What DNA really stands for: Discovering Nasty Actualities

When I first got into genealogy years ago, I remember one of my mother’s brothers (and my favorite uncle ever) saying that he decided to “Never shake the family tree for fear of what skeletons would fall out of it.” To me, that had actually been the most interesting part and over the years I have been digging, I’ve actually found a lot more fascinating and heroic characters than I have scoundrels.

But perhaps the better advice would be, “When you look into your own DNA, it looks into you.” And you may not always like what you find.

I recently wrote about the results of a DNA test via Family Tree DNA that I took because my presumable half-brother’s girlfriend (HBG) had formerly tested his DNA there, and in the preliminary results, we did not come up as a match while the logical assumption would be that we’d have at least a 50% match and show as close relatives.

There was enough evidence in the results to conclusively connect listed second cousins and onward to relatives on my mothers side, as well as a direct link via a second cousin to my father’s maternal grandmother. Stranger still, my half-brother connected to someone who turned out to be the illegitimate offspring of a first cousin on our father’s side — but I did not.

My mom’s side of the family is totally normal, more or less, with generation after generation of huge Irish-Catholic broods. My mom was the odd exception because she was the only one to move away from the East Coast, marry a divorced non-Catholic (double gasp!) and only have one kid. All of her siblings who did have kids popped out multiples, as did those kids.

When I talk to my relatives on my mom‘s side or look at pictures of my cousins or second and third cousins, there’s no mistaking it. We are related. Hell, the sons of one of my aunt’s daughters-in-law look so damn much like me that it’s scary.

Also important to note: On my mom’s side of the family, I was born into the proper cohort, meaning that I’m around the middle of the age-range of all of my first cousins. We were pretty much all born within the same generation.

Meanwhile, on dad’s side — it’s a total mishmosh. My father’s mother was the second oldest of seven children — four boys and three girls, almost perfectly alternating until an extra boy snuck in between five and seven. Meanwhile my father’s father was the second youngest of six children, four of whom survived to adulthood, all boys. He was only about three months older than her.

They went on to marry very young — only a few months after they turned eighteen — and their oldest son, my uncle, was born ten days shy of nine months after they were married. This uncle, in turn, was the father of the first cousin who fathered the illegitimate child my half-brother showed up related to.

If you’re keeping score, at this point I know that I’m related to his mother, but possibly not to him.

My grandparents second and only other child was born three months and a couple of weeks after his older brother, and is still presumably my father, although he should technically also be my half-brother’s father, since he’s our direct connection.

Or we thought he was.

Now, my uncle and my father both got married fairly early as well — each of them was about twenty at the time. My uncle had two kids, a boy and a girl, born almost seven years apart. My father had three with his first wife, the first two born about two years apart and the last one born about seven years later. That last one would be the half-brother in question.

Now, although my two grandmothers were born only six months apart, Mom’s mom spent a lot longer time making babies, and my mom came along a good decade into the process. Grandma was actually pregnant 13 times, but only eight kids made it to or much past birth. One of them died when he was about 12. Our of the other seven, two never married (one became a nun and the other was probably gay) and one was born with Downs Syndrome. He was the last one, born exactly four months after my grandmother’s 44th birthday and more than five years after his next oldest surviving sibling.

End result: about seven or eight years after my father’s youngest from his first marriage was born, he and his first wife called it quits. Then he met my mother, who was over a decade younger than him and they got married. I was their only child (to my lifelong annoyance) but the age difference and the fact that people on my dad’s side had had their kids early led to a very interesting phenomenon.

As I mentioned, on my mom’s side, I was born in the right cohort and matched all of my first cousins. On my dad’s side? Not so much. I was born a generation off, so that all of my first cousins were actually old enough to be my parents and I wound up being the same age as my second cousins and nephews.

One big consequence of this was that I did not grow up with my half-siblings, since they were all pretty much long gone by the time my infant brain developed the ability to hold onto memories. My half-sister felt more like a friend of my mom’s, since they were practically the same age, and all of her kids, who were technically my nephews, always felt like cousins growing up.

But during all of this, I never had any doubts that I was my parents’ only child, and that my half-siblings were the product of my father’s first marriage.

Although as I got older, I did learn of a few unsettling facts — mainly that my dad’s first wife was a raging alcoholic who died before 64 and who had a reputation for cheating on him. And, of course, the latest unsettling fact, or the appearance of such.

HBG and I weren’t sure what to do, so she contacted Family Tree DNA and got in touch with their quality control department to explain the situation. We both provided a list of people that each of us had matched with and that we thought the other one should have as well. They agree to re-examine the results, and finally got back to us.

Their conclusion was that my presumable half-brother and I are not close relatives at all. The next step is to pony up for a Y-DNA test, which will look at the paternally linked genes for each of us, as well as match us to more people who may have had this test as well.

But at the moment it’s still inexplicably weird because each of us has one genetic connection to our father, but it’s not direct. It links into the family line but does not pass through him. And I know that, on my part, it’s not an adoption situation because I definitely link to my mother. I could understand linking only to my father’s mother — maybe my mom lost that child and a niece or nephew of my grandmother had a baby they needed to give up. Except that, again, I am related to my mother, no question. So I can’t even figure out how that one would work unless one of my dad’s cousins became a sperm donor because for whatever reason my dad couldn’t make babies anymore.

But I was born before IVF was a thing. Maybe not before turkey-baster conceptions, but let’s not go there yet.

Image source: OpenStax Anatomy and PhysiologyOpenStax, (CC BY 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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