Note: Nearly all names and many identifying details have been changed for privacy.
Back in February, a Facebook friend request popped up in my inbox. I didn’t recognize the name, and when that happens, it’s usually creepy old men with dubious motives.
But this one made me pause. This was the same person who had friend requested me a few days earlier—I’d deleted it.
Here he was again, requesting to friend me. So I decided to check my ‘Other Messages’ folder, just in case. Sure enough, I had a message:
“Hi Lydia… my name is Jay and I was born in 1966 in Iowa City and was adopted six months later. My wife got me a 23 & Me kit for Christmas so I sent it in and your name came up as a possible second cousin. I’m sorry if this seems weird or if I’m intruding but I’m trying to find information to help me find my real family. I had a mini stroke on my early 30’s and now having children, it would be nice to find some family medical history. If you might be able to help that would be great, I know this is weird, and I’m sorry to bother you.”
I was dumbfounded. Second cousin is really pretty close, and I knew all of my second cousins. I had no idea another one was out there. But I was intrigued.
How the heck am I related to this guy?
In 23andMe, Jay and I were listed as “Second Cousins”. So he could either be my first cousin’s child (not likely given his age) or a first cousin to one of my parents. 23andMe could say with certainty that our shared ancestor was one of my great-grandparents.
But I had four sets of great-grands, so that didn’t narrow it down much.
I accepted his friend request and replied, and I’ll admit it, I was wary at this point. “Do you know how we are related? If I knew what side, mom’s or dad’s, I might be more help,” I wrote.
“I’m new to all this DNA stuff, so I don’t even know!” he messaged back.
I knew there had to be a way to figure this out. And I was determined to find it.
Let the investigation begin
In 23andMe I discovered a feature that lets you compare relatives.
Out of almost 1,100 people in my 23andMe “DNA Relatives” list, I personally knew just two. One was on my maternal grandmother’s side, and the other was on my dad’s side. I set about comparing Jay’s DNA to both of them.
In both cases, there were zero segments shared.
Bingo: A common ancestor
That narrowed it down quite a bit. Now I could say with certainty which set of great-grandparents we shared: my maternal grandfather’s parents. Their names were Lester and Velma and they had ten children. I started to narrow it down from there.
I knew he wasn’t a descendant of my own grandfather, because he’d have shown up as an uncle instead of a cousin. My grandfather had three siblings who were unable to have children. That left six remaining.
I discounted the women, since they all lived nearby and were married and having children of their own at the time of Jay’s birth.
That left just two of my great uncles. One (I’ll call him Uncle L.) had married and already had a large family by the time Jay was born, while the other, “Uncle Mack,” remained a bachelor his entire life (save for one short marriage in the 1960s).
Mack had to be Jay’s birth father, but I needed to find a way to exclude Uncle L. from the equation.
The adoption file
Luckily, Jay knew a little bit about his birth parents, thanks to some caseworker’s notes in his adoption file:
- His birth mother was living with her mother at the time of Jay’s birth
- His birth mother already had an older child who was between 2 and 4 years old
- His birth mother was twice divorced when she placed him for adoption
- The biological father was a man in his early to mid 30s who lived “on a neighboring farm”
- His birth mother had been reluctant to place the baby for adoption, but her mother had said she didn’t have the resources to support another baby
The age range for the biological father was enough for me to narrow it down without a doubt to Mack. But I needed a bit more proof before I’d be able to convince anyone else.
Spittin’ image: the photographic evidence
Then Jay sent me a photograph of himself. Perfect, I thought. I could compare his photo side-by-side with Mack.
Jay is 53 years old, so I tried to find a photo of Uncle Mack at around the same age to compare with. At first, all I could find was a picture of my great uncle from his time in the service. He was super young, about 19 years old, so the resemblance was impossible to discern. But then I stumbled across a photo of Uncle Mack in his 50s. He was balding with a gray mustache. I placed the two pictures side by side using a collage app.
