Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Pappa Was a Rolling Stone

He had long blonde curly hair, my eyes, and was travelling through Chicago in the winter of 1967-1968.

This, and my DNA, is all I had with which to begin my search.

Prior to DNA becoming “a thing”, nothing short of a chance encounter would put me in touch with my father.  I had always asked subtle questions of men I met, and especially of boyfriend’s fathers, to determine if any of them fit the profile I had of my father.  I had occasion to entertain the thought of going on a daytime television talk show to plead my case in hopes that my father would come forward.  Such a scenario never played out well in my mind – and usually ended with me being bombarded by a lot of creeps who are not my father.

It was the fall of 2013 when I saw a commercial on the television for Ancestry DNA.  After all of these years of wondering, it seemed it might finally be possible to get some answers.  The commercial – and the thought of the possibilities, left me covered in goose bumps.  I opened an Ancestry.com account in November of 2013 and began researching the various DNA testing companies and trying to understand how such testing might work.

(I’ve gone into detail about using DNA for search in other posts and so will refrain from doing so here.  I intend to present the story here, sans all the technical tutorial stuff.)

After research, I had decided to take my first DNA test with 23andMe.  It was a spit test, the kit including a test tube that I had to spit in and mail back to the company.  As I walked my package to the mail box one June 2014 Monday morning, it occurred to me that the day before, the day I spit in the tube, was Father’s Day.  I figured this was apropos, although wasn’t intentional.

When my results came back, I had a thousand genetic cousins, most very distant cousins.  The closest cousins were a 2nd cousin and three 3rd cousins – all of them anonymous.  Here was what I was able to see about these matches:

The fourth one on this list had four surnames posted (I grayed them out in the above picture, for privacy).  Those four surnames were my only clue for nearly ten months.

I had sent messages to each of those matches but had never received a reply.  I searched endlessly for an existing family tree that contained those four surnames, and for any connection between those names and any of my more distant DNA matches.

I then took the DNA test at Ancestry, and transferred those results to Family Tree, as well as uploading my DNA results to Gedmatch.  With those additional sites, I gained thousands more DNA relatives and had countless family trees to compare.  I spent hours upon hours comparing the family trees of my distant cousins, and rebuilding trees where information was lacking, in hopes of finding that spot where those trees intersect.

Because there’s a magic spot, you know.  There is a single point where all of the family trees of all of my thousands of genetic cousins intersect – and that single point is me.  It was like sitting here trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with millions of pieces, and not being able to find even two pieces that fit together.  I often was working on this puzzle before dawn and working until well past midnight.  I was researching and building family trees in my dreams.  This went on for nearly ten months.

Through this time, I frequently found myself looking at those anonymous top matches on 23andMe, knowing that if I could just get in touch with them…  any of them.  They held the key.  I began to accept that this was not in my power and I would have to solve my puzzle without their help.  But still…  there were those four surnames that haunted me.  This was a clue – I knew it was – and though I searched my mind over and over again, I couldn’t figure out how to use that clue.

I belong to a genetic genealogy forum and asked a lot of questions there and learned a great deal from the other members.  I had posted the screenshot of my top matches there and asked if anyone had any ideas – if maybe someone could see something in that clue that I was missing.

Kristen, the angel that she is, saw my post and took on the challenge.  In March of 2015 she had messaged me, having found a memorial posted on the Find-a-Grave website that had listed three of the four surnames that my anonymous 3rd cousin had listed.

I had emailed the owner of the Find-a-Grave memorial that Kristin had found and she had gotten me in touch with the father of my anonymous 3rd cousin on 23andMe.  It turns out that this cousin’s father had also taken the 23andMe test, and after several emails back and forth, both the father and the son agreed to share their DNA results with me so that we could compare our results with each other and see if we shared DNA with one another.

It turned out that yes, this was the father of my anonymous 3rd cousin, and while I share DNA with this cousin, I do not share DNA with his father.  This means that I must be related to this cousin on his mother’s side of his family tree.

This was the biggest breakthrough in my search – finding this 3rd cousin – because we know that one of his ancestors, within just a few generations, is also my ancestor.

The next step was to build his family tree.  The lady who had posted that Find-a-Grave memorial (who I now know is the wife of one of my second cousins and who I hope to meet in person this Spring as they are planning on attending a wedding in my town) had emailed some family history information she had collected – and with that, Kristin and I went to work building my cousin’s family tree.

People in the DNA discussion groups refer to this sort of a tree as a “Mirror Tree”, because it’s actually someone else’s tree.  Assuming that this cousin and I are third cousins, then one pair of his great-great-grandparents are also my great-great-grandparents.  Since we’ve already ruled out his father’s side, we know that it must be one of the great-great-grandparents on his mother’s side.  

We built the tree starting with my estimated 3rd cousin, and focused on building the branches on his mother’s side.  The goal here is to see which of those branches have ancestors who are also ancestors of my other DNA matches on Ancestry.com.  Unfortunately, some of those branches contained recent immigrants to the U.S., and could not be traced far enough back to capture hints from my more distant DNA matches.  The branches were too short to confirm any of them without having another close cousin match, which I simply didn’t have.

