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first person

Illustration by Rachel Wada

Linda and I discovered each other through an ancestry website many years ago. Linda is a genealogist, and we are related on my mother’s side. She kindly monitors my DNA account messages, and called me in April when she noted a Norwegian woman thinks we might be half-sisters!

Okay, I think, is this for real?

Then Linda checks the numbers on my DNA account with some she has on an “Ashberry” grand-niece of mine.

“Oh, your father is not your father” she muses distractedly – then realizes what she just blurted out and apologizes.

“Don’t worry,” I tell her. I divorced my father’s side of the family decades ago.

In less than 24 hours, Linda figures out that both the Norwegian and I had cuckolded dads.

Now I have a sister, and we both share a new (and, as we find out later, already dead) dad.

I’m cool with being a bastard.

When I tell my cousin that I want to adopt that new moniker, she tells me that because my mother was legally married at the time of my birth, even though my father (Mr. Ashberry) and I were not biologically related, I don’t get to call myself “bastard.” Too bad.

But a sister … wow! Having grown up the baby in the family, with just two older brothers, I’ve always envied friends who had sisters. But I don’t know how this works. Plus, my newly discovered sister Sandra is five years younger than me. Ouch! I’m the older sister, so I have to become a role model, adviser and protector? But Sandra is about to turn 63, and I will be 68 in three months; chances are she has most things figured out.

So, we start e-mailing each other.

Sandra was born in Canada, to a Canadian mother and a Norwegian father (okay, he wasn’t really her father either, but let’s not get distracted). When she was 7, her dad moved the family to Norway and his hometown of Oslo. Her mom, dad and two older brothers are now all deceased.

My parents and siblings are dead as well.

This makes things sadly easier for us; there are not really any other people who have emotional interests in the pruning and grafting of our family trees.

Both of us have adult children who, when informed, are supportive, maybe even happy to have a new relative.

After about a week, with e-mails going back and forth, we decide to become friends on Facebook and see each other for the first time.

It’s like looking in the mirror. We both have the same nose (exactly like Ringo Starr’s), green eyes and the same facial creases that make us look a little like Cabbage Patch dolls.

We have similar interests: I like to travel, and have visited 23 countries. Sandra has been to more. On her Facebook page, half of her travel shots are similar to mine.

We both returned to school a little later in life to get a postsecondary degree and have had decent-paying government jobs.

Sandra is itching to come to Canada to meet me, but COVID-19 is in our way. In the meantime, we chat. She is quite happy with having an older sister. I give her unsolicited advice about her coming retirement, how it will feel even more difficult than the empty nest did, what with having to forge a new identity and purpose in life, but that it will also be fun and way more busy than you’d expect. I tell her that it’s too bad that I wasn’t around to help her through menopause. Then I apologize for acting like “the older sister.” But she e-mails me right back telling me to keep being her older sister.

That feels wonderful.

Meanwhile, cousin Linda continues to dig into the sludge of our DNA. She believes that Sandra and I are the daughters of one “Leslie H,” based on information from our tests and also from my adult grandson’s DNA test numbers. To make sure, however, I need to test myself again with the same company that a probable biological brother has used.

So, I ante up the cash, spit in the tube and send it off.

Four weeks later, my results are in.

Sandra and I have another brother and two sisters!

I’m nervous about contacting our new brother. Linda warns that a lot of people only test to see their ethnicity. He might be scared off by a stranger suddenly announcing themselves as family. I have to be careful about how I make the first contact. Maybe keep it focused on interest in medical info, and don’t sound like I want to push into his or his two sisters’ lives.

I construct a carefully worded e-mail, send it off to Linda for her approval and edit, then post it to Gerry’s account.

Within one hour, I get an e-mail back that starts: “Hello Sister!”

“Dad was a ladies man” he tells me right away.

Exactly five months after this journey began, there are four of us kids (ages 68 to 74) sitting around the garden table in my backyard, with one more (the baby, age 63) in attendance via FaceTime from Norway.

We are all well fed, settled and happy enough adults, each with kids and grandkids. Our story will build, I’m sure. But for now, just getting together, to see our matching noses and hear snippets about our father, is a great start.

Friends keep asking me what I feel about this and, to be honest, I don’t know yet. Right now it is simply interesting, engaging, funny and a bit frustrating. Frustrating in that our parents have all died and we will never know the whole story … but I doubt there would ever have been one clear version anyway.

I recognize that our experience is probably unusual. We’ve all come to this realization with open minds and hearts. From what I’ve read, and from what cousin Linda has told me, that is not always completely common. We are very lucky, and I think that all five of us recognize and cherish that.

Virginia Ashberry lives in Hamilton

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