He may have seen his mother once before, but PJ Holland can’t be sure.
It’s a fleeting memory, one of his first. He would have been two or three at the time. He remembers watching two women crying and hugging each other near his room. He thinks one of the women was his mother. He remembers seeing the two women hold each other, and then they were gone.
So the first time PJ Holland saw his mother’s face, it was in a photograph. It was this August. He was 80.
The old black and white image of his mother had been taken long before his birth and he saw it for the first time only after spending decades looking for her. He, and his niece Marilyn Souders, would never have found his mother if it hadn’t been for 23andMe.
“One day I logged into his account and it said, ‘You have a match,’” said Marilyn, whose family took PJ in when he was 19, and made him one of their own.
“We spent so long looking,” said Marilyn.
PJ’s early life reads like a Charles Dickens novel. His mother, Agnes, grew up in South Dakota, got pregnant out of wedlock, and moved to Kentucky to have her son. She didn’t have the means to raise him herself and put him in an orphanage run by nuns. She hoped a good Catholic family would adopt him. She’d gotten a job in the laundry there so she could be near him, and would visit him regularly. But after a while an administrator stopped her from visiting because every time she left he would cry.
PJ and his niece Marilyn pieced some of his story together after years of collecting bits and pieces of information. Many, many years ago Marilyn had even gone so far as to organize a reunion of women who worked at the hospital where he was born. Although they had PJ’s mother’s name and were able to find some of those small details of his early life, Marilyn and PJ never were able to find his mother.
Marilyn even went so far as to send out letters to everyone with his godmother’s name who lived in Ohio, only to find out that she had died in 1935. Marilyn found his godfather, but he turned out to simply be the attending physician at the hospital where PJ was delivered.
“I tried so hard,” said Marilyn.
Then one day she logged onto PJ’s 23andMe account.
“This big pop-up comes on and said, ‘You have a first cousin match,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe this!’”
The match was with Cathryn Mudon, a 30-something aspiring actress in New York, who was identified by 23andMe as PJ’s, first or second cousin. (She is a first cousin once removed, meaning her father is PJ’s first cousin.)
Cathryn, who’d tested for health reasons after reading about Angelina Jolie’s breast cancer scare, didn’t quite get that this was a momentous connection for PJ.
“I didn’t understand the magnitude of it. I was like, ‘Oh cool. Neat to meet you.’ It’s such a distant generation that I didn’t think much of it,” Mudon told the Dallas TV station that covered his story. “And (Marilyn) was like, ‘You don’t understand. We’ve been searching for Agnes since 1970.”
It really went back much, much farther than that.
PJ had been looking his whole life. He was one of the few Depression era kids at the orphanage who didn’t get adopted. Many of them had been deposited in the orphanage because their families had fallen on hard times and simply couldn’t afford to care for them, but they sometimes visited.
On what the orphanage called “People’s Day,” relatives would come and see the children.
“All the orphans had people visit them on ‘people’s day’ except me, because there were no relatives,” PJ said.
By 12, considered too old to be adopted, PJ been sent to work as a farmhand, but he ran away and hid in the convent. They let him work there until he left at 16, when he lied about his age so he could join the Army. When he got out the Army, it was Marilyn’s family who took him in. They helped the then 19 year-old get a high school education and a job.
PJ’s life has been anything but tragic. He did find a family who cared about him. Marilyn knew him as “Uncle PJ.” He traveled the world, met and married a beautiful woman, the artist Vilma Isabel Gonzalez Cordova Holland, and succeeded in his career. But even after he retired and neared his 80s, PJ longed to find his mother.
Within a few hours of connecting with Cathryn through 23andMe, Marilyn talked to her on the phone. PJ eventually connected with Cathryn’s father, John, PJ’s first cousin. Cathryn and her father then made arrangements to visit PJ in Texas, bringing with them photos of his mother, but also of her brothers, sisters, and his grandparents.
When John first saw PJ in the airport he said he immediately saw the family resemblance. PJ saw more photos of his mother, Agnes, most of them for the first time. He also heard a little bit about her from John. The family hadn’t known about the pregnancy, and after leaving South Dakota, Agnes never went back. She became estranged from her family, periodically sending letters to her youngest sister Hazel, John’s mother.
There are still gaps in the story that PJ would like to fill. For one, they know that his mother moved to Cincinnati and may have worked at a school. She died in 1989. They found the apartment where she used to live and the church she attended, but Marilyn said they’ve been unable to find out more.
They still hope that PJ’s story might prompt someone to come forward who remembered Agnes and give them more information about her life.
“But we would have never found her without 23andMe,” she said.
23andMe provides genetic testing services for informational purposes; your results may or may not help you to search for or identify relatives or family members.