If Lisa hadn’t used 23andMe, it’s hard to imagine how she would have ever known about Nelly.
Lisa hadn’t been searching for her. When she tested with 23andMe, Lisa was mostly just curious about the science of personal genetics.
“I was fascinated that the technology had advanced so far so quickly, and that I could get my DNA tested so easily,” she said.
A 47 year-old designer who lives in Durham, North Carolina, Lisa first heard about 23andMe in a Wall Street Journal article that ran a few years ago.
She thought the name was cool, but put off testing until a friend who’d used 23andMe convinced her to give it a try.
“On a lark, I decided to take the test,” Lisa said.
While she was still very interested in the science, Lisa was also curious about whether she could learn a little about her grandfather’s family. Her grandfather had been adopted, and raised by a loving and well-to-do family. He didn’t know and didn’t share much about his biological family with his daughter, Lisa’s mom. As a result that page of the family history was largely blank.
There was some speculation about his ancestry – that he was Irish – but nothing firm.
“I decided to take the test to either confirm or deny what little I knew,” Lisa said.
The speculation about having Irish ancestry was correct, but there were also some surprises, like having Balkan and Native American ancestry. Lisa’s biggest surprise was finding a close “DNA relative” she never knew she had.
“Within two days I got an email from a woman who matched as a second cousin,” Lisa said.
It was a lucky break because Lisa’s new found cousin was a gold mine of information, quickly filling up the blank pages in the family history.
“She opened everything up,” Lisa said.
Her cousin, a forensic genealogist, had pieced together her grandfather’s origins and the story of his grandmother, Lisa’s great grandmother Nelly Scofield.
Lisa learned that Nelly’s husband died and that she couldn’t care for her two young sons, forcing her to give up Lisa’s grandfather and his brother. The two boys went to different families, and were raised apart. According to Lisa’s cousin, many years later when Lisa’s grandfather was about 21, a man came to his work.
“I’m your brother,” the man said to Lisa’s grandfather.
He’d found his brother to tell him that he too had been adopted, that he had recently found their biological mother and that she wanted to see him. Instead of going to see his mother, Lisa’s grandfather told his brother to go away.
“He had a good life and a good family,” said Lisa.
That was the last contact the two had. Exchanging messages with her cousin, Lisa learned that the family had always known of her grandfather’s existence but they didn’t have a name. Lisa’s cousin also shared with her a newspaper clipping about her grandfather’s brother’s reunion with their mother, Nelly. And she shared more details about the family with Lisa, including their roots reaching back to a small island off the west coast of Ireland, and their love of music.
“It’s was amazing to learn what ancestral traits my grandfather had in common with his unknown relatives,” Lisa said.
And it wasn’t just his looks, but also his hobbies and talents, Lisa said.
“Who plays the Irish accordion when they don’t even know they are Irish?” she asked.
But for Lisa what was most powerful was what this connection meant for her mother, who will soon be meeting her cousins in person.
“She now knows, even if her dad didn’t, who his birth family was,” Lisa said.
And Lisa has advice for others considering using 23andMe.
“If you are even thinking about taking the test, do it.” She said. “ It’s anonymous and you don’t need to share anything, if you don’t want. But you never know what secrets are waiting to be unlocked and how your life might change just from spitting in a tube!”