Friday, September 23, 2016

Features I Want to See on AncestryDNA

I'm still trying to figure out the wonkiness in my family tree that I mentioned a few weeks ago.  I have it narrowed down to the right eighth of my family tree (based on deductive reasoning, since a significant number of DNA matches back up every other great-grandparent in my tree), possibly the right sixteenth (a gg-grandfather about whom I've found almost no information and whose wife has been backed up by more than one reasonably close DNA match).  I've found eight DNA matches so far who are descendants of the same mystery couple from the early 1800s.  They aren't on my family tree, but I think they are my ggg-grandparents.  I think one of their sons was secretly my gg-grandfather.  Ancestry would probably say the same thing if the family trees in question were linked to profiles and not just trees I'd drawn up myself from scratch.  Ancestry starts thinking it's suspicious when I have just three DNA matches whose trees overlap.

Here is some functionality I'd like to see on AncestryDNA that I think would make it a lot easier to solve my little mystery:

1)  In "Shared Matches," show me not just how much DNA I share with my matches but how much DNA those individuals share with each other.  23andMe recently implemented this feature in their "open sharing," and it would be super useful, if only more people participated in open sharing.

2) Allow me to search the DNA database by user name.  23andMe does this.  Or even just let me search my own matches by user name.  You can currently only search your AncestryDNA matches by searching for a surname from their family tree.  If you want to find someone who isn't a relatively close match and didn't link to a family tree, good luck finding them in your (in my case anyway) hundreds of pages of matches.

3) Allow me to search my DNA matches by not only surname from their tree but also by full name.  This would be very helpful when I'm trying to find people who have Joseph White in their tree and not just any random person named White.  Better yet, allow me the option of inserting their birth and death years too and/or locations, which is already what the Ancestry "shared ancestor hint" algorithm seems to function around.

4) Allow me to search my DNA matches by more than one surname.  23andMe does this.  Maybe I don't want to know literally everyone with Williams in their family tree.  Maybe I only want to know the ones whose trees contain both Williams AND Smith, regardless of whether those family lines intersect or not.  This feature would make it dramatically easier to find more DNA matches descended from that 1800s mystery couple of mine because I could search for his surname AND her maiden name.

I love AncestryDNA.  The fact that they allow users to link their family trees to their profiles makes it an easier service on which to find matches than on 23andMe or Family Tree DNA.  I can tell you how I'm related to over 200 of my DNA matches on Ancestry, largely for this reason.  HOWEVER, their search functionality is still the worst of the three of companies.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Time I Realized I Lived in THAT House

I had clues growing up that our house wasn't an admirable one.  I remember taking the bus home from elementary school and hearing a handful of children making fun of the house with the Christmas lights still up in spring.  It was my house, and they knew it as soon as I ashamedly stood up to get off the bus.  Dante had been allowed to climb onto the roof to trim the gutters with a strand of multicolored lights the previous fall, and neither he nor my mother had been keen for him to take them back down ("Why should we?  He'll just have to put them back up again in a few months").  There weren't Santas or reindeer or anything like I've seen up year-round at some homes, but we were out of date, and it was obvious enough for the other kids to laugh at without my ever having to invite them inside.

Our yard was unkempt.  A science teacher from the local middle school mowed our lawn in the summer months, once or twice a month.  It was how he made money when school was out.  At least once or twice that I heard of, the grass and weeds got so high that someone called the city to complain.  We didn't garden.  We didn't fertilize anything because, as my mother often said, "Why would I encourage the grass to grow?!"  I loved weeding the rock beds as a child, but my mother wanted Dante to do it, and he wasn't interested.  Sometimes I could convince her to give me $2 for my work since she'd planned to give Dante $20.  She complained that I didn't always get the entirety of the root and the weeds would come back.  "If you can't do something right, don't do it at all!" she'd say.  I think that's why our house so rarely experienced weeding or cleaning in the first place.  An all-or-nothing attitude toward cleaning and home maintenance is a great way to end up in a dilapidated building surrounded by garbage.

