We’re WHAT, Now?

As I’ve said here before, I did my first ancestral DNA test last year.

The results have been posted up on the company’s Web site – via my own member page – for over 9 months. Based on the speculative nature of the tests, I have over 400 genetic relatives.

But going through the list of “matches”, my fellow members belong to all sorts of haplogroups – a number of them aren’t even close to mine. Some of them were able to do the male lineage – or Y-DNA – tests, so their genetic pictures are a bit more complete than mine.

One would like to hope to stumble across someone who could realistically be a family member. But when the closest “relative” shares less than 0.5 percent on one segment of a teeny, tiny shred of DNA, it’s hard not to be skeptical.

Well, for some people.

Twelve days ago, I got an email from someone on the Web site, asking to share ancestral genetic information. She was American, didn’t have a photo, and didn’t have any ancestral surnames that seemed to match mine. I couldn’t even see which haplogroup she belonged to.

I did think about not accepting the invitation. But I thought, what the hell. Maybe there’s more information on her profile that I can’t see without accepting the invitation.

So I accepted.

The next day, I received a message. It began:

“I am very happy to know that I am sharing this life with a new found cousin …



I read it a second time, along with the rest of the message, which instructed me to contact the woman’s brother – it seems that he was the one who managed the account on the Web site, and that I could get in touch with him for more information.

I sent a friendly, but somewhat neutral email in response, and promptly emailed the brother. I explained that his sister emailed me, that I was still fairly new to genealogy and DNA tests (which is true, in that I’m no expert in this at all, other than paying money to take them), that my family lineage was Jamaican, and that I was curious to see how I was related to his family.

At the very least, I figured that perhaps he’d take a look at my profile on the ancestral DNA account and see that we weren’t really all that related.

He wrote back a lengthy response. He talked about his own foray into genealogy and genetic testing (he’s a novice like me). And I suppose, given how I had written my original email, he’d assumed that I was starting from scratch — he then explained how hard it is to search for African-American ancestors because of records, that one had to be patient, etc. And then he asked me for ancestors’ names and dates to start the search.

Admittedly, I read the email and let out a deep sigh.

I don’t begrudge the guy or his sister for trying to connect the dots in their family tree – it’s exactly what I’ve tried to do, what many others are doing as I write this. And what he said about finding records for ancestors lost to time is true, and it’s no easy task.

But I read this email and thought, there is no way on this Earth that there are any links between his family and mine – UNLESS, there is some unnamed, unidentified ancestor who was either taken from Jamaica to the U.S., or vice-versa. The links would have to be extremely distant.

Just to be sure, I went back to the DNA testing Web site to see if this woman and I were in fact from the same haplogroup.

How do I explain this? We come from the same tree limb, but we sit on two completely different branches. Or maybe, we’re from different twigs sprouted from different branches of the same limb. Something like that. Either way, it doesn’t completely add up for me, so my skepticism is deep.

As of last week, the woman’s brother said he’d start looking into ye olde family research at the beginning of April.

This is either going to confirm what I already knew. Or this is going to get  … messy.

Three Deaths, Two Marriages, and One Unexpected Name

While my research on Ellen has stalled once again, I’ve discovered information for other ancestors in my family tree in the meantime.

You see, unbeknownst to me, the Mormon genealogy site I’d been using to search for records had updated its Jamaican civil registration collection in August.

So when I was searching the online database a couple weeks ago, it spat out some results I wasn’t expecting.

First, I found the death certificate for a 50-year-old, married railway worker who had died of “haemorrhage and shock” after a collision between a railway engine and a truck.

I still couldn’t be completely sure, because of the man’s marital status. But his profession and the circumstances of his death were too uncanny to dismiss.

This man could most likely be my paternal grandfather.

The second death certificate I discovered was that of my mother’s paternal grandmother. I remember my mom telling me what year she thought she’d died, and the cause of death. The certificate gave a death date that was a year off, but her name, her residence, and the illness looked about right.

I could not believe my luck at what I was finding.

I’d also found two marriage certificates: one for my maternal grandfather, and the other for my paternal grandmother.

I showed my mother the online records (on her desktop computer) when I went to visit her last Wednesday, to get a second opinion. Other than the cause of death, she didn’t know much about my dad’s father. But she looked at the certificate and said she couldn’t see why it couldn’t be him. Same with my grandmother’s marriage certificate.

The only record she was really skeptical about was her grandmother’s — only because she was convinced she was older when she’d died, and the age recorded was much younger.

One thing I’d noticed: the person who’d signed her death certificate, was listed as “the sister of the deceased”. But her last name …

Was she actually my great-grandmother’s sister-in-law, and it was just easier to write “sister”?

Or, was she really my great-grandmother’s sister, who’d married one of my great-grandfather’s brothers?

It even bewildered my mom a little bit. She’d never heard her grandmother talk about siblings. Or, if she did have any, my mom had never met them.

At that point, she left the room to do something, and for whatever reason, I decided to plug in one more name – that of my maternal grandfather’s father – just to see what would happen.

In less than five minutes, I was staring at his death certificate. I went to find my mom to show her what I’d found.