I couldn’t believe it. Jay was his SPITTING IMAGE.
“I sent Jay the side-by-side photo. He responded a few hours later:
“It’s Jay here, just getting home…holy cow, that’s scary how similar the photos are.”
I was ecstatic. And pretty confident we’d found Jay’s birth father. I couldn’t believe it. Uncle Mack had A KID! One that nobody knew about in our huge rural farming family.
This. Was. Nuts.
But who was the birth mother?
Now for the next question: who was Jay’s birth mother? I was up for the challenge.
My own mother—and hell, everyone in my hometown—knew that Uncle Mack was a ladies’ man. He was handsome and financially stable, and if you could ignore his gruffness (okay, he could be an ass, even to me when I was just a little kid), I’m sure he seemed like a catch.
But how could I find a needle in a literal haystack of rural Iowa?
The neighboring farm theory
The “lived on a neighboring farm” comment from Jay’s adoption case file was where I decided to start.
I asked my mom if she could remember who lived near Uncle Mack’s place. Her memories were fuzzy—she was just 14 years old when Jay was born. But she had a couple of ideas, and she started helping me to research them.
It was tough going. We weren’t sure of anyone’s first names, and we googled every combination and spelling of the names that we could think of.
After two days, we’d made zero progress, so I decided to ignore the labyrinth of the interwebz and get some firsthand information.
The farmer who lived just north of Uncle Mack’s farm was still alive and kicking, and happened to be the grandfather of my high school classmate, “Don.” I shot him a quick message on Facebook, explaining what I was investigating, and asking if he could inquire with his grandpa about neighbors back in the 1960s. I explained that I was looking for a young woman of childbearing age, living with her mother, with an older child already.
A few days later, a message landed in my inbox from Don. His grandpa couldn’t think of anyone, but he was fairly certain he remembered that Uncle Mack and his short-term wife, Glenice, had gotten pregnant while married.
They’d lost the baby at birth, he thought, or shortly after.
BINGO. The smoking gun we’d been looking for.
The Glenice theory
Glenice became the focus of my search. My mother couldn’t remember Glenice having an older child, but she wasn’t sure. Glenice was difficult to track down on the web, because she married more than five times.
Slowly but surely, I started to locate digital traces of her, including the obituaries of her siblings and parents. The obits included a lengthy list of surviving family members.
Using the obits and a few other newspaper articles as a starting point, I started to create a list of surnames associated with Glenice’s family.
When I had amassed about 20 surnames, I logged into Jay’s 23andMe and pulled up his list of DNA relatives. (Jay was such a nice guy and trusted me from the get-go… it’s one of the reasons I knew I had nothing to fear by communicating with him. He trusted me so much that he happily gave me his login and password so I could check relatives without waiting on him. To me, that said a lot about his character.)
You can put a name into the DNA Relatives search and 23andMe will look not only for relatives with that surname, but it will also search the “associated surnames” provided by each person. For example, on my own profile, I added my surname, my mom’s maiden name, and the maiden names of my grandmothers as far back as I could remember.
After typing the list of names associated with Glenice into 23andMe’s DNA Relatives search on Jay’s profile, I clicked SEARCH, waiting anxiously to see how many would match.
ZERO. A big fat bupkus.
I had hit a dead end. It wasn’t certain, but it seemed pretty likely that Glenice wasn’t Jay’s birth mother.
But how in the hell would I figure out who was?
The “Maybe Uncle L. Knows Something” theory
I didn’t want to go back to the “nearby farm” theory, because my mom and I had realized that while we could easily find out who owned property, it was much harder to figure out who actually lived there.
I decided to make a last-ditch effort—one my mother wasn’t very happy about. I was going to call one of Uncle Mack’s surviving siblings and ask for information.
Uncle Mack still has three surviving siblings: two sisters, both of whom are suffering from dementia, and a brother, the aforementioned Uncle L.
