Not everyone who tries 23andMe has the same sort of reaction to his or her results as Barbara Weir.
“It’s mind boggling,” said the 87 year-old who lives in San Diego. “Next to marrying my husband and having my children it’s the most exciting thing in my life. It explains so much about me – who and what I am.”
With the help of her daughter, Casey Spaccarelli, a doctor who lives in Chicago, Barbara not only found out that she’d been adopted – something she’d never known – but she also connected with and then met her half brother in person.
“One of the big things for me is that it explains so much,” she said. “Looking back I was nothing like my family. We had different aptitudes and interests. I remember my sister once telling me ‘we’re not alike at all.’ I wanted to be like her and my family, but I just wasn’t.”
The revelation that she’d been adopted and that she had biological family, including a half brother, who had lived in the Boston area, didn’t happen all at once. It started with a lot less drama, with Casey deciding to create a family tree and look at her ancestry. She tested first with another company.
“I did it for fun,” she said. But very quickly she discovered a lot about herself that didn’t match what she had always been told. For one, she has about a quarter Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. “No one in the family knew of any Jewish heritage, only German,” Casey said.
Eventually Barbara tested and it turned out that she has about 50 percent Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. Casey tested with 23andMe thinking that perhaps the result was a mistake. It wasn’t. So she had her mother and her mother’s sister, Nancy, test on 23andMe. Her mother’s results confirmed the Ashkenazi ancestry, but her mother and Nancy didn’t have any overlapping DNA. They weren’t biologically related, according to the test.
“So I told my mom, ‘I think you may have been adopted?’” Casey said. “And she just said, ‘Oh I don’t know, maybe,’ and left it at that.”
But Casey wanted to figure this out. Fortunately she found a close relative connection in her 23andMe results with a name she didn’t recognize. So Casey contacted him. His name is Steve and she told him a little bit about herself and asked if he had any family in the Boston area, where Barbara had been born in the late 1920s.
“He said ‘my whole family is from Boston,’” Casey said.
He was open and helpful. Steve also had a lot of family history that he was willing to share with Casey, names and dates. That all became very important for Casey, who, by triangulating information, figured out that Steve’s grandfather Karl was also likely to be her grandfather, and Barbara’s father. Fortunately Steve’s uncle Marvin was still alive and they decided to talk to him.
“That got the ball rolling,” Casey said.
She knew they were close to solving this mystery. After looking at a few high school photos of Marvin and his sisters, Casey was pretty sure she’d found her mother’s biological family. A few weeks later Marvin, who grew up in Boston but now lived very close to Barbara in California, tested with 23andMe.
He turned out to be Barbara’s half brother. The two arranged to finally meet. In photos they look remarkably similar with the same slim build and smiles. “I’d never seen anyone who looked like me before,” said Barbara, surprised to be able to see family resemblances in her new-found brother and in photos of her sister. Marvin’s father, Karl, had been a successful business owner in Boston, who had emigrated from Russia. He had a big family – Marvin, who is a year younger than Barbara, was the last of the family’s six children.
Casey still doesn’t know the circumstances of Barbara’s conception, only that she and Marvin have the same biological father, but different mothers. Barbara’s parents lived in Boston at the time she was adopted but later moved to Nashville where she grew up.
“So my mother found out she was adopted at 87 years of age,” Casey said. “It had been this huge family secret only known to her adoptive mother and the secret had died with her, until now. Until 23andMe.”
Even learning this so late in life was hugely important for Barbara. Things she wasn’t sure about in the past suddenly made sense.
“It’s amazing to learn this all at my age,” said Barbara. “I finally found out who I am.”