Learning about her father’s birth family led to his adoptive family—and his own childhood. Thanks to DNA testing for family history and some diligent genealogy research, now she knows more about his TWO families.
Since childhood, Cheryl knew her father was adopted—and that tragically, he also lost his adoptive parents. “My father was born May 10, 1939 in Greencastle, Indiana,” she explains. “He was adopted at one week of age by Clifford & Ethel (Skelton) Reeves. Clifford and Ethel were unable to have children so they adopted my father, naming him Robert Allen Reeves. They were older than most other adoptive parents. They owned a business in Greencastle, named Reeves Electric Company.”
“He had a loving family life until 1951, when both his adoptive parents passed within a month of one another,” Cheryl continues.
“After their deaths, my father—at the tender age of 12—was bounced around between several family members. Eventually Robert was sent to Vermont where an older cousin and wife took care of him. My father was promised his guardian would help him find his biological parents. Sadly, they never did help him and he passed away not knowing where he belonged.”
These poignant stories, in combination with the subsequent loss of Cheryl’s father at an early age (circa 1966), became the driving force behind her lifelong quest to find out more about her father’s biological family.
Discovering adoptive family story
“In the beginning I spent many hours writing letters to historical societies in Indiana,” Cheryl recalls. Though no direct clues to her father’s biological family surfaced, she did learn more about his adoptive family. Cheryl even discovered a handwritten diary of Ethel’s, recounting daily stories about her father during his first two years of life.
Cheryl got married and started a family. For the next 20 years, she put aside her research. Then Ancestry.com became a popular online resource. “I dug out my work and my passion to find my grandparents reignited,” she recalls.
“In 2009, I was contacted by a relative [of] my father’s adoptive family. He [had] inherited all of the family’s photos. He had several pictures of a little boy named Allen, but no one in his family knew who this little boy was. He eventually found me on Ancestry and invited my mother and me to meet in Indiana to explore my father’s childhood years.” The result was a lovely meeting with relatives and the chance to see photos like this ones. (Robert is the young child standing with his adoptive mother, Ethel, behind him.)
DNA and birth family search
This meaningful reunion didn’t quench Cheryl’s original desire to find her father’s biological family. Fortunately, by 2012, DNA testing became affordable. “I studied all the different tests available and quickly learned that the only test that would work for me was autosomal,” she recalls.
“I quickly taught myself the best way to single out the paternal side of my family. I asked my mom and my sister to test with me. I knew [that] once the results came in any match my sister and I had together that didn’t match my Mom would have to be our [biological] paternal matches.”
“Within 6 months of our test results I received a message from a close family match who shared 421 cM’s [of DNA],” she continues. Cheryl had previously ignored this match, assuming that the match was maternal since she recognized a surname from her mother’s side. But this match, Becky, was persistent in her attempts to connect. Something important dawned on Cheryl: “Yes, [Becky] shares one last name with my mother—but just the name. No biological relationship.”
“Finally we decided to talk and we discovered after several hours that I was definitely related to her paternally,” Cheryl says. “She quickly got all the other cousins together to put their heads together to figure out our generation of connection.”
A DNA Skills Academy Breakthrough
During this time Cheryl started to read books by Blaine T. Bettinger and Diahan Southard. “They both are very popular and knowledgeable in the genetic genealogy field,” Cheryl says. She found Diahan’s Your DNA Guide—the Book to be “very easy to read.” Cheryl tried—unsuccessfully—to attend conferences at which Blaine and Diahan were speakers.
“When Diahan announced her first pilot class of the Your DNA Guide eLearning Academy, I was shocked [at] how quickly it filled up,” says Cheryl. “So I reached out to her and she kindly put me on the list for her second class.” She explains that each DNA Skills Workshop lesson builds upon the previous week’s learning “in a very informative, in-depth way. Diahan has a fascinating, natural teaching talent for a subject that is incredibly complicated!”
Cheryl’s longed-for breakthrough with her birth relatives occurred in November 2020, when Cheryl scheduled her one-on-one consultation with Diahan that is offered as part of the DNA Skills Workshop. “I explained my genetic brick wall, along with the genealogy brick wall,” she says. “I had all my relationships laid out along with their relationships to one another. It was in the consultation as I shared this information with Diahan that I discovered the clues to my research question. Had I never used the tools Diahan taught in her Workshop, I never would have seen it!”
“The thing that I’m amused about is I’ve been able to solve several adoption stories—but not my own—until I had the honor to run this by Diahan,” Cheryl says. “It was right there and I just didn’t see it.”
She comments that a song, “Angels Among Us” by Alabama, reflects her DNA journey. She feels that her father has been a guardian angel, passing on clues and encouragement from the other side; and that other angels have been around her, including persevering Becky and Diahan with her “quiet nudging.”
Now that she has achieved her goal of learning about her father’s biological family—and has connected with her father’s childhood through his adopted family—Cheryl sees a future ahead where she can be someone else’s angel. “Now that Diahan has helped me, I have the tools and more confidence in myself to help others to break down their own DNA brick walls.”
Use DNA to Answer Family History Questions
The method Cheryl described of sorting out her DNA matches by her mother’s side and her father’s side is explained in more detail in “DNA Testing to Identify a Birth Parent.” This and many related techniques needed to reconstruct your family tree using DNA—are laid out in Your DNA Guide—the Book. Lucky for you, we have a free guide to get you started on your journey, download it today to learn what DNA can tell you about your birth roots!
Thanks for an amazing story and the need for DNA to speed things up. I now advocate any of my Irish genealogy researchers to get their DNA tested as the time frame for useful DNA tests to origins is beginning to run out.
I was grateful too for the part of the story about ‘guiding angels’ that were ‘pointing’ her along her path. I am not religious but this is an important point when traveling an unknown road, like adoption. The small clues of someones life or behaviour, their customs and idioms, various beliefs or the way they spoke, especially if someone was well known to the researcher, provide some kind of a picture of reference that can guide research. These facts are often deep within someone’s psyche and are passed without conscious thought to future generations. They can be small verifications of facts learned and aid motivation.
What I also find interesting is the searcher often has a break through with a side member of the family who may also be curious and have no self limitations. An obstacle within? In one case I wrote to someone I was trying to help and reminded him that he was the product of a long and passionate relationship and that he knew really he was a result of a wanted pregnancy. Seemed to do the trick and he was able to lower his own fence of being abandoned and his mothers fence of reticence to talk about his father.
An inspiring read and writing about it means I have crystalised some ideas for my own page of revamped website. Thanks again.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Shay. There is so much to be communicated about a person and it is often those subtleties that bring the most color and personality.