Choosing Family


We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t choose your family.” I said this very statement while discussing family outcasts in our family tree with a new-found cousin. Good, bad or ugly, it seems we are just born, raised, and no matter what, we are stuck with the family we have. Serendipity played quite a hand to me over this past week, as did the U.S. election, which made me undertake a full emotional review of what or whom family really is.

Over the last two months, I have been working with an AncestryDNA match of mine at 32cM who was listed as a 4th cousin. It was on my paternal side and because I am estranged from that side of the family, I haven’t really pursued my matches on that side. What made this person unique is that he was related to me and didn’t know his birth parents, he was chosen by his adoptive parents.

Using his DNA match results, I immediately found high matches to him, at 1st cousin range as well as an Aunt. I branched out on my tree and added these new family members. Scouring old newspapers and obituaries, I was able to pinpoint who I thought could be his mom.  As luck would have it, I found her. I also found a half-sister for my new-found cousin. I had worked day and night to piece together how they belonged to each other, and how they belonged on my tree. I spoke with his half sister over Skype and marveled at how familiar she looked to me and how much there was a family resemblance on that side.

What really struck me was how open this new sister’s heart was, as well as that of her new-found half-brother. They’ve now spoken to each other and need to figure out how to move forward in each other’s lives, as real blood family. He chose me, an unknown cousin, to help him find his mother, who made the very difficult choice of letting someone else be the family who raised him. Now, they’ve chosen to be part of each other’s lives and mine. As a genealogist, this is beyond thrilling and quite a highlight of my passionate work!

In the span of a week, I went from the elation of finding a person’s birth family to hitting rock bottom over the choice in the U.S. election outcome. I’ve remained professional and kept any discussion of politics off of my professional presence in social media for the entire election.

For most of my adult work life, I have sat side by side with a widely diverse group of colleagues. We’ve solved problems on the job together, celebrated weddings,  babies and birthdays, traveled together, encouraged each other through tough times, and socialized outside of work. When you spend that amount of time with people, you really get to know them, experience them, and appreciate them for who they are, where they come from, and what’s important and of value to them. You see how they treat others, who they associate with, what they stand up for, and what they stand against. If I could choose family, many people in this group would be leaves on my tree.

What I have witnessed on both sides of this moment in U.S. history is how the divide is so great, even real family can’t build a bridge. It’s during the most trying of times, that you see who’s got your back, and who doesn’t. I have chosen to be a safe haven for chosen family and other alienated members of society, and made the easy choice to let some blood family members go. If beyond the likes on a Facebook post, there’s no real connection, no dialogue, no attempt, no common values, and instead a chosen side with privilege and/or ignorance, I choose to be on the side of history that protects all members of our global family.

Judging A Family Tree By Its Cover



Out of my blog hiatus I come to tackle an important topic that I’ve seen on many message boards. My hiatus and this topic are closely entwined. Hopefully this reaches many people and changes their hearts about why people do DNA testing on and then either don’t connect their results to a family tree, have very few people on their tree, or keep their trees private.

My hiatus was the outcome of getting a DNA test back on a family member that turned out to be half related to me. The detective in me focused every bit of spare time and effort to figuring out this mystery; I’m still in the midst of it.

I began with a shared DNA match to this family member and then viewed that person’s tree, created a mirror tree from that info, and made it a private tree. Then I found another match, added that branch to the mirror tree, and so on…. I currently have about 10 matches and their direct ancestor line created on this huge 1000+-person tree now. I’ve compared centimorgans across these matches and determined how people relate to each other. I’ve scoured obituaries to add as many living descendants as possible. This is in part, an effort to place my family member on the right leaf of this tree. Due to the highly sensitive nature of my work, I made the tree private and access by invitation only.

Of course as I found close matches, I was hungry to see their tree to confirm theories of shared common ancestors. More often than not, I was met with no tree attached to the DNA match result, a tree of just a few folks and they were showing as “Private”, and trees that were entirely made private. I’ve shared the frustration like most people on the message boards and Facebook pages. Why do the DNA test if you’re not willing to attach a tree or make it public so you can connect to relatives?

What I’ve learned throughout this 4-month hiatus is that people are taking the Ancestry DNA test for many reasons. Some have learned they were adopted and want to know who their long lost family members are. Some were never told the correct birth parent and their birth parent never knew they existed. Some people simply want to know their ethnicity and aren’t interested in their family tree. Some have taken the DNA test to help others who are on the hunt for family and either they relate to them or sadly they don’t; the result just sits there on Ancestry. Some don’t know how to connect their results to their tree yet, plain and simple. Some people want to have zero of their personal information floating in cyberspace. There are many reasons, both profound and simple, given the intricate nature of families.

I didn’t realize this blogging hiatus would become one of my greatest purposes as a professional genealogist. Because of this personal family pursuit, I’m getting close to finding a birth mother for one person, and on the trail to find two other birth fathers for matches. Sure, it’s a beautiful thing when we can collaborate and share what we know, but it’s important to realize and respect those who don’t share the same purpose. I encourage everyone when they see that lock on the tree or no tree at all, to contact that person in a gracious way and see what happens; try not to judge a family tree by its cover.