On the Death of Cheryl

Everybody’s existence depends on the actions, interactions and decision trees of the people who came before them. That isn’t unique. What I think is unique is the perspective on existence available to the family historian.

My aunt Cheryl died at the end of August. Her visitation (she didn’t want a funeral) was on the 8th of September. She was 70.

As a genetic family historian (I don’t know if that is a real term, but I get tired of genetic genealogist). I had an opportunity/burden to try to help my aunt find her biological family.

I didn’t particularly like my aunt. In my childhood, she was often a cruel, abusive and bitter person. As an adult, and a parent I came to recognize that she was an abused person herself. She paid the price for existing and existence seems to have been her worst offense. I’ve come to find out that my grandmother saved special torment for her and that makes it all the more heartbreaking that Cheryl was not allowed to know what she was suffering for.

Genealogy is a selfish pursuit, so my lens on Cheryl’s life is pretty self centered. My obligation to help my family changed into compassion for this person when I realized just how much she suffered for this and that I don’t exist unless she exists. My fate has always been wrapped up in her fate, whether I knew it or not.

She is one of those pinch points in the decision tree that make me and my family possible.

Blood Relatives and the Undying Machine

Talking with Cheryl on the phone last year, she placed the planting of the seeds of doubt about her paternity while she was working on blood typing in nursing school. Eventually another family relative would give her a less than helpful clue that there was a guarded secret about her father confirming her suspicions. When my grandfather died in 2006, my dad paid for a paternity test to try to get an answer once and for all. Cheryl is a great example of how everyone has two family trees.


Enter Autosomal DNA and The Downward Spiral of Human Relationships

In 2013, we had Cheryl tested at 23 and me along with her maternal uncle in a dual effort to learn more about the Seelyes and to have another comparison to use as the dark side of the moon for both Cheryl and my father. I bungled it though and ended up having Cheryl’s kit sit too long in storage (nearly a year unclaimed at 23 and me) and getting into a misunderstanding and family conflict about using their uncle’s results (also sitting dormant for nearly a year, claimed but hidden by privacy settings). It eventually devolved from a series of mistakes into an argument about what rights their uncle thought Cheryl had to information about her biological father.

Ultimately, for me it highlighted the flaws in the 23 and me genome sharing scheme, because, at the time, 23 and me made it difficult to get basic information that was available by default at FTDNA. It also highlighted the fractures in a family that is still protecting a world war two era secret.


In 2015, after several years spending hours each night pouring over the various hints and clues and compiled trees in my family searches, I decided to put it down for a while. Cheryl’s search was a big part of that, being the most depressing and limiting because of it’s recentness. It became hard to tell the people who were hostile to us knowing the truth from the people who were just very private, or generally disinterested. Every denial of basic directory information became a sort of hostile act.


I couldn’t put it down for long though because about a month later, I had been pulled back in to autosomal DNA, by the warm fuzzy results of AncestryDNA testing for my wife and I. I had Cheryl test with AncestryDNA as well, hoping to get more results from a bigger database. For a while it was nice to be in the warm glow of easily shared information.


I did get more, and bigger matches at AncestryDNA, but I ran into the same stonewalling I had at FTDNA and 23 and me. Even at a site devoted to family trees, I was routinely blocked from family tree information for those genetic relatives that were closest. I had already put together several French Canadian connections for Cheryl, but I couldn’t connect them to these large matching relatives. Effectively trying to find a family from 1947 by their genetic echo in the 1700’s.

That frustration, basically with human interactions and limitations of company policies, had me vent some of my brooding contempt in a series of posts about the conspiracy against people seeking answers.


The Worm Turns

It would be about 6 months from those dark conspiracy posts before I began to have some breakthroughs, first with the Elmores in my own line (after about six years) and then with Cheryl’s genetic relatives (after about 2 and a half). I figured out some new tactics for hunting down those missing family trees and at the same time a preponderance of larger genetic relatives floated in at AncestryDNA. The popularity and name recognition of the Ancestry tests paid off and I caught some new relatives before they had time or the inclination to hide their trees.

By December of 2016 I had the information that had been painfully out of reach. Ten years after Cheryl’s paternity test, I felt like I had her family (mostly) figured out. The Robert/Robar family had turned out to be more important than I could know and so did that large percentage of Irish in her ethnicity estimates.


By April of 2016, I was much more confident about the work done and the luck we had in getting matches. The results were rolling in and, often times, missing trees or not, I could tell where someone fits by clues in their names and shared matches. The indifference had become less hostile and the hostile people could be put on a shelf and forgotten.

I had useful exchanges with Cheryl’s first cousin one time removed on her father’s side. More interesting than life changing because I was actually in a position help them with their research, now that I had some answers for Cheryl.


After I got the call about Cheryl’s death, I logged in to Family Tree DNA, where I had been tipped off that her Robert related first cousin’s test results would be. It’s a 935cM confirmation that Cheryl did not live to see, but by this point it had become more of a foregone conclusion.

I don’t know if Cheryl understood all the information I sent her about her biological family. I hope it had some impact in the last year of her life. Possibly giving her some amount of comfort.

Raised with a house full of boys, she wanted to know if she had a sister. As far as I can tell, she did not. She had at least one other half brother. I imagine that was a disappointment, but I can also imagine her snorting a laugh at the absurdity of that final insult (which, in my memories, she often did).

In the end, I didn’t really know my aunt as a person. Certainly not the way her brothers, husband, adopted children and grandchildren did. I don’t know that she had particularly warm feelings for me either. This has been my one and only contribution to her life and the subject of the only real conversations we’ve ever had.

I drove for about 4 hours each way to spend time at her visitation. There were pictures and people that were familiar. For her husband and family, the talk was all about moving forward without her as a guiding force and a presence in their daily lives. There were no dark discussions about secrets, no mention of the Roberts, no alternate universe family trees. Just numbness and loss and the redemption that comes with it.

Genealogy is a selfish pursuit. In Cheryl’s life, I can see the decision of my grandmother that leads her to a hidden marriage out of state to a crippled Charles Thompson.  It leads to the birth of my father, and me and my children. It leads to Cheryl’s own children (adopted from her brother) and their children and to Cheryl’s great grandchildren. It leads to two more brothers, their children and their grandchildren.

Cheryl’s existence, so dearly paid for, is the catalyst for a new family. For better and for worse. My family.

Charles thompson with baby Cheryl and his mother Orvetta Finks

Charles thompson with baby Cheryl and his mother Orvetta Finks

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