The Strange and Wonderful Power of DNA

My brother took a DNA test and found our grandfather.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

Every family has its stories.

Here’s one of mine.

My father was raised by a single mother who took the name of a man who impregnated her, but did not marry her. When my dad was five, she had a nervous breakdown and he went to live in an orphanage. When she could not regain custody of him, she got a job at the orphanage where he lived until he graduated high school.

There has always been some speculation that Grimes was a name my dad’s grandfather pulled out of a hat, so that his daughter could appear to have been married.

I have a large family — eight brothers and sisters, because my dad only ever wanted a large family— but for my whole life the only Grimes line has been my father and grandmother and us, and now our children. It has always felt as if the Grimes family started with my dad’s birth.

And then my youngest brother took a DNA test that netted us a second cousin named Grimes.

It turns out the test was wrong. She’s a first cousin. When I gave her the name listed as the father on my dad’s birth certificate, she said that man was her grandfather. Her father’s father.

My grandfather.

Her dad is my dad’s much younger half-brother. He’s only five years older than me.

My dad, who grew up an only child in an orphanage, has a brother. Actually he has four siblings, including at least two sisters.

The young woman who is my cousin looks like my sister. I see Grimes in her, the way I see it in me and my siblings and my children and my nieces and nephews. We have a look about us. You’d know, right away, that we were related.

Her father doesn’t look much like my dad at first glance. But I see it. Around the eyes. And he’s got the same coloring, except his hair is more fair. His daughter is blonde, too. I wonder if his mother was. My grandmother had black hair like my dad.

My dad’s half brother has a dimple in his chin, just like my brother and my youngest daughter do. We’ve always said Ruby got her dimple from Kyle, but until yesterday, we never knew where Kyle got his from.

Apparently my grandfather, who died seventeen years ago, had more than one child with a woman he wasn’t married to. My cousin’s DNA test ferreted out another uncle, last year. Her family has struggled to open up to him, she said when I told her that I’d love to connect our dads.

I know my grandmother knew him well enough to put his middle name included on my dad’s birth certificate. I know she never spoke about him and that no one in her family would ever tell my father anything about his father. Not even when he was an adult and his mother was long dead.

I don’t know if there will ever be a time when Grimes means more to me than my dad and my brothers and sisters and our children.

That cousin is in her mid-twenties. I have a feeling she probably took that DNA test for fun. To see where her ancestors came from. Maybe someone gave it to her as a gift. She probably did not expect to have to tell her father twice in the last year that he has brothers he never knew about. How could she expect that?

I asked my husband, who is an only child, what it would be like to suddenly find out he has four brothers and sisters he never knew about. He just shrugged. He didn’t think it would be that big of a deal. Weird, though, and maybe he’d have a hard time believing it. His parents have been married for 55 years.

My dad asked me if I thought the cousin thought we were related. I said yes, DNA is pretty irrefutable.


Here’s my secret weapon for sticking with whatever your thing is.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.