I knew Uncle L. and his wife had recently moved to a care facility, but I wasn’t sure how to contact them. I messaged one of his granddaughters, a sunny gal who’d always been one of my favorite second cousins. She said if Uncle L. didn’t feel like talking, he’d just tell me so, but she thought he’d be happy to help if he could.
The next day, she sent me his number. I decided I’d call Uncle L. as I was leaving work the next evening.
I interrupted dinner when I called (it was 4:30pm, lol). But despite my intrusion, Uncle L. was kind and willing to talk to me. I explained briefly why I was calling: his brother had fathered a child back in the 1960s and we were stumped on who the birth mother might be. Did he remember Glenice and Uncle Mack getting pregnant while they were married?
Uncle L. chuckled. “Oh, no, not at all. If she’d have gotten pregnant, she’d have made them take it out of her. She didn’t want children.”
My heart sank. Glenice was a dead end.
“But there was a woman who claimed she was pregnant by Mack,” Uncle L. said.
My breath caught. “Really? Do you remember who it was?”
Uncle L. thought a moment. “Well, no, but she was a Seater woman.”
The surname Seater is one I knew, a name that had been around my hometown my entire life.
“You don’t happen to know her first name, do you?” I asked hopefully.
“Nope. I didn’t know her, so I don’t know her name.”
I was about to thank Uncle L. and bid farewell when he added something more: “But she was Earl Seater’s sister.”
That was enough for me to work with. I thanked Uncle L. profusely and released him back to his dinner.
Searching for Earl Seater’s sister
When I arrived home, I could barely stand the anticipation. I went straight to my laptop and logged in to Jay’s 23andMe.
I pulled up his DNA Relatives list and typed “Seater” in the surname search.
Jackpot: there were four DNA relatives associated with the surname Seater.
HOT DAMN—I was on the right track!
But I needed more. A true smoking gun would be a tie between Seater and one of the relatives at the top of Jay’s list. His closest relative in 23andMe, just below my name, was a very unique name: “Shep Beaty.”
Shep and I shared no DNA, so I knew the name Beaty came from Jay’s birth mother.
My husband handled dinner and kept the kids busy while I rolled up my sleeves and settled in for a massive amount of Googling.
His name is Earl
I started with Earl Seater—I needed to find his sister. I searched every combination of Earl’s name and my hometown, but came up short. I even called my grandmother and asked her to check her high school book (a list of all graduates from my hometown going back decades). I told Grandma we were looking for a woman with the last name Seater, probably born between 1938 and 1942. She said she’d call me if she found anything.
A half-hour later, I was still coming up with nothing on Earl Seater, when it dawned on me: the Seater family farm was halfway between my hometown and the county seat, Centerville. What if the family didn’t go to my high school? What if the whole family attended school in Centerville?
I restarted my Googling, this time with “Earl Seater + Centerville.”
Ninety seconds later, I had unearthed Earl Seater, buried in the “survivors” section of his mother’s 1975 obituary.
Earl’s mother’s name was Mary—and here’s the best part—maiden name Beaty.
I was flipping out.
This told me was that I was getting closer, but I wasn’t close enough. I needed to identify a birth mother.
Mary Seater’s obituary, luckily, listed Earl’s three sisters: “Carla, Mary, and Kathy.”
All three were listed as “Mrs. [Husband] (wife’s name) Surname”, which I found thoroughly annoying, but it was 1975. Different times back then. Yet it was helpful, because I was more likely to find mentions of the husbands on the web versus the wives.
Even better, the obit included the city where each sister lived. All three lived in Centerville.
The Seater sisters
I started sleuthing on the Seater sisters, starting with Kathy, who appeared to be the youngest. Her married name, “Tuscan,” was more unique than her sisters’, and would be less likely to be confused with randos during a web search.
I quickly discovered an obituary for Kathy’s husband, “James Tuscan.” He’d passed away in 2007 at the age of 68. I did some quick math; he was born in 1938. Assuming Kathy was near him in age, this fit well with my guess of 1938 to 1942 for Kathy’s birth year.
