Friday, November 21, 2014

Progress Stalled (...or Begging For DNA)

Mamie Bell (Ryder) Langs Gibson (1912-2006) and her sister,
Isabell Helen (Ryder) Denney (1915-1997),
Battle Creek, Michigan, 1993

Clarence L. Ryder had to be the man I was looking for. Circumstantial evidence certainly made it seem so, and frankly the brief biographies I had put together of the other five candidates just did not fit what I knew genetically or historically. Three of the other five were already married, two may have still been in the service at my mother's conception, four were children or grandchildren of immigrants whereas my mother's genetic background seemed more diverse to account for such heritage. None of them could be placed in a reasonable geographical place or time to intersect with my grandmother's world. The others all failed on one or more levels.

But Clarence Ryder was long gone from this world, having died exactly sixty-three years to the day before I found out via DNA testing that my mother's father was not the man everyone thought him to be. His secrets - and his DNA - had been buried deep underground for many, many decades. And the only possible half-sibling my mother could have had by Clarence, Ralph Duane Ryder had died seventy-six years previously at the tender age of seven years. It was time to look further afield.

Whereas Clarence Ryder's life had been cut short by heart disease, his two younger sisters, Mamie and Isabell, lived long, productive, happy lives surrounded by the love of their large, close-knit families. Families who were very much alive and harboring DNA that I could use to prove my case.

As discussed previously in this blog, I call autosomal DNA testing and its subsequent matching "a numbers game." And it is very much so when you are seeking the identity of an unknown man. The larger the amount of shared DNA, the more predictable the relationship, and the more conclusive the evidence when identifying an unknown person. If Clarence Ryder lived, his tested DNA would match my mother by 50%. If Ralph Duane Ryder had lived, he would have shared approximately 25% of his DNA in kind with my mother, just like her half-siblings Ted and Dianne did who shared the same mother with Carol. Had Mamie or Isabell lived to donate their DNA to my research, they too would have shared 25% of their DNA with my mother, as aunts and uncles do. These are all large, predictable, and conclusive numbers that would have confirmed Clarence Ryder as my mother's father.

But the rule of the game now was to find the closest living relative through Clarence that was still very much alive, and those would be my mother's presumed first cousins. Although the DNA numbers have now dropped to 12.5% similarity, they are still very, very large numbers that would conclusively identify Clarence Ryder as the man I was seeking.

And there were plenty of first cousins to choose from.

Mamie Bell Ryder had married at the age of sixteen to Albert William Langs, a man not even four months her senior. They met and courted briefly in Battle Creek, Michigan, and he followed her to Plymouth, Indiana, and married her in 1929. Her first child, a baby boy, died shortly after his birth. But she was blessed with two more children, Norma in 1933, and Bill in 1936. Divorced from their father when the children were young, Mamie remarried Lyle Gibson in 1945 who proved to be a loving provider to his stepchildren. Lyle died in 1989, but Mamie outlived him by many years, dying shortly after her ninety-fourth birthday.

Isabell Helen Ryder met Lloyd Denney when she was sixteen and working with her parents at the lunch counter in Sidney, Indiana, and they started dating in November 1931. One month shy of her eighteenth birthday, they married on 16 September 1933. Isabell later wrote a narrative of her life, and she cherished her role as a wife and a mother, having eight children, five boys and three girls, between 1934 and 1955. Although all eight children grew up to have large loving families of their own, two of them had passed away before I came into the picture looking (begging) for someone to spit.

The Denney Children in 2007
Rick, Dave, Karen, Junior, Mary, Jack, and Steve

Armed with the names of eight individuals who could potentially help me resolve the dilemma of my missing grandfather's identity, I went to my familiar place in the hunt for the living: Facebook.

Although I found a few of the clan on the social networking site, I reached out to only one: Rick Denney, the youngest of Isabel's children. I can't tell you why I chose him particularly. Maybe because he looked so friendly and handsome, smiling in a picture surrounded by his equally attractive, happily grinning family. Maybe because I thought it might be easier to explain the science of DNA to a retired law enforcement official in his fifties than to a Michigan housewife in her eighties. Regardless of the reasons, on 29 April 2014, Rick got the now finely crafted "May I please have your DNA?" letter that had been honed over the last couple months of use. This is who I am... these are my credentials... my mother is missing a father... this is her story... this is who I have tested so far... this is how DNA testing works... this is why I think it is Clarence Ryder... this is why I need you... please, please, please can you spit in a tube for me? It was all pretty standard fare by now.

I waited nineteen agonizing days for a response.

For those who have read the entire blog up to the present, you know what I am going to say next.

I hate waiting.

But there has to be a time where one exercises patience. I wasn't exactly asking to borrow a cup of sugar or a couple eggs, so to go willy-nilly throwing out DNA requests to all the Denneys or Langs I could find would seem to be a bit over-the-top. Even if only one of them went all paranoid and crazy thinking I was gathering his DNA for nefarious purposes, he could end all chances of a successful connection between possible cousins. I had to give my first request a chance to sink in, to be digested. And that meant I had to be patient and persistent, but not pestering. I am not good at that either. But I waited.

I hate waiting.

On 18 May 2014, I finally got my response:

"I talked with a couple of my older siblings, and we would be willing to meet with you. And we do have a photo of our uncle Clarence. And your information seems to be accurate."

That's it.

