November 23, 2017

Revelations, Part 2: Paternity

I love genealogy; it's history wrapped in mystery and tied up with the ribbon of revelation. (Meanwhile, is it just me, or does "The Ribbon of Revelation" sound like something St. John the Apostle would use to tie his tunic during one of his rare whimsical moments?)

Doing genealogy is a little like getting paid to stalk dead people; as a result, you never know going in quite what you'll find so the occasional drama is inevitable.  That's all well and good until the drama magically appears on your own family tree's proverbial doorstep and suddenly you are the one trying to figure out how to process it all.  But more on that in a moment.

Genealogy Dad Jokes

After Spring's riotous insanity, what with the death of my birth mother Norma, the girlie's graduation, and the replacement of both my car and my home's entire HVAC system/water heater (never mind the indecent expense of replacement), my hope was that the rest of the year would prove to be a little more chill. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)  Instead, most of June was spent recovering from the onslaught of May and starting to prep for moving the girlie south to start her doctoral program in Atlanta.  Aside from a few cringe-worthy moments involved in parking a 15' U-Haul truck and attached car trailer and car in an awkwardly-designed Taco Bell parking lot, the move went more or less smoothly and we got the girlie settled back in Georgia--just three years after our having left it.  Irony strikes again, the perverse bastage.

With the girlie safely ensconced in her new apartment, I was able to spend a couple days visiting dear friends in the area before attending my first-ever genealogy institute in Athens, Georgia, my former home.  The institute was a little intimidating at first, particularly since I was surrounded by much more experienced genealogists, but I had a great time and learned a lot about Scottish genealogy research (including the correct way to pronounce "Kirkcudbright"--it's Kuh-coo-bree, by the way) under the auspices of my instructor Paul Milner, whose encyclopedic knowledge and ready humor made the week-long class so enjoyable that I'll be taking a course on English genealogy from him in Salt Lake City next January. (For those of you who don't know, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City is basically Genealogy Mecca, so any chance to study in its vicinity is tantamount to going on pilgrimage.)

After the institute I returned home and was finally able to spend a month catching up on things before my next genealogy course started at the beginning of September.  Several of the institute attendees had warned me that the course I was planning to take was rather intensive; each advised me to double or even triple how many hours Boston U said I should allot for the course every week.  Intimidated, I made sure to clear my schedule of conflicts for the rest of the year so I would have sufficient time to adequately focus on the coursework and assignments. Famous last words.

Earlier in the year,  I was contacted by one of my DNA matches on Ancestry.  A man named Terry was looking for help in solving a family mystery regarding his mother-in-law's parentage and, given that I was a relatively close match to his wife, they hoped that I could help.  Unfortunately, since I didn't really know who my birth father was, there was little I could do to assist.  This didn't seem to matter to Terry, who was convinced his mother-in-law and I were half-sisters.  To be honest, I didn't really believe him. Everything he told me about my supposed father, including the man's age and his location in Texas, conflicted with the (admittedly) limited information I already had about my alleged birth father; Also, I had DNA matches in the family of the man I thought was my birth father, albeit rather distant ones.  Given the relatively close match to Terry's wife, it was clear that I was related to Terry's family--I just didn't know how.  Terry decided to test his mother-in-law in the hope of discovering more information and said he would get back to me after the results came in.

A couple of months later a new DNA match showed up on my Ancestry account; it turned out to be for Terry's mother-in-law Robin who was, as he'd predicted, a degree closer to me than his wife was.  I remained unconvinced that Robin was a half-sister or that we shared a birth father, in part because while Ancestry classified us as a "close match," it also offered multiple options for our relationship, including aunt/niece, cousin, grandparent, etc.  Plus I couldn't get past the DNA matches I shared with the family of the man I thought was my birth father. I sent Terry a message about the match at some point in the spring, but never heard back and the whole thing slipped my mind.

However, Irony has an unnatural love for me and likes to hug me tighter than my skivvies, so it wasn't about to let me off the hook that easily. A mere week into my highly-intensive genealogy course, Terry finally returned my call and we chatted for a bit. By then I'd been introduced to the wonders of GEDmatch, which is a free site genealogists use to analyze and compare raw DNA data.  On GEDmatch, there is an option for comparing the X-chromosome of two testers.  Because Robin and I clearly had different mothers, if Terry uploaded her raw data to GEDmatch, I could compare our X-chromosomes; without our mother's Xs to complicate matters, any full X-match we shared would have to have come from a shared father.  By the time Terry called me in September, I'd also learned a little more about how to read and interpret DNA matches in terms of centimorgans (cM), which is a distance measurement genetic genealogists use to determine the closeness of relationships between people.  Robin shares enough cM with me to make our possible relationship one of grandparent/grandchild (which wasn't plausible given the proximity of our ages), one of aunt/niece (which was plausible, if less common, given our age proximity), or one of half-siblings.  Hmmm.

Stand back...I'm gonna try SCIENCE!

I asked Terry to tell me again about the man he thought was Robin's (our) birth father while I took notes, then I asked if he would be willing to upload Robin's DNA to GEDmatch so I could confirm whether or not we were half-siblings via the X-match utility.  While I waited the several days for him to do so, I started researching this putative father, a man named Donald Tolin (who ironically shared the same first name as the man I had thus far presumed to be my birth father).  In the process of frenetically researching Donald Tolin around my coursework, I learned several sketchy things about him, many of which echoed the circumstances of my conception.  I started to wonder.  I also reread my adoption paperwork and noticed that I might have misinterpreted some of it; after looking at the records from a fresh perspective, I realized that New Donald might fit the profile listed in my adoption paperwork after all. Slowly but surely, I started coming around to the idea that this Donald Tolin of Texas (originally from Indianapolis) just might be my birth father after all.

A few days later, Terry got Robin's DNA uploaded to GEDmatch and I immediately ran the X-comparison.

We were a match.

Blue is the color of sisterhood.

Suddenly I had a half-sister. And a birth father. Who was a different Donald than the birth father I spent the last five years thinking I had.

I was stunned.  I was also struggling to keep up with my homework around all the unexpected and exciting revelations.  Turns out my colleagues at the summer genealogy institute weren't kidding about the amount of time this course demanded.  Still, I made it work for me as much as I could by using my new-found paternal family as the basis for my next assignment. Multi-tasking FTW!

A couple of days later, Robin and I chatted on the phone for the first time.  We didn't talk very long; Robin doesn't seem to be a very chatty sort of person, at least not on the phone.  Hopefully we can get to know each other better as time goes on. We texted a few times after that first call because Terry thought he'd found a mention of Donald Tolin's death, but hadn't been able to confirm it.

I didn't hear much from Robin or Terry after that, so I got back to work on my class and settled into a consistent routine of doing 8-10 hours a day and having no life while basically being  imprisoned in my office and virtually chained to my computer doing genealogy assignments.   I fit in research on the Tolin family whenever I could find a spare moment.  All genealogy, all the time.  I figured I would finish up my course and that would be the end of the story.

I could not have been more wrong.

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