Couslings: A 23andMe story

Savanna Malveaux
  • A simple quest to determine my African roots led to finding siblings and cousins I did not know existed. This is not your typical 23andMe story, so hold on, this is going to be a bumpy ride.

“Have you considered writing a book about your life?”

It is likely someone has asked you this question, or maybe you have asked someone. Before my ancestry journey, I never thought of my life as interesting enough to manifest into spilled ink, but it has literally played out like a Lifetime original film over the last few months. A simple quest to determine my African roots led to finding siblings and cousins I did not know existed.

This is not your typical 23andMe story.

On Thanksgiving Day last year, my momma (watch for the distinction later) decided we would play a little game to see who knew the most about our ancestors. As expected, the Gen Xers and Millennials failed miserably. Quite frankly, so did a couple of the Boomers. The game transitioned into more of a conversation about our family tree.

The information discussed was written on an old-school poster board, and I snapped a picture with my iPhone, vowing to document the details later, electronically. I started with a template in Microsoft PowerPoint, which allowed me to create a graphical representation of a basic family tree; you know, roots and branches. However, it did not begin to cover all of the information we discussed. An online search led to MyHeritage.com, where I entered my pedigree, and the tree continued to grow with more research. Each little nugget increased my excitement. I felt like a super sleuth, in pursuit of life-altering truths.

At some point, I decided to utilize a genetic testing and analysis service to aid my research. My primary goals were to understand health predispositions and determine where, in Africa, our ancestors were from. Up until then, I had been very skeptical of testing services for many reasons, but given the minimal information my family could recall, it seemed like my only choice. I am still convinced they sell our intimate secrets to big insurance, which in turn takes a bigger bite from my bottom line based on my genetic predispositions. I heard tales of people submitting separate samples under different names and receiving drastically different results; as such, I also questioned the accuracy. That seed of doubt led me to submit my samples to two different companies, 23andMe and Sequencing.

One month after I swabbed my cheek and spat in a test tube, the 23andMe results were ready. The notification came in just as I was heading out to a birthday dinner, so I only took a quick glance at my results. My first click revealed my Ancestry Composition as 51.1% European and 48.3% African. This was not a complete surprise given my biological mother is white, but it still caught me off guard. The ratio bothered me. I thought I was Blacker than that. I did not grow up with rigid definitions of what it meant to be Black, white, or other. There was no diametrically opposing backdrop, I am Black. I grew up in a Black household. There was no confusion, no dismissal of the other side of my family, because they were not a part of my life. I am technically biracial, but the world does not see it that way. I am Black, period. One drop, remember?

When I returned from dinner, I poured over the details, focusing primarily on my ancestral composition, genetic health variants, and trait reports. Surprisingly, I did not notice DNA Relatives under “Quick Links” until several hours later. It is crazy how one click changed so many lives. The glaring notification of Half Brother was a strong gut punch.

I need to give you some history here. Bear with me.

 

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My biological mother abandoned me as a toddler. I was bounced around from place to place before landing with my biological father’s youngest sister and her husband, who raised me as their own. In my early 30s, I decided to find my mother. Although not knowing who she was did not haunt me growing up, I would sometimes look in the faces of random white women and wonder, Is she my mother? Are those my brothers? Reconnecting with my biological father and an overseas assignment compelled me to solve the mystery. Luckily, my father had her Social Security Number, which made it very easy to find her. Both times I reached out, she shunned me. The positive aspect, I was able to make and keep connections with my half-brothers, one of my aunts, and a few cousins. But seriously, what woman denies her own flesh and blood?

About two years, and after my second attempt to connect with my biological mother, another sibling surfaced. Rhonda. Based on her adoption paperwork, she is the daughter of my mother’s twin; sadly, she had already passed.

 

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Since I already had two maternal half-brothers, my first thought when I saw half-brother, Jon, another male 23andMe connection, was that my biological father had another child. He was in the military and served in Vietnam. Oddly enough, I often joked with him about waiting for a Blasian (half Black/half Asian) sibling to surface.

A few more clicks revealed that the connection was maternal.

What had the twins been up to between marriages?

I was shocked, but that did not stop me from clicking the Send a message button. In an attempt to not scare him off, I sent a cutesy message: “Well, this is awkward! Could it be?”

About 30 minutes later, he responded. “I don’t know. I was adopted in San Antonio, TX when I was 13-months-old.”

I asked a few more questions and waited impatiently for his response, which I did not receive until the next day. I guessed he needed some room to breathe; this was kind of a big deal. That night, I could not sleep. The possibilities plagued me. Why am I letting this stress me? It is not like this revelation matters in the grand scheme of things. None of this will really change my life; we are all in our 40s and 50s.

The next day, our in-app messages continued to flow. At a reasonable hour, I called my biological mother to try to figure this out. After pleasantries, I dropped the 23andMe half-brother bomb. She adamantly denied having any children besides the three of us. I chose not to grill her because I needed to keep those lines open to continue gathering information.

