Everybody has Two Family Trees


Everyone has two family trees. One is a paper trail tree. That tree lives in documentation, court records, land ownership, family bibles and the almighty census. The other tree is a genetic tree, built from the DNA of your ancestors that lives on in you. The two trees may or may not coincide for various reasons.

That bit of insight comes from the DNA Newbie forum which I recommend for anyone who is interested in genetic genealogy.

If you’re feeling down about your genetic genealogy searches and are looking for some moderate good news on that front to keep you going, these next two posts are for you.

First up, I need to go over some back story that I’ve been walking around poking at in posts, but don’t think I’ve directly tackled in the past.

I’ve spent most of the years in this online diary discovering, researching and documenting the divide in my paternal Thompson family between the Michigan branch and Indiana branch of our paper trail tree. As it turned out, although our papers are in order, the Michigan branch has a different genetic tree beginning with my grandfather and an NPE in Illinois. So, we’ve been Thompsons for less than 100 years and genetically at least, we are not related to the Thompsons from Indiana.

I’ve mentioned in autosomal DNA posts that there is another speed bump in the Thompson genetic road. This one belongs to my aunt who, genetic testing at 23 and me showed, is also not a Thompson and not even an Elmore/Thompson like the rest of us.  Just like in the case of my grandfather, I could show that she was related to her mom, but not her dad. Unlike my grandfather, I haven’t had Y DNA to give me any clues.

Sorting out an NPE for my grandfather in 1925 was a years long, difficult process that was uncomfortable and unacceptable for a lot of people, starting with me. Sorting out my aunt from 1947 has been bitter and lonely work.  I often find that the stone walls around her information are built higher and stronger and that the participants in the conspiracy to hide her ancestry are more willing to conspire by being less willing to help.

In the spirit of “never quit quitting”, I’ve dropped any serious research on my aunt’s paternal family for months at a time while waiting for the disappointment and anger to wear off. I’ve quit over and over again. Of course the quitting is a double edged sword because my aunt is dying from kidney disease. Time wasted on lies, stonewalling and misdirection or on being sulky and frustrated by these things is that much more painful. The clock really has been ticking on fulfilling her really basic request for summary directory information that most people take for granted.

As per usual, we’re down the NPE rabbit hole of genetic genealogy and, as the Mad Hatter said, we need to begin at the beginning.


The 23 and me test is how we discovered that my aunt is my father’s half sister. By WE, I mean everyone but my aunt. She already knew and the test was, for her, a way to learn more about her biological family. It was not the first test she had run, but twists of fate and human emotion would keep the results of that first test in the shadows for most of us.

As I look back here, what you have to realize is that this is information we’ve put together over the last couple of years.  Some of it came in fits and snatches of conversation.

My aunt was born in June of 1947 so for genetics, 1946 is the important year. Fall of 1946. 1946 is of course, then, important for my grandmother, so important and scary that it must be hidden forever.

If you read my grandmother’s obituary, you would see this:

Daughter of Lloyd and Mae (Campbell) Seelye. She married Charles Paul Thompson on April 5, 1946 in Rushton, Ind.

It’s quick, concise and a fabrication. It’s part of the machinery put in place to protect the family. It should read April 5, 1947. A couple of months before my aunt was born. The real information on their wedding was easily found at ancestry.com (including the original document from Indiana), but the narrative is so pervasive that most family trees ignore the actual documentation even when using it as a source.

My grandparents are not the first people to have a “shotgun” wedding rushed because of out of wedlock pregnancy, but our story is more complex now that we know that Charles Thompson is not my aunt’s biological father.

I’m going to pause a moment because when I talk about conspiracy and machinery put in place for protection it really sounds like an indictment. Hind sight makes me want to avoid that. I prefer to think of my grandmother in much the same way as my great grandmother, Orvetta Finks. Not a saint by any means, but a regular woman living in a time in the U.S. when there were harder and fewer choices and less honest ways to deal with unwanted pregnancy. Humans did then exactly what they do now, but society could not live with the truth of human sexual needs and reproduction or rape or incest. Society was kind of a pussy then now that I think about it.

