We all have those people in our family trees that we’d love to get a chance to sit down with over coffee and just talk to. You know the ones – the guy that had 17 kids and 280 grand kids (you can read about him on the Tales of A Family blog here), or the woman that that outlived 3 of her husbands (oh, Sidney), or even just that one family member that you’ve always been drawn to for some unexplained reason. It’s inevitable when doing family history research that somebody will pique your interest far beyond the other names on the tree.
For me, that person would be my biological father. I was born to an unmarried mother back in the early seventies. It wasn’t as unheard of as it would’ve been a decade before, but even then it was frowned upon. My mom was going through a painful divorce from an abusive husband whom I’ll call L for this post. Her estranged husband had called and invited her to spend the weekend with him at their farm (she was staying with my grandparents, I believe) in July of 1973. He implied that he wanted to reconcile, and my mom being the person that she was, believed that he could change and be the man she wanted him to be. She spent Friday night with him, where he wined and dined her, then in the bright light of morning he asked her to sign over her half of their joint property instead of fighting him for it in divorce court.
Needless to say, she was heartbroken. Or at least very angry. It just so happened that she was invited to a party for the upcoming 4th of July weekend on a party barge in Memphis, Tennessee, by a coworker. She went and evidently had the time of her life because, voila! Nine months later, here I am.
Most of my life she has told me (and everybody else) that my father was the man that she was married to at the time. Mom was never the photobug in the family, so it never really raised any flags with me that she didn’t have any pictures of him – no wedding photos, no casual weekend snapshots. I was also a little kid and just didn’t think a lot about that stuff. Until one day when I was in my early teens; I found a picture of my mom and and unidentified man in a box of pictures that my grandma had. I asked and found out that it was L.
I studied the picture and tried my hardest to find any of me in his face. One thing that really struck me was that he had light hair and light eyes, just like my mom. I didn’t think much else about it until a year or so later when we were studying genetics in my high school Biology class. According to my textbook and my teacher, it was nearly impossible for two blue-eyed blonde parents to give birth to a brown-eyed brunette child. Even more unlikely considering that everyone that I knew on my mom’s side of the family was blue eyed and blonde, as well. I confronted my mom about it and in a tearful confession that I’m sure she wished she’d never had to make, she told me the story of her painful weekend and the subsequent choices that she made that result in me being alive.
As a mother myself, that resulting conversation is one that I would never want to have with my kid. She told me that she knew the man through her work at the time, and that he was married to a coworker of hers. She told me his name (lets call him Huckleberry Finn because it’s just about as accurate). She told me she got pregnant on a riverboat on the Mississippi River. She told me she was drinking. She told me she had been smoking a little bit of some happy grass. Honestly, I didn’t believe most of it. Or at the very least, I thought the names had been changed to protect the guilty. I was a little irritated that she would keep that info from me, but I also understood her embarrassment at the situation.
Over the years I have tried to contact every Huckleberry Finn that I could find in the Memphis, Tennessee, area. I always struck out. I have tried to contact living relatives of L to see if I could get any of them to take a DNA test to at least let me know one way or the other. I talked to all of my mom’s siblings. Her husband (my step-dad). Her parents. Nobody knew anything.
In September of 2016, I finally got my DNA tested on Ancestry.com. I was really new to the DNA concept in relation to genealogy, and I was hoping for some ‘miracle’ that would say “Here’s your dad!” with a big, flashy neon sign pointing me in the right direction. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. I started looking at my matches and dissecting the information that they contained. Luckily, three of my mom’s first cousins (all sisters) had been tested and they all showed up as my top matches. I was able to use them to divide my matches into two groups – those that I shared with them, meaning they were on my maternal side, and those that I didn’t share with them.
Over the course of about a year, I’d check my matches fairly frequently looking for any changes. All the ones that weren’t a shared match were way far back (4th cousins or more) and I didn’t have anything to tie them to, anyway. And then one day it happened. I had a 2nd cousin match show up that I didn’t share with the cousin-sisters. This was it. The clue I was waiting on.
I contacted the match. She didn’t have a tree on Ancestry, but I was able to build one using the little bit of info she gave me. Since she was a 2nd cousin, I was able to deduce that she was likely the first cousin of my biological father. So I found her grandparents (their most recent common ancestor) and started building the “roots” of the tree. I started down the line of each child, and surprise, surprise! One of the children had married a Finn! I tracked him further and ended up finding the same names that my mom had mentioned in her confession story. About now I’m freaking out. My son, who was eleven at the time, says in a casual voice, “Look them up on Facebook”. So I did. I found my half-brother and the story is cemented there. Today I have a bother that I didn’t know about a year ago.
Unfortunately, the story leads to the topic of this post – my biological father passed away on Christmas Day in 2010. I missed meeting him by just a little over 7 years. My brother and I have gotten together a few times (he lives a couple of hours away from me) and he’s told me a good bit about “Pops”. My brother and I are both Tech Support reps and have a love for technology. So did Pops. I have his eyes and his smile and his chubby cheeks. The one thing that I will never have, though, is a conversation with him. At least not in this mortal life. If I ever had a chance to sit down and pow-wow with any of my ancestors, he is number one on my list.
This post is in response to the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks blog series, the brainchild of blogger and author, Amy Johnson Crow. Her original blog post about the series can be found here.