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Uprooted, Again

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.

Cheryl (right) with Edward (left) and Edie (middle)
Cheryl (right) with Edward (left) and Edie (middle)

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.

Photos courtesy of Cheryl Whittle and the Barden family
Cheryl (left) and Roy (right). Photos courtesy of Cheryl Whittle and the Barden family

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.

25 thoughts on “Uprooted, Again

  1. I don’t really understand why people do these things. This story worked out well enough, but it could have worked out very badly indeed, given the superstitious excitement some people have about ‘blood’. If someone was not part of one’s life in the world, even by report, then it seems to me they’re totally irrelevant.

  2. What Cheryl’s story tells me is that each human being has a deeply felt need to know their correct, literal, genetic place in the world, and that means knowing the correct identity and family history of their ancestors. Every time gametes are donated and those ties are intentionally severed, a new human is born into the world who has been denied this basic right. In my own adult life, I have helped restore dozens of those connections. The results are almost always heartwarming and positive, although turmoil can also be an outcome. The reclamation of lost human rights is almost always a messy business, as women, minorities, and many others can readily attest.

  3. @anarcissie – are you adopted? is your family important to you? do you believe that we have genetic ties or similarities to our blood relations? and finally – do you not take on things in your life whenever you’re worried they’ll end badly? nothing risked, nothing gained.

    1. @Sarah — To me, like friend, relative is as relative does. The rest seems like astrology, a pale substitute for real character, action, and experience.

      Of course, if you look into people’s sexual histories, you’re going to come across some juicy soap opera, but at what cost when it’s publicized? Given that people make such a big deal out of it no matter how long ago and how far away it was and how little it affected anyone at the time.

      I won’t even go into the Facebookish total loss of privacy. Not everyone is okay with it.

  4. Hi Ginny:
    Thank you for my story in print! This morning my brother Tim Barden wrote to me, “Hey we love you little Roy Barden….lol..” I have finally found my place in the world, and I truly feel so very complete now knowing whose child I am, and where I fit in… I am truly blessed, and I give all the Glory to God The Father for bringing this truth to me and making it real! May God bless you, Ginny, as you have blessed me and others. All my love, Cheryl Whittle

  5. Hi Anarcissie:
    You are so right, it could have ended very badly indeed! However, I understood that I wanted to know “my truth”! I wanted to know why I had such a hard life, why did I feel so lost, left out, as though I didn’t fit in. I searched all my life, without even knowing for certain why I felt so out of place, or what I was searching for. And all I can say is, “But God…” I truly feel God has led me to these truths and answered my prayers, and my needs. No one else can know or understand this if they haven’t been in this situation. But when this was revealed to me through DNA, it answered many questions. True, the facts caused many more questions, but I am happy to say I have been blessed with the answers I needed, and the family I have been cheated out of for the past 62 years. My father, Roy Oscar Barden, was a wonderful, loving and kind man. I am sorry I didn’t get to meet him, and that he never knew about me as far as anyone knows. But I know that I love him and I do feel a distinct connection with him and my family. Even down to my step-mother, who has been nothing but kind and caring towards me since we met on Friday. I do thank you for your comments though, as we all have our opinions and thoughts. And many will not agree with the way I handled the situation. Most Sincerely,
    Cheryl (Barden) Whittle

  6. It’s not always about blood but your own desire to find your heritage. There is a different desire among different individuals. Those that are skeptical must feel they have something to hide. Why hide? We are human so get out the closet and tell your family and friends. You’ll love yourself later.

    1. I guess I’m a nurture-not-nature type; I think who you are is what you do and what was done for and to you, not who your remote ancestors were. Some of mine supposedly came over on the Mayflower; some may have been standing on the shore when they arrived. So what? The same must be true of millions of people.

      I would normally say, if it interests you, do what you want, but as many have pointed out, digging up and publicizing genetic lines can have unexpected and possibly destructive social consequences, and therefore may pose serious ethical problems. I suggest that people proceed with due caution. Very fortunately this present case turned out well, but you can’t count on luck every time around.