The obituary contained some other clues that made me think I had the right sister. James and Kathy married in October 1968, two years after Jay was born, in Tijuana, Mexico.
(While I couldn’t say for sure, I thought Tijuana sounded like a likely location for a third wedding. Maybe?)
In the list of survivors for James were three children: a daughter, “Dottie,” with a different last name; then two sons, “Herbert and Bobby Tuscan.” It wasn’t a slam dunk, but Dottie being listed first fit with my theory that she could actually be his stepdaughter, and was the older sibling Jay was looking for.
The Tuscan clan
A short while later I’d discovered the birthdates of all three of James Tuscan’s surviving children.
Dottie was born in 1963, while the two boys were born between 1968-1970. The timing matched up: Dottie would’ve been three when Jay was born, and the adoption caseworker notes said that the birth mother’s older child was “three or four” at the time of Jay’s birth.
It all added up: Kathy Tuscan was Jay’s mother, and Dottie was his big sister.
Good news bears
The best part of all was calling Jay with the good news.
“Jay, I FOUND THEM.”
“You found who?!” he exclaimed. “My sibling? My birth mom?”
“ALL OF THEM! Your older sister. Your younger half-brother. Your mom. Everyone,” I said.
I couldn’t believe it.
“Holy crap, Lydia,” Jay said, out of breath. “You did all this in eight days.”
My 23andMe mystery, solved
I was flying high for days after my discovery. To be part of helping someone find their roots was one of the best feelings I’d ever experienced. Jay’s elation at finally knowing exactly where he came from… it was contagious.
When I thought about what had happened, I had to smile. Unsuspecting Jay received his DNA results and decided to reach out to this “Lydia” person at the top of the list. Little did he know that I was the kind of person who would take a challenge like this and not only run with it, but sprint.
(It was also a welcome distraction from my dad’s recent confirmed diagnosis of ALS. I really, really needed something else to focus on at that moment, and it was a blessing to have a project.)
He had no way of knowing that I pride myself on being able to find out things about people using the web… and that I speak Google (OK that’s a joke, but I do seem to innately know what to put into Google to produce the exact result I want, and my husband is constantly frustrated by his inability to perform the same trick).
And little did he know that I have always wanted to be part of one of those fantastic 23andMe stories, where long-lost family members find each other.
I have my own 23andMe mystery story to tell now, and best of all, I have a new cousin to show for it.
Welcome to the family, Jay. <3
Introducing Jay to the family
In the four months since this discovery, I had a chance to meet Jay: my sister, my mother and I spent time with him when he and his son drove five hours from St. Louis to Des Moines, Iowa to attend an ALS fundraiser with us.
My mother is the closest relative Jay has ever met (a first cousin), and it was such a fun day.
Jay’s a super genuine guy and very kind—exactly what I expected after our phone conversations.
The rest of the extended family—including the 30 or so first cousins Jay hasn’t met yet—is still warming up to the idea, though one or two have been openly hostile about it. They think that since “Uncle Mack didn’t want nothin’ to do with him,” they don’t want anything to do with him either. *sigh*
There’s suspicion among some family members that Jay’s motives are financial. Uncle Mack had a large estate, and even though it was long ago disbursed to his heirs, some are concerned that Jay could still cause trouble for the family. We’ve tried to reassure them: that’s not how adoption works, Jay has no claim to Mack’s estate, and he couldn’t get any money if he tried. They’re thus far unconvinced.
Jay has been very forthcoming with us that he has no desire to cause problems, doesn’t want a dime from our family or Mack’s estate, and only wants to learn about the little Iowa town he comes from.
It’s my hope that my family will cast aside their doubts and embrace Jay, even if only long enough for him to meet them and learn more about his roots.
Here’s hoping. 🙂
*Nearly all names and many identifying details have been changed for privacy and so I don’t get disowned by my more conservative family members. 🙂