Emily’s is a true story, but some given names and surnames have been changed to protect privacy.
When Emily’s DNA results first came back, the suspicions began to churn. Her birth in 1950, 10 years into her parents’ marriage. Her mother Sara’s explanation, in Emily’s teen years, that they struggled with fertility; that they were in the process of adopting; that their first thought was cancer—not pregnancy—when they finally did conceive; that Emily was a miracle in more ways than one, born with white-blonde hair that never darkened to two raven-haired parents. An aunt who announced, at a family gathering when Emily was in her 40s, that ‘Everyone knows Emily was adopted.’ Sara denied it, but also stopped talking to her own sister.
You see, Emily’s parents were both Jewish, as were all four of her grandparents, but Emily’s ethnicity estimates from four different DNA testing companies agreed: genetically, Emily was only half Ashkenazi. At least one of her parents, it seemed, was primarily British.
What Was Going On?
Both of Emily’s parents have passed away, so she couldn’t ask them. Emily had several close DNA matches who are descended from her mother Sara’s siblings, so that part of her tree was not in question. Clearly, she was Sara’s daughter.
However, her father’s brother tested at Family Tree DNA and shared only 69 cM with her. What’s more, once the small, unreliable segments were filtered out, Emily and her uncle shared only 16 cM over two segments, an amount typical for unrelated Ashkenazim. Biologically, he was not her uncle.
Had her father, Leo, been adopted into a Jewish family? Was he not her biological father? Had her mother been unfaithful? Emily found the latter almost impossible to believe.
She thought back to her aunt’s comment decades before that she was adopted. Could she be the product of an early sperm donation? In 1950, no state in the USA legitimized donor-conceived children, even if the husband had consented to the procedure. Sperm donation was considered by many “semi-adoption.”
If Emily were donor conceived, who was her biological father?
A Blessing and a Curse
Being genetically half Jewish and half English is both a blessing and a curse for genealogy research. On one hand, the Jewish and non-Jewish sides (maternal and paternal, respectively, for Emily) are very easy to distinguish. On the other, the vast majority of Emily’s matches—75% or more—were on her Jewish side.
That didn’t leave us much to work with on her unknown paternal side. In fact, there were only two matches that we could link to one another initially, two first cousins, John and Susan, who were both grandchildren of an Ernest Hayes and Hattie Gibson from Reading, Massachusetts.
The challenge, though, was that John and Susan are first cousins to one another, but the amount of shared DNA suggests that they are second cousins to Emily. Emily could be related to them through their Hayes line or through their Gibson line. We had to research both.
The Reading Connection
Emily was born and raised in a western suburb of Boston, but the Hayes–Gibson family was from Reading, Massachusetts. That got Emily thinking. Her mother had had a dear friend from Reading, a man named Fred Watson, which whom she shared a passion for classical music. They spent a lot of time together listening to new or favorite pieces. Fred had even given Emily a book about musical instruments, inscribed “to Emily, already a person of note.”
Leo never objected to the friendship. Fred lived with his mother Ellen until she died, and Sara always assumed he was gay.
Could Fred have helped Sara and Leo conceive? Was it crazy to think that based solely on a tenuous tie to Reading?
Emily and I didn’t have to dig far to get our answer: Fred’s mother Ellen was a Gibson! Hattie’s sister, in fact. If Fred had donated sperm to conceive Emily, then Emily is a 2nd cousin to John and Susan, which fits the DNA well.
The best way to prove it would be to test Fred or one of his direct descendants, but he had died in the late 1970s with no known children. He did, however, have one brother, John, who had two living grandsons, Mark and Michael. If we were right that Fred was Emily’s biological father, then Mark and Michael would be Emily’s first cousins once removed and would be expected to share about 425 cM with her.
We explained the situation to Michael. He was initially suspicious of a prank, but when Emily sent him a picture of the handwritten inscription in the book, he agreed to take a DNA test.
It only took about 2 weeks for the results to come in. Michael shared 495 cM with Emily! Fred was, indeed, Emily’s biological father.
In the months since Michael’s DNA test, he has shared memories and photographs of Fred, and Emily has built out Fred’s tree many generations. As an only child, she finds it comforting to connect with a past she never knew she had.
Everyone who knew the people involved is confident that Emily’s is not a story of infidelity. It’s the story of a couple who desperately wanted a child and a caring friend who was willing to help. Fred remained a part of the family’s life until he died.
During the course of the investigation, a family story came out: Emily’s cousin Devorah recalled overhearing Sara tell her sister Irena (Devorah’s mother) how messy artificial insemination was, knowledge almost certainly gained the hard way.