For me, the hardest part of writing a story is finding the end. It often feels arbitrary, or artificial, or both. A person’s story isn’t necessarily over, after all, just because I’m ready to write it down. But I can’t put it off forever, either. Editors are waiting, and my unpaid bills. So I squeak out an ending and just cross my fingers that a better one — the real one — doesn’t show itself the day after publication.
Earlier this month, I heard the real ending for a story I wrote more than a year ago about people who use DNA to fill in branches of their family tree. It’s a doozy, and has me thinking hard, again, about the profound consequences of so-called “recreational genetics.”
In 2008 the story’s protagonist, 56-year-old Cheryl Whittle from rural Virginia, heard about DNA testing on Oprah. Just for kicks she bought a kit for herself, her husband, and two of her siblings. When the results came back in her email inbox, she discovered that the man who raised her, the man she had thought was her father, wasn’t. He had died in 1989, several years after Cheryl’s mom, and few people were still alive who had known them at the time of Cheryl’s conception. Thus Cheryl began a long, circuitous, frustrating, emotional quest in genetic genealogy to find out who her father really was.
When my story ended (spoiler alert), Cheryl had been through one emotional roller coaster after another. Her search had angered some of her immediate family members, and greatly disappointed a woman who longed to be Cheryl’s biological sister but turned out to be a distant cousin. As of August 2013, when my reporting wound down, Cheryl had made contact with another possible sister who refused to get a DNA test because she was worried about tarnishing the memory of her late father.
After my story was published, Cheryl and I kept in touch on Facebook. She often Liked my articles, and I commented on photos of her new great-grandchild. She patched things up with her immediate family, and seemed to be healing from some of the bruises of genetic genealogy. But despite everything she had been through, she didn’t give up the search for her father.
Long before I met her, Cheryl had used online DNA databases to find a woman estimated to be her second cousin, a fairly close match. (The woman had to be on Cheryl’s father’s side because her DNA didn’t match with one of Cheryl’s half sisters.) This woman was a genealogy buff who had put much of her family research online. So one of the branches on this woman’s tree, Cheryl knew, had to lead to her father.
This July, Cheryl traced one of those lines to Edward Barden of Orange County, Virginia, about 70 miles from where she grew up. Cheryl thought Edward was a little too young to be her father — he would have been about 19, and her mother 26, at the time of her conception. But then again, she thought, you never know.
Cheryl called Edward’s daughter, Edie Growden, figuring that a younger generation might be more comfortable with the idea of mailing a vial of spit to a lab for DNA testing. During that first call, Cheryl was vague, saying simply that she was interested in genealogy and thought they had some connections. They eventually agreed to meet in person at Edward’s house. The night before the proposed meeting, Edie’s husband suggested that she look up this Cheryl lady online. She was a complete stranger, after all. So Edie Googled her, and found my article. Oops.
The next morning, Cheryl got in her yellow pick-up truck and made the pretty two-and-a-half-hour drive to Edward’s house. She knew, by this point, that there was no point in feeling anxious, nor in getting her hopes up. She had two new DNA kits in the back seat, just in case. “God gave me, in my spirit, the calm to know that everything was going to be OK,” she says.
When she arrived at Edward’s house he was at a doctor’s appointment. Edie answered the door and brought Cheryl into the kitchen for some coffee. “Are you still looking for your father?” she said. Cheryl, a bit taken aback, said she was. She took out some papers showing her cousin’s family tree, with Edward and his four brothers underlined.
Edward’s car pulled into the garage. He had picked up groceries, so Edie and Cheryl went out to help him unload. When he looked at Cheryl, his face went white and he dropped a bag of eggs on the ground. Cheryl went out to her truck for the DNA kits.
While she was out, Edie told her dad that Cheryl was looking for her father. “Edie, that’s Roy’s child,” he said, tears in his eyes. Roy was his older brother, Edie’s uncle, who had passed away in 1999. “Really?” Edie said, skeptical. “Look at her!” Edward said. But, he added, he wanted to hear more of Cheryl’s story before admitting to anything, to make sure he wasn’t grasping at straws.
Cheryl came back and sat down at the kitchen table. Edie then saw the resemblance to her uncle — especially in Cheryl’s eyes, nose and mouth. It seemed unmistakable. Edward, leaned against the sink, looked straight at her. “Well, Cheryl, tell me what you’re looking for.”