The time that really sticks out in my mind though was one of the times Dante totaled a car.  It was the white Camaro.  I didn't have a car yet, and Dante had already totaled at least one or two cars before the Camaro, so we were probably thirteen and twenty years old respectively, give or take.  Our mother had always given him a pass when he wrecked a car ("It was raining!  What was he supposed to do?") and the Camaro allegedly wasn't even his fault.  According to Dante's retelling, a woman had crashed into him turning left while she had a red light.  Other witnesses had said she had a green light and Dante was speeding, but as my mother said, "Dante still had the right of way!"  Regardless, his car was totaled, and the other driver was uninsured, so his insurance was covering everything that was going to be covered.  Dante also had to go to court.

Our mother was furious at both the other driver and the situation itself.  She insisted Dante's crumpled white Camaro be parked at the top of our circular driveway.  She took a large sheet of white poster board and wrote in Sharpie with her perfect penmanship, "This is the result of an uninsured driver."  She taped her poster to the side of the car, facing outward so it was legible from the street.  She seemed surprised and indignant when someone called the city to complain.  The city told her she couldn't do that.  It didn't matter if what she wrote was true.  It didn't matter that she was angry.  It didn't matter that it was "on her land;" it was a neighborhood eyesore.  In case you're wondering, we didn't live in a particularly nice neighborhood.  It was a middle class block of split-levels and ranches with two to three bedrooms each.  There were no Homeowner's Associations back then.  We had the largest, most expensive house on the block, as my parents liked to brag.  It just also happened to be an eyesore.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

My Cousin's Half-Brother Was Murdered

My cousin Ellie's parents divorced before I was born.  Her father was my uncle who got his high school sweetheart pregnant and then dropped out of high school at age sixteen to get married and take a steady union job (the only job he ever had, as far as I know) at the local steel mill like his father before him.  He had a cocaine problem as an adult and ultimately died of a heart attack in his fifties, a few years after the steel mill laid him off.  Her mother was my uncle's high school sweetheart who got pregnant with Ellie at age seventeen.  We all went to the same shitty high school in the same small town where we all grew up, albeit decades apart.

Ellie's mother went on to remarry, and that marriage lasted for the rest of her husband's life.  I didn't know this until recently.  She had another child too -- a son -- several years older than me but a decade younger than Ellie.  I hadn't known this either.  I only know this now because Ellie started posting on Facebook last week that he was missing.  She said he was 40 but, due to a car accident and traumatic brain injury, mentally closer to 12.

His body was found in the woods yesterday; he had been murdered.  I don't know the details, but apparently someone does because the police have already arrested two young men for the crime.  Their photos are in the news.  Their faces look like they were made for punching, and I hope they get everything they deserve.  I hope they are scared.  That's the worst thing I can imagine personally -- being scared and cut off from anyone who might be able to save or comfort me.  It's what I imagine most people would experience while being murdered.  I hope they feel it through a lengthy trial and a multiyear prison sentence.  I hope they can't live with themselves but have to for a really long time.  I've looked them up on Facebook, and they're both very much poor, uneducated white trash, so at least they shouldn't be able to buy their way out.  I don't think the currency of being a white male extends far when your victim is an equally white male.

It was when I was thinking all these thoughts that I realized I did know my cousin had a younger brother.  We went to elementary school together.  I met him once, but I had forgotten.  It was the time my mother and I were watching Ellie's daughter, Wendy, for a few days.  I remembered bringing her to school one morning while my mother was dropping me off.  I remembered being approached by an older boy and girl who inexplicably knew baby Wendy.  My mother told me they were Wendy's uncle and cousin.  When I asked if they were my family too, my mother told me no.  I was confused and disappointed.  I always remembered the cousin's name because it was the same as my own, but it occurred to me today that I remembered the uncle's name too.  I think he had been in fifth grade when I was in kindergarten.  If I could go back in time and watch events unfold, these are the sorts of mundane things I'd want to see again.  I'd want to know what else I missed, who else I met without realizing.  It was an awfully small world I used to live in.

His mother doesn't know yet that he's dead.  She's in the ICU recovering from surgery.  I met her once too when I was younger.  She was really nice.  She worked as a stagehand in the costume department for the US tour of Phantom of the Opera, and she showed me around backstage as a favor to my mother, even though we weren't technically family anymore.  I hope she's okay.  Ellie is having a hell of a time.

