Pencil Stubs Online
Reader Recommends


Armchair Genealogy

By Melinda Cohenour

DNA – A Modern Miracle

      This month we celebrate the New Year with news of a thrilling find! Last year my grandson, Adam Bradshaw, agreed to submit his DNA to Ancestry. Almost immediately after his test results were revealed, I was contacted by a close match (799 cMs across 28 segments per Ancestry) which translated to the equivalent of a first cousin. Soon after this match and I began texting, it became apparent she was not merely Adam’s first cousin – she was his AUNT!

      Our initial texts resulted in an exchange of not only information but a picture of her biological father – my first husband and the father of my two children. This story is heart-warming and spans not only a continent but a world-wide connection.

      DNA is a complex science. It lies at the epicenter of creation. It contains the very blueprint for every lifeform, be it animal, vegetable, or mineral. The unraveling of the codes contained in the DNA strands has taken millennia to discover and decades to comprehend. Many scientists have diverted their original scope of study to concentrate wholly on the mysteries of DNA. And with each new day, more of the secrets of creation are brought to light.

      In prior columns, your author has sought to grasp a bit of understanding of DNA while documenting that struggle for our readers as well. Our own journey to utilize DNA in genealogical research arose, primarily, as a means to break down brick walls in our direct lines of ancestry. For it has only been in recent decades that anyone other than royalty had the luxury of knowing and tracking their long lines of ancestors. It was essential to royal heirs to prove their “fitness” for reign; therefore, exhaustive measures were taken to use the priceless inks and parchments (or stones, in the case of the really ancient, such as the pharaohs) to document the pairings of those in power and the sequence of births of their offspring.

      Typically, in most civilizations, it was the eldest MALE descendant who inherited all: the right to rule, the real property, the treasure troves, the slaves, the beasts and pastures – everything. In those rare groups dedicated to a matriarchal rule, the only males granted power were those chosen by the ruling FEMALE of the tribe. Matriarchal societies were most common among the aboriginal or Tibetan tribes. In the modern world, only about six areas are known to adhere to a matrifocal or matriarchal government, where women rule and their female heirs are the only ones permitted to succeed to power. Those exist in (1) Mosuo, near the border of Tibet in the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces; (2) Minangkabau, of West Sumatra in Indonesia; (3) Akan, a group comprising the majority of peoples of Ghana; (4) Bribri, a very small group isolated in a region of Costa Rica; (5) Garo, near the Khasi of North-East India, in the state of Meghalaya, a group of Tibetan-Burmese peoples; and (6) the Nagovisi, an isolated island west of New Guinea called South Bougainville. Although the ruling power in these societies is handed down mother to daughter, woman to woman, the balance of power is maintained by the granting of ruling authority to specified men – usually in the realm of spiritual or military control.

      It is interesting to note that early Native American tribes on the American continents (North and South) probably adhered to that policy as a result of their ancients having crossed the Siberian ice thousands and thousands of years ago, then migrating ever southward to the very tip of Tierra del Fuego.

      Thus, the recordation of ancestry was reserved to those to whom the “divine” right to power required careful notation of their parentage. It was a tedious, costly process and required the ability to read and write – a rare commodity in ancient times.

      Thankfully, those days are behind us. Today, we have a plethora of means by which we can track our heritage. The Internet has been a God-send, offering access to scanned documents from – in some cases – centuries past. With the advent of printing and scanning technology, we now have access to millions and millions of documents that provide a peek into the lives our ancestors led. We can see who lived in their households, what age they were, in some cases even their month and year of birth, their occupation, prior military service, even the value of their personal and real property. Those clues about their lives were predicated upon the aspect of civilization deemed most important to the Census takers of that age – what the government needed to know about its populace. But those bits and pieces of data collected becomes our INFORMATION – the tool that paints the picture of our ancestors’ lives.

      And, now, we have DNA. It can track our long-lost cousins, our biological connections in those cases where adoptions obscured truths. For instance, after my new “step-daughter” contacted me, I immediately checked Adam’s DNA page on Ancestry. They offer a neat tool that helps to confirm, isolate, and identify groups of DNA-linked relatives. You click on the closest “cousinship” (cousins comprise the mass of relationships for all of us – the offspring of the siblings in each generation of our direct line ancestors are our cousins), and then select Matches. This brings up a secondary group that reveals how that close “cousin” is related to others whose DNA matches both your DNA and the just-revealed “cousin”. In some cases, the Matches will direct you to known relationships – a matter of confirmation of the profiles in your family tree. But, when you are seeking the mystery person, these Matches can lead you to clues that may reveal the previously unknown.