There was one thing about the certificate that had us positively stumped.

The family member who’d signed the death certificate was Milda, Ellen’s baby sister … the lone sibling currently still alive.

Except that the name she wrote on the certificate, ISN’T the one on the birth certificate I’d previously assumed to be hers.

Up until now, I presumed that her name was Hilda May – based on the birth certificate I’d found – and the name she’s been going by is a nickname, or some sort of amalgam of her first and middle names.

NOPE. Apparently her name’s Milda Maud. Both my aunt and her older sister have confirmed this.

Was the name assigned to my great-aunt at birth a mistake? Did she decide to change her name when she was older?

Or was there another sibling that I hadn’t accounted for?

Finding Ellen

As the child of immigrants, I was always of the firm belief that my mother was the first of our family to step on Canadian soil, setting in motion this chapter of my family history.

I suppose that’s still true. But as I recently found out, it’s not entirely accurate.

Years before, one of her aunts arrived here from Jamaica.

Growing up, she’d asked her dad about his sister, named Helen. He scolded her, telling her not to mention his sister’s name. No explanation was given.

She and her older sister knew what this aunt looked like, by way of a single photo – she was, by then, approaching middle age – and kept it for years. (It has since disappeared.)

After she arrived here in 1968 (after seven years of training, then working, as a nurse in the United Kingdom), my mother tried to look for Aunt Helen, under the impression that perhaps she’d come to Toronto. She called all the women in the phone book with the same name, only to come up empty.

And, for years, the story behind Aunt Helen remained a cold case of sorts, shrouded in mystery.

On last fall’s trip to Italy, Mom had spoken about her side of the family and mentioned this aunt with no story nor reason behind her abrupt departure to Canada, or the rift it apparently caused within her dad’s family.

I’m sure this wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned this mystery relative. But for whatever reason, this time, it stuck, and has been lodged in a corner of my mind, like a dog-eared cue card wedged in a dusty book, for months.

My father’s sudden death this past winter – aside from leaving me with a lingering melancholy – has gotten me thinking about the importance of family. Or, at least, the importance of trying to know about one’s family.

I started thinking recently, wouldn’t it be nice if I could find something out about Mom’s Aunt Helen … to give her the gift of some closure, to stop wondering?

Two and a half weeks ago, out of sheer boredom with my life – and my work – I decided to start scratching away.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Mom didn’t know when this aunt was born, or even when she would have left Jamaica (other than that it was before she was born, perhaps even before her sister’s birth three years earlier).

A lot of my Google searches were dead ends. I even tried looking for any proof of Helen’s existence, through the free resources offered by the Library and Archives Canada Web site – combing through immigration records, scouring for any record of her voyage on ship passenger lists. Nothing.

Late one night, I tried Google for the upteenth time, and stumbled upon a genealogy site run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. (Yes, Mormons run a genealogy Web site. They also have many, many birth, death, marriage, baptism and other church records from around the world – including Jamaica. I only learned this recently.)

So I tried to input what I knew, using different combinations, parents’ names (as I knew them), with no dice.

Frustrated with the lack of results, I tried another approach, by using my grandfather’s name to see if that prompted any results.

Mere seconds later, I was swearing and staring, wide-eyed, at what looked like a listing for my grandfather’s date of birth (which I would have to verify with my mother the next day), and … based on the information … the listing for the birthdate of my long-lost aunt.

As it turns out, she wasn’t Helen – as I was led to believe – but Ellen. (I also stumbled across other family records, but more on that later.)

The following day at work, I called my mom and verified my grandfather’s birth date, and then told her about Ellen’s birth record – which, understandably, threw my mom for a bit of a loop. After about 20 minutes of excitedly sharing my findings, I hung up the phone, and decided to take another crack at Library and Archives Canada.

It led me to a photocopy of the passenger list, which included the record of her travels to this country.

I could hardly believe it. All I could do was gaze at my computer screen in sheer disbelief. I kept that on-screen window open for at least a good couple of hours.

In the span of about 15 hours, I had gone from having almost no information, to two solid pieces. The blurry shape had acquired a bit of focus.

Further digging helped me to understand what I now know (so far):

Almost 85 years ago, Ellen left her well-to-do family, boarded a ship – the “Lady Rodney” – from Kingston, Jamaica, and arrived in Montreal some 11 days later.

She was all of 20 years old, and alone. She came to work as a domestic, at a time when Canada was doing everything in its power to remain as white as it possibly could, discouraging all but handfuls of requests for “coloureds” (African-Americans and British West Indians) to be let into the country.

The timing of her arrival was also interesting, as it was roughly four months before the big stock market crash of 1929, and the start of the Great Depression.

But why Canada? Why not Great Britain? And how on earth did she find her employer? Those are things I’m not sure I’ll ever find out.

Further online surfing and visits to the library have given me a bit of context about the time Ellen would have come to Canada. But no other concrete bits to go on.

Did Ellen stay in Montreal? Did she, in fact, move to Toronto at some point? And when did she die?

These are the things I hope I’ll get to discover, to help flesh out a story with already extraordinary beginnings.