A Woman’s DNA Search For Her Family
At the age of 74, Sybil wasn’t looking for birth parents. Instead, she decided to try DNA testing services because she wanted to know a little bit about who she was and where she came from.
“I was curious about my family origins,” she said. “I always had this dark hair but a pale complexion and so I was curious to know where that came from. I knew my results would include DNA matches, but I figured they would be so distant that they’d be insignificant.”
Nevertheless, when Sybil learned that her Ancestry DNA results were ready, she opened them with excitement and a touch of trepidation.
“I was a whole lot of German,” she laughed. “I also had a little Irish ancestry and a tiny bit from the Iberian Peninsula [Spain and Portugal]. Maybe that’s where my dark hair came from.
As she had suspected, most of her DNA matches were quite distant. There were a few second and third cousin matches but she didn’t know what to do with them. So she didn’t do anything at first.
When Sybil was born in the 1940s, adoption looked very different than it does today. Back then, it was generally a well-kept secret and many adoptees never even knew that they weren’t the biological children of their parents. Sybil was fortunate enough to have been told the truth from an early age.
“My parents never kept it a secret from me,” she said. “I always knew I was adopted but we didn’t make a big deal about it. I don’t think my parents knew anything about my biological parents or, if they did, they never told me.”
In the 1980s, Sybil petitioned to have her adoption file unsealed by the state. Her petition was denied so she resigned herself to the fact that she would never know who her birth family was.
The Search Begins
Several weeks after receiving her DNA results, she got an email from a genealogist who was researching a family line. Sybil was a genetic match to that line. The genealogist wanted to know where Sybil fit into the family.
“I just told her that I was adopted and had no idea,” Sybil said. “I’ll admit that I was intrigued to hear that I matched this family.”
When the genealogist heard Sybil’s story, she offered to help put together the pieces of her unknown family history.
Using the mirror tree technique, the genealogist built trees based off of Sybil’s matches, looking for the common ancestor they all shared. Before long, she contacted Sybil with some news.
“She told me she knew who my great-grandparents were,” Sybil said. “I thought that was pretty amazing and I really thought that’s as far as it would go.”
Narrowing It Down
A couple of weeks later, the genealogist reached back out to Sybil with even more news. After following the great-grandparent’s family line downward and ruling out multiple descendants based on DNA matches, she ended up with two possible birth parents for Sybil–a pair of brothers.
“What it came down to,” Sybil said, “was that from a DNA standpoint, my birth father could only be one of two brothers. The real problem was, without being able to test them, we would never know which one it was. But I was okay with that. That still told me where I came from–at least on one side of the family.”
Suddenly, though, everything changed. With further research, Sybil and her genealogist discovered that one of the brothers had died–two years before Sybil was born. That left only one person who could be Sybil’s birth father. Even more shocking was the fact that at 95 years old, that man was still alive and doing well.
“I never in a million years expected that either of my birth parents would still be living,” Sybil said. “I never even expected to learn who they were, let alone have the opportunity to make contact.”
Making contact can be hard, though. Adoptees are faced with the potential for disbelief or outright rejection from the biological parent. Still, though, Sybil took the plunge and dialed the phone number she had found on the Internet in her birth father’s name.
“I got his voicemail,” Sybil said with a laugh. “I really didn’t know what to say so I just left my name and number and told him I was working on my family tree and thought we might be related.
Hours later, he returned her call.
“Answering the phone was perhaps the most nerve-wracking moment of my life,” Sybil confessed. “I didn’t know how he would react or if he even knew I existed. Worse yet, what if we were wrong and this man was not my birth father?”
Sybil explained to the man on the other end of the phone that she had been adopted in 1944 and that she had recently taken a DNA test which led her to believe that he might possibly be her birth father.
He paused for a moment and then said, “Well, I guess you can find anything on the Internet these days.”
Over the next hour, Sybil’s birth father explained that his girlfriend had become pregnant while in college. As was typical in those days, she was sent away to a home for unwed mothers where she gave birth to the baby and immediately surrendered her for adoption.
“He said he had always wondered what had become of me,” Sybil said of her birth father. “In the course of that conversation, I also learned who my birth mother was [she had passed away years prior], I learned about the circumstances of my birth, and I found out that I had a lot of half-siblings out there.”
Two months later, Sybil flew to California to meet her father in person.
“It was the first time in my entire life that I saw someone who looked like me,” she said. “It was surreal.”
In the months since their meeting, Sybil and her father have built a friendship and speak regularly by phone.
DNA Testing For All
When asked if she would do it all again, Sybil was emphatic.
“Of course! In fact, I tell everyone to take a DNA test now. DNA testing for all!” she laughed. “Even if you aren’t adopted, I think every family has some secrets.”
Sybil is right. With easy access to DNA testing, millions of people have taken a DNA test to learn more about who they are. Some people, like Sybil, have discovered long-lost family members. Others have proven (or disproven) the family folklore that has persisted for generations. Still, others have used DNA for ancestry research to break through the brick walls in their family trees.
In the past, the secrets of your family would lie buried with the ancestors who held them. Today, thanks to DNA testing services, it is possible to unearth those secrets and discover the truth of your family’s history.
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