How a DNA Surprise Led One Man to the Truth About His Father
I learned a lot about my family in 2019. More than I wanted to.
That spring, I had started a novel about my mother’s uncle and his French lover during World War I. The research took me to France, where I accidentally uncovered my father’s roots in a little town in Alsace whose vineyards and vintages all bear my last name. My oldest daughter and I were treated like family there. It felt like home.
Then, that September, I was uprooted.
A woman in Georgia who had hit a match with me on a DNA ancestry application sent me a message, and I suddenly went from having one brother and one sister to having four half-sisters and four half-brothers.
Evidently, the man I called my father was not, in fact, my father. And at age 67, I suddenly didn’t know exactly who I was or where I came from.
In certain pedantic storytelling circles, it’s called anagnorisis, when a protagonist learns an unknown family connection, like when a Dickens character realizes that his love interest is his benefactor’s daughter. Or when Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker, “I am your father.”
In genealogy circles, it’s called NPE, or “non-paternity event.” A 2019 Pew Research study found that approximately 15 percent of Americans have taken commercial genealogy tests, and of those, 27 percent found “close relatives they didn’t know about before.”
I sent an email to Ancestry.com, asking if they kept statistics on such surprises, and almost closest got a polite response saying that they didn’t keep that data. I figured they had enough genetic traits and genomes to keep track of without having to think outside the double helix.
But journalist Libby Copeland, who based an complete book on the subject, The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are, wrote that the DNA genetic research companies have trained employees to fend off those inquiries, which could get messy. As George Foreman says in his ubiquitous TV commercials, “Not MY problem.”
The internet is flush with similar stories: a DNA test received as a gift, an unexpected consequence, usually involving the father, because of an unknown adoption, an in-vitro slip-up, a premarital fling, or an infidelity.
Sex happens, already to our parents.
My NPE started much the same way, with the DNA test that my younger daughter gave me as a Christmas present in 2018. I wasn’t so much interested in seeing if any famous people were hanging from my family tree or whether I was likely to come down with a crippling disease. I wouldn’t already have signed up for it on my own if it hadn’t been a gift. But I thought it might be interesting to verify my ethnic ancestry. So I swabbed the inside of my mouth, put it in the little vial, and mailed it in.
There were no immediate surprises. A few weeks later, my DNA came back as German, Northern European, and English-Irish-Scottish, much what you would expect of a person whose family has been in America since the early 1700s.
I already knew this much: My assumed grandfather had changed the spelling of his name from Kieffer to Kiefer, probably with the mistaken concept that it would seem less German during the First World War. One of my cousins on my father’s side had traced the family tree back to a François Kieffer, who came to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. A professor in graduate school told me that Kieffer was an Alsatian name — in fact it method “Cooper,” or barrel-maker, in Alsatian German.
My mother’s maiden name was Brown, and though her mother was English, her father’s ancestors spelled the name “Braun” and came from Germany and Switzerland, also in the 1700s, also to Pennsylvania. So basically, I was Pennsylvania Dutch — a Dutchie, in the pejorative — on both sides.
The DNA test confirmed what I already knew.
So then, at about the same time I took the test, a cousin on the Brown side of the family, whom I had not seen in 40 years, came to Phoenix, and we met for dinner. We traded stories about our parents and our cousins and aunts and uncles, and then we focused on Uncle Jake, the black sheep of the family, who had been a favorite to both of us.
Jake was garrulous and portly. He stuttered and told dirty jokes. Our parents told us to stay away from him, because he had been a drunk for many years, and they could never forgive him the things he did during that time. But he was always kind and amusing to his grandnieces and -nephews, always had candy and something funny to say.
My cousin Dave told me he cleaned out Jake’s apartment when he died, and he found a cache of love letters from a French woman Jake had wooed in 1918 and 1919 while in the U.S. Army Air Service in France. I was closest intrigued, and I asked him to send them to me.
The letters were heart-breaking. The woman begged Jake to come back to France and marry her. She already threatened to come to Pennsylvania to be with him. How could I resist that story? (All Jake on the Western Front came out in 2020.)
Cousin Dave had already collected a lot of family history tracing the Browns and Brauns back to Germany and France and Switzerland. I found draft cards for Jake and both of my grandfathers and newspaper articles about car accidents they’d been in, parties they attended, how they got married, when and where they dropped dead. I also found a history of Jake’s unit while it was in France. I knew he spent his last months in Bordeaux, so I went there.
Before I did, I googled the name “Kiefer” and “Alsace.” Up popped Hotel Kieffer in Ittersviller, France. I emailed the hotel and found they had their own vineyard and had been making wine since the 1700s, when François Kieffer showed up in Pennsylvania. I told my daughter, who is a sommelier, that we would be making a detour to Ittersviller.