I believe my grandmother made the choices she could make and began constructing the machine that still tries to protect us from the really quite mundane truth all these years after she has died.


A Tale of Two Nurses

My grandmother was a nurse. This again from her obituary matches the story I heard growing up:

She graduated from the Hurley School of Nursing in Flint and had worked as a registered nurse at Hurley Hospital, Flint Osteopathic Hospital. 

My grandmother was at Hurley in 1944 as a cadet nurse in the Women’s Army Air Corps. Her graduation date is listed as March 1947 she marries my grandfather about a month later and two months from giving birth to Cheryl.

Hurley dealt with Polio, which is what paralyzed my grandfather. I have been told that my grandmother was my grandfather’s nurse when he was being treated for polio and that is how they met. Although Hurley looms large as a location for her given the timing and her training schedule, I don’t have a lot of records for her in 1946.

My aunt followed through with her own run at nursing school. It’s the nursing school that leads to the next oddity and the reason my aunt already knew something was up. Blood typing.

What my aunt has said is that she typed my grandfather’s blood and her own blood for school and found that he could not be her father. She talked to my grandmother about it and my grandmother told her that she had “done it wrong”.

There in the shared experience of nursing is the seed of doubt set between mother and daughter.


Some Old Guy

Keep in mind, this is my perspective. These are things I’ve been told.

At one family event or another, my aunt is pulled aside by a family member who tells her that her father…is not really her father. When this family member is pressed on the identity of the father she says “some old guy”. Not exactly helpful. Since my grandmother worked for various county health organizations and hospitals, the idea is that it’s some old guy she was taking care of.

I don’t know if that is the case because clearly she was still in nursing school in 1946.

What is important to me here is that the relative is not in this game to be helpful. There is no real information passed along that is of use. This exchange is likely meant to cause pain for the sake of entertainment.

Again, that is the perspective I have or have been handed by others. I wasn’t there. The lack of real usable information just seems more hurtful. The doubt planted with blood typing takes root.


The Undying Machine

I was there when my grandmother died. We sat there for several days through the slow process. My aunt was in attendance. No deathbed confessions took place. My grandmother passed away peacefully without addressing anything.

My grandfather was questioned after my grandmother’s death and maintained the story of my aunt’s birth for the rest of his days. The machinery that was in place since the forties continued to click along. The people who could have dismantled it, chose not to.

The…now, shrubbery, of doubt, did not go away at their deaths.

So a paternity test was done after my grandfather died in 2006. We would end this doubt once and for all. My aunt is sent the results in the mail. She reported that it he could not be her father (98% certain or something like that) and then she destroyed the results.

For my aunt, the answer was concrete. For the rest of us, it was something we did not really want to believe. With my grandparents in the ground, there is really nothing anyone could do. Those kinds of paternity tests are either positive or negative. They didn’t give her any more information than she already had.

Pausing again because you would think that paternity test result would be the end of the machine, but these kinds of golems are social structures. They live and are fed by friends, family and maybe even complete strangers who continue to bolster them, unwittingly, with misinformation or a blind eye. We want the lie to be true so bad that we will do almost anything to see it continue. The shadow monster they made continues it’s work, finally harming the very people it was created to protect.The initial will of the person who created the new reality continues on with a life of its own, even after their death.

This created a cold war zone of distrust in our family. We had some stories, some clues and a malevolent (but socially acceptable) revenant whose sole purpose was to see us fail at learning more about my aunt’s paternity. It had, at it’s finger tips, any number of recruits from within the family who were much happier with the sanitized version of life it presented, even though it meant harming their own living flesh and blood.

After several years stewing in that environment with the biological clock of kidney disease ticking, my dad suggested that my aunt should do some of the DNA testing he and I were doing.


2013 and Beyond

Two years into not being able to figure out the issues with my paternal line autosomal tests, we ordered a test for for my aunt. This presented a few opportunities. Half siblings are great for comparisons. They are close relatives, but represent the genetic material from only one parent. So my aunt’s results in comparison to my dad would help her with her paternal family and help me with mine.

