I decided a few weeks ago that today would be the day that I shared something that at first a very small circle of those close to me knew. Over the last couple of months, that circle has grown. For a number of reasons, I’ve sheltered telling this story. First, it was to protect others but sadly because I felt a sense of personal shame as well. No more, today I’m sharing my story. First, it’s a way for me to continue to process through my emotions but also to stir up a conversation about something that I’m quickly learning is not unique to me.
At 53 years old, I learned that the man I thought was my father, the man who I stood by his bedside as he breathed his last breath, the man whose relationship with has been a lifelong challenge for me to come to grips with was not my birth father after all.
My birth father was someone I barely knew. I’ve gone back as far as my memory will go and the last memory I have of my birth father was him sitting at the kitchen table in the Bronx teaching me to write my name. I assume I was around 5 years old but I don’t really know.
It’s not that I stopped thinking about this man, ever. I remember thinking about him in my 20’s. It’s when I first started to wonder if this man could be my father. It’s not just that I don’t really look at all like the man I thought was my father or my two older brothers but something about him and the interest he seemed to show in me made me wonder. With the birth of the internet and online records, I learned that he was almost 50 when I was born. This quieted but never removed my suspicion.
Fast forward to 2011. Someone I work with was talking about a new DNA test (23 and Me) that would tell you what your DNA says about diseases and conditions you are more or less likely to be concerned about. I love science and technology so that sounded cool to me. I spit in a tube and received a report on line. If they also reported ancestry at the time I never noticed.
About a year ago I logged in to my account to do some more research about a health concern. I was greeted by an ancestry page that said one of my parents was Italian. Ummm, no they are not. They were German and Eastern European thank you very much. But what if I was right all those years ago and the man I wondered was my father really was. Was he even Italian?
I spent months and hundreds of dollars in an attempt to learn the truth. I tested my DNA with 3 different companies who maintain their own database of other people who share your DNA. I uploaded my DNA to a common database. I utilized multiple genealogy sites and even hired someone who specializes in Italian birth and marriage records from Italy to piece together a family tree of the man I suspected could be my father. I DNA tested my mother and older sister, I left no stone unturned in my search for the truth. What if the DNA company mixed up my results in the mail, no that didn’t happen, my mother, shows as my mother. What if the man I thought was my father really had Italian in him, nope my older sister’s DNA showed that she was a half sister with a genealogy consistent for what we knew about him.
OK, so the man I grew up believing was my father was clearly not. But could I be sure the man I thought was, really was? Could I prove it? Many of asked me, Did you ask your mother?. Well yes, I did and she said, “I had a feeling” – but you need to understand my 91-year-old mother suffers from dementia. I needed something more than a conversation with her.
That proof eventually came from three girls who I think are in their 20’s. One in New York, one in Arkansas and one in Virginia. Many people have seen the commercials of DNA testing companies that show a percentage breakdown of what nationality you are. While that’s interesting it’s not entirely accurate. What is accurate is the records of people who share your DNA. To make it as simple as possible you are able to tell how close you are related to someone by how much DNA you share with them. These 3 girls all had shared DNA with me that I could trace to the siblings of the man who really was my father. Since I connected those three there have been about 6 others that the DNA sites show as cousins that I can connect to my father.
Sadly, my half brother or his four children (my nieces and nephews) do not want anything to do with me. I said all along that I can’t control how they would react. While this is not easy news for them to process I would hope they would at least engage in a conversation to learn how and why I believe we are related. However, I did reach someone who is a first cousin who I’ll be meeting for the first time in a few weeks. We have spoken on the phone and the stories of her favorite Uncle, my birth father brings joy to me.
Twenty years ago, September 3, 1997, the man I barely knew, whose DNA I share passed away a month before his 84th birthday. All my research and knowledge of facts about his life will never replace the emptiness I feel about not really knowing him.
I’m forever grateful to Kim, Aly, and Angelea who helped me connect the dots to my father. Your willingness to answer personal questions about your family was invaluable.
I’ve experienced so many emotions, too many to describe. Simply put it’s painful. For the most part, I’ve been supported, encouraged and loved through this really tough time of my life. A simple thank you is not nearly enough to express my gratitude towards my partner in this crazy life but thank you, Traci.
So if you are still reading, you might be saying Wow, but here’s the thing. I’m not alone. Earlier this week the most emailed story from the NY Times was about how as more people take DNA tests, truths are being uncovered. In the small circle of acquaintances, I have shared this with I learned of three other people that have a similar story, their father was not who they thought it was. There is a group on Facebook where stories like this play out every single day, it’s more common than you think.
If I can help anyone navigate what your test may mean or how you can understand your connection to distant relatives, I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned.
My ask is this: Have your DNA tested either through Ancestry.com or 23 and Me. If someone reaches out to you because they share your DNA, please answer them. While your relationship with them may not be impactful to you it could be significant to them. If you find out something shocking about your past or you have relatives you never thought you did, embrace it. Don’t ever ask someone who is searching “What difference does it make”. I promise you it makes a big difference.
If this ever makes it to the family of my birth father, I understand more than you know how jolting this can be. We share more than just a common ancestor or our DNA.
And finally to the man who passed away 20 years ago, Benny Ranallo, a man whose father and mother left a small village in Italy in the late 1800’s to start a new life in New York. I look forward to the hope of eternity because we have some catching up to do.