When DNA Delivers You a Dad
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because very little is exactly what it seems.
By Jerry Wemple
The Facebook message arrived as I drove into the Home Depot parking lot. I’d waited decades to learn what Arlene, a near stranger, was about to tell me. Last spring, a DNA match indicated we were first cousins. She was what I was hoping for. I knew that my father was Black, but nothing else. My mother’s family is Pennsylvania German. Arlene was not.
My biological parents connected in Baltimore in 1959. Here is the story as best I know it: A woman named Charleen moved to Baltimore with her husband to look for better jobs. They already had three daughters, the youngest still a toddler. They left the youngest back home with Charleen’s mother. Charleen got pregnant by a man decidedly not her husband, returned to Pennsylvania and gave the baby — me — up for adoption. Charleen’s sister, Rose, adopted the baby. No one, save a few people, was supposed to know the baby’s blood connection to the family. Charleen and her husband had another child, a son, a year later. He was named after his father.
A few years ago, after Charleen’s third husband died, I realized she was 80 years old, and that if I wanted to ask her about my father, the time was now. The death of Charleen’s husband factored in because although they had been married since the 1980s, he knew little about me. Charleen created a world where I was Rose’s adopted son and nothing else. This Charleen was the doting grandma to a slew of towheaded grandkids, not the mother of a biracial son kept to the periphery of the family.
While I always knew I was adopted, I did not know Charleen was my birth mother until I was 13. Four years earlier, I had moved with Rose and her second husband to Florida. I never liked Florida and campaigned successfully to spend a summer back in Pennsylvania. One night that summer, Charleen and her second husband, a trucker from North Carolina, got into a fight. He was word-slurring drunk, but what he said was clear enough: Charleen couldn’t be trusted because she hid the truth about things. Things like me being her son.
There, in the dark, a man grabbed her, forced himself upon her. She never saw his face.
My first wife asked me why I never asked Charleen who my father was. “Why ask a liar about a lie?” I replied.
But I contacted her anyway, and Charleen chose to meet me at a McDonald’s off the interstate. My second wife came along. I needed someone who might be more objective and ask good follow-up questions. I had not seen Charleen in 25 years.
The gist of her story was this: She worked as a waitress in Baltimore. Her husband, a drunk, had locked her out when she returned home from a late shift. She went to the rear of their small rented house to see if there was an open window or another way in. There, in the dark, a man grabbed her, forced himself upon her. She never saw his face.
After the man left, she got in her car and drove three hours back to Pennsylvania, never to return to Baltimore. Charleen had tears in her eyes as she spoke of how painful it was to recall that night. When Charleen left our table to get another coffee, my wife gave her response: “I call bullshit.”
I asked Charleen a few other questions. Doing research on Ancestry, I found that my great-grandfather, Jesse, had an early marriage and two children that I never knew about. One of those children, a son, was Arthur G., the same first name and middle initial as me. I asked Charleen who had named me. She said she did. I asked if I was named after that Arthur. No, she said. The boy’s mother died while giving birth to her second child, a girl, and those kids were sent to the mother’s family, while Jesse went to Philadelphia for work. Jesse’s family had only sporadic contact with them after that. Charleen said I was Arthur Gerard because she liked the name Arthur and because Gerard is a saint’s name and we were a Catholic family.
This was all a lie.
Arlene’s message said she was able to confirm that I was her uncle Arthur’s son. Art, as he was known, was James Arthur Davis. I had likely been named after him. Hard to do if he were a total stranger. But Arlene spoke with one of Art’s sisters. “She knew about you, that Art had a son,” Arlene said. “She always wondered what happened to you.”
Art, who died years ago, was one of 13 children. He was from the small town of Cheraw, South Carolina, which is also the hometown of Dizzy Gillespie. He worked as a machinist for years until he was injured on the job in his 50s. He retired and died in his mid-60s. He married late in life and never had any other children.
Rose died years ago too, when my son, now 26, was 1 year old. She never met my daughter, Jamila Rose, now 22.
Charleen died months after our meeting. Family lore on my mother’s side has it that a man, who “sounded colored,” called my grandmother’s (Charleen’s mother) house asking for Charleen when she returned home from Baltimore pregnant. Charleen had good and bad qualities. I existed as a reminder of a problematic episode in her life, and I don’t think she really knew how to handle it in an honest way.
I used to take trips to Baltimore whenever I could. I’d imagine running into someone who looked like me, a sister or a brother, who might eventually introduce me to my father. It was all I had. Now we spit in a tube, wait months or years for DNA matches. This summer, my children and I will travel to South Carolina for the Davis family reunion. The cousins I’ve connected with promise to share their recollections of my father. But I must be a curiosity for them too — this long-ago rumor come to flesh via the internet.
- Jerry Wemple, OZY AuthorContact Jerry Wemple