Back when I DNA tested, it wasn’t tremendously unusual to only have fourth cousin and beyond matches at the DNA testing companies. Even following the advice to test everywhere (AncestryDNA, 23andme, and Family Tree DNA), which I did, there just weren’t that many people in the databases. Once in a while you’d see someone get lucky and land a second cousin match, or really hit it out of the DNA ballpark and get an aunt or uncle match, but those kind of spectacular matches weren’t very common back then at all.
I had nothing but fourth cousin (or further back) matches.
The advice for people with nothing better than fourth cousin DNA matches, even today, is to do nothing and wait for a closer DNA match. The sensibility in genetic genealogy is that fourth cousin matches are too distant to work with. Fourth cousins share a set of great-great-great grandparents; it’s just too much painstaking work. “There are people testing all the time.” they say. “You just never know when that terrific match is going to come in.” Despite being momentarily buoyed by the enthusiasm of others, every few days I’d get a couple more fourth cousins, or worse, “5th-8th” cousin matches. These were seemingly random people from all over America: New York, California, New Jersey, Illinois, Virginia, and anywhere else a dart might land on a map should you happen to throw one at it, blindfolded. I couldn’t see any rhyme nor reason to these DNA matches at all. I had a name, Tim Timmons, or at least I thought I did. Having nothing in the way of DNA to work with, I decided to work on finding Tim Timmons using straight genealogy research methods.
I scoured the 1930 and 1940 U.S. Census records at Ancestry. There is no Tim Timmons, born in Massachusetts, within the appropriate time frame. None. That said, I imagined that it was possible that any guy with the last name of Timmons, could be nicknamed, “Tim.” Teresa and I started researching all the Timmons males born between 1930 and 1940 in Massachusetts, and we systematically began creating individual family trees for every one of them. We needed to get a lay of the land; see the big picture. Within a few weeks time, we had built enough trees to figure out that a whole lot of these Massachusetts Timmons people originally came from New Brunswick, Canada and most of them originated from the same ancestor couple in their family tree. While creating these trees, we continuously bumped into the genealogy work of someone named, Mark Timmons; a direct descendant of the ancestor couple in Canada and a cousin to a whole slew of Massachusetts Timmons people. Mark seemed like an ideal DNA test subject as I figured that another genealogist would surely understand my situation. I sent Mark an message giving him my life story, my dilemma, and an offer of a free DNA test if he’d be willing to share his results with me. Mark is a really nice person and was more than happy to help. He agreed to DNA test. Fabulous! I felt like I was finally getting some traction.
While I waited for Mark’s results, my mother’s DNA results came in. The chromosome browser at 23andme lit up in blue. Estimated relationship: “Mother.” Thank God. I called my mom. “Congratulations, Mrs. Pratt!” I said when she answered. “It’s a girl! Your DNA test has come back and…you ARE my mother!”
“Yes, I know!” she laughed. “I was there and remember it well. But, I am glad this puts your mind at rest, sweetheart.” It did.
Soon after, I began texting her photos of Massachusetts men with the last name Timmons, on the off chance that she might positively identify one of them as my biological father. Admittedly, these were elderly gents, and I was sending obituary photos that I had taken from online newspapers, but that’s all I had to work with. Something is better than nothing, right?
“Does this face ring a bell?” I texted my mother with a photo attachment of a Massachusetts born, Timmons fellow.
“Who’s this?” she asked.
“This man is a Timmons. From Massachusetts. I just thought I’d see if he looked familiar to you.”
“This old duffer? God, no. I was only twenty-five,” she texted back.
“Hahaha! It’s a recent photo I got from a newspaper obituary.”
“An obituary? Thanks for reminding me of that fact of life. lol Do you have any photos of this guy taken a few decades ago?”
“What about this one?” I texted a few days later, with another obituary photo.
“I wish!” she texted back. “He’s handsome! Unfortunately, not. Sorry.”
And so it went. I’d text her a photo and she’d shoot it down. “The hair is too light on this one…” “I don’t remember Tim having any cowlick in the front,” “Nope, but you’re getting closer…” Closer to what I didn’t know. My conception happened so long ago. Was I just wasting our time, playing The Memory Game with essentially age progression photographs? I didn’t know. Once in a while, I’d throw in a question about a random friend of the family that my mom seemed fond of. “What about Mr. So and So? He was nice and was at the house kind of a lot,” I asked, just in case her memory was in error.
“Please. I didn’t sleep with Mr. So and So.”
“Mr. Such and Such?”
“Not in a million years.”
I wasn’t necessarily uncomfortable in having these exchanges, but I really didn’t want to go traipsing through the history of my mother’s sex life. I wasn’t going to judge her; I’m a grown woman. My parents stopped being morally perfect gods when I hit adolescence. While I don’t need smelling salts and a fainting couch when the topic of sex is discussed, everyone else’s sex life is just none of my business and I would have preferred to have kept it that way, especially with my mother. Still, I soldiered on with the gentle nudges and the obituary photos I texted. She seemed perfectly willing to answer whatever questions I had as long as I kept this a secret between the two of us.
But, on the inside I was furious. My anger burned day in and day out and it was a lot of work to keep it under control. I wasn’t angry at her for having a relationship outside of her crummy, dysfunctional marriage while she was separated. Whatever. It was a million years ago and I’m happy that I exist. I was angry at her inability and general disinterest in helping me find my father. It annoyed me how non-nonchalant she seemed about it all. One day, while we were talking she asked, “Honestly, what difference does it make who your father is? Have you ever gone without anything? Haven’t you been loved to pieces, every day of your life, one hundred and ten percent?”
I was stunned. “What do you mean, ‘What difference does it make?'” I replied. “Of course it makes a difference. I feel like I’m…made of strangers, mom. I look in the mirror and I don’t see anyone I know. Whose face is this? It’s not yours. I don’t know who I am anymore. I need to be explained, mom. You can only give me half an explanation.”
I could tell by her silence that she wasn’t getting it.
“Think about it this way,” I began, “what if the inverse was true? What if somehow, you had a child out in the world that you didn’t know about and then one you day discovered that they existed. Out there somewhere, lost to you. Your child. Wouldn’t your heart ache to find them? To meet them? To see what sort of a person they are? Wouldn’t you feel robbed of the years you missed with your child? Your child, mom. Yours. If not, then what are the other situations in life that would make your child not matter to you at all?”
“Well, of course yes, Laurie! Any child of mine would matter to me! Always. Okay, okay, I get your point.”
I was sure that she got the point. And I was doubly as sure that she didn’t want to ever think about my search in terms of one of her children being lost to her.
Perpetually curious. I love history, genealogy, old movies, good books, all sorts of music, and adventures involving travel. In my spare time, I help admin a genetic genealogy Facebook page for CeCe Moore ("DNA Detectives") and coach people how to connect with their biological family using DNA.