Cheryl told him the gist of her story, just as she’s told many times before. “What was your mother’s name?” he asked. Vivian Laverne Tipton, she said, from Richmond. “Did she have a sister with blonde hair named Virginia?” he asked. Yes, Virginia was her twin, Cheryl said. “Look no further,” Edward said. “You’re my brother Roy’s child.”
Over the next couple of hours the whole story came out. Virginia had been dating a Richmond bus driver named Perry who spent every weekend in a small town a couple of hours north. So Virginia started spending her weekends there, too. They stayed in a big, old house — “The Racer House” — which on the weekends was full of young people dancing and playing games. Soon Vivian was accompanying her sister on weekends, and that’s how she met Roy Barden, who was living there as a caretaker.
Edward remembers Vivian and Roy dating for about a year. At some point she told him she wanted to get married, but Roy wasn’t ready. When she told him that her doctor in Richmond said she was pregnant, he told her he wanted his doctor to verify it. After that, Roy told Edward, he never heard another word from her. She never came back to the Racer House, and never called.
Edward’s memories were vivid. There was no doubt in his mind that Cheryl was Roy’s daughter. But Cheryl, who’s been down these memory lanes before, needed DNA proof. Edie took one kit into another room for the spitting. Edward’s mouth was too dry, but he said he’d do it in the next few days.
Edie and Edward were excited by the news. There was a thorny issue to sort out, however. Years after Vivian left, Roy married another woman and they had four children, Cheryl’s presumed half-siblings. Roy’s widow was still alive, but sick, and Edward and Edie don’t get along well with that side of the family. So they didn’t know what to tell Cheryl about reaching out to her presumed siblings. “A search like this, it really could turn a lot of people’s lives upside-down,” Edie told me. “Things that they thought were the truth all of a sudden aren’t.”
About a month later, on August 15, Cheryl had Edie’s results: they were indeed first cousins. Nine days after that, the other test came back and confirmed that Edward was her uncle.
At that point, there was no reason not to believe Edward’s memories about Roy and Vivian. And yet, Cheryl couldn’t let her story end there. There was still a possibility that her father wasn’t Roy, but one of the other Barden brothers. It was a slim chance, sure, but it happens. (In fact, when I was reporting my original story I read a book by an adoptee whose family search was upended by one such fraternal mix-up.)
So once again Cheryl was faced with an ethical dilemma: Should she reach out to these possible half siblings? And if so, would they want to tell their ailing mother?
Ultimately, Cheryl did reach out to all four of her siblings, through Facebook, phone calls and handwritten letters. The first couple of weeks were pretty stressful for her, especially because one of her siblings asked for a bit of time to adjust. At one point, Cheryl told me via Facebook message, she had spent many days crying.
I asked her, as delicately as I could: Cheryl, do you really not believe your uncle’s story? Why do you need to keep testing your siblings?
“I feel I need to prove it, and yes even to me,” she responded. “I don’t trust well.”
“I just have so many mixed feelings right now. I don’t want to hurt anyone, most especially my newly found most precious Uncle, Edward. Nor my cousin Edie!” she continued. Still, though, it wasn’t the end yet. “I want to be absolutely sure where I am in the family.”
Since then, I’m very happy to report, things have gotten much easier for Cheryl. In the past few weeks she’s had heartfelt meetings or phone calls with each of her siblings. One of them, Tim, took a DNA test for her, and on October 6, she got the results: half siblings. She sent me a message: “I am indeed the daughter of Roy Oscar Barden. And half sibling to Luther, Oscar, Tim, and Joyce Ann Barden. I am so excited! And relieved to finally have verified the truth.”
Her new siblings began sending her photographs of Roy over the years, which she naturally compared to pictures of herself.
Cheryl’s siblings told their mother, Barbara, and she, too, has been remarkably welcoming. In fact, this past weekend, Cheryl stayed with Tim and his wife, Wanda, at their home. When she arrived, Tim gave her the trowel and hammer that their father had used as a brick mason. Then he took her to his mom’s house. Barbara gave Cheryl a tour, and showed her photos and the Family bible. Saturday Tim and Wanda organized a party so the rest of the family could meet Cheryl. They all told her she looks more like Roy than any of his other kids, and laughs like him, too. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought it would have gone so well,” Cheryl told me this morning.
I’m sincerely grateful for Cheryl and the many lessons she has taught me — not only about the real-life consequences of genetic genealogy, but about how rewarding it can be to keep up with sources long after you’ve written their story. (Or the first version of it, anyway.) I’m thrilled that my story now has a real, happy ending, and I wish Cheryl and her new family the happiest of beginnings.