Total strangers, John and Rhonda have one thing in common, the same father.
The two made that discovery earlier this year after using 23andMe.
“Nobody knew about John,” said Rhonda, a 55 year-old marketer in Buffalo New York.
For John, recently retired and 67 who also lives in the Buffalo area, DNA testing was the only way he would have ever found Rhonda and information about his biological father. For both of them the test helped lead them to clues about their father and a tangled history of multiple families and an ongoing search for siblings spread out through generations and geography.
“I now have a printed family tree that takes three trees to show and is so long, it covers the top of two long tables,” said John. “(Testing has) been a positive experience for me and a healing experience for the family. I’ve been welcomed with open arms.”
Being orphaned, along with his half brother, from his single mom when he was just 10 had been so traumatic for John, that he blanked out all the memory of his childhood. He couldn’t even remember his mother’s face until a few years ago when he saw a photo of her for the first time. That had been out of sheer luck, after a mutual acquaintance connected him to his cousin and elderly aunt. John believes it may have been more than luck with a little help from his mother, watching from above.
It was his aunt and cousins who had the photo and tidbits about his mother. John and his family enjoyed a series of reunions in the US and in Italy over the past 5 years. His aunt also shared with John the one bit of information she had about his biological father, his father’s first name.
“There is no way I could have identified the family on my father’s side,” he said. “All I had to go on was his name was Marvin, and I only learned that a couple of years ago.”
But for both John and Rhonda using 23andMe to explore their ancestry changed not just what they knew about their families and their background, but their understanding about themselves.
John had thought he was Italian, but was “shocked” to learn he was half Ashkenazi Jew on his father’s side.
“I knew nothing about my father, I assumed he was Italian,” said John. “My mother’s family is Italian with roots in Sicily and Milan. I was raised Catholic.”
Learning about his Jewish ancestry, didn’t change his beliefs, but it did change his perceptions.
“It has made me more sensitive and curious of the Jewish faith,” he said.
For Rhonda, who was raised by a Jewish mother, learning about about her biological mother’s Catholic background put certain things about herself in context. It also raised a lot of “nature versus nurture issues” for her.
“I grew up as an only child, in a family that I was very different from,” she said. “I look nothing like, or act nothing like, my adopted mother or father.”
And then there was the connection she made using 23andMe to her biological family for the first time – not just to John, but also to a full sister named Trisha.
That connection with her sister was so strong that Rhonda wonders if there’s a chance that they might actually be twins separated and adopted out to different families.
“When I met Trisha, it felt like I was talking to myself,” Rhonda said. “The similarities were astounding.”
23andMe also helped Rhonda connect with her oldest living half-sibling, who is unrelated to John. She was one of the 2 children born to her mother when her mother was in an internment camp in Germany. It was that woman, Danuta, who gave Rhonda much of what she knows about her mother, including her mother’s history with Marvin and the other children she bore him.
All of Rhonda’s full siblings were adopted by other families, she said. At least two of whom she’s connected with through 23andMe. Rhonda discovered she has 5 full siblings and 6 half siblings, including John. And there could be more, she said.
Now both Rhonda and John are hoping that they will be able to connect with other siblings. They are aware of two sisters in Arizona.
“We are becoming acquainted with members of the family living around the country,” John said.
They have scheduled a virtual family reunion on Skype in a few weeks, but their search continues.
“I fully expect we’ll find others,” said John. “We’ll just keep looking.”