Miracle DNA Reunions
Millions of people have used commercial DNA tests to trace their family trees. For a few lucky folks, the results have been life-changing, introducing them to relatives they had lost long ago—or never knew existed.
BOND OF BROTHERS
Walter Macfarlane, 76, and Alan Robinson, 74, have been friends for more than 60 years. They grew up a few miles away from each other in Honolulu and met in sixth grade. They played high school football together. They are so close, they’re Uncle Walter and Uncle Alan to each other’s kids. So imagine their surprise when they discovered they were in fact biological brothers.
“It did feel natural,” Walter says of the revelation. “We knew each other so well.”
It came about, as so often happens, by accident. Walter, a retired math and physical education teacher, knew that he had a complicated family tree. His mother had been young and unmarried when she gave birth to him during World War II, and because she couldn’t raise him on her own, the family pretended that his grandmother was his mother and his mother was his sister. Walter didn’t learn the truth until he graduated from high school. Even then, his mother never told him (or anyone else) who his father was.
So in 2016, when commercial Dnatesting kits were starting to take off, Walter’s daughter, Cindy Macfarlaneflores, suggested he try a couple. When Cindy logged on to ancestry.com to check the results, she saw that a user named Robby737 and her dad shared enough DNA to be half siblings. When Cindy asked her parents whether they knew anyone who could have that username, her mother immediately thought of Walter’s friend, Uncle Alan. His nickname was Robby, and he used to fly 737s for Aloha Airlines.
Could that really be possible? Walter wondered. He spent ten minutes trying to get his friend on the phone. When Alan finally answered, he confirmed to Walter that his username was Robby737.
“I’m trying to act cool,” Walter says. “But I’m so excited inside, I’m gonna burst out. I think I said, ‘Oh, I think we’re brothers,’ in just a casual manner. Then he said, ‘Yeah, sure. OK, Walter.’”
“I was in denial,” Alan says. “We’ve known each other for so long, I thought he was just joking around.”
But Alan knew it was possible. He had been adopted as a baby by Norma and Lawrence Robinson. Several years before, Alan had taken the same DNA tests that Walter did to learn more about his ethnicity and medical background. But he’d never talked to Walter about it.
Soon after the phone call, the men compared their test results on
“I’M TRYING TO ACT COOL. BUT I’M SO EXCITED INSIDE, I’M GONNA BURST OUT.”
23andme.com and found that they shared several identical X chromosomes, meaning they had the same mother. “If I wasn’t in that database, this never would have happened,” Alan says. “It was meant to happen.”
However, one person apparently worked very hard to make sure that it never happened: their mother. Walter knew his mother’s name was Genevieve K. Paikuli, but Alan’s birth certificate lists his mother as Geraldine K. Parker. The identical initials in the name listed as Alan’s mother led the men to believe that Genevieve had used a pseudonym when she gave Alan up for adoption. Alan also believes that his adoptive parents, the Robinsons, knew Genevieve was his birth mother and didn’t tell him out of respect for her wishes.
Neither brother knows why no one ever told them they were related, but they attribute it to the era’s social norms and the turbulent times surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor and the war, which was still being fought when both men were born.
“We don’t know what transpired, but [we have] no bad feelings,” Walter says. “At that time, you had your own reasons why you did what you did.”
But they have gained much more than they lost. Thanks to their DNA test results and research by Cindy, they learned who their fathers were—both were military men from the mainland who had been stationed in Hawaii. Those discoveries led to more: Walter found out that he has four more half brothers and has since traveled to California to meet them in person; Alan has two half sisters, who plan on visiting him over the coming holiday season, and a half brother. “It’s mind-boggling,” Walter says.
Now that their family searches have come to a close, Walter and Alan just want to make up for lost time. They had fallen out of touch after high school, and although they eventually reconnected, they still didn’t see much of each other because they were busy raising their kids. “If we had known sooner we were brothers,
we would have been contacting each other all the time,” Walter says. They are now. Both still live in Honolulu, about five miles apart, just like when they were kids. They talk on the phone weekly and go to lunch regularly. They’re even planning to take a cruise together.
“Our mother lived to be 92,” Walter says. “We have a few more years, hopefully. We have good genes.”
“THIS IS MY DAUGHTER”
When she was 16, Joanne Loewenstern learned that she was adopted. Until that day, she’d believed that her adoptive parents were her birth parents. Instead, they told her that her birth mother was a woman named Lillian Feinsilver and that she had died days after giving birth to her at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Feeling betrayed and confused, Joanne spent many nights crying, wondering what her birth mother had been like. And yet, some part of her believed her mother was still alive.
The doubts nagged Joanne for years. After watching this emotional turmoil, Shelley Loewenstern, Joanne’s daughter-in-law, suggested taking a DNA test. That was in 2017, and Joanne was already 79 years old. Even if her mother had passed years before, Shelley reasoned, learning something about her biological family might give Joanne some peace. So Joanne took the test, and about a year later Shelley received a message on ancestry.com from a man named Sam Ciminieri, whose genetic report had matched him with Joanne.