At the same time we ordered a test for their maternal uncle. His comparison to both my dad and my aunt would shed more light on their mother and reveal DNA segments the two of them inherited from her, but don’t share with each other.

By mapping their mother’s segments, I can find the shadow regions of their father’s contributions. You can see that best illustrated in the autosomal DNA mile marker post.

With the fuse lit on that kidney disease, we quickly lost an entire year to my poor communication skills and the thwart festival that is 23 and me privacy and sharing.  By the end of it, I had nearly lost access to the results from their maternal uncle who no longer trusted my motives and disagreed with the idea that my aunt needed to know who her biological father was. He was on team “undying machine” and refused to release his results for further research (which is his right). The rest of my comparisons to him were crippled by that. This prompted me to move my base of operations away from 23 and me and over to family tree dna.

Not that the 23 and me matches were bad. I WAS jealous of my aunt’s 23 and me matching results. She had one very close and very big match, within the range of a second cousin or first cousin one time removed, probably someone you would see at a family reunion. Winters. He did not match her brother so I knew he must represent her father.

Again though, I was thwarted by 23 and me’s sharing system. I could not run any real comparisons on this kit without first sharing DNA which just sounds scary as hell and requires participation from someone who may be dead for all I know. He was the absolute best lead we had (her genetic relatives at FTDNA were much smaller) but there was little I could do with the match.

I spent the next year and more working with her many French Canadian matches and triangulating segments to several generations of the Robert/Robar family from Quebec. The international upgrade to Ancestry.com was required for that research.

Although I felt I met my own confidence level through triangulation, I was still effectively stuck in the 1700s.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to map an entire family backwards from the 1700s. It’s a nightmare. Because I didn’t have Y DNA as any sort of guide, I had to find every person related to that Robert/Robar family that was alive in 1946. 200 years of generations of humans from colonial Canada. I don’t speak French, so I struggled with hand written French baptism records the best I could.

Somewhere in this mix I ordered an AncestryDNA test for my aunt with the hope that AncestryDNA testers would be more likely to have a family tree even though the matching system was opaque. I eventually followed suit with my own test there which helped to sort hers out a little.


AncestryDNA and Genetic Go Fish

The promise of AncestryDNA is really opportunity. More people are more likely to test with AncestryDNA because they are interested in genealogy (as opposed to health or ethnicity) and they are more likely to already have a family tree. Ancestry has kept their actual DNA results hidden and the tools for comparison are very limited (and sometimes misleading).

You can see me finding the immediate benefits of an AncestryDNA test for my wife and myself in the warm mug of cocoa post. You can see me immediately hitting the wall of their tools and the frustration of a close, but hidden match in the awful feeling of awfulness.

In a system without any real tools for DNA comparison, hidden family trees burn like a thousand hot needles. Follow that pain with the totally missing family trees and you’ve defeated the purpose of an AncestryDNA test. It’s surprisingly common, and, true to form I ran into it a lot with my aunt’s test there.

Interestingly, I could usually find my way around a hidden tree if a person was communicative at all and gave me the “go fish” list of surnames or if there were enough clues in their username and among shared matches. So hiding trees 98% of the time only really succeeded in eating up more of my time. In the end I would get the information anyway and often have very detailed conversations with genetic matches about the people in their STILL hidden trees.

The major problem is that, having won the victory of getting basic directory information from a genetic match (even a close one), I often struggled to make any connection to other genetic matches.

Some of that is not really knowing what I’m looking for and that people from Quebec are highly interrelated, but some of it is also that everyone has two family trees.  I’m getting their paper tree, but I really need their genetic tree and the two may not line up for them either.

You can end up in a weird situation where you are researching your NPE comparing to people who may or may not know that they have an NPE and you don’t really have all the genetic information to help you make good assessments.

That, pretty much brings us up to this past year and should fill in the back story on what was a pretty disappointing autosomal experience with the added pressure of impending death for my aunt.

I’m going to split this long book into two here with a part two to follow.

Next: Everybody has Two Family Trees…a New Hope



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