Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Dabbling in DNA

The ever-growing list of DNA relatives of Carol Crumet on 23andMe

The search for my mother's father had now reached a turning point. This was no longer an emotional journey into the past, nor was it any longer a story punctuated with "What If's." It was now a full-fledged crime scene investigation. And if you know me, I cannot resist a good challenge. And if you make that a genealogical challenge, watch out, because I always get my man.

If you have read this far, the title of my blog makes perfect sense based on the information I had in front of me when I entered the blogosphere on 18 February 2014. Although the DNA test results for my uncle Ted Miller and cousin Michelle Herman had not yet been received from the laboratory, I had a pretty good inkling of what lie ahead of me. I had already confirmed that Frank Strukel was not my mother's father as was previously thought, and the few presumed paternal matches my mother had  in the 23andMe database made no sense. They had a predominantly strong southern ancestral bias, and none of them had any known match to Eldon Miller's ancestors. I started the blog - and my search - before the remaining Miller results arrived, because as I mentioned previously, I hate waiting. It was a preemptive strike based on a really good educated guess. Receiving the confirmation in March 2014 that Eldon Miller was also not my mother's father was more-or-less expected. And I wanted to be hot on the trail of someone else when I got those results.

My mother began teasing me that I was more upset about the findings than she was. Admittedly, in all the decades I had fretted over my mother's "Miller versus Strukel" paternity, I had never factored in the possibility of an unknown father. You cannot just violently yank 25% of an anally-retentive, obsessive-compulsive genealogist's ancestry away from him and expect him to calmly and quietly accept the news. Additionally, in the wonderful world of genetic genealogy, my DNA results were now virtually useless to me. If I had no basic knowledge of my own ancestry, how could I use it as a research tool to connect to others? It was maddening.

The jokes were surfacing as well. There are many traits I possess, both physical and behavioral, that are not shared with any other members of my family. The new retort was, "Oh, you get that from your grandfather.... whoever he might be!" And there were the humorous musings of how Helen would have responded if she were alive and presented with these findings. The woman was a straight-shooter, definitely not a shy wallflower, and she had no qualms telling it like it is. I can see her face like it were yesterday, and I can picture her response. Silence. Face blank as the information is processed and digested, quickly followed by her face screwed up quizzically as she blurts out, "Really? HIM???" I firmly believe that after she recovered from the shock of the revelation, Helen would have gotten a pretty good chuckle out of it. And we would have endlessly ribbed her about it.

But there was still an emotional edge to it. My mother's story had changed yet again, and this time there was no Helen to grill for information. There was more to it than just the "Who was he?" aspect. There were far more questions for Helen than that. "What were you thinking? What were the circumstances? Where did you two meet? How did this happen with a husband and three kids to care for at home? Did this man mean anything to you, or was he a chance encounter? How and when did Frank fit into this time scheme? Were you lonely and neglected and seeking a meaningful, emotional connection, or had you decided this was your only time to whoop it up and be the wild girl you never were?" And on and on and on. The difficult part of this ordeal was accepting the fact that those questions would never be answered. And for my mother, it was back to looking into the mirror and thinking, "Who am I?" Although identifying a father who never knew you existed is emotionally far different from reuniting with a mother who made the painful decision to carry you for nine months and give you away, the nagging questions returned. Do I look like him? Do I act like him? Do I have more siblings?

I was up for the challenge. I often tell my audience when I lecture, "no brick wall is insurmountable." I had no choice but to take my own advice and start chipping away at mine.

And so my quest had begun in earnest even before the Miller results arrived. I was sending off dozens of requests every day to share genealogical information with DNA matches to my mother, regardless of how minuscule the connection. I eliminated all individuals who shared genetic material with both my mother and her newly-halved sister, Dianne, as these would indicate a match through Helen, not my mother's missing father. When Ted's results and Michelle's results arrived, I was able to reduce the number of people on that list even further. I had already started a file of family trees of all the people who responded, and even for people that did not, if I could deduce enough information from their on-site profiles to recreate a family tree for them. Hours and hours and hours of time were spent trying to identify common threads in all of these trees and hoping for a triangulation - a match between three or more people on the same location of the same chromosome. If I could find even one triangulation with my mother and determine the common ancestor of the other two matches, by definition that common ancestor would then be my mother's as well. And I didn't care if that common ancestor was born over 200 years ago. It would at least be a start. And if I had to identify every male descendant of one presumed distant ancestor born in the eighteenth century just to find the one man lurking around Elkhart, Indiana, in 1946, I was going to do it.