The next call was to a cousin, the daughter of my mother’s twin, Cindy. Needless to say, she was shocked and very upset. Her response was understandably emotional, and she lashed out, saying Jon (my recent match) had to belong to my mother, not hers. While I could not relate to her emotion, I empathized. Then she threw me for a loop.

She mentioned another sibling.

Jada.

Apparently, another offspring had surfaced during the previous year and no one bothered to tell me. About a year prior, Rhonda received a match notification for a half-sister on Ancestry.com. Cindy was convinced that Jada and Jon belonged to my mother, not hers.

The conversations we had to make sense of this were pretty chaotic. I was talking to Cindy; she was talking to her brother and Rhonda. I was talking to Rhonda and Jon, Rhonda was talking to Jada. I eventually set up a Facebook messenger group chat to pull our conversations into one place.

I named the group: “Siblings/Cousins.”

Rhonda upped the game with the sobriquet: “Couslings.” And it stuck.

Kind of cute right? More than cute, it was perfect.

Some of us were siblings, others were cousins; none of us really knew which. Either way, we wanted to solve the puzzle. Over the next few days, we spoke, compared notes, and then decided to meet. Except for me, all of the couslings lived in Texas, so I flew out to San Antonio.

 

During all of this, I was keeping my momma (the aunt who raised me) abreast of what was going on. One day, it dawned on me that my biological mother and father knew each other when Jon was born, so I decided to interrogate him for information. Based on my father’s timeline, it is more likely that Jon is my cousin, not my brother. My biological parents were actively dating when Jon was born. My biological mother is very cunning, and my father is a little dense, but her hiding a pregnancy and delivery is a stretch, to say the least. The revelation was both disappointing and a relief all at the same time.

If you are struggling to keep track, let me help.

Before the Jon apple cart was flipped, my mother had three children (my half-brothers and me).

Her twin sister, my aunt, had two.

Over the last ten years, three additional offspring (two females and one male) have surfaced.

To complicate things even further, our mothers had two other siblings. Sisters. The oldest had two children and the youngest had one, as far as we know anyway. The twins were in the middle.

Quite frankly, we are not sure who belongs to whom.

I know what you are thinking… just do real DNA testing. I spoke with a few DNA analysts, who told me they could not guarantee results because the mothers in question are identical twins. It would be hard to determine which offspring belong to which. While I want to solve this puzzle, spending a couple thousand dollars on a maybe is a waste.

The only thing I am certain of is this: my mother is my mother. I was born while my parents were stationed in New Jersey, far away from the Texas family madness.

 

The couslings originally decided we should all submit samples to 23andMe to determine whether any of our DNA matches are higher with one or another. We eventually figured out an easier way; having everyone download their raw DNA data from 23andMe and Ancestry.com and upload to MyHeritage.com. My mother agreed to submit a sample as well. Her kit was to be sent to me. I figured I would mail it off myself, to ensure it got done.

Jon and I decided to meet one-on-one before jumping right into the fire. There are really no words to describe what it is like to look into the eyes of a stranger and see yourself. Or the level of comfort I felt with him.

Surreal is the best word to describe my feelings. This man, whom I had never met, was instant family.

We chatted for quite some time, nervous energy delaying the inevitable. Eventually, we made the 5-minute trek to my mother’s home. Much like my first visit with her twelve years before, there was no overwhelming emotional response. No Oprah Winfrey-style, tear-jerking family reunion; the conversations were surface level.

As soon as Jon walked in, she carted him off to her bedroom to show him pictures of his mother, which she stressed. Intentionally or not, she disarmed us. There were no ancestry discussions and I forgot to get her 23andMe sample. I had one job, ugggh! After we left her, Jon and I continued to attempt to make heads or tails of our situation over adult beverages. Raw, emotional, and stunned.

The next morning, the couslings met in the “Breakfast Room” of our hotel. After hugs and light banter, we got down to business. As we spoke, we were all staring at each other, searching out the similarities and differences in our faces and mannerisms. The resemblance is eerie. Looking at these people who shared my DNA, but not my history was inexplicable.

First order of business, we started combing through Rhonda’s adoption records to construct a timeline. We were surprised by how much information about the twins, their sisters, and our grandmother was in the document. Based on nothing more than the timeline and recollections of Rhonda’s father and mine, we concluded that Rhonda and Jon are siblings and Jada is my sister. Again, because our moms are identical twins, we will likely never know for sure.

Jada and Jon are working to get their adoption paperwork released to help solve the puzzle. They will attempt to find their biological fathers, hoping they can shed some light.

Every time I receive a 23andMe notification, my breath catches, and I slowly, like a seasoned WSOP Texas Hold’em poker player, peak as the information loads. According to the recollection of the older couslings, there may be at least one more out there, if not two. A set of twins.

When I set out to write this, I structured it in my head as fictional, to protect the innocent and the guilty. Change names, alter locations, timelines, etc. However, this is my story and I need it to be real. My couslings allowed me to use their names. I left out the parents’ names and omitted specific locations.

If you take nothing else away from this, I urge you to work on your family tree. Sit down with the elders in your family to learn and document as much as you can. Have the hard conversations and get from beneath the shroud of secrecy before they take it to their graves.

 

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