June 18, 2016

The story I've not yet told...

I have a story to tell. Some people have heard bits and pieces of it from me but I finally wanted to put it all down here while its still fresh and amazing. So here goes...

Mine is your average American family. I have parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. Nothing spectacular or unusual. We are great folks and all and I wouldn’t trade us for anything but there has never been anything particularly interesting that has made us stand out from the crowd of other great families.  Until now.

Well… I have been a member of Ancestry.com for several years. I love history and I love genealogy stuff so it’s been something I’ve dabbled with on and off for years and have filled in a lot of our family tree for many generations. But I had no idea how life-changing putting my family tree online would be for us.

Anyhow I get junk email on occasion- people wanting to sell me prescription drugs, trying to set me up with singles in my area or billionaires in Africa wanting to share their fortunes with me. (Apparently African billionaires are very generous and I’m quite popular there. Who knew?). So when I got a random email from Ancestry.com from a genealogist named Michael (yea right!) wanting to ask me some QUESTIONS (yea, probably like my social security number. I wasn’t born yesterday Mr. Genealogist) I didn’t even read the entire email. I just hit delete and moved on. I forgot about it probably ten minutes later. Then one day about a month later, my dad sends me a strange email. He said- I got this email from a genealogist saying he got my name from your family tree on Ancestry.com and he is asking me questions about our family. Do you think it’s legit? My immediate thought was to dismiss it until I read a little further, then my attention was caught. As I read on, it became apparent that this was no hoax or scam. I had not been on Ancestry.com in quite some time so I quickly logged in to see and sure enough, the same genealogist had messaged me there months ago. I hadn’t seen the message so I hadn’t answered him and after hitting that dead-end he somehow found my email and tried to reach me that way. When that didn’t work, Michael the genealogist’s colleague finally reached my dad and here is what we received:

This might come as a surprise to you, but our client, Paul ____, is related to you through either your father or one of his brothers. Paul was born in 1930 in Manhattan, to Elizabeth Frances___ and an unknown father. His entire life, he has known nothing about his father because he was taken into     foster care at a young age after his mother was hospitalized. DNA testing is what led us to your grandfather, but we cannot determine through DNA which of his three sons was Paul's father. I hope very much that you will be willing to talk about this with us further, whether you have any information about this or not... I realize that this may be surprising information so we would of course be happy to answer any and all questions you have for us about what led us to you. Thanks so much in advance.

After getting hit with this bombshell we got in touch with Michael to get more information…

Because Paul wasn’t familiar with his mother, he knew absolutely nothing about his father, and so he and his daughter asked us to help piece the puzzle together for him. Using DNA testing, we found that he was a (surname) by birth, connecting him with a whole line of (surname) men using his Y-chromosome.  In fact, we worked with someone who was previously in contact with Kayla some years ago about the (surname) DNA project.  We were subsequently able to narrow it down, generation by generation, to William Austin ___ and his sons by Martha ___.  His DNA results were tested through Ancestry as well as outside organizations to make sure that everything matched with what we had found… Our dilemma is that there is no way to tell from the DNA (as it sits now) which of the three brothers is Paul’s father.  He could potentially be your half-brother or a first cousin.

Whoa! So their research and the DNA evidence led them to my dad’s grandfather and his three sons. Well because of the dates, I knew this impregnation would have transpired before my Papaw married my Mamaw and before he knew the Lord (whew, that’s a relief). But one of these three brothers was this man Paul’s father. But how could this be? My grandfather and his brothers were from the piney woods of north Louisiana. I mean rural, southern America. Most people from their area had never left the state. And New York City? How would one of these three country boys have fathered a child in the Big Apple!? There HAD to be a mistake. But DNA doesn’t lie. Then it dawned on us—our papaw had been in the Navy! As the reality of this began to hit us, we realized that it was very very possible, my dad and Aunt Linda had a brother they never knew they had, and that Cathy and I had a new uncle and a whole new set of cousins. Could it be?

Uncle Paul. 
Dad was still a little unsure so he turned it over to me to talk to the genealogist and to contact Barb, Paul’s daughter who had spearheaded this whole thing. After talking back and forth with Michael the genealogist, I got up the courage to email Barb and to let her know we were open to talking to them. They were on vacation up in the mountains and didn’t have wifi so it took a while for me to hear back from her. I was a nervous wreck waiting for her reply! Later when we finally connected, I found out that Barb had begun this process years before, and after years of dead-ends had been about to throw in the towel and to give it up when she received an email from Michael telling her that he had finally found a relative of the three brothers in question who was open to talking to them. Once Barb and I finally got in contact and began emailing back and forth I found her to be a very gracious and down to earth woman (not an African billionare lol) and I began to piece together the fascinating and sad story of her father. After being put in foster care in New York City, his mother was in and out of his life, but never would allow him to be adopted. He would become close to potential families who wanted to keep him only to be snatched out of their homes by his mother. He never was adopted. He never had one person who he belonged to, or who he could call family, except for his mother who he hardly knew. He ended up joining the Navy and then going to college, earning his degree in electrical engineering and ultimately working for Grumman Aerospace on Long Island, NY. He designed the docking radar for the lunar module for NASA’s Apollo 13 mission (the now-famous "Houston, we have a problem" mission. The lunar module ultimately saved the astronauts lives!). He married and had three children Barb, John and Paul Jr, all successful, impressive and interesting people. Could this fascinating man really be my uncle? It didn’t seem possible. But the more we all talked and compared notes it seemed highly likely that my beloved grandfather (Papaw Doc to us) was indeed Paul’s father. But the only way to find out for sure was to do a DNA test. So dad and I submitted to one (I’d always wanted to anyway) and after a couple of weeks what we already knew in our hearts was confirmed by science. Yes, Paul was my Papaw’s son, my dad’s biological brother and mine and my sister’s uncle. Wow! (And I thought our family was boring!) 

