Home ancestry tests are rewriting Ann Arborites' family trees - sometimes in startling ways.
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the February, 2019 issue
Four years ago, a routine blood test revealed that a twenty-nine-year-old U-M grad had high levels of liver enzymes. When follow-up tests confirmed it, his doctor referred him to a hematologist.
At the young man's first consultation with the specialist, he noticed a perplexed look on the doctor's face.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
"Well, not many people with this disorder look like you."
The man is African American. The diagnosis was hemochromatosis (iron overload), a rare hereditary blood condition most common in Scandinavia. Because it's recessive, both his parents, Oveta Fuller and Jerry Caldwell, must have carried the mutated gene.
"Other than Africa," the young man protested, "the only other ethnic background I've heard about is Cherokee."
Worried that the condition might affect his ability to get medical insurance, he asked that his name not be published. But he and his family explained how they solved the mystery--with DNA testing.
The family is one of millions around the world who've used home DNA tests to retrace their genetic history. After her son's diagnosis, Oveta Fuller turned to the extensive records her brother Efram and a cousin had amassed. Her husband, Jerry Caldwell, turned to 23andme.com.
Census records identified Caldwell's paternal grandparents as "mulatto," but "at that time, 'mulatto' could mean black and white or black and Native American," Caldwell explains. "I was curious about whether a clue to the hemochromatosis would appear in my DNA analysis. It did!"
Based on a saliva sample, 23andme categorized his DNA as 88 percent sub-Saharan African and 10 percent western and northern European.
Efram Fuller took several DNA tests. "Based on family stories and records, I started an Excel spreadsheet for 128 ancestors before I took the DNA test," he says. "I had to modify it when I got those results!"
As he expected, the test showed their ancestry to be three-quarters African--but only a smidgen of Native American. More than 20 percent of their DNA was European,
including 3 percent from Scandinavia.
As they redrew their family tree, they found multiple connections to European ancestors--including North Carolina plantation owner Thomas Jefferson Womack (1831-1889). Though Womack was married to the daughter of a prominent white politician, he also fathered two daughters with his enslaved housekeeper, Lilly Belle Graves.
The Fullers have since traced their European roots back to tenth-century aristocrats. But "at some point, the written records disappear for our African American ancestors," Efram says. "There are no ship manifests for enslaved Africans."
"I didn't know anything about DNA testing before I was contacted by someone who said she was my sister," Kathy Clark says.
Born in 1943, Clark grew up thinking she was one of four children on her mother's side and nine on her father's--he had five children from a prior marriage. When she was six years old, her father was extradited from Kentucky to Michigan and jailed for failure to support his first family.
Her mother placed Kathy and her sister Pat in a Baptist orphanage. Their brother Jack and baby sister Caryl went into foster care. Their mother promised to bring them home as soon as she could. Clark didn't see her again for forty-seven years.
A Detroit couple with a Chelsea summer home adopted Kathy when she was seven, loved her, and raised her with their son Eric. "But I never forgot I was adopted," Clark says. "It worried me to think my family gave me up, though I always knew I was better off with the Salsburgs."
"I must have met my half-sisters and brothers before I was sent to the Baptist home," she says. "I made up a rhyme to help me remember all my siblings' names. I knew my father's name was John, but I didn't know my mother's name--just 'Mommy'."
In her teenage years, she worried that she might inadvertently date a brother--"I always asked for names and birthdates before I agreed to go out with anyone, because adopted children sometimes have their names changed." Later, after marriage and the birth of two sons, she tried to locate her biological family the old-fashioned way--with letters and phone calls--but without luck.
Although her brother Eric was wonderful to her, Clark explains, she "worried that my kids were growing up without aunts and uncles or cousins on my side."
In 1997, out of the blue, she heard from a half-sister, Marilyn. "She told me that my mother was furious that she was snooping," Clark says. "But Marilyn kept inquiring at the Baptist home where Pat and I were placed."
Through Marilyn's efforts, Clark was reunited with her birth mother and three half-siblings. She learned their mother had given birth again after giving up her first four children. He was the only child she raised, and she never told him about his brothers and sisters. "My mother was very mysterious about her story," Clark says.
She'd also kept one more secret. Last September, Clark got a call from a woman named Bonnie--who said that she, too, was her sister.
Adopted at birth, Bonnie took a DNA test after her parents died. The test linked her to Clark, her birth mother, and other relatives. Bonnie told Clark that she had sent pictures to their mother, but she'd refused to meet her--and told her not to get in touch with anyone else in the family.
Bonnie ignored her. By the time she met Clark, Pat, and Marilyn this past December, she was already immersed in her birth families' genealogy, combining her newfound sisters' information with what Ancestry.com had provided.
"Like me, Bonnie knows she was better off with her adopted family, but that wasn't enough," Clark says. "Adopted children have things they long to know."
Jean Canavan was also adopted. All her adoptive parents knew about her background was that she was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1961, to a twenty-three-year-old woman "of good stock."
So starting in 2016, Canavan took DNA tests from Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, and 23andme. The results, combined with the GEDmatch genealogical database, Facebook, Internet searches, and the 1940 Census, finally led her to a first cousin once removed.
