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Discovering you are not who you thought you were

It all started when I decided to do an Ancestry DNA test. My brother was very into genealogy, and said that he was thinking of doing it through Ancestry.com website to trace our family history back to the Revolutionary war, writes Shelly Hensley-Stevenson.

That sounded exciting – but there was one small niggle in the back of my head. About 25 years ago, driving back from the PX in SHAPE, Belgium (we were stationed there), my mom dropped a bit of a bombshell.
“You might not be your father’s child”.

As you can imagine, suddenly the whole world narrowed its focus to the interior of our car and to my mom.

She told me the story that while she was newly married, with a new baby, she went to a dance and met a handsome tall man – they danced all night. Then, one thing led to another, and – well – possible paternity ensued.
I pulled over and started crying, asking a lots of questions – then – just as suddenly as she had brought it up, she took it back.
“But, actually, I’m sure you’re your dad’s.”

Mom wouldn’t tell me much about him, other than he was studying at St Mary’s College at Moraga in California to be a lawyer and he was tall and a bit older. She refused to tell me his name because “I’m sure it’s not him, anyway.” She wanted me to drop it.

I rang my older sister, told her all about it, then rang my little brother and did the same – mystified by the conversation and the subsequent reversal of it all.

Shelly (third from left) and her husband Nik (far left) with June, Mary Alice and her husband Jeff. Shelly took a DNA test and discovered her father was not who she thought

This was in the back of my head in July of last year when I finally bought the kit, spit into the little container, added the solution to keep it stable and sent it off to Ireland.

About four weeks after that I got my results email telling me to log in and see what we got.

I was very excited – first off, I was much more Western European that I thought, 86% – only 2% English and a whole lot more Irish and Scottish than I had assumed. A wee bit Finnish – and Iberian Peninsula (we can’t say Spanish?), but all in all exciting and interesting.

Then I clicked on the matches – my littlest brother was top of the list as ‘Close Family’. I hadn’t known he had taken the test. Next in ‘First Cousins’ was my cousin, yes, there she was – my Mom’s sister’s daughter that she had given away for adoption. She contacted us about 25 years ago when she found my Auntie.

In ‘First to Second Cousins’ there was a name I didn’t recognise. If they were my second cousin, surely, I’d know their parents? There were loads of other names that I didn’t know at all.

I messaged the second cousin through the website, saying something along the line of “shouldn’t I know you? How are we related?”. She was in the top three matches and confidence was high, according to the website, that we were closely related.

At this point I think that the penny dropped. Nowhere on the list was my maiden name – Hensley – except for my little brother – Eric Hensley – there at the top.

I rang him in New York – I was going to ask for his log in so that I could see if we had the same matches. It turns out Mom was visiting him there at that exact time. I explained the situation and said not to tell Mom, I wanted to check on this.

He gave me his log in, and it was true – Eric had loads of Hensley names popping up, and several other cousins, Hensley cousins, on his list that weren’t on mine. I was there, listed as close family – not as immediate family – which is what you are if you are a full-blooded sister.

I had to sit down. I wasn’t ready to talk to Mom, told my brother it was confirmed – and then just stared at the monitor with my brothers results.

Okay, so that’s who I’m not, who am I, then?

I had for years after explosive conversation with my Mom added my maiden name to my surname, I think that it would somehow make it true, and that I would fit more into the family. There was always something that didn’t quite fit – and for years I had a fantasy that my ‘real dad’ would come and take me away. A pretty common fantasy, I think.

My cousin, Barbara Grizzle contacted me back. In a sweet, very kind and gentle message she said that it was entirely possible that I wasn’t who I thought I was. She began to help me to narrow it down, and finally after many weeks and much conversation, we discovered that the most likely person to be my father was her oldest cousin who had gone to St Mary’s College Moraga, William James Linhart III, Barbara called him Jimmy.

William James Linhart III, Shelly’s natural father

I finally did ring Mom in the midst of this and told her that I had a DNA test. She cried, I cried. She asked me to keep it all a secret.

She said she had known it for years but was hoping it wasn’t true. This conversation was hard, by the way – she said she couldn’t remember his name – she had blocked it out on purpose.

More and more came out with each subsequent conversation. She did have only the one time with him, physically, maybe, but it wasn’t just the one time she spoke to him. He thought it was the beginning of a relationship and even kept saying to her, “I think we’re compatible, don’t you?”, and rang her at work after the dance to chat for six weeks.