As we all got acquainted through Facebook, (stalking each others pages lol ) and emailing each other, it became clear that we needed to meet. So September of last year, we met in Pensacola, halfway between their home in Orlando and ours in north Louisiana. Barb, Jackie, Uncle Paul and John met me, my sister Cathy, Dad and Kay and Aunt Linda there. I think none of us were quite sure what to expect. I’m not sure if they expected to find themselves related to the Swamp people or not ;). And they hailed from New York City, which is about as foreign from rural Louisiana as you can get! How would we relate? What would we talk about? But I guess there is something to sharing the same DNA with people. Although we’d been raised differently, on other ends of the country from each other, we all just ‘fit’. There were no awkward silences, no uncomfortable moments. We immediately felt as if we’d known each other all our lives. It was uncanny. It felt right. Observing Uncle Paul brought back memories of my grandfather. My Papaw was known for his sense of humor, his friendliness, his warmth and his way with people. Uncle Paul had all of that. My Papaw had been my hero. My heart was broken when he died in 1976. But meeting Uncle Paul brought him back.  I think in some ways he looks more like my grandfather than my dad does and his late brother did.

It was so surreal. Hard to wrap my head around honestly. Trying to process the changes in what I thought I knew about my family. Like: my father isn’t the oldest son like we thought. Like: Cathy and I have another uncle. Like: We have three new cousins. And like: my God-fearing grandfather had a past. Although he was always larger than life to me, he was still obviously very much human. That could have been unsettling to me, but instead, it made Papaw more relatable, more real. So many thoughts in my head- was it a drunken one night stand or did he date the young woman? Did he even know her name? Did she ever try to get in touch with him? Knowing my Papaw and his character, I have to think that had he known about Uncle Paul, he would have contacted him, he would have brought him home. He would have been a part of his life. I do not believe he knew. But I bet he knows now. 

Growing up with a decent sized extended family with grandparents, first and second cousins, aunts and uncles and such I can’t imagine what it was like for my cousins to miss out on that. Or how it was for Uncle Paul, who until he married and had children, had no group of people to call family at all. Until last year they had half of their family tree completely empty and now suddenly a whole lot of new people are in their lives and those blanks in the tree are finally getting filled in. And this week for the first time in his 86 years, my Uncle Paul is in Louisiana. He and Barb and Jackie are here in our hometown and on Monday they will journey to see and to stay in the tiny community where Paul would have grown up, had Papaw known. I think of the difference in Paul and his siblings’ childhoods. Dad raised in a loving home, in a small southern town, with the creeks and woods of north Louisiana as his playground. And I think of Uncle Paul growing up alone, with nobody to call his own and none to call him their own, in the gritty streets of New York City. 

Tonight, over slices of pizza, Uncle Paul and Barb and Jackie got acquainted with my husband, my twins Hannah and Joseph, Hannah’s fiancĂ© Shane, Cathy's two girls Callie and Cate for the first time. Dad and Kay were there and we all filled up the biggest table in the joint. It was loud and crowded and chaotic and absolutely wonderful!  As we were trying to explain who belonged to who, and they tried to remember everyone’s names, Barb said something that gripped my heart. She looked around at this big table of people who a year ago had been strangers and with a big smile on her face said- “I’m related to all of these people. I’ve finally got cousins! This is my family!”

Family! We really are! And at 85 years old Paul finally found his family. And that family includes me. I feel so honored and privileged to be part of what he always longed for.  We are now all included in each others’ ‘us’ and ‘we’. Although we were raised in different worlds, it doesn’t matter. We now belong to each other. What a feeling! When we fill out Hannah’s wedding invitations, they will be listed in the ‘family’ column. And it feels natural for them to be included there. God is so good and I am so thankful.

A year ago, nobody could have convinced me this could happen to our family! But it did! And ours just got a whole lot bigger and a lot more interesting!

Uncle Paul finally meeting his Daddy.
 Family at last! Sept. 2015. Uncle Paul meeting his brother and sister for the first time. Front row L-R: Linda, Paul, Dad (Glynn), Kay. Back row L-R: John, Cathy (my sis), Barb, me and Jackie.

Uncle Paul and the cousins meeting some more of the family June 2016