I don't understand murdering people.  I understand the allure of committing violence -- I've been made powerless too many times not to want to do it to someone in return -- but if your life is going badly and you feel worthless, I expect you either to learn to cope or simply to internalize it as a quiet shame like the rest of us.  You don't get to kill someone just because you feel bad.  And reading these murderers' Facebook pages, one of them appears pathetic and self-pitying to the point that -- had he not been a violent criminal -- I would have simply felt sorry for him.  He battles his weight, he doesn't have many friends, and his own father doesn't seem to care much for him.  The more I learn about someone, the more I tend to relate to them and the less I can be angry, but this piece of garbage person also killed someone who could not defend himself and whose family now has to live with the fallout.  He should kill himself.  If he were to kill himself, my only regret would be that he didn't do it before murdering someone who actually had friends and family who loved him.  (I kind of want to write that to him in a letter.)  The other murderer just sounds like a really stupid sociopath who is bad at not getting caught.  I understand feeling violent and wanting to hurt someone else.  It's what I feel about these murderers, for instance.  It's what I've felt when people have physically hurt or restrained me and made me feel powerless.  It's a horrible feeling.  I get it, and it doesn't ever go away completely.  And I have zero empathy for the people who act out their violence on others.  There are too many other options for that one ever to be acceptable.  Violence is the act of a despicable coward who cannot sit with his own feelings.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Memories from Childhood that Didn't Seem Weird Until I Said Them Out Loud

For as long as I have known her, my mother has refused to wear a bra inside the house.  Unless she had to leave the house, she wouldn't get dressed at all.  Her usual nightgown -- and subsequently what she wore unless she was heading out -- was an exceptionally large, polyester muumuu.  She had a collection of them, all in the same cut but different flowered patterns and colors.  She even bought a slightly smaller muumuu for me when I was a child, but due to its wide neck coupled with her tendency to shop a few sizes larger than I needed, I couldn't physically keep it from falling past my shoulders and off my body.

My mother had a few regular volunteer jobs she did each month, either at my school or at the county health department's Well Child Clinic.  She spent Friday mornings grocery shopping with her mother, and they spent every Wednesday together at Walmart, where my mother would buy several hundred dollars worth of paper goods, cleaning products that wouldn't be used, and dozens of small fad toys (think Koosh balls or Beanie Babies) that no one we knew wanted.  These were the times my mother got dressed.

When my mother got home from grocery shopping, she would be too tired to do much else.  I remember rushing to help my dad bring in the groceries when either it was summer or I was too young to attend full day school.  My mother would carry grocery bags to the kitchen too.  Then, as she always did when she returned home from somewhere, she would whip off her bra, settle in to the couch, and turn on the TV, while my dad and I put the groceries away in the kitchen.  My job when I was little was to hand each item to my dad out of the bags on the floor where he couldn't reach them from his wheelchair.  He would squeeze the vast amounts of new food we may or may not eat in among the rotting produce and meat left in the refrigerator from one week to the next.  The various bags of potato chips usually went in the white particle board dresser that had inexplicably been in the kitchen since before I was born.  The other boxes of junk food were mostly piled on top of the dresser, but I also remember them scattered over the counters, atop the kitchen table where we were theoretically supposed to eat but never did because it was buried under piles of food, and across the occasional flat surface in the dining room.  There was one piece of furniture in the dining room that always held the most Little Debbie snack cakes, but I can't remember what it was -- a bench?  A shoe rack?

I don't remember my parents cleaning out the refrigerator more than once, when the original, yellow, 20-year-old refrigerator stopped working and they had to replace it, though it might have happened a handful of times when I wasn't aware.  I don't know how old the junk food was, but I remember finding a box of moldy low-fat Twinkies in the dining room in the early '90s.  Something in the low-fat formula must have imbued them with the ability to mold.

After we put the groceries away, we would eat lunch in front of the TV in the living room.  Sometimes it was grilled cheese; sometimes it was hot dogs.  I usually drank milk while my mother nursed a 64 oz. cup of 7Up or Pepsi.  What we watched depended on the year.  My dad always had his own TV in another room, but the rest of us shared the one in the living room, so unless there was a particular show I followed that my mother liked enough to want to watch with me, we watched whatever she chose.  When I was in preschool it was All My Children at noon followed by One Life to Live.  At least one summer in the late '90s it was TLC's A Baby Story.  I remember complaining to my mother that it was hard to eat on my lunch break from my summer job while watching a woman give birth, but she refused to change the channel regardless of how many times she'd seen an episode.  There wasn't anywhere else in the house to sit and eat, so I eventually stopped coming home.

