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When Harry Olson was growing up, he always felt different from his siblings.
“I remember asking my mom if I was adopted. She didn’t like that,” Olson, of Silver Spring, said.
While he did wonder why he did not quite look like the rest of the family, he didn’t give much thought to why a “very close friend of my father” was so nice, buying him ice cream and taking him on pony rides.
“He even called me on my birthday [every] year, even after I was married,” recalled Olson, who was raised believing he had Scandinavian roots.
Fast forward many years. Olson, a retired biotech research toxicologist and grandfather, decided to check out his heritage.
Results from National Geographic Geno DNA Ancestry Kit came back with a mix of Scottish, English, Irish and German and no Swedish at all. He then opted to ask his sister’s son to take a DNA test, even offering to cover the cost.
“His profile was clearly Scandinavian. I have zero,” Olson learned.
Olson soon learned that others in his family did “suspect the other guy might be my father, but no one ever mentioned it to me,” he said.
Olson then turned to 23andMe, a company that tests people’s DNA. His report came back confirming his suspicion. He was different from his siblings, who were actually his step siblings. The man Olson had always considered a family friend was actually his biological father.
“Now I have DNA proof, direct proof, that Tom is my father,” Olson said.
Soon after learning the truth, Olson headed to Connecticut to visit his biological father’s grave. “I sat there and talked to him for a while.”
When Olson confronted his older sister, she explained that their mother, who had since died, had told her the truth but swore her to secrecy.
“I’m a little angry still at my mother. It’s not just that she didn’t tell me. She instructed my sister not to tell,” Olson said.
Knowing his true ancestry has enabled Olson to meet some relatives he never knew he had, and it also relieved him of the fear that he had inherited his father’s family history of Parkinson’s Disease.
“I had the burden, what if I was passing it on to my grandchildren?”
Increasing numbers of people are purchasing DNA test kits, some to determine their heritage and others, like Olson, to learn who their birth parents and siblings are.
Since 23andMe began in 2006, more than five million people have used its services.
“Customers have so many reasons for testing their DNA. People discover a range of information about themselves, from learning more of their background and where their ancestors came from, to identifying lost relatives or learning more about their health,” said a company spokesperson.
“We are increasingly hearing stories of families discovering and reuniting with newfound relatives.”
While 23andMe was not founded to help people find their biological family members, “our DNA Relatives tool does help people find and connect with participating genetic relatives,” the spokesperson said.
The relatives’ tool is optional. “Customers must actively choose to participate and are informed upfront that by using the tool, they may discover unexpected relationships,” the spokesperson explained.
Learning your heritage costs $99. The cost is $199 if a customer adds the health component.
After purchasing a kit, customers simply spit into a tube and send it back. In about two months, 23andMe sends an email, telling participants to check an online account to see their DNA results.
Kim Price, who teaches computer science at Springbrook High School, was enjoying July 4th this summer when she received a Facebook message from a woman claiming to be her sister.
Although skeptical, Price read on.
“She knew enough about my family that she wasn’t just phishing,” Price said. “It was a long message, and by the time I got to the end, I knew it was true.”
Price already knew her father had one child out of wedlock, but he had eventually married that woman, and her stepbrother is a part of her life. Price now began to realize she had yet another sibling through her father.
Meanwhile, her newly found sister also had reached out to her brothers, one of whom confronted their father.
Price’s father denied everything, but the truth soon came out when Price’s step brother kept pushing it. Their father then said “real bad stuff” about the mother of her half-sister, Lori.
Price’s father, who lives in Texas, admitted he had paid child support but never played any parental role.
But what Price soon learned was that her half-sister spent time with their shared grandmother, grew up nearby and even went to the same summer camp, only not at the same time.
Lori said she had known who her father was all along but took a 23andMe DNA test to make sure.
This all came as a shock to Price, who said that her initial reaction was to try to process it.
But she quickly decided, “I wanted to meet her. I feel like I owed it to her.”
Her stepsister, who lives in upstate New York and has eight children, four of whom are adopted, began exchanging calls and emails with Price.
They have met a few times, sharing meals and hikes. All the siblings are getting together this month to celebrate the newest member of their family’s birthday.
Price is happy to have a younger sister. “I always wanted one,” she admitted.
However, she said, “This has been really hard on my relationship with my father. I am really ashamed of my dad. I am very glad I have a sister, and I’m very sad to realize my dad will live in his fiction and never deal with it.”
Still, Price said, “I am not going to stop loving him.”
Olson and Price aren’t the only ones learning their true backgrounds.
Jessica Sawyer’s parents divorced when she was very young, and she grew up with the suspicion that her father, whom she rarely saw, wasn’t even her real father.
About 30 years ago, Sawyer confronted her mother, asking if the person she suspected was her biological father.
“She said no. She lied,” said Sawyer, a former county teacher who knows volunteers at the Library of Congress.
Results from the Rockville woman’s DNA test showed that “the grandson of someone I knew all my life, a family friend, came up as a close relative.”
She started looking into her ancestry, and discovered about three months ago that she has two half-sisters.
She also is collecting stories and photographs of her biological father.
“I never met him, and that makes me very angry,” said Sawyer, the mother of two and grandmother of four. “It has changed my life completely. It’s huge. I have so many questions that won’t be answered.”
Since Sawyer discovered her true biological relatives, she has been experiencing “a lot of sadness, because of the missed opportunities. I would have loved to meet my father, just heard his voice.”
She’s also thought a lot about her mother, who’s been gone 20 years.
“I understand” her reluctance to speak,” Sawyer said. “She probably never suspected that one day science would enable her secret to come out.”