I always get my man.

By 13 February 2014, a growing file of pedigree charts and chromosomal matches already cluttered my desk. No common ancestors had been found. No family trees had any seeming connection to northern Indiana. Nobody in the database shared a significant amount of DNA with my mother to be any closer than a third to fifth cousin. I had accepted the conclusion that this was going to be a long, arduous, expensive, time-sucking journey.

And then a miracle happened.

On that day before Valentine's Day, an email was received that has become a regular sighting in my mailbox. "Dear Carol, new relatives have joined 23andMe in the last 30 days! Invite them to connect!"

It's not that I needed this email. I checked my mother's online profile and genetic matches daily, usually several times a day. But on this day, among the new matches was a man who shared seven segments and 2.10% of his DNA in common with my mother.

SEVEN SEGMENTS!!!  2.10%!!!

That number sounds ridiculously small to those of you reading who have no ongoing workings in genetic genealogy. It sounds incredibly large to those of you that do. To illustrate the importance of this, the greatest number of matches presented in genetic databases are ten times smaller than this - and yet still very genealogically significant. If you refer back to the chart presented on a previous post (Hoosier Daddy?: And The Results Are...), you will see that the amount of shared DNA drops precipitously very quickly outside the immediate family circle. Michelle, my own half-first cousin, only shares a little over 5% of her DNA with me. This shows you that in the numbers game that is Autosomal DNA in Genetic Genealogy, this new match was incredibly close.

This new, unnamed male relative had a privatized profile. I knew nothing about him. I had no contact information for him, as 23andMe frustratingly maintains their own proprietary mail system within their site. But he shared no DNA with Dianne, and as I would see soon enough, he shared no DNA with Ted or Michelle. He therefore had no familial connection to Helen. This man was likely a second cousin to my missing grandfather!

Most of us have a slew of second cousins. Many of them carry names we have never heard, and most are people we will never meet. But if I could identify the extended family of this one man, the number of my mother's paternal candidates could likely be dropped to single digits. This was far better than my current list of the tens of thousands of men living in the vicinity of Elkhart, Indiana, in 1946.

Could it really be this easy?

I called my mother immediately.

Busy signal. And yes, my mother still lives in her own world where she has a busy signal. She recently inadvertently obtained call-waiting service on her phone and is embroiled in heated arguments with her provider to have it removed.

But she WAS signed in on Facebook. And yes, my mother is a Facebook junkie... but only after I forced her to set up an account and allay her fears that the Facebook demons would not be spying on her.

Me:  AAAARRRRGGGGHHH.... stop tying up your phone line!!!!! 
Mom:  I just got on the phone three minutes ago. 
Me:  Why is your line busy???? Are you on freakin' dial up???? This is not 1995!!!! 
Mom:  Because I am talking to your brother. 

My phone rang immediately.


  1. OMG, I am in suspense! Can't wait for the next blog...!

  2. And then? and then?? You're killing me here.......

  3. I agree with the above commenters! Can't wait to hear more. I can totally imagine your conversation with your mother on FB!

  4. I am like everyone else. Can't wait to read the next installment!

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  6. I came across this blog by googling your mother's name. I'm trying to help an adoptee find out who her birth father was. We identified her mother through DNA matches.

    Your mother is a match to the individual I'm helping on both gedmatch and 23andme. She's listed as a fourth cousin match and you are too. Your last several blogs assisted me by giving the other the names of others related to your mother and the fact that they also tested on 23andme. Those other individuals are not matches to the lady I'm assisting, which tells me we're connected via your mother's father's line.

    Thank you for an outstanding blog! This has been fascinating reading.

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