Shelley immediately wrote back to Sam, asking whether he knew a Lillian Feinsilver. Yes, Sam said, that was his mother’s name. Almost unbelievably, she was alive, at age 100—Joanne had been right all along.
But there were more shocks to come. Sam said that Lillian lived in an assisted-living facility in Port St. Lucie,
Florida. Joanne lived in Boca Raton, less than 80 miles down the interstate.
“As it turns out,” Joanne’s son, Elliot Loewenstern, told the Washington Post, “we have a whole other family we never would have discovered.”
The families quickly planned a reunion at the facility where Lillian lived. A month later, Joanne found herself sitting across from the mother she had searched for her whole life. Elliot, Sam, Shelley, and one of Joanne’s grandsons looked on. Lillian, who suffers from dementia and uses a wheelchair, was silent.
“I don’t know if she recognizes me,” Joanne said.
She told Lillian that she had been adopted in 1938 and that she’d been told her birth mother had passed away. No response. Joanne started to cry. At that point her mother perked up, as if she had started to understand. Joanne excitedly began telling Lillian all about her children and grandchildren. Lillian smiled. Then she said the words Joanne had waited more than 60 years to hear: “This is my daughter.”
The Loewensterns learned that over the years, Lillian had repeatedly told her family that she “lost her daughter.” Everyone, including Lillian, assumed that the baby had died. Joanne’s family speculates that because Lillian was unmarried when she gave birth, the baby was taken away and put up for adoption.
But now that the two women had been unexpectedly reunited, none of that mattered so much anymore. They spent time that first afternoon together coloring with colored pencils, which just happens to be a favorite hobby for both of them.
When Joanne visited again three days later, Lillian remembered quickly who she was. Now they see each other every few weeks to color, play games, and enjoy the time they have together. “I’m proud,” Joanne told WPTV. “This is something I wanted to do all my life.”
A ROYAL REVELATION
As a descendant of slaves, Jay Speights had struggled to find written documentation of his family history. He spent years looking, as his father had before him, but he was 64 before a DNA test offered a solid lead. The pastor from Rockville, Maryland, learned that 30 percent of his DNA was from Benin, a country located to the west of Nigeria about which Jay knew next to nothing.
At the urging of a friend, he turned to a database called GED Match, which has had success connecting African Americans and their African relatives, to learn more about his link to Benin. After uploading his data to the site, Jay saw a surprising DNA match. The website listed a man named Houanlokonon Deka as his distant cousin. Next to the listing were the words royal DNA. Beninese royalty? Jay was stunned. He had no idea what to do next.
But fate—or maybe even divine intervention—kicked in a few months after Jay learned of his royal lineage. At the New Seminary in New York he met the leader of the West African religion Vodun, who had traveled from his home—in Benin. Jay told the man and his group his unusual story, and one of the Beninese men immediately replied, “I know your king. Here is his number.”
“I mean, how could that possibly happen?” Jay says. “After all these years of going through my father’s search, going through files ... it just fell in my lap. That’s the hand of God.”
The first time Jay called King Kpodegbe Toyi Djigla, the traditional ruler of the kingdom of Allada in southern Benin, the king hung up. The second time, the king handed the phone to his English-speaking wife, Queen Djehami Kpodegbe Kwin-epo. She and Jay started messaging each other online. She told him he was a descendant of King Deka, who had ruled Allada centuries earlier. “We would be delighted to welcome you to your home, dear prince,” she wrote.
And so Jay went. On January 6, 2019, his late father’s birthday, he landed in Benin. Posters written in French, the country’s official language, greeted him: “Welcome to the kingdom of Allada, land of your ancestors.” At least 300 people were waiting for him outside the airport. They danced, sang, and played instruments to celebrate the return of their long-lost prince.
Accompanied by a motorcade, the queen picked him up from the airport, introduced him to local dignitaries, and showed him some historical sites. When they arrived at the palace for
an audience with the king, at least 1,000 people were waiting for them. Jay was overwhelmed with emotion.
“I started looking at faces and features. I’m looking for the physical connection to our DNA. Just taking it in,” he says. “You’re kind of almost dazed because you find yourself in a situation that most African Americans really believe you can never step into, that can never happen, and that’s to find the part of your DNA that comes from Africa.”
Once Jay composed himself and got out of the car, people cheered and chanted his name. He smiled and waved while walking through the crowd. When he and his interpreter reached the palace, he received a quick lesson in royal etiquette—what he should do when the king entered and how he should address Beninese royalty. In the throne room, the king welcomed Jay home, and they spoke about his trip through their interpreters. Later that night, Jay participated in a ritual that was to show whether his ancestors would accept him into the family. (Luckily, they did.)
How Jay’s royal ancestors came to America from Africa remains a mystery. Benin was once home to one of West Africa’s biggest slave ports. African royalty would sell war captives into slavery, and some would allow royal family members to travel with European merchants to the New World, where they would usually end up being enslaved. Jay’s Beninese
relatives told him the royal family of Allada would not have sold their own people into slavery, but they couldn’t tell him how his ancestors had ended up on a slave ship. He is still grappling with being a descendant of slaves and people who led others into slavery, but that knowledge doesn’t keep him from embracing his Beninese heritage.
