Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Difficulty With Non-Paternal Events

It’s almost DNA Conference time again. Come June, I’ll be down at the DNA Day at Southern California Genealogical Society’s Jamboree. And on that day, I’ll brace myself for the inevitable cracks about “non-paternal events.”

It’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge time again at the genetic genealogy roundtable. Why is it that everyone seems to get so much entertainment over blithely brushing away Y-DNA research difficulties with such glib responses? It is simply not so that we can load every paternity mystery into a box, label it “infidelity” and dismiss it onto a shelf in the research hinterland.

You and I and everyone else who have spent any serious time puzzling over our ancestors have run across those brick wall candidates who turn out, in retrospect, to have unexpected left turns on the path from the present to paternity-past. Sometimes, it’s outright adoption—including those heartwarming cases where the second husband chooses to adopt his bride’s children from a previous deceased or absent spouse. Sometimes, it’s the case of abandoned children taken in, literally, from the streets of the city, as in the case of the Orphan Train movement.

There are probably as many reasons why a person’s father isn’t who we think he is as there are people out there, making choices—or, worse, succumbing to the stark realities of life. It’s just hard, in retrospect, to retrace the steps that lead away from such events. We can make assumptions—but later, need to be prepared to discover that our assumptions were inaccurate.

No matter what we do, however, we can’t just sit there and join the frivolity and laugh away at the possibility of a “non-paternal event.”

I’m particularly sensitized to that possibility, right now, because I feel absolutely stymied by the identity of my paternal grandfather. As I mentioned yesterday, he very likely was a person who, for whatever reason, felt compelled to disguise his identity.

Whether it was he who showed up in the 1905 New York State census as Thomas Puhalaski, and in the 1910 federal census as Theodore Puhalski, I can’t say for certain. But his surname shows up on the birth certificates for both my father and my aunt.

Who was this man? He was someone for whom I have very little information. Including all I’ve been able to glean from those relatives who knew him personally, there is precious little to give me any leads.

One disturbing clue was his assertion that he was adopted. But was he? He claimed to have a sister—the family knew her as “Aunt Rose”—but was she a blood relative? Or sister by adoption? It doesn’t help that her various marriages help obfuscate the detail that her mother’s married name doesn’t seem to match Rose’s maiden name.

The fact that we can now do DNA testing gives us power to leap over such genealogical brick walls. That does not necessarily mean we’ve been given the keys to the kingdom of genealogical mysteries. In this case—that of my paternal grandfather, whoever he turns out to be—I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with a male descendant of this man to obtain results of his Y-DNA test. The only male descendant, as it turns out.

And yet, as much as I hoped to find some answers through that opportunity, I’ve not really found anything. There are no exact matches. There are no recognizable surnames among the more distant results. Even putting our quandary to the test through the autosomal DNA approach, there hasn’t been any light shed on this puzzle.

So, back to the paper trail I go. You are welcome to join me as I twist in the wind—or at least joust at windmills. My hope is that, with every subsequent year in this digital age, we have access to more and more documentation. Perhaps something will send a clue our way to help determine the true identity of my paternal grandfather.



  1. You are on a hard path now...I wish it was a better trail:)

    1. Yes, that's true. But this is where you do what you can do...if it works out, great. If it doesn't...well, you're no worse off than when you started...

  2. It appears that I have a NPE in my paternal line. I like to think of it with a positive twist - somewhere in my line, a couple took in a boy whose parents either had died or weren't able to care for him. I blogged about it at From Maine to Kentucky.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and sharing that link, Elizabeth. I think I remember reading it when you posted it.

      I get frustrated with the jocular portrayal of non-paternal events, because it seems like it's good only for a laugh--and then people move on. This, rather, is precisely when we need to drill down and ferret out the clues. In many cases, it's also when we need more tools to break through to an answer--because in reality, this is no less serious a brick wall than any other we'd encounter in our research.

  3. I would love to know why the mystery... were they hiding from some injustice... the not knowing would and could drive one batty.

    1. Iggy, my cousins and I have gone over this one again and again. The stories gathered, once we all talked it over and puzzled it out, do nothing but make us wonder, why the secrecy?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...