By Brittany Natale
A genetic journey can be both exhilarating and rewarding. You may uncover once unknown relatives, rich with stories that add more color to your family history. But you may not expect that delving deeper into your DNA could also help to reunite childhood friends. Yet for two middle-aged women, their DNA exploration not only connected them with new family, but also helped them connect two old friends.
Cindy and Mindy live in separate states hundreds of miles apart and were drawn to 23andMe for different reasons. However, they quickly learned they had much more in common then they’d ever expected – Cindy and Mindy discovered that they are half-sisters.
“Mindy had only been on 23andMe for one month and I for two months when this all took place,” said Cindy, “It was surely meant to be.”
A Day Like Any Other
Cindy, who lives in Sandborn, Indiana, kept hitting brick walls while searching for information about her father, John. He had divorced her mother when Cindy was just a child, and died young. She wanted to learn a bit more about him.
When she turned to DNA testing, Cindy discovered something that was at first puzzling. Although she had grown up thinking John was in fact her birth father, his family DNA matched with her older sister’s but not her own. Curious and determined to find out why, she used 23andMe’s DNA Relatives tool to help solve this family mystery. What she discovered, however, was something she was not expecting.
“I forgot about [23andMe] for a month or so, then I got back on and realized that I had the settings set on private,” shares Cindy, “I changed my settings to public and within hours I got a match that read, ‘this person is your half sister’. I was shocked”.
That person was Mindy, who lives more than 700 miles away in Norfolk, Virginia. And around the same time Cindy made her jaw-dropping discovery, Mindy was also getting the surprise of her life.
“My son and I had been on the site for only a month,” says Mindy, “One Friday I came into work and turned on my computer and saw that I got a message on 23andMe [from Cindy] that read, ‘Imagine my surprise when I got a message from 23andMe that said that you are my half sister’. I must have responded to her email immediately.”
It took a little while to figure out how these two strangers were in fact sisters.
Excitedly conversing via email, the two traded details on their family. They each also talked separately with family members, and together they were able to sketch out the story.
It turns out Cindy’s mother, Charlotte, had briefly dated a man named Marvin, Mindy’s father.
The two got together while Charlotte was separated from her husband John. But after the ever so brief affair ended, Charlotte got back together with John. Soon after she found out she was pregnant with Cindy, her third child. They always just assumed Cindy was John’s daughter.
The couple stayed together another five years, before ultimately divorcing. Cindy said she never knew whether her mother had any inkling that she might not be John’s child.
Charlotte eventually remarried, and moved with her family out of state from Michigan to Indiana. In 1963, not long after the divorce John passed away – he was just 30. Cindy doesn’t know if he ever suspected that she wasn’t his child. However, a letter sent by John’s mother that Cindy found later in life hints that his family may have had their suspicions.
More than 50 years later, in her quest to learn more about her father, Cindy discovered that her birth father was alive and well and living in Florida. After connecting with Mindy, she connected with her birth father, Marvin, and they were able to use 23andMe to confirm that she indeed was his daughter.
However, the story does not end here.
Way Back When
Cindy and Mindy’s story is wonderful and special in many ways, but it has one more twist that takes it to another level.
Remember Cindy’s mom, Charlotte, who remarried after divorcing John? Her second husband, Ralph, also adopted her children, Cindy included. The twist in this story is that Ralph was once close friends with Marvin. Or to put this another way, Ralph had unknowingly raised the child of one of his closest friends from his youth: Marvin, a guy he affectionately nicknamed, Corky.
This was way back in the early 1950’s, when Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and Patti Page dominated the radio airwaves. As the country began revving up to fight in the Korean War, Ralph and Marvin, two close childhood friends, decided to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.
“I went into service in late 1949,” said Ralph, “and Corky came into the service a couple of months after I did.”
Even though they enlisted a few months apart, they lucked out and ended up serving together.
“Instead of going to Korea, I got sent to McGhee-Tyson Radar Unit in Tennessee, and Ralph was there,” Marvin said. “I walked into the hotel, it was the Fort Crane Hotel, and I said, ‘Do you have a Ralph Boyer here?’ and they said ‘Yes’, so I went knocking on his door and he couldn’t believe it. He just looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here!?’”
The two, who were friends since grade school in Michigan, were tasked with guarding a site where atomic bombs were made. When they both got out of the service the two young men, still just in their early 20s, remained close friends.
“When we got out of the service we double dated for awhile,” said Marvin, “I guess that is the genesis of when this whole thing started.”
Marvin dated Cindy’s mother, Charlotte, while Ralph dated one of her girlfriends.
“We were really close,” said Ralph, “He was my best buddy, so that’s the way it was.”
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However, as the 1960’s came to a close, the two fell out of touch, and it was Ralph who eventually married Charlotte. They moved out of state to Indiana. Marvin wed another one of their childhood friends and started a family of his own, three sons and a daughter, in Michigan. Ralph was even the best man at Marvin’s wedding.
“I hadn’t been in touch with Corky since 1970,” said Ralph, “so it had been many years since I had seen or even heard from him”.
Reuniting and Connecting
After Mindy and Cindy connected, they wanted to make sure that Ralph and Marvin also got the opportunity to reconnect.
When the group finally got together for the first time this past January in Florida, the place where Marvin and his wife now call home, they clicked instantly. Old stories and memories were recalled, each person finding out more about each other and making up for lost time: Mindy and Cindy spoke of the uncanny coincidences they share, such as how they have rhyming names, and both have a granddaughter named Violet. While the two sisters finally got to speak in person and cultivate their kindred connection, Ralph and Marvin reminisced about their childhood and time in the service. They even recreated the photos they took some 50 years ago while stationed at their military base.
Each had a memorable experience – a friendship was reunited after nearly half a century, and two siblings were brought together after a lifetime apart.
“The odds against all of this happening are astronomical,” said Cindy, “ I survived cancer. I happened to get on 23andMe. Marvin will be 87 in April, my dad [Ralph] is already 87. That they are even alive to tell this story, and complete this story, is amazing”.
Mindy, Cindy, and their fathers all stay in touch and talk often. This summer, they are planning to reconvene at a larger family reunion down in Asheville , North Carolina. It will be here that Cindy will finally get to meet her extended relatives and learn more about the family that, until recently, she never knew she had.
“It is strange how it all worked out,” said Marvin, “but my daughter, Mindy, has always said she wanted a sister, so now she finally has one!”
Brittany Natale is a freelance writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in publications such as i-D, Teen Vogue, The Village Voice, Nylon, Domino, L’Officiel, and AnOther.