“I’ve stepped into my identity,” he says. “I can point to a place on the map and say, ‘The Speights family comes from here, right here.’ We’re a royal family. We have a history. We’re tied into a much larger narrative.”
In fact, Jay has continued to deepen his connection to his homeland. When they met, the king gave him “princely duties”: Once he got back to Maryland, he was to look for ways to bring clean water to the village surrounding the palace in Allada and to promote the kingdom in the United States. Now Jay is partnering with the Rotary Club of Alexandria West in Alexandria, Virginia, to raise money to build wells in the village. He also serves as an ambassador to the kingdom’s diaspora, searching for others who have DNA from Allada (primarily through GED Match) and introducing them to their ancestral home. After all, not everyone can be lucky enough to be handed the king’s phone number.
Mikalin Watson-cheesman is proud of her first name. It’s short for Mika Linette, a combination of the two most important parts of her identity: Mika, the name she chose for herself when she became an adult, and Linette, the name her birth parents gave her—the name she didn’t know until she was 46.
Mikalin still remembers the exact moment she was separated from her mother, on September 24, 1975. Then just four years old, she and her mother were walking through Penn Station in New York City. Mikalin recalls that her mother seemed nervous, frequently stopping in her tracks to rummage through her purse. Mikalin spotted a candy store and asked whether she could go in. She thought her mother said yes, so she started browsing.
“The guy behind the counter asked if I wanted candy,” she says. “I said, ‘I’ll go ask my mom,’ and she was gone.”
A police officer found the girl wandering around the train station alone. When he asked whether she knew which direction her mother went, she shrugged. She wouldn’t speak to anyone. Before long, she was placed in a Catholic orphanage. The nuns
“I CAN POINT TO A PLACE ON A MAP AND SAY, ‘MY FAMILY COMES FROM HERE.’”
running it gave her a name—missy— because the girl still wouldn’t talk. The case hit newsstands when the New York Post ran an article on her, asking “Where is Missy’s mother?” No one answered. Two years later, when she was six, she was adopted. Her new family named her Michelle.
Once she finished high school, she moved out, changed her name to Mika, and traveled the country. She married and divorced twice and raised five kids, all the while trying to find her birth family. In 2001, desperate for any information, she posted on a genealogy website that she had been left at Penn Station and was searching for her birth mother. Lynn-marie Carty, a Florida-based private investigator and founder of reunitepeople.com, saw the message and sent Mika her phone number.
“I called her up and she said, ‘I wanna help you. Don’t worry about sending me any money or anything. I’m just going to help you,’” Mikalin says.
Carty worked the case on and off for 16 years without a breakthrough. In December 2017, she sent Mika a DNA test as a Christmas present. After running the results through several databases, Carty found that Mika was a match with a woman named Kelly Warren, who appeared to be Mika’s first cousin.
Carty called Kelly, who was initially skeptical of the whole story but eventually agreed to help. Kelly
remembered hearing that her uncle Richard Smith had lost a daughter many years earlier. She called him to ask whether he might know who this woman named Mika was. After hearing Mika’s story, Richard gasped. “Oh my God,” he said. “Linette is alive!”
Mikalin was born Linette Smith on June 30, 1971. Her birth mother, Barbara Wright, was 26 that fateful day at Penn Station. When she arrived home alone, she told her family that her daughter had fallen from a New York City building and died. Her family doubted the story and searched for Linette in orphanages and hospitals near Barbara’s New Jersey home without success. They later admitted Barbara to a mental institution. Once she was discharged, she could no longer live by herself and continued to struggle with mental illnesses. But she was still alive, living in Delaware, where a niece cared for her.
Knowing Barbara wasn’t well enough to travel, Carty arranged for Mikalin to fly from her home in Washington State to Florida to meet others in her long-lost family: an older half sister, Vivian Jackson, and her mother’s brother, the Reverend Joseph Wright, who was at the hospital the day she was born. “Bless your heart,” he told her. “You look like your mama.” They embraced. “I want to first say we humbly apologize for not protecting you ... I hope you forgive us.” Mikalin nodded, smiling through her tears.
Then Carty telephoned Mikalin’s father. He lives in Pennsylvania, where he receives dialysis three times a week. He told his daughter that he’d been heartbroken to hear of her death, “but now that I know you are alive ... I’m so happy.” Mikalin now talks to Richard as often as she can.
Her relationship with Barbara is more complicated. They first talked on the phone the same day Mikalin spoke to her father, but Barbara didn’t seem to understand whom she was talking to. “She’s overwhelmed,” her caretaker said. A few months later, Mikalin flew to Delaware for another birth-family reunion, this time with more family members, including her mother. But despite prompting from her relatives, Barbara didn’t say much.
“Maybe it’s that feeling of, she abandoned me again, when I was just right there,” Mikalin says.
Nevertheless, Mikalin isn’t angry with her mother. She’s happy to finally know the truth, “to know that there are people I look like, and where my roots and ancestors come from.” Her next big step: getting her name legally changed from Michelle to Mika Linette.
AFTER HEARING MIKA’S STORY, RICHARD GASPED. “LINETTE IS ALIVE!”