Sunday, November 23, 2014

Is DNA On The Menu?

A standard Cracker Barrel interior decorated with discarded ancestors.
Will I find mine there?

The ninety-minute drive to Battle Creek, Michigan, on 2 August 2014, was hardly a chore after waiting impatiently for ninety-five days for this meeting to even become a reality. I just needed to walk away with a sample of DNA that would confirm or refute the possibility of Clarence L. Ryder being my mother's missing father. As I stopped at a gas station for morning coffee in Union, Michigan, I posted to my Facebook time line: "Getting a coffee refill on the way to meet a stranger for a hopeful DNA donation to solve a difficult genealogical problem."

I snickered a little to myself. Those who had been reading my blog still had not even been informed that my mother was missing a father, let alone that I was hot on his trail with DNA. It was like sneaking in a little "spoiler alert," and I was the only one in on the private joke.

But it was a difficult genealogical problem. And it was a hopeful mission. There was no guarantee that I would be getting what I was heading to Battle Creek for, even though I had a 23andMe autosomal DNA kit at my side. I was also armed with charts, graphs, photographs of my grandmother in 1946, and my laptop. Beyond being "willing to meet with me" as stated over three months previously, there was nothing further clarified about this meeting other than the time and the location. Other than that piece of information, I had further asked for photos of Clarence, and Rick Denney replied he would ask his sister for some.

I arrived at the appointed Cracker Barrel restaurant thirty minutes early. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a morning person, and those who watch my Facebook account for postings of new blog entries knows they go up usually between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. in the morning: my normal bedtime. So although being ready and on the road at 8 a.m. seems like no small feat for most people, it was so for me. But I was not going to be regarded as a slacker and keep anyone waiting. It was a warm, clear, brilliantly sunny day, and I took a seat on a bench in front of the restaurant with my clumsy black overly-stuffed computer bag.

I refrained from sitting in one of the ubiquitous Cracker Barrel rockers in front of the building. I tend to release voluminous amounts of nervous energy whilst seated. Whether it be twitching my foot or bouncing my leg, I generally drive those around me batty with my herky-jerky rhythmic movements. I love rocking chairs, but I figured if I wanted to maximize my charm to gain a DNA sample, being the imbecile rocking at a frantic pace in front of the restaurant when I met potential cousins and genetic donors was not in my best interest.

Thirty minutes of waiting was profoundly worse than the ninety-five days that preceded it. What if Rick declines to take a test? Do I beg? Should I have brought my mother so she could pull the "I just want to know who my father is before I die" schtick to generate guilt-driven positive action? If he is unsure, do I leave him with a test kit, knowing I may just be throwing $100 into the trash if he chooses not to use it? And why are we meeting at a restaurant anyway? The test kit clearly states, "Do not eat, drink, smoke, chew gum, brush your teeth, or use mouthwash for at least 30 minutes prior to providing your sample." Will I need to start a stopwatch immediately after the waitress takes our plates away?

It then suddenly occurred to me that I had seen one singular picture of Rick Denney. Would I even recognize the person I should be looking for? I figured he had also seen pictures of me via Facebook, and I was likely the only person waiting outside a Cracker Barrel restaurant with a computer bag, so I was probably not a difficult target to spot.

Ten o'clock came and went, and I had to refrain from texting frantically at 10:01 a.m. confirming that the meeting was still taking place. But what I did spot as I was eagerly scanning the parking lot was an older woman approaching me carrying a small, flat bag; the kind you would get at a Hallmark store after purchasing a birthday card. Also a perfect size for carrying photos! She asked me if I was the person interested in Clarence Ryder, and I knew immediately this was Rick's sister, Mary, the fourth-born Denney child and fourteen years his senior. Whereas Rick was born long after his uncle Clarence Ryder had died, Mary was ten years old when she lost her uncle.

Mary (Denney) Erskine was an incredible joy to talk to, and all my fretting about being turned away empty-handed washed away from every core of my being. Admittedly, the selfish part of me was ecstatic to have another Denny sibling at breakfast, because if Rick had misgivings about spitting in a plastic tube, I could just turn my pouty lip and puppy dog eyes to Mary and ask her to do it. Things were definitely looking up!

Rick arrived shortly thereafter with his wife, and I immediately knew that the three months of waiting, as well as the short terse responses, had nothing to do with the man as a person. His law enforcement background certainly made him wary, but frankly I'd expect anyone to be a bit disarmed by a request for DNA. But as the four of us chatted outside the restaurant, I knew immediately these were people I'd be very happy to call my cousins.

