Opening the door

This morning at 5:47 a.m., I spit into an Ancestry DNA test tube and placed it into the postage-pre-paid box.

When I was two years old, my bio-father walked out on my older brother, my mother, and me. He left for a younger woman who was a student at the local state college where we lived in Pennsylvania. The story I always heard was that he left my brother and me with a neighbor while “babysitting us,” my mother out for the day. After my mom figured out what had happened, she went to the college and had the “other woman” thrown out of school—she was always proud of that—then she moved with my brother and me to Boston and entered a graduate program at Harvard.

A year or so later she met a fellow graduate student, and they married three weeks later—he was the man who raised me from the time I was four, the man I called Dad. After they finished their degrees, we moved to California where he and my mom taught at a small college. The two spent their lives teaching and traveling the globe, conducting research together in cross-cultural child development. At the same time, they raised my older brother and me and had another son eight years my junior: the half-brother I grew up with.

Meanwhile on the east coast, my bio-dad Paul married the younger woman, and they too had a son, also eight or so years younger than I am. I saw Paul just three more times in my life and met that half-brother only once when I was a teenager, twice as an adult. But when that half-brother was about five, Paul left him and his mother, too—for another woman.

What I didn’t know until about a year ago was that Paul would repeat this pattern—with women, if not with children—at least four times in his life; he died twenty years ago.

To say I had a complicated relationship with my family would be an understatement. My fathers not withstanding. My mother, who died twenty years ago, and I were quite different. Among other things, she was both brilliant and also strong-willed (not that those things are mutually exclusive or that I am labeling myself as not-brilliant). She wanted me to bend to her will, to her high standards for me, and I spent much of my young life trying to live up to her expectations—at the same time fighting like hell to figure out who I really was and what I really wanted to do with my life rather than fighting against what she wanted for me. It’s been a struggle.

The whole time I was growing up, I longed to have a close relationship with my bio-grandmother (Paul’s mother). I felt closely akin to her, I’m not sure why. She, a Russian immigrant, lived in NY City; me, a very-American teen, lived in California. I saw her maybe once a year, if I was lucky. But in temperament, in spirit, I was very much my grandmother’s granddaughter—her only granddaughter. When my grandmother died I was “not invited” to the funeral. As in, I was asked not to attend. I suppose it was too complicated with various of Paul’s girlfriends/fiancés/wives, and at the same time, Paul was notoriously ill tempered—at least one relative told me I should be happy he wasn’t in my life. But to me, it felt like the ultimate rejection. I wish I’d gone to her funeral, and it still stings that I chose not to.

In the past six months, I’ve become active on I’ve researched both sides of my family—my biological roots—going all the way back (if I’m to believe Ancestry research) to my fifth great-grandfather Rabbi Eliyahu Zeldovich born around 1850 in Minsk, Belarus. On the other side, to the late 1700s (!!!) in Switzerland.

I’ve also found living second cousins and third cousins and distant “aunts and uncles,” some of whom I met when I was a child, at my grandparent’s lake house near New York City. All told tales of life in eastern Europe and Russia, some told harrowing stories of escaping to the freedom of the United States. These stories fascinated me and still do, so I hope someday soon to visit a cousin and “uncle” whom I’ve reconnected with, who know more of those stories.

But to actually find people I’m related to via DNA? It took me a while to get there. When I first heard about the test, I was skeptical. What would that give me? But as I thought about it, I realized. Paul . . . his various wives, girlfriends, etc., I’ve known men like that. Surely there may have been others. Other relationships.

The younger half-brother I grew up with died five years ago. My older brother and my other half-brother (the one I’ve met three times) are still alive. But . . . the elephant in the room . . . did Paul have other children? One of Paul’s errant relationships (let’s be honest, here—no one likes to think of their parents this way—one errant sperm) could have produced another half-sibling. Another half-brother? Or half-sister? Maybe someone who’s wondering the same thing on

But to be willing to open that door. That’s something. That’s what I feel like I did this morning. I opened a door to . . . something . . . or nothing. I won’t start to find out for at least six to eight weeks.

To be continued . . .

Have you delved into your family’s history? Have you (or would you) explore DNA testing?


  1. Micky Wolf says:

    Enjoyed your post, Julia. Haven’t done the DNA part yet, but have done a lot of genealogy work over the years. Sometime ago I learned my paternal grandfather had been married twice and fathered at least eleven children between the two wives–as well as three [?] by mistresses. Sadly, two of those three spent years in the orphanage. My father, from the second group of siblings, also married twice. I’m from the second group as well. At any rate, there are still a lot of missing pieces on that side of the family.

    I also recall hearing grandparents talk about a Native American connection as well as French Canadian Indian. The specifics of those are yet to be determined. Interestingly enough, our daughter married an Italian and our son married a Russian girl who immigrated to this country with her parents when she was thirteen. Add that to the mix, along with what we know about various deeds and misdeeds of the ancestors, and the picture is rather complicated to say the least.

    By the way . . . checked my ‘sunshine’ county. We’re 2,879 of 3,111. Yikes. I did purchase a light lamp last fall and use it most mornings for at least half an hour. Does seem to make a positive difference. And it sure can’t hurt anything, right? 🙂

    • First, ugh about the sunshine factor — but glad to hear the light seems to make a positive difference! As for the genealogy, that’s super interesting. (So sorry about the children who spent time in orphanages, that’s very sad.) I’m hoping that some of the missing pieces get filled in, but I would be stunned with eleven children, wow. “Various deeds and misdeeds of ancestors…” complicated, yes!

  2. Nina says:

    I’m in suspense!! What a story! Have you read the novel Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh? Anyway, so many novels (and nonfiction) aren’t even as interesting as your story here.

    • What? Really? Thank you!! I haven’t read Mrs. Kimble, but I’m going to order it now. BTW, just before reading your comment I ordered the Helene Hanff book you recommended on IG. Thanks for two great book recs and especially for the read and the comment of my DNA story! I’ll keep you posted!