About a month ago I got the results of a DNA test from Ancestry.com. The results were very surprising to me because they showed 1/3 Italian or Greek ancestry, and I was unaware of any Italian or Greek heritage in any part of my family. Plus 33% means a close relative. I looked through the people I was matched with and found one person who had a lot of Italians in his family tree, but I didn’t recognize any of them or see any connection to my family. I sent him a message and tweeted my results, tagging Ancestry.
Later that day Crista, a researcher who works for Ancestry, contacted me via Twitter and asked for access to my results so she could try to help me figure them out. I gave her access. Just before midnight that night she told me she’d figured it out but would rather tell me over the phone. I was still up so she called.
She walked me through all my DNA matches, and showed how they mapped to my paternal grandmother, my paternal grandfather, and my maternal grandmother. Then she told me to click on the account of the Italian-American guy I’d messaged earlier that day. I did, and she directed me to his grandparents. Those folks had 10 kids, including 6 boys. She told me that two of them were crossed off the list of possible ancestors, and then said, “One of the four remaining brothers is your mother’s biological father.”
I was floored.
If you know me even a little, you know that my maternal grandfather, Bernie Flanders, had a huge influence on me. He’s responsible for my love of music in general, and jazz in particular. Like him, I’m a saxophonist. I named my firstborn son after him. He was my hero. If Crista had told me that any other member of my family was not biologically related to me, it would have been easier to take. But not my grandpa.
“What are the chances that this is true,” I asked Crista, “instead of this being an error with the test?” She told me that since the test correctly mapped me to 3/4 of my known grandparents, it must also be correctly pointing to one of these Italian-American men as being my maternal grandfather.
I asked her what I should do next. She advised me not to tell my mom until I could prove which of the brothers it was. I told her that my mom had sent in her own DNA test that very morning and so would be finding out that she was half Italian long before I could prove who her father was. So she helped me craft an email to the cousin I’d already emailed, describing the situation and asking for his help to get his cousins tested in an attempt to identify my mom’s father.
Meanwhile I was having a very hard time even believing any of this. I’m a big fan of science and rationality. I could understand in my head why this was all true, but my heart couldn’t come to terms with it. I decided not to say anything to my mom until her results arrived, so that I’d have confirmation of the story.
Unfortunately, the timing looked pretty awful. If it took the same amount of time for my mom’s results as it had taken for mine, she’d get them just about on my wedding day in late May. I stopped calling her as frequently as I normally do because I hated to conceal the story from her. My mental health took a tailspin (from this and another unrelated issue). I confided the story in my partner and a couple close friends because I had to tell somebody.
Then yesterday, Mother’s Day, I awoke to a text from my mom with her own results and a note reading “I’m your Italian link!” I called my sister to come up with a plan, and decided that I’d drive from PA to NY later that day to tell my mom face-to-face. I called Mom for Mother’s Day and joined in her speculation about where the DNA might have come from; not revealing that I knew where it came from.
In the afternoon I drove to upstate New York and walked into my parents’ house, surprising everyone but my sister. My mom asked what I was doing there. “I know more about our DNA results than you do,” I said. My sister immediately teared up, which made my mom tear up, even though she didn’t know why my sister was crying. I started to explain to my mom that her DNA results meant that her Italian ancestor was very recent. Out of nowhere, she said, “Was Grandpa not my biological father?” I said, “No, he wasn’t.” She burst out crying.
Over the next hour or so, I walked her through the process I’d gone through with Crista and explained how this amazing and unexpected fact could be true. She was stunned, but she held up amazingly well. We talked about how this changed nothing about the man she knew and loved and had called her father. In every way that mattered, he’d been her father.
As the conversation wound down, I told Mom that we’d probably never know the full truth. Either my grandma had an affair, or there’d been non-consensual sex that led to pregnancy, or she’d been artificially inseminated. In the first case, we were totally dependent on a member of the family of my grandma’s lover to have this arcane bit of lore. In the middle case, it was unlikely we would ever know. In the latter case, maybe there’d be medical records, but probably not. This was 1949 after all.
I did suggest one other possible route to take. We have a cousin who is the unofficial keeper of family knowledge. She remembers all the names and dates and knows all the trivia. So, not expecting much, we called her.
“Is there anything you know about my biological background that you want to tell me?” my mom asked her. “Not really,” she said. I told her that we knew Grandpa wasn’t my mom’s biological father, and that we knew it was one of four brothers with the last name [REDACTED]. There was a pause. “Actually, I do know,” she said.
And then she told us that when she was a teenager, 60 years ago, her mom had told her of my grandma’s affair with a man for whom she’d worked. My cousin’s mom and my grandma were best friends, and my grandma had confided in my cousin’s mom. My cousin and her mom had a very close relationship, and so one day her mom told her the story. She’d kept this story locked away, telling nobody but her husband, for six decades.
Again, my mom and I were gobsmacked. I’d gone from a month of painful secrecy to an afternoon of emotionally charged revelation to … the actual answer to the mystery. We could now definitively identify my mom’s biological father. In one fell swoop, my mom had siblings, I had aunts and uncles, we both had tons of cousins. Oh, and we’re Irish and Italian, not Irish and German.
What happens next? I don’t know. We’re trying to contact our new family via the cousin with whom I’d already spoken. We have a lot to learn. Maybe we have new people to meet. And we all have a lot to process. It was a hell of a day.
My mom and I both feel that it’s better to know than not to know. My grandparents went to their graves never saying anything, and my grandfather loved my mom as perfectly as any father can love a daughter. Turns out my adoration of him was well-placed. Our family is different now, but it’s also the same. I love my mom, and I loved my grandparents. And now, maybe, there are even more people to love. And that’s, well, fortunato.