Once inside the restaurant, it occurred to me how appropriate the setting was for this meeting. On the walls were large exquisitely framed nineteenth-century charcoal portraits of properly dressed men and severe looking women; nameless ancestors discarded and purchased by an antiques dealer in Tennessee to grace the walls of Cracker Barrel restaurants all over the country. Down from those walls peered men and women with no names looking at a man who was searching for the same.

I unrolled my long, unwieldy relationship chart to explain to the table how my mother was intertwined with the Ryders and the Daughertys, and explained the mathematics of the DNA connections. I still shook with the nervous adrenalin rush I was experiencing, even though things were going exceedingly well. I shared photos of my grandmother, while Mary shared photos of the Ryders and Moslanders. Several times the waitress was sent away because we had not gotten to reviewing the menu for food options, but once breakfast was served we all lapsed into familiar chatter as if we were all cousins acquainted from birth.

In addition to amazing photographs (many of which you have already seen on this site in my discussion of Clarence Ryder and his parents), Rick and Mary brought first hand biographical accounts of the lives of their grandmother, Jessie (Moslander) Ryder, and of their mother, Isabell (Ryder) Denney, written by the both of them during their lifetimes. I was shocked at Mary's recollection of Clarence Ryder's death. Although only ten years old at the time, her account mirrored exactly the newspaper recollections of the event in 1951. Family photographs and memorabilia? First-person biographical narratives? Accurate oral family lore? Good God, I certainly hoped this was my family!

After a couple hours of jabbering, we all left the restaurant. Rick Denney asked for the 23andMe DNA kit, stepped aside, and filled it with saliva swimming with precious cheek cells holding the answers I had been so desperately seeking. In addition to his DNA, he also paid for my breakfast. Yes, yes, I really did want these people to be my cousins!

I returned home and quickly shot off an email to Rick thanking him for all he had done for me that morning. His response this time was prompt:

"We enjoyed meeting you also, Mike, and it would be nice if Uncle Clarence was your grandfather. If nothing else, you have new friends in Battle Creek."

But as I settled in to review my findings, I was troubled by two things. Firstly, although possibly a superficial worry, I saw no family resemblance whatsoever with Clarence Ryder to my mother. I had always seen the strong resemblance that my mother shared with her mother, Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel, so I was not expecting a lot in that department. But I saw nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Secondly, as I read the narratives written by Clarence's mother and sister, I was worried about something far more troubling than the lack of a subjective resemblance. I had known that Clarence Ryder had returned from the war in 1944, upon which he immediately divorced his second wife Thelma, in Plymouth, Indiana. I knew also that he had remarried in Battle Creek, Michigan, in May 1947, where he remained until his death in 1951. To have been my mother's father and to fit my hypothesis, he would have had to have remained in Plymouth or the surrounding area when my mother was conceived in the early Spring of 1946.

The life story penned by Isabell (Ryder) Denney made it obvious that the Denneys had left Plymouth, Indiana, for Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1943, and their parents, Leslie and Jessie (Moslander) Ryder had followed shortly thereafter. Sister Mamie was also already residing there. If Clarence Ryder left the Army and divorced his wife in 1944, what would have enticed him to stay in Plymouth, Indiana, until 1946 if his entire family had already moved northward?

And it was only after this wonderfully productive visit with the Denney siblings that I found a copy of the 1945 Battle Creek city directory indicating Leslie, Jessie, and Clarence Ryder all resided at 416 North Wood Street. 1945. He was in Battle Creek by 1945.

I was crushed.

But my mother still had DNA in common with both an Ilgenfritz and a Moslander, both ancestors of Jessie; and her diverse genetic heritage more closely fit this Ryder-Moslander ancestry. And really, none of the other genetic candidates fit all that well in many other areas. Perhaps Clarence Ryder maintained some of his Indiana contacts, or worked in Plymouth or Elkhart before settling down with his third wife in 1947 in Battle Creek. Perhaps he lived somewhat nomadically between Indiana and Michigan from 1944 to 1947, although he maintained a Battle Creek address with his recently relocated parents. The whole family had maintained enough ties to Plymouth to be forever interred there.

But there were now serious doubts.

And all I could do was wait.


  1. Really - you're killing me with this - I know you had to wait for 3 months - I can hardly wait for a few days or weeks. Great writing.

  2. You're killlin' me! And you're lovin' it! ; - )

  3. And we all know how much you hate to wait

  4. Fascinating!! I can't wait to find out too! I have my own mysteries to solve especially since both my mom and her mom were born out of wedlock to men their moms never married. Anxious to read your follow up!