Friday, June 19

Chasing Names, Part 1: My First Family Mystery

"I would have answered you sooner, but your last name confused me," she told me the first time we talked on the phone. "I couldn't see how we were related."


Meeting my Aunt Roxanne for the first time marked the end of an enduring mystery for me, one that I had actively tried to solve over two decades ago. At the onset, I had more misinformation than anything concrete, trying to chase down a presumed grandfather who was a "British soldier of Irish-Spanish descent, serving in World War II."


Separating Myth From Mystery


The British soldier myth was an upgrade from the original story. My father, who died at 19 in a car accident, was described as a "dark German." The story changed for me about the same time it changed for my father. We were both about 14 years old when we learned the truth. His father wasn't his father. My grandfather wasn't my grandfather.

My step-grandfather's name was placed on my father's birth certificate in Germany as a matter of convenience. When she was two months pregnant, he met my grandmother and loved her enough to propose and claim the child as his own anyway.

Since I was estranged from my father's family during my teens, it took another 15 years before I learned that my second set of clues was also a myth. I reconnected with my grandmother after my son's birth, and she gave me a new set of fuzzy facts.


My grandfather, she told me, was not a British soldier. He was an American soldier she met during the Berlin Blockade. She couldn't recall his name but remembered he would get in fights because he looked Mexican. His name may have been Oscar, she said, but he didn't go by that.


DNA tests were just emerging at the time, but I decided to try one. The first one, DNA Tribes, helped refine my search. My grandfather was less Mexican and more Native American, including genes exclusive to the Quechua tribe (part of the Inca empire). A significant number of potential family members could be found in Texas.


While DNA Tribes provided some detailed findings, it had few members, so I expanded my search with 23 and Me (a MyHeritage partner at the time) and ancestry.com.

Putting DNA Tests To Work

There are plenty of stories about lucky people. They find people right away. I wasn't one of those. My plan was built on meticulous research. I searched the databases for all Texans named Oscar, who served in the armed forces. I would then cross check them (and any brothers) with those who served in the armed forces between 1948-1949 and people who were potential DNA matches. 


Unfortunately, not all people with close DNA matches build their family trees on these sites. So, I often looked up weaker DNA matches with more robust family trees and searched for any reference to one of the Oscars I had found. I must have searched through hundreds of family trees, looking for my needle in a haystack of needles.


When I felt like I was narrowing in on a close match, I would send out in-service messages to the people managing those family trees. And, given there was a chance my biological grandfather did not know about my father's birth, I was as sensitive as possible.


We have such a good DNA match, I was hoping you might be willing to share some family history with me. My grandfather was an American soldier who served in Berlin abt. 1948-1949. He may not have even known he had a son. Do you have any relatives who this might be? I would love to know, and finally find the missing link.


On genealogy sites, patience can be a virtue. It's not uncommon for inquiries to go unanswered for years if they are ever answered. Some sent messages are still sitting in the inboxes of people who never revisited the site, couldn't reconcile my acquired German name with their surname or weren't interested in verifying an illicit relationship.


Making Sense Of Family Ties


Sometimes it takes more than your own ability to connect all the dots. While I had written and corresponded with several people, I had to write my most promising DNA match twice. The first time she didn't respond. The second time took six months.

She decided to respond because one of her daughters had tried another service, and my name appeared again. She reread my message, then we started writing, texting, and then talking to each other on the phone. We knew there was a connection, but we weren't sure where.


All five Navejar brothers had served in the armed forces. She had to make several phone calls to find out which brother was stationed in Germany at the time. It wasn't the brother named Oscar. It was Baldemar, who always went by Sonny, and he happened to be her father.


Roxanne taught me about the father my father never knew. And while he had not raised her, she knew him, who he was, and was connected to the Navejar family. They were early Texans, Native Americans, and descendants of the Quechua. They inspired my sketchbook project at The Brooklyn Art Library.

She taught me something else, too: how to welcome lost family members into your own. It was a lesson that would come in handy twice more in the year that followed —two stories that I'll share in part two. The lesson was simple enough. New family connections always start with an open mind, empathy, and a big heart.

"I want you to know you will always be part of my family," she told us. And my Aunt Roxanne will always be part of ours. Good night and good luck.
 

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