Okay, so it wasn't exactly a lengthy response to my very detailed previous email. And it wasn't exactly welcoming me with open arms and enthusiastically offering me assistance in my mother's plight to find her father. And there wasn't exactly a promise to spit into a tube... just a willingness to meet. At least he used appropriate sentence structure and excellent spelling skills. It could have been worse.

But it really could have been a whole lot better.

I responded with metered enthusiasm the following day. I gushed with thanks for responding to my odd request. I offered to drive to the Battle Creek, Michigan, area at anytime he chose me to do so. I offered the enticement that as a professional researcher I would actively pursue the Ryder genealogy and share all my findings with him if Clarence turned out to be my grandfather. But I also jokingly nudged that results may take two months to acquire, so the sooner we do this, the better.

That was met with a month-long silence.

On 19 June 2014, I sent a follow up email detailing how terribly busy I had been in the last month with researching and lecturing, and that I was finally home and eager to meet. 

See what I did there? I deflected the blame for the month of silence onto myself. I'm brilliant.

I also gave him some tidbits of interest into his Ryder-Moslander genealogy hoping to entice him into learning more about his lineage. Of course, I only tossed out a few really interesting, yet vague, nuggets of information so that he might be eager to question me for more. Again, sheer brilliance.

And one more nugget I had for him that also made it all that more important for me. I had found yet another match in the DNA database to my mother. A match who descended from Abraham Moslander (born c1735), who also happened to be an ancestor of Jessie (Moslander) Ryder. The argument for Clarence Ryder being my grandfather was almost a done deal. But I needed Rick's DNA to prove it.

Upon review, I ended this email with entirely too many exclamation points:

"It's just so very important for both me and my mother at this time. So I am eager to meet with you, and I do sincerely hope that you or your siblings are willing to take the DNA test for me. Just let me know when I can head up your way! I am eager to solve this mystery, and I am eager to see what Clarence looked like! Thanks again for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you!"

Two days later:

"I am just returning from a vacation to Florida. I will get with my family and try to set up a date."

The man was certainly not big on lengthy responses.

I responded the following day with more exclamations.

"Sounds great! I am looking forward to it!

Two weeks of nothingness followed. Two weeks of waiting. Two weeks of wondering if I should start trying to contact other Denneys or Langs. But he had already stated he had talked to other family members. Would this look like I was "going over his head" if I were to contact his siblings? Was he stalling because he was suspicious of my motives? Or perhaps it just didn't hold as much urgency to him as it did to me. Two weeks of deciding how to proceed, and I get:

"Hi Mike, I was wondering if you could tell me your grandmother's first name."

Jesus H. Christ On A Popsicle Stick... what the hell did THAT have to do with anything?!?!? Was he looking for love letters written by my grandmother to the man who impregnated her sixty-seven years ago? Was he hoping a name might ring a bell of truth before agreeing to donate his saliva to my research, when I already outlined to him that whatever relationship my grandmother had with Clarence may have been no more than a single night?

But of course, my immediate response was dripping with sincere apologies for being so irresponsible as to leave out such important details as my grandmother's name when asking for such a large favor from him. I directed him to my blog address so that he could read about my grandmother and her life, and the sequence of events that led me to his email Inbox. When that failed to incite a response, nine days later I laid out the whole story for him anyway via email so as to not bother him with the task of reading my blog. I then outlined the research path that led me to Clarence Ryder, and I even included graphs and family trees to illustrate it all.


Three months had passed since my initial email, and I was no closer to proving Clarence Ryder was or was not my mother's father. I took a chance. Figuring that the Denney siblings were all kept in the loop by youngest brother Rick, I did not want to upset any chances that still remained for testing Rick by contacting another Denney. So I sent an email to Bill Langs on 24 July 2014. Having learned from my mistake with Ken Ryder who had a Facebook account he never used, I also sent a copy of the same email to Bill's daughter, Julie, on the same day. I could tell that Julie was a frequent Facebook poster, and it seemed likely that she would alert her father to something as important as this if he did not check his account regularly. Both read the emails. Neither responded. Having thrown patience out the window long before, I sent follow-up messages quickly: one to Bill on 28 July 2014, and another to Julie on 31 July 2014. Both were read immediately by both individuals. Again, neither responded.

On 1 August 2014, having exhausted all means of patience, pleasantry and persistence, and after nearly a month of no response from Rick, and entering into our fourth month of very intermittent correspondence, I did what any good, self-respecting, upstanding genetic genealogist dripping with integrity would do.

I lied.

"Rick. I will be in the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek area this weekend. Do you have time to meet?"

Although, yes, I do know people in Kalamazoo, and, yes, I could very well have gone to visit them on that weekend had I called and asked them, the reality was, no, I really had no plans that weekend. Frankly it was time to push the envelope. The challenge had been made. I am going to be there. Yes or no. You will meet with me or you will not. There's only one of two ways for this to go now. I took a deep breath. Held it. And  I hit "Reply."

Less than seven hours later:

"How about tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. at the Cracker Barrel on Beckley Road just off I-94 at the Capital Avenue exit in Battle Creek?"



  1. Well that was painful. Wow. It would make me crazy to have to wait like that. C'mon people.... we are talking about genealogy here. Time is of the essence.
    You were very patient. I would have been chewing through my straps.

  2. Oh, my gosh! The suspense is driving me nuts, and I don't have a dog in this race! I've had some relatives take their time, but nothing like this! Good luck!

  3. Sitting on the edge of my seat waiting impatiently for the next blog! What an interesting story!!