Discovering the bonds of family

Social media, DNA tests connect long-lost families

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Miraculous. That’s how it feels to find someone you’ve been searching for your whole life, said Diane Abel.

Surprised, is how Shelley Rocha felt when at 48 she met her biological father, whom she never expected to know.

Unbelievable, said Roberta Bryant Brown about finding a sister at age 80.

As humans, we have an intense desire to know where and whom we come from. The hope for a biological bond is the reason some people spend their whole lives looking for family. The vastness of social media and the convenience of at-home DNA tests such as 23 and Me and Ancestry have made once impossible discoveries about our personal history and beginnings a reality.

Sisters at last

Now 73, Diane said she was six when she first heard about Roberta Jean and Betty Lee Bryant, her two half-sisters on her dad’s side. Although she always wanted to find them, information was hard to come by. It was a tough subject for her father, Thomas Jefferson Bryant, and until the advent of social media, searching for names and information felt like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

After her father’s death in 2013, Diane began her search with multiple Facebook messages to potential family in the Seattle area. She waited in radio silence for four years, later finding out that her messages had been seen, but as one might expect the family was leery of a possible scam.

On a Friday night in September 2018, while relaxing on the couch after a long work week, Diane received a Facebook message out of the blue from a woman who said she was the daughter-in-law of Diane’s oldest half-sister Betty Lee, who Diane knew had died in 1985. Within 10 minutes a life-long prayer had been answered: Diane was messaging with her other half-sister Roberta, who lived in Seattle.

“As we messaged, Roberta said she wanted to call me right then, but she couldn’t stop crying, so asked if we could talk the next day. She called me at 5:30 a.m. Seattle time and we had an immediate connection. She is the sweetest person and absolutely precious,” Diane said.

Roberta’s mother and their father split up when she was around two weeks old and she never knew him, which left many unanswered questions. As an adult, Roberta began looking for her father in Georgia and Texas where her mother said they had lived. When she and her family would travel, she would look for records of her father, but she wasn’t able to find him.

Once she felt all possibilities had been exhausted, she prayed, “Lord, if I have a sibling, you’re just going to have to bring them to me.”

He did, in his own time. The sisters wasted no time and soon Diane visited Roberta where they laughed, cried, and talked for three days.

Diane created a photo album for Roberta, and while she was looking through pictures, she found several small two- by three-inch photos that had handwriting on the back. When she showed Roberta, she was sure that it was her maternal grandmother’s handwriting.

Before their father died, he gave Diane a picture of her oldest sister Betty Lee. Roberta actually had a picture of Betty Lee about the same age, in the same outfit but in this photograph, Betty Lee was being held by their father in front of a lumbermill.

“The fact that we both had these pictures really helped some family members that were still cautious about the connection,” Diane explained.

Diane’s husband and her youngest daughter and husband met Roberta this summer when they stopped in Seattle for a visit on their way to an Alaskan cruise. In October, Roberta traveled to Texas with her oldest daughter and got to meet their youngest brother, who is 52, as well as the rest of Diane’s family.

“I have such a huge, huge family now. I have my husband and our family, my mother’s family and now my Texas family,” Roberta said. “Diane kept searching and I’m so thankful she did.”

Diane said like most sisters they text daily, keep in touch on a Bryant Family Facebook Group that Roberta created and talk on the phone at least once a week. Roberta is now in touch with cousins on their dad’s side in Georgia, where he was originally from. Diane’s older half-brother passed away in 2013, but Roberta has been able to connect with his children through Facebook.

“It’s a miracle at our age that we have found each other,” Diane said emotionally, and Roberta agreed, “I believe in miracles.”

An unexpected family

Much like Roberta, Shelley knew nothing about her biological father, and never expected to. She was actually looking for more information about her biological mother when she took the Ancestry at-home DNA test but instead was connected to an entire family on her father’s side.

Shelley had been in and out of the foster care system since she was around one year old and was adopted with her younger brother David at around six years old. She knew her mother’s name and that she had at least four other children, three of which were given up for adoption and one tragically died as an infant. Several years ago, her oldest sister Lisa located Shelley and together they found their oldest brother Danny. About a year later her younger sister Jill found Shelley through Facebook and together they have been looking for their mother.

Through Ancestry’s report of Shelley’s biological relatives, she first connected to a cousin on her biological father’s side.

“At first he was like, ‘no way.’ But I told him to look at the DNA (on Ancestry),” Shelley said.

Through her newly found cousin, she was put in touch with her biological father, Diego. After a paternity test came back confirming that Diego was Shelley’s biological father, Diego told his family he had a 48-year-old daughter.

It turned out that at age 21, Diego met Shelley’s mom while living in California and they had a short relationship. They parted ways without Diego knowing she was pregnant.

Now that Diego knew that Shelley was his daughter there was no time to waste; he, his wife, one of his two sons, and his daughter and their families traveled to Seattle to meet this newly-found daughter just months after the initial Ancestry connection. They instantly embraced Shelley as part of their family. Diego’s daughter, Kristina Freeman of Pattison, loves finally having a sister.

“I grew up with two brothers so it’s different having a sister,” Kristina explained. “She’ll just text me or I’ll text her. It’s different than just having a friend.”

“They didn’t know I existed so I didn’t know how open they’d be to me, but it was better than I could have expected,” Shelley said.

She also discovered she’s half Costa Rican which explains where her uniquely dark features come from.

“My other biological siblings are fair like our mother, and I just didn’t look like them,” she said. “I hear I look like Diego’s cousin; it’s neat to look like someone.”

Kristina said her father has always been proud of the fact that he is left-handed and now they found out that Shelley is left-handed, too. According to both women, while their father is overjoyed to have found the gift of another daughter, he also feels regret and some guilt because he wasn’t there to raise her.

“Diego says that he always felt like something was missing in his life and when he found me, it wasn’t missing anymore,” Shelley said.

Shelley’s adoptive family has also experienced mixed emotions. Both of her adoptive parents support Shelley’s journey to find her biological family, but the fact that her father is fighting stage 4 cancer makes it complicated. While she’s excited to form these new relationships, she’s also very protective of her family.

“I’m careful about what I post on Facebook or share so that I’m respectful and don’t hurt my parents,” Shelley said. “I never want them to feel like their being replaced.”

Shelley said it’s been amazing because Kristina, Diego and their family pray for her father.

“Kristina even said she would like to meet him and thank the man who stepped up and raised her sister,” Shelley said.

Shelley still hasn’t found her biological mother or information on where she might be living, but she has answers to another side of herself and a family she never expected to find.

“It could have gone 14 different ways, but it could not have gone better than it has. I’m very blessed,” she said.

A personal connection

This writing assignment motivated me to continue my search for more information on my own biological family. I finally took the 23 and Me test that has been sitting on my nightstand since my mother-in-law gave it to me for my birthday this summer. The week of Thanksgiving I received my results and sat looking at names of more than 1,000 people who shared my DNA including two first cousins. To a person who is adopted and has never known anyone biologically related to them (except my children) this was a moment. Who knows where this will lead, but I’m glad to have fulfilled some of that need to know about where I come from.

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