My mother's afternoons usually featured another nap, which usually meant changing out of the rest of her leaving-the-house clothes and back into a muumuu.  I say "another" because she slept off and on throughout the day and night with little regard for the hour.  If she had a regular sleep schedule, I never caught on to it.  She usually slept on the living room couch, though there were a few years in the late '80s when she tried to share Dante's room with him.  She bought him a set of bunk beds and a matching desk with the money that had been in his savings account supposedly earmarked for college.  The lower bunk was hers, she said, as was the desk, which she positioned in the already crowded dining room, opposite her old desk.  It was quickly buried under collections of pens, papers, old mail, and leftover Koosh balls.

Friday, July 15, 2016

I Am One of the Happy, Well Adjusted Donor Conceived

One of the things I find funny about the studies that survey how many donor conceived children are happy and well adjusted is that I'm one of the happy, well adjusted ones.  If someone had interviewed my mother at any point in my childhood or teen years (most of the studies gauge young children by their parents' assessments), she would have given them an honest and glowing portrayal of what a good kid I was.  I got very good grades, never got in trouble, never did drugs or drank or had sex or skipped class or snuck out or even really disobeyed.  I never received so much as a detention or a grade lower than a B+.  I had never seen a psychiatrist or a therapist and therefore had zero diagnosed mental issues.  I never lashed out at my parents with "I hate you" or used the knowledge that my dad wasn't related to me against him.  I didn't even tell him I knew.  I didn't express anguish at the loss of half my biological family or show even so much as a curiosity about them after my mother told me never to speak of it again.  I was a good kid.

I'm a happy, well adjusted donor conceived adult now, by my own admission.  I graduated magna cum laude from my university and then paid off my own student loans.  My ulcerative colitis went so far into remission that my doctor thinks I must've been misdiagnosed in the first place.  I am married and have a healthy, happy child, and I own my own home.  I don't do drugs, I eat well and work out and -- let's be honest here -- look pretty good, and I dress like I live inside a Lands' End catalog.  Anyone who only knew me from Facebook might think I'm a Stepford wife.  Even my therapist -- assuming she isn't being facetious -- expresses wonder at how I came to be so well adjusted.  I have all these things going for me, and I am NOT OKAY with anonymous donor conception.

I found my biological father, and I even have contact with my half-siblings.  I know my full family medical history and hundreds of years worth of genealogy.  I can think about being donor conceived without crying now; I don't have to shut it away in the back closet of my brain just to get through the day anymore.  But I am NOT OKAY with anonymous donor conception.

It makes me wonder what the other happy, well adjusted donor conceived people are like up close.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Time My Mother Tried to Keep My Cousin's Baby

When I was seven years old, my eldest cousin Ellie had a baby.  I had always been the youngest of the cousins, so I was excited for someone else to be the baby for once.  When Wendy was close to a year old, Ellie let my mother babysit her for a few days.  I'm not sure where Ellie was going or what she was doing, but she was still only twenty, a single mother, and needed some time off. 

My mother and I had a grand time taking care of Wendy.  I remember watching her eat dry Cheerios and playing with her and even showing her off at my elementary school when she and my mother dropped me off one morning.

Then Ellie came to pick her up one evening.  She was smiling and seemed excited to be reunited with her baby.  "I'm even twenty minutes early!" I recall her saying with a smile.   

"Twenty minutes early and a day late!" my mother retorted, my first clue that she was angry or that anything was wrong.  My mother refused to let Ellie in the house.  Ellie seemed bewildered and nearly as confused as I was.  My mother told Ellie that she was a day late picking up Wendy.  Ellie disagreed and said she had come back exactly when she'd said she would.  My mother got angry and insisted Ellie was late and unpredictable and an "unfit mother" (a favorite phrase of hers, as I recall).  Ellie demanded her baby back so they could leave, and my mother refused.  If anyone else was home while this transpired, I never saw them.  It was just my mom and Wendy and me in the house and Ellie on just the other side of the front door.  Ellie threatened to call the police, but I don't recall my mother's exact response beyond something along the lines of daring her to do it. 

