When columnist Nicole Brodeur and her niece took an Ancestry.com test late last year, they never expected to find new members of the family.
None of us cared about the affair.
That’s not to say we didn’t wonder about it: How my grandfather first got together with one of the waitresses who worked at his Massachusetts bar back in 1942. How they made an immoral decision together, and where. Whether it lasted for weeks, months, years. Or if it was just one time, which would have been enough.
All that really mattered to my sister, niece and me is that the affair produced a son; that that son had a daughter. And that daughter, a woman named Lee Ann, was standing in my sister Suzie’s kitchen last week, tall, blue-eyed and brown-haired. Flesh and bone. Family.
It was just as Ancestry.com had predicted.
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Last year, before Christmas, the online genealogy site asked if I wanted to take one of their DNA tests and write about my results. Their slogan for the season: “Give the gift of family this Christmas.” More than 1.5 million kits were sold at the time (triple the number the year before), and there are now 7 million users in its database.
I spit into the plastic tube they provided and sent it back. A few weeks later, my results proved to be as compelling as a dust-coated diorama. I was a descendant of the St. Lawrence French River Settlers, who came from Europe to Canada, then migrated to New England.
No big surprise. My father was born and raised outside of Boston. We summered at Cape Cod, where my Uncle Billy still lives. Thompson’s Clam Bar, Yahtzee after dinner. I knew it well.
There was also a mix of Eastern and Western European lineage in my blood, which made sense, since my mother was born in France.
Everything followed, so I felt pretty sure about where I came from and who my people were. I glanced down the Ancestry.com rabbit hole and moved on.
Around the same time, my niece, Danielle, had sent in her own saliva sample to Ancestry.com. While she waited for her results, she built a family tree on the site, including the name of Alfred Brodeur, who was my grandfather and her great-grandfather.
Immediately, the website directed her to another family tree that contained the entry: “? Brodeur.” It belonged to someone named LB who lived outside of Baltimore.
Danielle sent LB an exploratory email.
“Hello, close cousin,” she wrote in the subject line. “We appear to have matched pretty closely, and since my mom’s family (the French [Breton] and French Canadian side) is pretty small, I’m curious to know how! My tree is public so have a look and let me know what you think!”
“Pretty simple and naive,” Danielle said later.
The next morning, Lee Ann opened her email and saw Danielle’s note.
“My stomach kind of dropped a little bit,” she told me. She went to Danielle’s tree and saw Alfred Brodeur’s name, and my father’s and uncle’s below it. And then my sister, brother and me. Cousins.
Lee Ann was dumbstruck. “This is my dad’s father,” she remembered thinking. “This is not this elusive family tree anymore. This is the family tree.”
Lee Ann’s father was named Jon Hall. He was born in 1942 and died in 1988 of brain cancer, when Lee Ann was 14.
When he was young, he became aware that he did not have the same father — George Hall — as his sister, Joanne. It was why George left his mother, Margaret; why Joanne was sent to an orphanage for a few days while Margaret had baby Jon; and why Margaret’s sister, Mary, took Joanne and the new baby to live with her for seven years until Margaret (who visited her children regularly) remarried and took them back.
All his life, Lee Ann said, her father felt a sense of otherness. A little lost. Only once did he reach out to his biological father — my grandfather — who told him that he was sorry, but he couldn’t open the door to a relationship. He had a family. He couldn’t risk it all.
“My father left it alone,” Lee Ann said. “But he always wondered what a relationship with Al Brodeur could have been like.”
Jon attended a private high school for boys, where my Uncle Billy, three years older, walked the same halls. (“It’s crazy that there’s a yearbook out there that has both their faces in it,” Danielle said.)
After high school, Jon joined the Coast Guard, married a woman named Ann, and had Lee Ann and her brother, Kevin, who is also my cousin. (Yay!) The family was living in Maryland when Jon died. His wife never remarried.
It wasn’t until 2002 — 14 years after Jon’s death — that Lee Ann learned from her mother about her father’s history.
When DNA testing became readily available, Lee Ann sent a sample to Ancestry.com.
