Monday, November 3, 2014

Disappointments and Surprises

I checked my 23andMe email several times daily after contacting that mysterious cousin whose results appeared so tantalizingly close to my mother's on 13 February 2014. And every day I'd get the same message from my mother: "Anything new on my daddy? Anything?"

And Mr. More-Than-Two-Percent failed to respond.

Since 23andMe utilizes their own proprietary email system integrated within their site, there was no way I could track this man down by an email address. There was no indication as to where he lived. All I knew was that he was male, and to what paternal and maternal haplogroups he belonged. Even for the most skilled genealogist, that just ain't gonna cut it for reasonably identifying information. And because 23andMe only allows you to contact someone who has not responded only once monthly, and then limits that to three total emails, I used up my six opportunities to contact him. I did so three times from my mother's account. And I did so three times from my own account, as I too shared DNA with him. 


So as I struggled to find other ways to identify my missing grandfather, this close match taunted me every time I reviewed the presumed relatives in my mother's DNA matches. That anonymous male cousin silently mocked me, daring me to keep looking while he quietly held valuable knowledge that could have been the beginning of the bread crumb trail I needed to follow directly to my grandfather's identity.

Who spends a hundred dollars on a DNA test and ignores everything about it the day the results arrive? Apparently a lot of people. Response rates for DNA matches are miserable, even when the urgency of the situation is explained. And genealogists will argue that some sites are better than others:
"23andMe caters mostly to those interested in medical issues.
"FamilyTreeDNA is used by more serious genealogists."  
"AncestryDNA has name recognition and more people testing who have genealogical knowledge."

Sorry folks.... regardless of the platform used for testing or the means of contact, replies were the exception, not the rule. And as mentioned in previous posts, mastering the mathematics and concepts and science of autosomal DNA usage as it relates to genealogy has a steep learning curve. Many people who did respond failed to understand how the connection worked. One woman offered to send me a picture of her ex-husband to see if I saw a family resemblance because my mother shared 0.2% of her DNA with her daughter. Another woman refused to reveal any information about her father because she insisted her autosomal DNA results had absolutely nothing to do with him, and sending me such information would be nonsense.

I just needed a lead. A bite. Something to narrow my field of research. I scoured my mother's list of matches for the one person who shared DNA with her and not with her sister, her brother, and her niece. I needed a person who was most obviously my mother's paternal relative who had useful information to share.

Among the other new matches that appeared with Mr. More-Than-Two-Percent in that list of DNA relatives on 13 February 2014 were two people who appeared initially to fit my much needed criteria. Through a tedious switching back-and-forth between accounts, I could see that these matches were new additions to both mine and my mother's lists of relatives, but they did not appear on any of the accounts of Ted, Dianne, or Michelle. These appeared to be relatives of my mother's missing father, and not of Helen's. And both of them, wonderfully, had not privatized their accounts and had allowed their names to appear with their results.

Briana Rieman shared three matching segments of DNA with my mother and a total of 0.89%. Brian Ryder share two matching segments of DNA with my mother and a total of 0.52%. These aren't exactly results that sent me into a fit of dancing euphoria like I had done previously with Mr. More-Than-Two-Percent, but they are also not numbers to dismiss as insignificant either. I jokingly tell classes that hear my ramblings about DNA that anyone who matches you above one percent should be added to your Christmas Card List. And with 90% of my mother's DNA relatives matching at 0.35% or less, these were people whose results I needed to probe a little more deeply.

Both of them were sent the standardized, "HELP! The identity of my mother's father is unknown!" message on the same day I sent Mr. More-Than-Two-Percent his still unanswered first message.

Brian Ryder, 2014
Grandson of Rollie J. and Nora L. (Robinson) Ryder
(photo courtesy of Brian Ryder)

Brian Ryder was the first to respond, doing so on the same day he got my message.

Brian had gotten tested through 23andMe mostly out of curiosity of his ancestry, and partially for any knowledge of health concerns. Although he knew his great-grandmother was Volga German, there was little concrete knowledge of the remainder of his ancestry. Growing up, he was told that his grandmother was half Native American. He remained skeptical, as Grandma Nora had red hair. His doubts became certainties when his results indicated he was the product of 100% European stock.

Brian Joseph Ryder was a thirty-two-year-old fine arts major, recently married, and living in Chicago. Working in e-commerce, he was seduced by the weather and lifestyle of southern California while visiting his brother-in-law in Los Angeles. Within months, his wife Sarah secured a job transfer to San Diego, and they left the Midwest winters behind them.

But what made Brian Ryder special to me, beyond the tiny amount of DNA he shared with my mother and me, was that Brian grew up in Niles, Michigan.

Niles, Michigan, lies just north of the state line from South Bend, Indiana, and just twenty miles to the northwest of Elkhart, Indiana, where my grandmother Helen (Timmons) Miller lived in 1946 when my mother was conceived. All localities lie within the same metropolitan area. And although the tiny amount of DNA Brian shared with my mother meant he likely shared a distant set of great-great-great-grandparents in common with my mother, the proximity of his family to mine was far too tempting and alluring to easily ignore. It appeared that I had stumbled upon a single breadcrumb upon which to lead me down the trail to my grandfather.

But which of Brian's thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents did he share in common with my mother?

With the information Brian had given me regarding his father and mother, I frantically started sketching out his family tree. In this tree were his grandparents, Rollie Joseph Ryder (1924-2006) and Nora Lee Robinson Ryder (1926-2011) who lived their entire married lives in Niles, Michigan.

As I fleshed out both Brian's maternal and paternal lines, I started seeing what I could find out about my mother's other close match, Briana Rieman. She had yet to respond to my email, but since I knew her name, I could start to Internet-fish for information. Although it may cause some people a bit of dismay, a good researcher can find a significant amount of information about living people online. We live in a world gripped with fear over identity theft, and we shred every document we throw away into a million pieces. But we leave more than just a paper trail. We leave an enormous Internet trail that any good researcher can follow.

And what I found out about Briana Rieman was that she was the daughter of a man named Stephen Rieman. And while I was checking her out and waiting for her reply at the same time I was working on Brian Ryder's family tree, I located the obituary of Brian's grandmother, Nora Lee (Robinson) Ryder.

Among her surviving grandsons were Brian Ryder and Stephen Rieman.

Brian and Briana were first cousins, once removed.


  1. You have to put this all in a book.It's to good not to.

  2. It's true - you can learn a lot by folks through internet fishing. I've come to view it as an important tool for the genealogist's toolkit.

    I'm new to your blog. This is great reading. I look forward to cruising through your archives and getting up to speed on the saga.

  3. DNA is all new to me and seems really technical and confusing but the way you write about it makes it nearly understandable for me.

    1. Kerryn, the primary purpose of this blog initially was to serve as a tutorial for the use of autosomal DNA in genealogical research. It is truly the future of genealogy, and I think everyone should become familiar with it. Yes, it can be overwhelming, but I hope as you follow the blog you will gain a little more comfort working with it!

  4. Love love love the picture yelling at the laptop. How often have we all done that while researching? LOL Nice update to the story, with the Hoosier cliff hanger that drives me nuts but keeps me coming back! LOL Cannot wait for the next blog.

  5. Can't wait to the next story. I enjoy this so much because my father was born in 1908 from a non paternal event. His father was his uncle.

  6. I can't tell you how much I enjoy your story! You have material to work with, yes, but also awesome writing skills. I love it every time I see a new episode in my mail.

  7. Yes, you can certainly find a lot! And I have to say I'm a little relieved to know I'm not the only person who's done this in the name of genetic genealogy.