‘I took a DNA test and discovered the truth about my family secret’

·4-min read
Sophie Mumford: ‘Having been notified that my DNA relative was a first cousin from Canada, I was confronted with self-doubt’
Sophie Mumford: ‘Having been notified that my DNA relative was a first cousin from Canada, I was confronted with self-doubt’

Every family has secrets. And in every family, there is a gatekeeper to those secrets. In my small clan, that’s me – not through choice, but circumstance.

Historically, family narratives have been passed down through the storytelling of women. With a mother being slowly stolen by dementia, I am the only remaining storyteller in our family. And the secret I recently unearthed was one reborn from old scars.

It started with a tiny vial of saliva. Wondering whether I was doing the right thing, I sent off my DNA to genetic testing website 23&Me. I wanted to discover whether there was any truth to a long-held family rumour: that my late grandmother had spent a lifetime mourning the death of her wartime lover, the father of her illegitimate child, when in actual fact, unbeknownst to her, he’d been rumoured to be alive all along.

Be it through shame or pain, my grandmother would never talk about her Canadian Air Force lover. As her pregnancy – my mother – bloomed within her, he had gone missing in action. Or had he? Could he have survived and gone on to have more children? Perhaps the DNA test would give me the answer.

A few weeks after taking it, my results came back and I had a message telling me that I had ‘a new DNA relative’. The giddy, excited feeling was akin to online dating: ‘You have a match’.

Sophie and Sarah’s grandad was in the Canadian Air Force during World War Two
Sophie and Sarah’s grandad was in the Canadian Air Force during World War Two

Being a dreamer, I couldn’t resist the thought that one tiny message could hold countless possibilities. But having been notified that my DNA relative was a first cousin from Canada, I was confronted with self-doubt. What if she didn’t want to know me? What if just knowing I existed blew holes in her family?

I decided to sleep on it. Eventually I reasoned that she wouldn’t be on a DNA website if she wasn’t interested in hearing from relatives. And anyway, I’d come this far; I wasn’t going to stop now.

So I messaged her. “Hi, this might seem strange but I think we have the same grandad…” I held my breath.

The following day I received a reply. “Oh wow! How wonderful is this!” And with those first six words, we embarked on a beautiful journey of discovery together.

We have now spent several months getting to know each other. Sarah, a wedding officiant and artist who, at 51, is 10 years my senior, is funny, smart, kind and honest. With the seismic difference of time zones – not to mention juggling families and careers, which makes calling each other difficult – we have found comfort and safety through our shared love of the written word.

Sophie and Sarah have spent the past few months getting to know each other
Sophie and Sarah have spent the past few months getting to know each other

Through storytelling, Sarah has brought monochrome fantasies of a grandad I never knew into technicolour reality. I can stare at photos of him, observing how his lips curve gently to smoke a pipe behind a timid smile. If I close my eyes I can smell the oil and wood shavings of his cabinet-making pastime. I’d never had a grandad, but Sarah’s childhood memories evoked a sense of belonging in me, too.

Grandad did indeed go missing in action. But happily, he went on to survive the war. He returned to his homeland, never knowing the Atlantic would separate him forever from a daughter he never knew he had. And though my mother’s dementia hinders her understanding of things now, I can watch her gaze upon images of a father she always dreamed of and half-siblings, nieces and nephews she never even knew existed.

Having experienced the sense of loss during Covid and the feeling of our walls closing in with every lockdown, I now feel as if my world has opened up again – even wider than it was before.

Sarah and I are not only connected through bloodlines but through our shared passions for writing and art – the same Klimt and Modigliani prints adorn our walls an ocean apart. We regularly send each other voice notes, emails, photos and videos. There are plans to host a podcast to document our discovery of one another.

But much like online dating, we’re slightly afraid the illusion will shatter if we progress to ‘the next level’ too soon. So, our discovery of one another continues to evolve gently. And as travel restrictions begin to ease, I hover my finger over the checkout button for a return flight to Canada. From old secrets and wartime wounds unfold two perfect strangers, two granddaughters, longing to embrace.

Have you ever taken a DNA test? And if so, how did it turn out for you? Let us know in the comments section below

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