Oh!  If only I could figure out who those other anonymous 23andMe matches were!  But they listed no surnames, and left no hints whatsoever.

Since we had hit a dead end building the tree back, we shifted our focus and began searching for all of the descendants of those great-great-grandparents.  This part of the research became very time consuming.  Much of this research involved searching newspaper archives, especially obituaries, to find the names of the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and their spouses.

With a tree full of all of these descendants, we began looking specifically at the male descendants who would be around my father’s age.  We built family trees for each of them to see if I have DNA matches on any of their other branches.

After four months of two of us working full time on this puzzle, it seemed there still wasn’t enough information to solve it.  At this point, having most if not all of the cousins in this tree we built, surely one of them was my father – but which one? And how could I know?  We realized that we wouldn’t be able to get any closer to solving this puzzle without another close DNA match.

Exhausted and inpatient, I decided that rather than waiting for another match to randomly appear, I would purchase extra DNA tests from Ancestry and be pro-active and asking potential cousins to test.  In July of 2015, my cousin, Tom, (who is married to the owner of that Find-a-Grave memorial) agreed to take one of those DNA tests.

When his results came back, they enabled us to rule out another half of the family tree we had built and narrow my search down to just two branches – to two sets of potential Great-Great-Grandparents.  It would take another DNA test to confirm which of those ancestors are mine.

A month later, the next cousin took a DNA test and his results did confirm which branch of this tree I’m related on.  It was my birthday, in September 2015, when those results came back and I found my Great-Grandparents (though at the time, I was still assuming they were my Great-Great-Grandparents).

This couple had seven children, and so there are a lot of cousins and a number of male cousins that would be around my father’s age.  On one hand, the thought of narrowing this down to my father still seemed daunting – but on the other hand, the list of potential father’s had gone from virtually any Euro-American man in the U.S. born in the late 1940s, to just a handful of men.  So – this *can* be done.

We built out the family tree to include the full trees for each of the male cousins, in hopes that I might find matches on their other branches that would indicate that they were my father.  While researching the family tree, Kristen and I also searched sites such as Facebook, Classmates.com, BeenVerified, and LinkedIn to find photos of these cousins as well as anything that might link any of them to Chicago at the time I was conceived.  We didn’t find much to indicate that one cousin was more likely than the others.  We did find that one of the cousins seemed to fit the physical description (the blonde curly hair).  We also found that a couple of the cousins were deceased, and that one of them had a rather long and disturbing criminal history.  As a result of these searches, one of the cousins (I’ll call him “Joe” here, though that’s not his name), the one with the blonde curly hair, had noticed my visit to his profile on Classmates and had gotten in touch with me – this also occurred on my birthday, the same day I confirmed my Great-Grandparents.

I explained to Joe that I was a cousin and was searching for my father.  We exchanged several messages back and forth and I gave him more specifics of my search…  then his sister messaged me… then his younger brother (I’ll call him “Bob”) messaged me.

Bob is the youngest brother, 20 years younger than Joe, and is my age.  His age excludes him from the list of potential fathers, although he could potentially be my uncle.  We spoke on the phone and discussed the possibility.  As we talked, it seemed there was a high probability that Joe could be my father.

There was more discussion regarding who should take the DNA test.  Joe was willing, but his wife was against him doing it.  Bob, my potential uncle, agreed to be the one to take the test – and received Joe’s okay to do so prior to doing it.  That test went out in September of 2015.

I realized then that my search was done, I had found my father.  Next thing was just to wait for the results of that DNA test, which should show that Bob was my uncle, to confirm this.  A thought occurred to me at that time – I had thought that another random cousin would pop up among my DNA matches – that needed random cousin who’s results would solve my puzzle, but who I was too inpatient to wait for.  The results of that random cousin would prove that I never needed to purchase those extra tests and that the answers would have eventually come on their own, had I just been patient.

I can’t tell you the level of anxiety I was experiencing while waiting for the results of Bob’s test.  My friends and family, on the other hand, would probably tell you that I was a wreck.  I would try to tell myself to step away from my computer for a while, to just be patient – oh but I am not patient.  I found myself compulsively and repeatedly clicking refresh on my Ancestry DNA page, hoping to see that number of cousins go up by one.

During this time I received a rather nasty email from Joe’s wife.  This email served to remind me of how much drama can be caused by adoptees in search and how glad I am to have not have had to gone through this with each of the cousins in this tree.  This email also seemed to confirm that Joe was my father – because as much as she was insisting that he was not my father, the words she chose and the level of anger she expressed were indicative of a woman who believed that her husband actually is my father.

On September 24, 2015, I log in to Ancestry on my lunch break at work and see that the number of cousins I have jumped up by one.  I click on it to see who my new match was, to see if Bob’s results came in and if it shows up that he’s my uncle.

