Well, who are you? Who, Who, Who, Who? – ‘Cause I Really Wanna Know*
Summary of Part 1: I find out my dad was born illegitimate, but he dies without telling anyone who his father was. Soon after his death, my mother hands me an envelope that my grandmother had instructed her to give to me.
In the envelope were two old, yellowed obituaries from newspapers in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, where my father had been born and raised. They were for a man named William who had died around 1945. But that was all the envelope contained, no note or explanation. And yet, there had to be some reason for this. Someone had clipped these obits and mailed them to my grandmother, who had held onto them for 20 some years before giving them to my mother, who had kept them another 18 years before handing them to me. William was 57 years old when my father was born, so it was unlikely he was the one. It was interesting that three of his sons were living just up the highway from me, in Cleveland, Ohio, at the time of his death.
But once again, I was at a dead end. The search could have ended right then, except for one astonishing detail. William’s last name was Shroyer. A name that I was very familiar with. My dad’s best friend was Bobby Shroyer. For seven straight years, until I was eleven years old, we spent four or five days each summer visiting the Shroyer family “back in Pennsylvania”. And we stayed at their house, even though it was not that large.
It now seems strange to take the exact same vacation every year, but looking back, those vacations were great times, evoking some of my best childhood memories. I was city boy and they lived way out in the country. They had an actual farm, all the fresh corn you could eat, and cows living next door. There was even an outhouse behind the garage! Bobby had four children Judy, Kay, Bobbi and Eddie. Bobbi and Eddie were around my age and we had a blast together every summer. Sadly, the vacations came to an end when Bobby passed away unexpectedly.
The Shroyer name on this obit was highly intriguing. It raised some questions. Were my father and Bobby more than just best friends – were they related? My dad was five years older than Bobby, a large gap for childhood best friends. Could there be another connection? When Bobby passed, my father refused to drive a few hours to attend the funeral for his best friend. Ah, what other family members might be there that he didn’t want to see?
But my search did pause, because it was 1984 and there was no practical ways to contact any of the family. I didn’t throw away the envelope though, it had been carefully preserved since 1946. It was practically a family heirloom, so I stuck it in a folder and got on with life.
The information about my father did play an important part in my life however. After the birth of my second daughter, we had to decide if “we should try for a boy”. The only reason I would have wanted a son that much would have been to pass on the family name. If you hadn’t noticed, family names are kind of important to me. However, the name I have is not my real name. Therefore, I had nothing real to pass on, so two daughters were fine with me. And probably just as well, I have a few friends who raised four daughters trying for that elusive son.
Around 2008, I saw that old envelope and read those obits again. Only now, with the Internet, it was much easier to locate people. I searched for Eddie, since unlike his sisters, his last name would not have changed. Using a people finder website, I found someone with that name living in Bedford County. I wrote a letter explaining the situation and asked Eddie to call me, if I had in fact found the right person. Again, the search could have ended if this was the wrong Eddie, or if he was put off by the weird story of me trying to find my real grandfather.
But a week later, Eddie calls me. I think he was more amused by my letter than anything. He probably thought I was a bit crazy, but decided to play along anyway. He said he had no information about possible relatives, but he would send me copies of some old family photographs he had. I wait for a couple weeks, but nothing arrives. I forget about the conversation. Then one day I arrive home from work, grab the top letter off the mail pile and tear it open. I stare on the contents and wonder why someone has sent me an old photo of my dad. Except of course, it’s not my dad, but an old “Shroyer” who looks remarkably like him. I call Eddie that evening, but he doesn’t even know the guy’s name. He does tell me his mother believes my grandmother was pregnant before she returned to Pennsylvania from Akron. Suddenly those Shroyer brothers who lived in Cleveland become much more interesting.
The photo was significant in that it was the first tangible evidence linking my dad with the Shoyers, but it was useless without a name. I was connecting the dots, but I had run out of dots. Once again, there were no new clues and I was stuck.
Eddie and I kept in touch however and I visited his home while on vacation in 2011. Even though I had arranged it, I was apprehensive about this reunion. We had not seen each other in 42 years and he was only nine years-old that last summer. People can change a lot over time, and not usually for the better. I was still the city kid and white collar. He never left country-life and dislikes wearing any collar. What would we even talk about? If the evening wasn’t going well, I was prepared to leave early. But my fears were foolish. It was as if Eddie and I had been close friends our entire lives. There was a kindred spirit, and afterward I wondered if it was a literal kindred connection. But I dismissed it, reasoning that if our fathers were best friends, then their sons should get along. I was sad to say goodbye after an highly enjoyable night. Three years later, I got to have dinner with Eddie and his three sisters, who I had not seen in 45 years. Again, a weird feeling because I just didn’t feel like a stranger at that table.
The breakthrough in the search happened earlier this year when I read an article about how all these long-lost relatives were finding each other using the ever-expanding DNA databases, which I am in. Was it possible to track family members back in time using DNA? Yes, it is. I found a genealogist skilled in DNA analysis who could solve this mystery for me at a reasonable price. So, Kimberly was on the case and she assured me she could find the answer in just a month. However, it did take her longer than expected due to the complications in the DNA, the result of families in rural areas being less mobile 100 years ago. But Kimberly attacked this challenge like a human bloodhound.
She was under some time pressure because I was traveling back to Pennsylvania soon. A week before I the trip, Kimberly provided me with a partial match. My grandfather was indeed one of the two Cleveland-based sons listed in the William Shroyer obit. Thus the obit was for my dad’s grandfather. And that meant that my father and Bobby Shroyer were indeed related – as second cousins. And best yet, that meant that Eddie and I are third cousins, once removed. I was able to announce this at a dinner with Eddie, and his sister Judy, and their spouses. This is one of those special moments that makes life so good. I am humbled that they are “honored” to have me as a member of the family. I mean, would you be that that happy
finding out I was your relative? I am
honored to be linked with such wonderful people. An old, corny commercials states “You’re not
just friends – You’re family” Well, in this case, it’s true. I sense that if we
lived closer to each other, Eddie and I would be best friends too, just like our
|Cousin Eddie welcoming me to the family|
A week later, I opened an email from Kimberly, and up on the screen popped several photos of my grandfather. It was too much emotion hitting me at one time. It was as if someone had bitch-slapped my soul. I sat stunned, staring at the screen, letting the tears flow. I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t sad, just overwhelmed. It had taken me 45 years to solve this riddle, but the proverbial dog had just caught the car after a long chase. I told you I don’t give up answering tough questions easily.
My grandfather was Jeff Shroyer. I was pleased to learn that he was not married at the time of the conception. In fact, he played the field, hopefully more carefully, for another seven years before finally settling down. Sounds like kind of a frisky guy. So if you are keeping score, that would bring my “frisky” DNA level up to 50%, without even accounting for the other half my family. But I can assure you that I am maximum 50% frisky, because everyone on my mother’s side of the family are completely, purely righteous people. If fact, a couple of them were actually canonized. I believe that may have happened during the Civil War.
So what to make of all this? Your DNA literally shapes you, but it doesn’t define you. You are still responsible for that by the choices that you make. And this is ultimately the story of my father, who was dealt some awful starting cards in life, but played them extremely well. And because he did, my starting hand was much stronger than his. And I hope I have played my cards well, then of course, I did have an excellent teacher. And that makes a huge difference. My father may have been utterly ashamed of his heritage, but I’m darn proud of mine.
*Lyrics by The Who