      In this case, our newly located relative – my new daughter – had done her homework as well and had located the biological paternal line for my first husband. The man whose DNA now appears in the strands shared by Adam, by my daughter Melissa, and now shown to be shared by our precious Anne. We have a name. We have DNA proof that this man was the donor whose parentage “begot” my first husband.

      The story is a complex one – one deserving of not just a column, but a book which I am prompted to write. For my first husband was a world traveler. A handsome and talented man with a gift for languages and a love of the exotic. His unfortunate personal story was one of “knowing” he was adopted but being told he was the biological child of a duo who were not even acquainted at the time of his birth. He sought the proof for all the years we were together and, I can only assume, in the years up to his recent death. An avid fan of Ancestry’s two television series (Long Lost Family and Who Do You Think You Are?), your author has seen over and over the anguish of those who feel they “somehow” don’t fit in with their adoptive families, even when those families offer complete love and nurture. It is an inherent need for humans to KNOW who they are, where they come from, who their parents and grandparents are, their history. That need was both an unsatisfied seeking for my first husband and his driving psychological impetus. Coupled with his seeking of love and belonging was the unsettling knowledge that his mother had not been honest with him. That, throughout his life, she had claimed a truth that was a lie: that she was his biological mother. It damaged his relationship not only with her, but with every woman with whom he sought love thereafter.

      From a time shortly after our marriage, knowledge of my first husband’s prior family revealed the existence of two darling little girls. As my journey into genealogy became not only an occasional seeking but a driving passion, my daughter Melissa and I began trying to find those two half-sisters. Eventually, through research online, we were able to make contact with the eldest of those two girls, Kathy Mae. She was thrilled and advised us she had been trying to find her sister, Melissa, ever since she learned of her existence – when she herself was but 18 years of age. Through Kathy, we were introduced to her younger sister, Diane. These two girls – now women – welcomed their sister with open arms. We lost Kathy Mae several years ago to colon cancer, sadly. But, Diane and Melissa continue to be loving siblings, exchanging phone calls, text messages to this day. Briefly, Melissa lived in Florida and she and Diane met. It was a shocking thing to them both, for they found themselves “looking into a mirror.” My grandson remarked he could not tell which one was speaking until he saw their mouths moving, for they sounded so much alike. I, too, experienced that when they called me and exchanged the phone several times, confusing me as to which one was speaking.

      Now, we have another sister, Anne, whose story is an amazing one. After she was born, her mother (a native Costa Rican wed to a Finnish native), moved to Finland, relocating a very young Anne to that country. Anne was brought up there, mastering a third language in the process. She is now wed to a man whose origins derive from neighboring Turkey. Together they have two adorable children, one boy and one girl. Once again, the dramatic comparison of their appearance beggars belief. My first look at Anne’s pics made me gasp, for they were eerily like seeing my own Melissa at that age!

      The puzzle in all this, is that Melissa and I were always told how much we favor. Now, three half-sisters by two different mothers also favor. It brings me to the conclusion that my first husband somehow had buried in his genetic “memory” a picture of his own biological mother – a woman he must have sought, found, and wed over and over, recreating her genetic appearance in his own daughters. For our readers’ benefit, I offer photographs of the sisters and myself (granted, a MUCH younger self) for your own comparison.

Top pics: Left - the late Kathy Bradshaw Kaumalatsos; Right - Kathy's sister Diane Christian;
Third pic - Anne Bulut half-sister to other three; Fourth pic - Melissa Bradshaw half-sister to other three; Fifth pic - Your author, Melinda.

Left: Kathy; Right: Diane

Left: Anne Bulut; Right: Melissa

For comparison with the sisters, here is a much younger pic of myself

      Now, the blessing and the miracle comes full circle. Anne, her husband, and their two small children plan to visit us in this New Year. Travelling around the world to greet, hug, love, and enjoy full contact with her biological sister – her near-twin. A twin whose own daughter shares Anne’s birthday, but is two years younger. Imagine! A sister two years the senior of one’s own daughter. Amazing.

      To all my readers, Happy New Year! Use all that is available to you to research your own family – learn about your heritage. Remember, now you can do that from the comfort of your own home via Armchair Genealogy.

Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.


Refer a friend to this Column

Your Name -
Your Email -
Friend's Name - 
Friends Email - 


Horizontal Navigator



To report problems with this page, email Webmaster

Copyright © 2002 AMEA Publications