the paternal side reach out to me through Ancestry, wondering why I’m showing up as related to her. She thought she knew all her cousins!


Surprise paternity unites son with father and siblings

Sisters too! From left: Simone, Jonathan, Chris, Devon, Kyleah, Kelsey. Photos courtesy Chris Young.

Athens retiree Chris Young, 65, got a Facebook message in June 2017 that looked like spam: I have a correspondence I would like to send you regarding a family matter and I would rather not type it out on FB messenger. Do you have a physical address I could mail it to?

He was suspicious. “I wasn’t sure English was her first language, so I wrote back, ‘Give me a short synopsis.’”

She explained that she did genealogy as a hobby and that she was helping a friend find his birth parents. I think that either you or one of your brothers is his father.

“In the second message, she identified my grandparents and parents, and the child’s birthday, concluding, The DNA evidence, along with your age and geographic location makes you my top candidate for his birth father.

“In the third message she named the mother and the dates of possible conception.”

You have my attention.

It was Christmas, 1981, as Young recalled, and he was planning to travel from Alabama to South Carolina as part of his re-forestation job. When a co-worker invited him to spend the holiday in Atlanta with his family, he accepted and met the man’s younger sister. They hung out together over three days and on the last night went to her apartment together.

A little later, on the way back to Alabama, he called her for a date, but she declined, saying she was headed to Germany. He assumed it was a brush off, but she actually did move to Germany where she found out she was pregnant despite being on birth control. At that time, Germany didn’t allow abortion, so with the help of a for-profit adoption agency, she flew back to Atlanta to give birth. The records were sealed.

When contacted 34 years later by this amateur genealogist, she was livid and wanted no part of the endeavor, saying, “Don’t contact me again.”

Young felt differently. He gave permission for his son to contact him, if only to share medical history. He then told his wife and messaged his four daughters: Are you sitting down? You have a brother!
“We had a field day with it, speculating that if he wanted money, I didn’t have any to give him.”

Jonathan’s journey

Jonathan, 39, was raised in Gainesville but now lives in Opelika, Alabama. He was an only child and always knew he was adopted. His mother is still alive; his father, who suffered with PTSD from Vietnam, is dead.

“I had made efforts through the legal system, but the adoption agency was long closed, and it would have cost thousands of dollars to get the records unsealed with no assurance of finding out anything,” he said.

His mother had given him the adoption paperwork in 2004, but all that showed was his biological mother’s medical history and listed paternity as “unknown.”

“At no point did I ever think I would meet him,” he says. But then for Christmas 2016 his relatives gave him an Ancestry.com DNA kit. And then his sister-in-law, Hannah, did more sleuthing using the new techniques of genetic genealogy, which involve multiple databases and family trees.

She came back to him with names and contact information. In fact, she made the contact with Jonathan’s mother, whose rejection he said, “was hard to hear.”

After that, he was anxious about meeting his biological father. “He was this imaginary character in my head, and I couldn’t know how good or bad it would go.”

Father and son began messaging and texting. “I wanted to be open, to be low pressure and not come on too strong,” Jonathan said. Then he began to get friend requests from his new sisters. Chris was too excited to wait and reached out by phone pretty immediately.

“When we talked, he wasn’t guarded, and he had no expectations. He said he liked adventures,” Chris recalls.

Less than three months later, they all made plans to have dinner at the home of Chris and his wife Tracy in Madison County. “I figured if it was bad, it would only be two hours,” Jonathan says.

But it wasn’t bad. There were blue balloons tied to the mailbox. “I got out of the car, and we were dressed exactly the same — cargo shorts, red shirt, barefoot,” Jonathan remembers. “We’re the same height, the same nose — I was looking into my own eyes!”

Chris remembers, too: “He wouldn’t let go.”

Siblings!

As an only child, Jonathan relishes the relationship he has with his four new sisters. “We have some of the same personality quirks, and there’s that comfort of being with someone you feel you’ve known forever.”

Kyleah Young, 31, is a twin. When she read Chris’s Facebook message, she immediately called her twin. “We’ve always hung out together,” a dynamic shared among all four, and now shared among the five.

“We didn’t have to get to know this stranger — it was like we already knew each other.”
Jonathan is a social worker and one of his sisters is a therapist so there’s an inclination to share that seems baked in. The siblings maintain their relationships with each other, and make plans to get together, apart from parental gatherings.

After their first dinner in June 2017, the two families vacationed together in August. Only three hours away, they now spend holidays together, see each other about every other month, and stay in regular communication.

Jonathan’s adoptive family was small but Chris is one of four siblings, which provides lots of uncles and cousins for the newfound son. Jonathan’s mother lives with him, and he’s kept her abreast as things evolved.

“Her feelings may have been a little hurt,” but Jonathan thinks it would have been very hard on his father were he still alive.

Chris has visited Jonathan to help with his youngest grandchildren; he’s now Paw Paw. And most rewarding according to Chris — Jonathan asks for “Dad advice.”

Betsy Bean
Betsy Bean completed graduate school at UGA in 1972. She was a school librarian for a year and then became a rock and roll DJ for the next 10. Subsequently, she worked as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, followed by public relations and marketing and newsletter publishing and was, more recently, the downtown development director for the City of Anniston, Ala.

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