  7. What a delightful follow-up. I very much enjoyed the first, but the ending left me wondering about Cheryl and her family. Thank you for telling us about the new ending. I can completely understand why people do this. They want to know the truth.

  8. Anarcissie – there are all kinds of belonging – amongst them – knowing one’s biological roots and those relationships. For some of us who are adopted, learning our true histories does hold a great deal significance. Imagine being raised by people who are very different from you and how that might feel. Trust me – it can be very uncomfortable at times. You may also want to read up a wee bit on genealogy as you seem greatly uneducated in the area – and how it shapes us. These days science has shown that while nurture does indeed play a role, nature plays an equally important role. Try reading up on twins that were separated at birth and see how that changes your outlook.

    Some of us believe in truth – and that that is more important than what is “comfortable” and “lucky”. At the end of the day truth is what matters most in this life.

    1. @Sarah — Truth? Let’s see. If I could reveal to you the 1,000,000,001st digit of pi, would that make a lot of difference to your life? Probably not, even if it were true. Or, I could reveal to the world your social security, bank account and credit card numbers, your address and telephone numbers, employer’s name and address, and so forth. Think it might not work out well? What if I could find out and publish embarrassing facts about your private life? Most of us have some.

      It turns out (in my opinion) that some truth is irrelevant and some is destructive, at least when published. Our literature is full of warnings about truth, from fairy tales to Oedipus to Faust.

      I can’t say that twin studies have impressed me much. If we were so driven by our genes, we’d all be automata, and we’re not.

      I agree that adopted persons ought to be able to get the medical histories of their biological parents. A method for doing this has been proposed which wouldn’t violate anyone’s privacy. I don’t know if anything has been done about it.

  9. I shared Cheryl’s journey through an online forum for the past three years as we both searched for the identity of our fathers. Not only is her story amazing, but she has been (and continues to be) so supportive of others, going out of her way to provide advice and encouragement even when her own hopes were sometimes faltering.

    To Anarcissie, I would simply say that I respect your point of view, but it’s easy to underestimate the emotional impact when you find out that the identity of your own parent is a complete mystery. I would have thought that I was in your camp until it happened to me.

    In my case, I decided to reach out to my bio father’s family toward the end of my mother’s life (she had Alzheimer’s and I had a lot of time on my hands while caring for her at home). Long story made short, some of the family members asked for a DNA test and it turned out that I’m not remotely related to them. To say that I was stunned would be an understatement. At that point, it became as much a mystery to solve on an intellectual level as a need to fill on an emotional one.

    After 2 1/2 years of laborious research, false hopes and rabbit holes, I was really no closer to figuring out my father’s identity than when I started. Then this past April…the day after Easter…I logged onto one of the DNA databases to find a paternal half-brother match! It only took a day for him to respond. When I gave him my birth date and place, everything fell in place. His father was divorced and living in the same city during that time. He immediately emailed photos of our father and the next day we spent a couple of hours on the phone talking.

    Although my father passed away many years ago, I now have a very interesting extended family that is literally spread out all over the country, including four half-brothers and a half-sister. Although I’m told there have been no negative reactions, the response has been a bit more muted than with Cheryl’s family. I’ve spoken with two brothers and the sister, but the other two siblings have chosen to not connect. I’m excited that my oldest brother…the one who originally tested…is coming to visit me this Sunday and will stay through Tuesday. Growing up as an only child, the whole concept of having brothers and sisters is completely foreign to me. Although we obviously don’t have the memories of growing up together that siblings would normally share, it’s intriguing to think that I’ll be meeting a person who shares 25% of identical DNA with me. I can see a few physical features in common from the photos, but will there be any similar personality traits or tastes? Will we feel any sort of bond?

    Regardless of what relationships are formed with my new family, I can now echo the feeling of completeness and peace expressed by so many others who have found their lost family members.

  10. I am Cheryls’ sister known her all her life. I can tell you her life with our mom and her dad was not a happy one. She always took the back seat to all the good things. Mom married becayse she was pregnant and as bad a decision it was Cheryl paid for it. Cheryl is happy now and I am happy for her. As her sister I can say she is very happy now. I cant wait to sit down eith her and let her tell me all about her new found family face to face. It fantastic!