She learned that her birth mother had died--and that none of her surviving relatives had any idea Canavan existed. One uncle said he knew his sister had been pregnant, but was told the baby died. Another uncle said he had suspected a pregnancy. Both tried to help fill in the details of her past.
"The story was like the movie An Officer and a Gentleman," Canavan says, "but without the same ending."
She learned that her mother grew up near the Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, where she met a handsome pilot. By the time she knew she was pregnant, he was on his way to Vietnam. "That made marriage unlikely, even though he offered," Canavan says. "Times were very different then. Unwed mothers were not allowed to keep their babies." Canavan was given up for adoption at birth.
None of her maternal family members knew her father's name. But the DNA test results led her to a cousin who knew his birth year (1935), and that he had been raised in Rhode Island. That was enough for Canavan to identify him.
He had died decades before, but Canavan was able to visit his remaining family and page through his yearbooks. "My son is almost identical to his high school photographs," she says with obvious pleasure. She also attributes the artistic abilities she and her daughters share to her mother, a graphic designer.
"Because of archaic laws that restrict adoptees from the original birth certificates, DNA was the only way I could find out answers about my identity," Canavan says. "It allowed me to find out my genetic history--who I look like and where I come from, information non-adoptees take for granted. I cherish the connections I've made."
"My story begins long before DNA tests became available," says Jane Smith (not her real name), a retired Ann Arbor psychotherapist.
Born in England in 1947, she and her brother, Barry, were raised in a loving family. It was only after their father died that their mother told them they were conceived via artificial insemination--"basically, the gynecologist used a turkey baster-type instrument to insert semen."
Smith was born only eight years after the first animal, a rabbit, was conceived by artificial insemination. There was no legal framework for using it in humans. But the gynecologist who assisted Smith's parents had practiced medicine in India, where she'd seen childless women treated as outcasts, even when the problem was their husbands' infertility. "Her initial impetus was to help those women," Smith says.
Smith's mother told them that the doctor warned her patients that telling their children about their origins would "make them emotionally disturbed for life." No one dreamed that future DNA tests would make the secret impossible to keep.
"I'm forever grateful to my mother for telling us," Smith says. "Barry and I were shocked and very surprised, but Mother told us in such a loving way, it wasn't painful and it didn't change our feelings about our father."
Smith emigrated to the U.S. and her brother to Canada. They did nothing with the revelation until 1999, when her physician asked about medical history, and Smith had to confess, "I only have half my information."
She and her brother started their research with only the names of the gynecologist and clinic. When DNA testing became available, they sent blood samples to numerous English labs, hoping to find a connection.
The gynecologist had told their mother that the same donor fathered both of her children. The tests revealed that wasn't true: Smith's donor was a medical school friend of the gynecologist, while her brother's was the gynecologist's husband. "His participation in his wife's clinic is not surprising, since artificial insemination was outlawed at the time, and the work was kept secret," Smith points out.
To date, Smith has met four half-sisters and three half-brothers, while Barry has twenty-eight half-siblings. "It's fascinating to see the similarities my half-siblings and I share," Smith says. "Some of us look alike. All of us are well-educated, very curious, active, and intelligent people. All but one earned degrees in psychology or English, and all of us have worked in the mental health field. I understand our artistic bent comes from the grandparents' level--we all sculpt, paint, and/or play music."
Her two sons closely resemble her donor. "It's been wonderful to see my life enriched in my middle years," she say. "I have been welcomed wholeheartedly into a family I never knew existed."
She adds, however, that the English relatives face some fears. "Our donors probably sired several hundred children each, never dreaming that their blood lines would be revealed. Because of the class system in England and the fact that artificial insemination was expensive and not available to all levels of society, it is possible, even likely, that half-siblings might have married one another. Incest has possibly already occurred. That's the shocking part of this situation."
Genetic counselors warn against relying on consumer tests for medical information and strongly recommend the more expensive and comprehensive genetic workups provided by doctors. And they caution that sensitive customer data can end up being shared, sometimes indiscriminately.
Some people decide not to be tested for other reasons. Elaine Klein refuses to take a DNA test because of what it may tell her about distant--or not-so-distant--relatives. "I'm a German thoroughbred. My family's names are Schiller, Schubert, and Eichman," she says. "My grandparents came to America immediately before and right after World War II.
"I've visited concentration camps. I've seen victims' claw marks on the walls of gas chambers. It would kill me to know that I'm related to anyone even remotely connected to those atrocities."
Darryl Geller knows he was adopted, and is content with that. "I was adopted by loving parents who gave me a wonderful childhood and set me on the path to a good life," he says. "Several members of my biological family have reached out to me, but I've told them I'm not interested."
Others welcome the connection. In the 1960s, Sue Major's aunt became pregnant by a coworker. She was forty, and the man was married. She gave the baby up for adoption, and died before DNA tests became available.
"We thought of that baby often over the years and wondered what her life was like," Major says. "A DNA test finally answered our questions. We're very happy to welcome her back to the family."
Others, too, are grateful for the clarity DNA tests provide. "I always felt there was a huge hole in my life and soul and heart because I didn't know about my family," says Kathy Clark. "Now that hole is filled."
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