Until she found out that she was pregnant. That’s when she broke it off with him – with that bombshell – pregnant and married – but didn’t tell him that it could have been his.

My mom was 19, young and scared. I can understand why she didn’t tell him, it would have probably ended her marriage. But I really wish she had…

My cousin Barbara and I talked about what to do next. She said to confirm it all usually the biological dad would do a DNA test, but unfortunately, he had passed away in 2009. But he had children, Mary Alice and Robin. I could ask them to take the test.

Shelly with her newly discovered relatives at Half-Moon Bay where her natural father’s ashes are scattered

At this point I learned that he was a little bit famous – he was a Contract Bridge Grand Master and played all over the world. I found some photos, a video of him playing with no sound, and stories about him online. It hit me then, If I had known his name, I would have been able to find him all those years ago.

When I finally saw a photo of him I had such a shock of recognition that I cried.

I found my brother Robin online (I am so glad that we can do that now) and sent an email saying that Robin could be my sister – not realising that Robin was actually a man- and saying that I’d pay for a DNA for confirmation I found out later that Robin rang our sister, Mary Alice, and they talked about this while she was in a car with friends – who I think were loving the drama.

At first, they thought I must be part of some sort of scam – apparently my father would never have an affair with a married woman and definitely never have abandoned a child. He was a very moral man and that would have been so out of character, they were sure I was up to something.

They rang our cousin George, the oldest of the grandchildren of Grandpa Bill. I think he was the one to suggest that taking a DNA test would do no harm and would confirm if it was true.

George then contacted me, asked for clarification, and we agreed to meet in Cambridge, he flew in every so often because of his work. I told George what I had learned at this point, that Jim hadn’t known my Mom was married, and she didn’t tell him I was possibly his child.

I met George at a pub and immediately knew him – I can’t explain this, but I had to hug him right away. Talking with him was so familiar feeling, we had a real and immediate connection.

Fast forward, my sister’s DNA test came in and it was a match. My brother Robin’s came in, and another confirmation. George’s came in – and a third confirmation – we were family, Mary Alice and Robin, close family – right there on the list! And George listed as my first cousin. Again, I cried.

We all talked about meeting in San Francisco around Thanksgiving – so after the first bit of Thanksgiving with my ‘old’ family, Nik and I flew to the west coast to meet with my ‘new’ family. George and his very lovely wife Sally had a dinner where I could meet Barbara in person, with Jonny her husband, George’s mom- my Auntie Rose (my father’s little sister), and Mary Alice, her husband Jeff and my dad’s wife, June (I had met them earlier that day)– who came along because I had so many questions and she would have the answers about my dad.

St Mary’s College basketball team, William James Linhart is number 32

I don’t have words to explain what it was like to hear the stories and see the photos – to go where his ashes were scattered in Half Moon bay, to see St Mary’s College in Moraga where he had a basketball scholarship. To see where that basketball team took part in an iconic photo from 1959 – the Life magazine photo of cramming into a telephone booth. The Basketball team were the first one’s to cram in – which didn’t make much sense as they were all really tall! We found that very telephone booth in the welcome centre and Mary Alice and I took some photos there.

We took more pictures, laughed, cried, talked for hours and went on crazy tours of San Francisco, Mary Alice’s speciality.

Shelly posing in a booth commemorating the iconic 1959 Time Life photograph in which her natural father took part

I realised that they were really family and I was so much like them in so many ways. Not just height, my dad was 6’10” and I’m 6’1” – or looks, Mary Alice and I both have our father’s eyes. But there’s something even more – I think that DNA shows that the nature/nurture thing is definitely biased toward nature.

I feel so close to my little sister. I even feel protective of her- I’ve only just found her- and she’s grown up and doesn’t need me – but I do.

The more stories I heard about my biological dad the more I wished I had been able to find him 25 years ago when Mom dropped the bomb and then took it back. I tried looking then, but with no name and only the name of the college, that he was studying pre-law – I could find nothing.

I feel robbed by not knowing him. Mary Alice said he would have jumped on a plane right away once he had heard about me. He would have been part of my life, he wasn’t the type to leave Mom to it and go on his way having made a lucky escape. That’s not how he felt about his children.

I am so fortunate that this story has a happy ending. Other people with ‘unexpected results’ aren’t accepted so fully. The Linhart family have all been so generous, kind and accepting. From what I have found out, they are a lot like my father was.

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.


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