  11. Great story! It amazes me how often nature trumps nurture as evidenced by mannerisms Cheryl and Roy shared without having met. There are many positives that can come from knowing the truth, not least being knowledge of family susceptibility to various health conditions. Love this story!

  12. @anarcissie – I do think you still have more reading to do. Particularly regarding genetics and nature vs. nurture. Dogs might also prove to be a good case study for you – as their behavioral traits are also passed down — genetically!! Dogs are specifically bred for both their abilities as well as their personalities – b/c you know what – it can be done… Sorry if that freaks you out, but again – it’s the truth 😉

    Typical human reproduction is a bit more random than dog breeding of course 😉 But it serves to show a point – we have things in common with those who proceeded us and those things are passed down. Sorry if that stresses you out – but there is plenty of research to back that up.

    I’m sorry that you don’t empathize at all with adoptees – I’m going to take a leap and assume you’re not adopted 🙂

  13. “You must go to the past to find what awaits you in the future.”

    This story somehow contradicts the typical nurture theories that suggest it is the environment and not the genes what matters. Cheryl was feeling incomplete, until she had found the truth. From the story and her comments, I feel that she is a great person and I would never suggest that she made a mistake when she bought the genetic test. On the contrary, her story shows how necesary it is to seek the truth. I know that it will maybe sound stupid, but it reminds me of xmen somehow. The plot is perfect for a movie and I believe there are many more people out there who feel the same. Cheryl’s story could encourage them to find their true roots as well.

  14. I think genealogy is popular because of the same motivation to know one’s past. It’s stunning to find echoes of yourself in generations long past, and the quest satisfies a basic human instinct. It’s in our nature to hunt and discover, to leave no stone unturned, even when others tut, tut disapprovingly.

  15. Thank you for this story. I have found many strange twists; relatives we never knew about, children given up for adoption, etc., etc., in my genealogical searches. I have found bio family members of 2 of my adopted children. These 2 children seem to be more at peace with their adoptions now, unlike the one daughter whose family I still haven’t been able to find info for. Maybe some people don’t need to know their family details and connections, but based on the effects I have seen on my now grown children, I firmly believe that most of us do.

  16. Dear Virginia,

    I have been following your blog since i-can’t-remember-when and this is the first post of yours that had made me shed a little tear.
    Thank you for such a heartwarming story.

    Malc

  17. I am from NZ,I am a war baby,my father was a mixed race American,that is all I know for sure,I have searched extensively for him to no avail.
    I joined the genographic program to get as much information as possible,which I hope will help to fill the missing side of me.

  18. Interesting stuff. One thing that has struck me more and more in recent years is how much similarity there can be between relatives – not just physically, but in certain behavior patterns at the same time. I realize that this is old news to many of us, but I hadn’t really appreciated just how amazing the effect can be until we visited cousins on the other side of the world recently. It’s kind of spooky. “The spitting image” isn’t just in looks – when you meet a cousin who is more like a sister than the real sisters are, it’s astonishing. Genetics is very cool.

  19. Reminiscing back to the days when I met my Uncle Edward and Cousin Edie Barden. The fact that someone remembered my mother and her sister, and the relationships with Edward’s brother, Roy Barden, and friend, Perry Hinkle, was a true miracle. I am so thankful to God for carrying me through and to my beautiful Barden Family. And remembering too, the love and acceptance I received from my now known to be baby brother, Tim and his wife, Wanda Tim-Wanda Morris Barden . There are no words that are adequate to express my thankfulness for all they did to find the truth of our relationship, including testing Tim’s DNA and inviting me into their home, setting up a meet and greet with the family once results were in, and Tim’s many trips out with me to research. And the love and numerous acts of kindness Wanda performed including opening her home, fixing wonderful meals, and allowing me to become a semi-permanent fixture in her home during those days. I am reposting this article for some folks who are also searching. For all of this and so much more, I praise God for His Love, Mercy and Grace. To God be the Glory Eternally!
    1-14-2015

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