In the fading black-and-white photo Diane Silberman Berger is about four years old and walking next to her mother along a sidewalk in downtown Spokane.
Taken by a street photographer in the late 1930s, the picture shows Diane holding tightly to her mother’s hand as they talk. It’s one of the few reminders Diane has of her mom.
“My mother died when I was nine years old,” she says holding the edge of the snapshot.
A profound loss, but it was made that much worse because Diane also lost complete contact with her mother’s family – all the aunts, uncles and cousins who made up some of the happy memories of her early childhood.
Despite decades of trying, Diane was never was able to find her mother’s family and reconnect.
Eventually, Diane gave up looking, thinking that perhaps that connection was lost forever.
Then one day her daughter looked at her 23andMe results, and that 70 years of longing to find her family ended.
“It’s just a miracle, it’s an absolute miracle,” said Diane. “I cry tears of happiness all the time now.”
Diane’s story starts back in the middle of the Depression, when her mother and father were forced to move the family from their home in Connecticut to Washington State for a job. Diane’s mother had a big family, and Diane remembers visits with her aunts, uncles and cousins. Her mother was close to her siblings, but when her mother died suddenly in 1941 Diane lost contact.
The reasons were in part because of geography, but also because of the war and because Diane’s father remarried. Diane loved her stepmother and she had a stepbrother with whom she was close, but she said she always felt that something was missing.
“People who have family don’t know what this is like,” Diane said, “(but) I sort of felt like an outsider sometimes.”
Starting the Search
As an adult Diane started searching for her mother’s family on her own with the information that she had. It wasn’t much, a name of one of her uncles, Sam Kaplan.
“Over the years we hired detectives and genealogists to try to track the family down but my mom had so little information, we eventually gave up,” said Diane’s daughter, Barrie.
And that would have been it if Barrie hadn’t tested with 23andMe. An early adopter, Barrie had tested out of curiosity. It had been awhile since she’d looked at her results when in 2014 she logged in, and noticed she’d gotten messages from someone inquiring about a close relative match. Sending messages back and forth, Barrie and her close match – Bram Boroson –tried to figure out how they were related.
Bram, who is a physics professor, said he signed up mostly because he was simply interested in getting a DNA test from a scientific point of view.
“Only later did I find out about this whole social aspect of it,” he said. “That you could be connected with people who are related to you. ”
It fascinated him. And seeing the connection with Barrie, who is a first cousin once removed, made him want to know more.
“I just saw that there was someone out there who was sharing, you know, more chunks of DNA than anyone else,” said Bram.
So he reached out. He and Barrie began exchanging bits of information trying to learn more about their family connection. They told each other a little bit about their family histories, where family members had lived over the generations. It’s when they shared some of their family names and Bram mentioned the name Kaplan that Barrie’s heart skipped a beat. She called her mom.
“What was your mother Martha’s last name?” Barrie asked. “Kaplan.”
Barrie didn’t want to jump the gun. She wanted to be sure. She got some more information from Bram and learned from Bram that his mother’s maiden name was the same as her grandmother’s maiden name. Then she talked to Bram’s mother, Rebecca who remembered her father talking about Barrie’s grandmother, Diane’s mom. That’s when she knew, said Barrie. She called her mom.
“Are you sitting down?” she asked. “I found them.”
Diane was overwhelmed.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
Barrie was sure, and she walked her mother through the connections. She told her mom what Rebecca, Diane’s first cousin and Bram’s mother, had said. Rebecca had said that her dad described Diane’s mother as his “favorite sister.” And Diane and Barrie learned that during all those years, it wasn’t just Diane who was looking for her mother’s lost family; they were looking for her too. Rebecca’s sister Miriam tears up when she talks about it.
“My sister and I grew up knowing that we had people in Seattle, or in Washington State,” Miriam said. “We only knew that my father told us that his sister Martha had a child before she died.”
Comfort in Knowing
But they didn’t know how to find Diane. Hearing all this helped Diane. Diane also learned more about her mother’s family and she got to see photos of her mother and her mother’s siblings. She was so young when her mother died that she actually didn’t know for sure how many aunts and uncles she had. It turns out her mother had six brothers and sisters. And they each had children of their own, who are now spread across the country. The oldest first cousin is 87, just a few years older than Diane – the youngest, a 22 month-old second cousin. Barrie said she’d always thought she had a small family.
“But I guess I was wrong,” she said. The “Kaplan Kin” set up a Facebook page to connect all the branches of the family and then in November of 2014, just before Thanksgiving, they gathered in New York City. They invited Diane and Barrie to come.
“It’s not really a reunion for us, but a union because we were meeting for the first time,” said Barrie. Diane and Barrie met Bram, his mother Rebecca and Miriam, Rebecca’s sister.
The Kaplans welcomed Diane, Barrie and extended Seattle relatives into the family.
“That desire for a connection was there but without the DNA it wouldn’t have happened,” said Bram.
At the cafe in New York where they met, the family members sat and talked about their parents and grandparents who had long ago passed away. They tried to fill in the some of the gaps in the family history, mapped out the family tree and took snapshots of their own. For Diane who had yearned for so long to reconnect with her family, it was a miracle of science.
“We have this family now, this big welcoming family,” she said.