It was the '80s, before any of us had cell phones, and my mother wouldn't let her in the house, so Ellie had to leave to get help.  She came back a little while later with two police officers who ordered my mother to hand over the baby.  My mother explained how my cousin was an unfit mother and that she couldn't in good conscience turn a child over to someone like that, at which point the police threatened to arrest her.  My mother decided that she could in good conscience turn Wendy over to the police though and they could hand her over to Ellie if they really wanted to, but she stressed that anything that happened to her after that would be on their heads and not her responsibility.  I recall one of the officers rolling his eyes as he accepted the baby and immediately passed her to Ellie. 

I don't recall what happened after that except that they all left.  Ellie didn't invite us to babysit again, but she if she held a grudge, she never let it show.  She brought Wendy over regularly for the large family birthday parties my mother hosted almost monthly until years later when they moved to another state.  I haven't seen either of them in person for years, but we're Facebook friends, as I am with most of my cousins.  Ellie is nearly fifty now and posts a lot about her weekends at the lake and her love of Bernie Sanders.  Wendy is my half-sister's age and has a family of her own.  We share old family photos from decades ago and laugh about how we looked.  I assume Ellie remembers that time my mother tried to keep Wendy from her, but I don't know if Wendy ever heard about it.  We don't talk about my mother.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

There's Something Wonky in My Family Tree

Warning:  This is long and might be completely uninteresting.  It's also hard to make it make sense without visual aids, so it might be nonsensical.

tl;dr:  I think my great-great-grandfather was either adopted or someone else altogether.

New Match
I got a new match on 23andMe not too long ago -- a 2nd to 4th cousin, the site said.  Since the user name said TJCapello*, it became my closest actionable (i.e., non-anonymous and as yet unsolved) match on the site.  I sent him the default "let's share DNA info and see how we're related" message, but -- as expected -- I didn't get an immediate response.  His profile was new and contained no additional information.

I looked up the initials and refreshingly uncommon surname and, taking into account that he was male, I found his full name and location online with a quick Google search.  I started drawing up a family tree for him based predominantly on his mother's obituary on (but also using, Facebook, FamilySearch, and Ancestry), and I was delighted to learn three out of the four of his grandparents were Italian immigrants.  I have only trace amounts of Southern European DNA myself and a tree filled with British and German names, so I focused my tree-building efforts on the non-Italian quarter of his ancestry. 

Then I got another new DNA match, even closer this time -- a 2nd to 3rd cousin, it said.  I quickly learned it was my previous match's sister (different surname, but Google knows all).  Whatever my relationship to her is, it's the same one I share with him, so I figured I should be able to find our most recent common ancestors in the great-great-great-grandparent range or even closer (thank you, ISOGG).

I built out the English-sounding quarter of the Capellos' family tree until it should have intersected with my own.  It even featured the surname Willis* like my own tree, and they lived in the Midwest, not far from another branch of my own family tree.  But I couldn't find any overlap, despite my own Willis branch of the family tree tracing back to the 1600s. 

I put this project aside for awhile, and I come back to it every so often.  This wouldn't be an easy one to solve like I had thought.  Either their family tree contains an error -- perhaps from an adoption or a non-paternity event -- or mine does.  Or maybe that mysterious branch of my family tree that ought to lead back to New York where my great-great-grandfather was born really doesn't.   

The Wonkiness
Recently I've started finding other DNA matches, on Ancestry this time -- all in Ancestry's "4th to 6th cousins" range, which tends to be a very loose estimate -- whose trees overlap with that same Willis branch that doesn't fit into my own.  I've found upwards of five matches whose trees overlap in the same place, making them all second and third cousins of the Capellos, though Ancestry hasn't put it together into a "hint" for me yet because I sometimes have to draw up the family trees myself based on less detailed trees or user names alone.  I appear to share about half as much DNA with those Ancestry matches as I do with the Capellos, which leads me to believe my family tree intersects with the Capellos' a generation more recently than it intersects with the others'.  But that leaves me confused.  Looking at their family tree, that means I'm descended from a Willis born in the early to mid-1800s.  I already have all those slots in my family tree filled.  I don't know how they could fit into my own tree.