It wasn’t Bob though.  It was that other random cousin I had suspected might pop up.  I wasn’t surprised by this (I had expected it) and even before clicking on her name to view her family tree, I already knew what I was going to see…

I already knew that I’m related to Joe on one side of his tree (because of the other cousins who had already tested) but to confirm that he’s my father, there will be a close DNA match on the other side of his tree as well.  I knew - when I clicked to view the tree of this new match, that I would immediately see the surnames from the other side of Joe’s tree.

But that wasn’t what I saw.

Dunbar.  I saw the name Dunbar, and knew immediately (because of the hours spent researching the trees of my cousins) which cousin had Dunbar in his tree.  It was Ray, the one with the criminal record, and the one who passed away at about the same time I started this search.  When Kristin and I first viewed his criminal record I was nauseated at the thought that this man could potentially be my father.

“No. No. No. This is not good.  This is not good.”  I began saying there at my desk that day at work.  This simply cannot be possible.  There must be another explanation.  This cousin – she must somehow be related on my mother’s side – and the Dunbar ancestor in her tree must be a coincidence.

No. Joe’s my father, I’m certain.  This is a coincidence.  We’ll figure this out.

Kristen and I researched trees over the next several days to try to figure out how this new match ties into my mom’s tree.  Obviously – she *must* be related to my mother.  The Dunbar name *must* be a coincidence.

What’s happening?!?!

My mind racing.  I’m denying what I’m seeing.  Then, a few days later, I began to realize…  but is this even possible?  My mind still racing.  Racing.  And the thing was, strange as it sounds, he was there with me – I could feel it.  I’m not one who “sees dead people”, but I could feel it and it was overwhelming.  When I left work one day, I drove straight to see a psychic (which is not something I’ve done in over 25 years), sat down at her table, looked at her, and asked, “Who’s here with me?”

She told me there was a father figure standing beside me.

While I do believe that people can be psychic and have gifts, I am also skeptical and tend to suspect that people who make a living of such a thing are apt to be con artists.  I’m not going to say that “I know because a psychic told me so”.  What I am going to say is:  I felt overwhelmingly that he was there with me, but didn’t know how to validate this feeling.  I went to the psychic needing her to tell me one simple thing.  I sat down and asked one simple question.  Her response was exactly what I expected her to say – and it was exactly the validation I had gone there to receive.

Searching the web for any additional information I could find about this man, his facebook profile spoke to me as if from the grave:

In one way, it seemed he was actually speaking to me here.  In a much more rational way, I realized that when he authored these posts, he didn’t know that I existed.  He had written these for another child of his, which would indicate that I have a sibling out there.  Also, if he were trying to reach out to another child of his, maybe he would have accepted me too, had I found him before he died.

Once I got past the whole denial thing and accepted that this new cousin isn’t related on my mom’s side and that the Dunbar name (which was Ray’s mom’s maiden name) was not a coincidence, I called Bob and let him know that he probably wasn’t my uncle – and that when his results come in, we’ll most likely see that we are 2nd cousins.

Sure enough, Bob’s results came back on October 9, 2015, and we are 2nd cousins.  I wrote Joe and told him that he wins the best cousin award for being willing to be my father.  He replied and told me he would have been proud to be my father.

I made phone calls to California, where Ray last lived, and spoke to people who knew him.  I learned that he did have another daughter, who he had been estranged from, and who he had been trying to get in contact with before he died.  I learned that he died on his birthday of an overdose, that no family could be located, and that his ashes were scattered at sea.  I learned that he was an alcoholic and had been homeless on and off much of his life.  From other cousins, I learned about my grandparents, and learned about my father’s troubled youth.

I realized too, looking at my own Ancestry profile, that I had opened my Ancestry account exactly seven days after my father’s death.  He might have been standing here beside me that day I saw that television commercial, the one that had given me the goose bumps.

My father was a troubled man and had done some bad things in his life.  I know this.  Had I found him when I was younger (when he was younger) I’d likely not want to have anything to do with him.  He was trying to do better at the end of his though, and I’m sorry I couldn’t find him in time.  Maybe I would have been able to help him.

What I gained from this search was some insight and understanding – into where I come from as well as into what made him, him.

With this insight, I can look at myself and know that I’m doing alright.

I flew to California with my children on the first day of January of this year.  We went to the ocean and I said goodbye to my dad.

I have closure.


  1. Beautiful and sad. I am glad you have your answer.

  2. It's interesting to me that many of us either start our search or find the answers we've been looking for shortly after our mother, father, sibling has died. That's how it happened for me... and I have come to accept that maybe it was for the best.

  3. Yes, I think so. For me, it has left me with odd feeling of peace and understanding. As in, suddenly knowing that all things are as they should be. It’s all sort of surreal – after about 40 years of wondering and such challenging searches – but in a good way.

  4. Hello,

    I was looking at your article and was wondering if you could possibly make our Classmates.com URL a clickable link that will send your readers to our URL as a reference to the site. It would be very appreciated.


  5. Oh my, how I can relate to this. My first father died 3 months before I was born. Thank you for sharing.