It was a picturesque little village on the Wine Road. On a short walk down its single street, my daughter and I passed five different vintages named after various Kieffers. The mayor was named Kieffer, as were servers in restaurants. When I showed up at a restaurant and told them the reservation was under the name “Kiefer, like everyone else here,” they laughed out loud.
At the hotel, my hostesses showed me the family history with all the Kieffers going back to the 18th Century. “Which François Kieffer is the one you are referring to?” I was asked. There was a whole page of them. The hotelier’s daughter posed with my daughter, and there seemed to be a family resemblance. They looked like cousins, 300 years removed.
Of course, already as I was writing a novel about my mother’s uncle in France, I took time to write about my father’s family roots in France for an online travel blog. This was my identity. Or so I thought.
The message from the Georgia woman came by the DNA website that September. I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t see it for weeks. Would I contact her?
I’ll call her Joan to protect her privacy, and she was born two weeks before my older sister. She had a hereditary disease not shared by her siblings, and she wondered if her dad was really her dad. When she had registered with the DNA site to find out, she equaled to me as a half-sibling.
I was initially hindered, and as we talked, we assumed my father was the link. But we couldn’t figure out where he and Joan’s mother would have met. My father was in northern Pennsylvania at the time Joan would have been conceived, Joan’s mother was in New Jersey, close enough now, but several hours apart at the time.
I called my brother and sister, and we assumed Dad had had a very good November 1949, impregnating two different women and marrying one of them. He was a good-looking jock and a war hero. He might have had his pick of partners.
Joan’s two sisters registered for the DNA site in addition. Not only did they match as complete siblings with Joan, they were also half-siblings with me. And two of my cousins on my mother’s side, including the one who shared Jake’s letters, showed up as my matches but not hers.
So Poppa was not the rolling stone. Momma was.
I wanted to distrust the findings, despite Joan’s sisters. But my daughters and my grandchildren also took the test, and the results are the same. And I spent a big part of my career as a newspaper reporter covering criminal courts and the worst-of-the-worst crimes, where DNA evidence is pretty much irrefutable.
Then came the clincher. I didn’t look like my dad. He was big and heavyset, with black curly hair, green eyes, and a freckled complexion. I was slender and born blond (though the hair darkened as I grew older) with brown eyes. We assumed I looked like the Brown side of the family. My sister looks a lot like my dad; my younger brother is closer in turn up to me. Neither they nor my parents had brown eyes.
Joan sent me a photo of her father when he was a young man. I looked at his smirking smile, his dark eyes, the shape of his confront. She told me his height and weight. I compared them to photos of myself at that age. We looked like brothers — or rather, like father and son.
“Don’t blame your mother,” a friend quipped. “He was very handsome.” I laughed, but inside, it wasn’t funny.
Neither Joan nor I nor my brother and sister could figure out when my mother and her father could have met, either, and under what circumstances. Was it a drunken indiscretion at a holiday party? (I was born in late September.) Was it consensual?
“Women of that generation would take a secret like that to the grave,” Joan said.
I nevertheless surprise who knew, if any of them. My siblings never took the DNA test, nor have Joan’s brothers. I guess they don’t want to think badly of the designated moms and dads. Or maybe they would just rather not think about it at all.
Not MY problem.
Copeland wrote that most NPEs experience “a seismic emotional reaction.” I’m not sure about seismic, but I certainly feel queasy and uncertain.
already if I now know who my real father was, the lineage stops there. I know nothing about him but his name and what he looked like as a young man. Joan tells me he died a decade ago. If he knew about me and never reached out to me — well, that leaves me cold. And none of my new siblings other than Joan have contacted me. At first I thought I’d travel to Georgia to meet them, but the pandemic got in the way, and since then, with no apparent mutual interest from them, I lost interest myself.
I no longer know my family medical history at an age when it matters more than ever. I feel my last name is counterfeit. The trip to Alsace was wishful thinking. I surprise who I am, and there is no one left to ask. My parents are dead. Joan’s parents are dead. I have only two female relatives left from that generation, and I don’t know how to ask them directly. Such things were not discussed in their day.
The secrets were indeed taken to the grave.
But I’ve come to some peace with that. We are all flawed: my parents, your parents. There are skeletons in my closet, and I may hide more there before I die.
My mother and the man I thought was my father stayed together for 65 years until death did them part. Their ashes are interred together in the National Cemetery on Cape Cod.
I will go back to Alsace to visit my Kieffer “cousins.”
And the man who raised me is the man I will celebrate come Father’s Day.
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