By Andrew Todhunter
Thomas Johnson was curious. How much Native American ancestry did he have? A software developer and former US Army medic from Stockton, California, he grew up in the northwest corner of Indiana.
“Where I grew up, there’s a belief that everyone from that part of the country has some percentage of Native American ancestry,” he said.
Born in 1971, Thomas grew up with a single mom and never knew his biological father. Whenever he asked his mother about that side of the family, he got nowhere.
“I thought this was a mystery that I’d never solve,” he said.
A DNA Relative Match
In January of 2017, he bought a 23andMe DNA test kit, mailed it in, and waited. When he received the email that his reports were ready, Thomas logged in one afternoon at work. After opting in to 23andMe’s DNA Relatives feature, he learned that his DNA had matched with a close genetic relative: Edwina Kimble. A name he’d never heard before. The test estimated that Edwina was his paternal grandmother. There at work, staring at the screen, Thomas started to cry.
He immediately began to search for his grandmother online, and soon came upon her obituary. She had passed away less than two months before he submitted his DNA test, at age 94.
After decades without answers, the timing stunned him. “I just missed her,” he said.
Becoming a Baby Brother
He found the names of her six children in the obituary—one daughter and five sons. One of those men, he knew, must be his biological father. He soon found a cousin on his father’s side who shared a mutual friend. One connection led to another, and finally, he reached his grandmother’s descendants.
“The brothers knew right away I was Tommy’s boy,” he said. “They knew he had dated my mother, and they welcomed me right into the family.”
Thomas learned that he had an older sister named Charnell, who is four years older than him.
“She later told me she’d always wanted a baby brother,” he said.
Their father’s only children, Thomas and Charnell grew up in the same neighborhood. They went to the same private elementary school and the same high school, but the four-year age gap was just wide enough to keep them from overlapping. After he’d made contact, Thomas communicated almost daily with his family in Indiana. In their conversations and video chats, Charnell noticed that Thomas had the same laugh and many of the same mannerisms as their father, even though the two had never met.
“When I first called my Dad on the phone,” Thomas said, “we just laughed. Since then we’ve met in person… A few months ago, he called me ‘son’ for the first time.”
For her part, Charnell embraced her role as big sister. “She was all in my business about my love life,” Thomas said, laughing. “She was an only child and she told me, ‘I want nieces and nephews from you!’”
Getting Some Help Finding His Valentine
Charnell and their cousin Anita started matchmaking for Thomas remotely and set up a profile for him on a dating app for those seeking long-term relationships. At first, nothing came of it, but in July of 2017, he found Maria Vejar.
Maria had a beautiful smile and they shared many interests, including family, faith, hiking, and the importance of helping others. Thomas reached out, and Maria responded. They communicated online for two weeks, then moved to conversations by phone. When they first met in person, said Thomas, everything felt right. They grew steadily closer, and Thomas proposed at a 23andMe event called DNA Day. They’ve set the date for November of 2020.
“Maria is so giving,” said Thomas. “She’ll always do for others before she does for herself. I’ve never met anyone like her. She told me, ‘I haven’t known love like this, ever.’ And I feel the same way.”
A Growing Family
Maria comes from a large, tight-knit family in California, and has two children of her own—20-year-old Samuel and 18-year-old Mariah. In his new life with Maria, Thomas is gaining another big family he never expected.
And the curiosity about his percentage of Native American ancestry, that led Thomas to take the DNA test in the first place? Those results came back too. He’s only a fraction Native American, at 1.7 percent, but he has a doting older sister and cousins and nieces and nephews and a father he thought he’d never find.
“I still can’t believe it,” he said. “I just became an uncle twice, and I have three godchildren. I have family birthdays all over my calendar. When I was younger, more family was the one thing I wanted most that I didn’t have. When I joined the military, they became my family. Later, the church became my family. Now I have real family.”
And here on Valentine’s Day, he and Maria have each other.
Andrew Todhunter is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and lecturer at Stanford University. The author of three books, including the PEN USA Literary Award-Winning A Meal Observed, his journalism includes dozens of articles in publications such as National Geographic, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal.