A nice secret from my mother
In mid-June of 2022 I was tasked by my partner to find her biological parents. She was adopted when she was born and always wanted to know who their story. After an Ancestry.com DNA test, some Ruby code, and a whole lot of family tree building, I did eventually find them. It was a dumpster fire: per my partner, “I prepared for the worst, and this is DEFCON 5.”
She’s fine all things considered and has some sense of closure.
This was rather “fun” — the hunt, at least for me. I thought about taking a test too. My mother did a lot of family history stuff back in the day. She died rather drastically in October 2019 from brain cancer, and her descent from normal human to relative potato was rather quick: so quick, I never got to ask her a lot of the questions I wish I had answers to. I did, though, manage to get her favorite color: yellow.
It’s now my favorite color. I never liked it until then. I never got why, however I imagine it’s because the sun is yellow.
After my mother’s passing I spent some time trying to put together some pieces of her life that I was curious about: where was she married when she got married the first time, what did she do when she was my age? I got some answers, but hardly all of them. During my investigations I uncovered a bit of an untold truth: her and my father were never married. Before it was absolute fact in my head I tried to verify this with various family members. I asked my grandfather — mother’s side — where my mother and my father got married and he said he couldn’t remember, though he did remember every other event I asked about; I asked my uncle — also mother’s side — and he said “they got married.” Hardly convincing.
At one point, I asked my father and got a very vague response of “you know how your mother always loved mountains!”
Being autistic, I wasn’t really sure what to make of all this. Instead, I settled for the most logical answer of no, they did not get married.
Though she had a wedding ring, and though her last name was the same as his, and though they had an anniversary, and though they lived together, they never got married. There are a million answers to this, so unless you know my mother you will certainly infer best intentions. As her oldest son and confidant, though, looking back on things… my mom was incredibly sneaky. As an able-minded adult, none of this surprised me.
Another example of my mother’s sneakiness involves my sister: my mother changed her birth name two weeks after she was born, and my father didn’t know until my sister was doing FAFSA stuff. We called her by her middle name, the name my father thought was her given name.
Having just been through the ringer of this whole DNA test thing with my partner, though, I wanted to know where I came from. I had some ideas based on what I heard from my mother over the years but nothing science-y and I wanted the science-y stuff.
I had spoken to my father about how I found my partner’s biological parents and the steps I took to find them: her Ancestry.com DNA test, a lot of digging, Facebook messages, verbosity, and the like. He mentioned that my mother had bought three Ancestry.com DNA kits — one for each kid. I thought this was peculiar knowing her interest in family history: A part of me was hopeful that she bought four and did a kit herself. The thought of her doing so left me a little warm and fuzzy on the inside, as if she had left a little puzzle for me, if not a piece of her I could have forever.
My mom loved to do genealogy. She would talk on the phone to new-found relatives in Norway and Scotland and was always uncovering new family secrets, names, and traditions. She long maintained that we were related to Kenneth MacAlpin and she managed to all but verify it with the man’s own DNA. This gave me more hope: maybe, just maybe, she had taken an Ancestry.com DNA test herself.
And so I bought an Ancestry.com DNA test and shipped my spit. I checked daily if my results had come in and, for whatever reason, grew impatient with the science behind it all knowing full-well that the scale of the operation was “fun” if you’re an engineer. It was when my partner and I were leaving her newly-found biological aunt’s cabin (truly awesome folk, by the way) when an alert from Ancestry came in: “Josh’s Ancestry.com results are ready” — talk about a weird coincidence.
There was pent-up anxiety between us about the results: did my mom do a DNA test? I kept thinking that my father said that she bought three kits; my hope was that she bought four and did one herself, leaving three for the kids.
We pulled into a small restaurant in way-northern Minnesota to fill up on food for the four-hour drive home. Between “fake 4G-LTE signal” and the disasterous restaurant wifi, my partner managed to pull up my DNA matches — other Ancestry.com members who did a test and opted-in to the service.
It was the longest page load of my life.
Why yes, my mother did do a DNA test.
I quickly had my partner tap the “Yes, I recognize this person” button on Ancestry.com which automatically tagged everyone my mother and I shared DNA with. My grandfather — mother’s side — had taken a test too: 25%, checks out. My matches were extremely poor otherwise — I only recognized one name and that was a woman by the name of Sandy Beach.
No, not Sandra. Birth name: Sandy.
My mom had spoken of this Sandy Beach woman once or twice. I remember when she told me we were related. I thought she was kidding. You were too, and you’re probably not even convinced that I’m being truthful. It’s okay.
Anyway, Sandy’s grandfather is a man named Gustav. Gustav was born in 1856 and eventually made his way to Anoka County. He had sixteen children and passed away in 1939. Gustav had a Christ, Christ had a Dennis, and Dennis and his wife, my dear grandmother, had my beloved mother.
Back to this tagging thing though: In marking “yes, that is my mother” on Ancestry, it tagged all the people my mother and I share matches with.
And this turned up a can of worms.
Who the fuck is my father?
Sometime in my awkward teenage years, my sister overheard my mother say this on the phone to someone: “I can’t tell [Josh] that, [FatherName] is the only man he’s ever known” alluding to myself and my father respectively. I took this with a grain of salt and a healthy dose of skepticism, and told myself that context was required, that my sister was talking out of her ass, or that my mother was talking out of hers.
But then there’s some more context, you know, my sneaky mother. She always said I was a month late. I didn’t think much of it then, but I think of it often now. These days, it’s considered “very unlikely” that a woman is going to deliver a month after term. I was born of a normal weight and size, too. Sure, it happens, but it’s not exactly all that common at all.
I have developed this theory: I was not a month late, but in order to not stir the pot with the man she was (probably?) reasonably serious with — my non-conceptual father — was to say so, making him think he was the father.
Jerry Springer — CEO of Ancestry — says no, you are not the father.
I have said that she took all the good secrets to the grave for years. This is just another, and I’m sure there will be more.
I haven’t told my father yet, and I don’t really know if I will, or how I would even start. Our relationship isn’t at all like the one I had with my mother — it never has been. I did, however, mention this finding to my grandfather though, hoping that he would know who my mother was hanging out with in 1990. It’s unlikely, but if anyone is going to have this information, it ‘ought to be him. He’s away on a cool train ride as I write this, without Wi-Fi I presume.
The hunt begins.