“It was just in my brain,” she said. “I just wanted to know.”
With Danielle’s email, Lee Ann had access to the family that her father had been denied, that he had yearned for.
Lee Ann called her mother: “OK,” she began. “This is what just happened.” She told Ann about Danielle’s email, the family tree and the name on it. These were Al Brodeur’s grandchildren. Like her.
Leave it alone, her mother said. (“She was afraid.”)
Lee Ann then called her Aunt Joanne, who grew up watching her brother feel incomplete.
Yes, Joanne said, write this Danielle person back.
“I think your father would want you to do this,” she said. “Anyone who could be hurt is dead.”
One Friday night, Lee Ann sat down to respond to Danielle’s email.
“I was nervous, but these are answers my father was never able to find,” she said. She wrote Danielle a long note, offering “a bit of genetic insight regarding our ‘match.'”
She gave Danielle the basics of her life, and recalled visiting New England relatives every summer. She always knew she was Irish, but never questioned if there was any other lineage. And yet, there were whispers, conversations that trailed off.
But she knew this, for sure: Her grandmother, Margaret, had worked at a bar owned by a man named Al Brodeur.
“I felt like I had launched something out of Enola Gay,” Lee Ann said, referring to the first plane to drop an atomic bomb.
Sitting in a bar with her husband at an after-work function, Danielle looked at her phone, read Lee Ann’s response, ran outside and called her. It was about 10:30 at night. They talked for a while, and then Danielle called my sister.
In truth, we had a hunch. After my father’s funeral in 2013, my Uncle Billy sat in our kitchen and said he thought he and my father had a brother somewhere in the old neighborhood. My father left right after high school, but Billy, 10 years younger, had stayed in Massachusetts all his life and had heard snippets and suspicions.
So when my sister called with news of Lee Ann, Billy was quiet, but OK.
“Wow,” he said. “Wow.”
A few days later, Lee Ann was sitting in the Target parking lot when her phone rang. Someone calling from Nantucket.
“Danielle had warned me,” Lee Ann said. “I figured this had to be Billy.”
“Ah, so …,” he began. “I hear I have a niece.”
When Lee Ann asked Billy about his father, he said he had been in the restaurant business, and named the bar where Margaret had worked as a waitress.
“My father was a wonderful man,” Billy told her. “He didn’t have a lot of money, but he made things happen.”
And then: “This doesn’t surprise me.”
And Margaret? “She had a mind of her own,” Billy said.
They arranged to meet at a restaurant north of Baltimore. It was pouring rain and Billy had trouble getting around, but they all weathered it all — especially Lee Ann.
“This was my father’s brother,” she said.
And here we were, his nieces.
This all may be new to us, but not to the folks at Ancestry.com, who have devoted an entire page to stories of discoveries and reunions, hunches verified. But I didn’t see much about affairs that resulted in grandchildren spending 24 hours together.
Happy as we were, my sister and I wondered how my father would have felt about his father having a child with another woman. I am sure it would have upset his sense of propriety, but my sister and I believe that my father would have welcomed Lee Ann as we did. She was his brother’s daughter. “A good kid,” he would have said.
When we gathered at my sister’s house, there wasn’t a second of awkwardness, for we were on a level plane. Each of us had something the others didn’t, and we presented them like dishes at a potluck that we feasted on, washing it all down with wine. We looked at photos and told stories, painted pictures of our late parents and wondered out loud and to ourselves about the mysteries of DNA, whether it affects more than hair and eye color, but temperament and taste.
“It has been weird, but it hasn’t been,” Lee Ann told me the other day. “It has been just amazing. People say, ‘Isn’t that weird?’ and I say, ‘I can’t tell you how not weird the whole 24 hours was.’ I didn’t want to leave.
“I feel like this came to me for a reason,” she said. “Like this was some sort of gift. We were all supposed to find one another.”
Within days of our meeting Lee Ann, her sister-in-law passed away. She let my sister, niece and me know by text, and we each responded with support and love.
She was stuck with us now.