That said, I don't believe any ancestor on my family tree is necessarily the right one until I have at least a couple separate (non-sibling) matches whose combined DNA and family trees support my data.  The more distant the ancestor, the less possible s/he is to confirm.  The more distant the cousin, the less possible s/he is to confirm.  I'm in contact now with some cousins so distant that the relationship doesn't even show up in our DNA anymore, and I only feel confident of the relationship because of overlapping family trees and mutual DNA matches within those same family trees. 

Logicking It Out
Here's the deal with the Willis branch of the tree in question:  It shows up in several reasonably close DNA matches' trees, so I assume it is how I'm related to them.  It's possible I'm wrong, but it's unlikely.  In order to fit it into my own tree however, something currently in my tree must be wrong.  First, I know the Willises are connected to my maternal side because my paternal uncle on Ancestry shares zero of those matches with me.  I also have enough known DNA matches at this point to draw the conclusion that several specific ancestors on my tree must be accurate.  I can verify my mother is my mother, I can verify her parents are my grandparents, and I can verify my great-grandparents too.  I have enough reasonably close DNA matches backing up my data that I feel confident about six of my eight maternal great-great-grandparents.  I even have an Ancestry "hint" that aligns another more distant cousin with ancestors of one of the two remaining great-great-grandparents (I feel less certain because it's only one match and a distant one at that).  That would leave Jack, my great-great-grandfather who supposedly came from New York. 

Jack is the brick wall of the mystery branch of my family tree.  I have no DNA matches to support him, and many hours of research have yielded no indication of who his parents were, which makes it exceptionally hard to find DNA matches that would support him.  His wife, my great-great-grandmother Emily, was from rural Illinois, within a 45-minute drive of the Willises.  According to census records, she was twenty years younger than Jack and had their first child -- my great-grandmother -- when she was 28.  They'd supposedly married two years earlier, but I have not been able to find a marriage record, though I found one for her first marriage easily enough.  Lots of my ancestors crossed state lines to marry though, so I'm not even sure where to focus my search.  Could Jack have been my great-great-grandfather but actually been adopted?  I would think this more likely if he didn't claim to have grown up in New York, over a thousand miles from the family to which I'm trying to connect him.  I could be wrong, but I don't think adoptees were moved that far from their birth families in the 1850s.  Could my great-grandmother have been a non-paternity event (NPE), meaning Emily was impregnated by someone who wasn't Jack?  If that is the case, I'm still not sure who my great-great-grandfather would be.  There isn't one specific "most likely suspect" in the Willis family tree, either based on DNA or based on relative age and geographic proximity.

Next Steps
My closest DNA match on Ancestry whose tree contains the Willis line has several matches in common with me.  A few of them also contain the Willis line, but several don't have detailed trees, nor are they related to the entire cluster of other Willis descendants, though they are related to each other.  My next step is to build family trees for the ones who don't have them yet, or whose trees only have a couple of names, which is most of them.  My hypothesis is that the ones who aren't mutual DNA matches with the Willis cousins will be related via an adjacent family line -- perhaps the Thompsons.  Thompson was the maiden name of my closest Willis cousin's great-grandmother.  If I'm right and they're connected via an adjacent family line, it would tell me which generation connects me to that family tree -- the generation containing both the Willises and the Thompsons (or whichever adjacent family surname) rather than an earlier generation.

In case you're wondering why I would put so much effort into something that matters so little, please understand THIS IS MY FAVORITE KIND OF PUZZLE.  I have been waiting for something like this to happen ever since I solved the "who is my biological father?" puzzle, which was at most a 4-star difficulty on Dell Logic Puzzles' 5-star scale.  I find few things as gratifying as solving logic-based puzzles, and solving this one will create an even bigger hint toward solving other genealogical puzzles, of which there are two more I've been working on for months.  I've written about Aida, but there is another one I haven't even mentioned yet (she self-identifies as Cherokee, but her DNA is 99% European), and the solution to this Willis puzzle will help me towards solving both of them via deductive reasoning.  In short, I'm doing this for fun.

*Not his actual name.