A few months ago, my father-in-law was thumbing through my son’s new book about Judaism, which my aunt had sent him. That same weekend I was invited to a virtual seder with more than 20 people from across the United States and Israel.
It might seem ordinary to some, but for me, it was an odd, ironic weekend. My father-in-law is Christian, and it was Easter. A few weeks earlier, as my son looked forward to his Easter basket, my sister was explaining to me the basics of what a seder even is.
In late March, my identity changed forever. One night, I went to bed an only child with two parents who had both passed over a decade ago, and I woke up something else completely.
I, like millions of Americans, did an at-home DNA test. In fact, I did two: Ancestry.com and 23 and Me. I was in search of something. On a health kick for 2021, I had started yoga, seeing a therapist and addressing mental health issues. A part of that health journey meant answering a question I’ve always had: Do I have siblings out there?
I was raised the only child of parents who passed when I was 22 (my mom) and 24 (my dad). I had my now-11-year-old son at 23, right in between. Yes, it was as jarring as it sounds.
Growing up, my dad mentioned now and then that he had other children “out there,” but to never go looking. I respected his wishes while he was living, but at 35, I wanted to know. I was (supposedly) ready for whatever came back from spitting in that tube. In fact, I was even in touch with the man I thought was my half brother — the test was only going to prove that.
Funny story though: I was not ready. You never are ready when your world turns upside down.
The e-mail from 23 and Me came in first. I paused, then opened the app. First, not a match with my half brother — I guess he must not be my dad’s son. I’ll have to break the news to him. Awkward.
Half of the circle made sense: one quarter “native to Mexico” and one quarter Spanish, the mix that usually signifies those of Mexican American descent, like my mom, and my cousin, who was a match. The right-hand side of the circle though was green: Ashkenazi Jewish. And a woman was listed as my aunt. My dad had only brothers and my mom’s sisters hadn’t taken any DNA tests.
I screenshot the results and sent them to my best friend. It took me a few minutes to put it together, and he was patient as I did. My dad who raised me wasn’t my biological dad. I was left speechless. Every emotion hit me at once and left me breathless. Time and space lost meaning. Nothing seemed solid or real.
I didn’t know it at the time, but what I just experienced has a name: NPE, not parent expected.
“NPE is a term used in the genealogical community to identify an anomaly on a family tree where the assumed parent was proven, through a DNA test, to NOT be the biological parent,” according to NPE Friends Fellowship, a national nonprofit, which offers resources and online support to those impacted by this occurrence.
More than four months later, while most of the puzzle pieces have come together, some mysteries remain and likely always will given that I can’t ask either parent for the full story.
The names and identities of the people I matched with don’t matter. What matters is that I found my biological father differed from the man I knew to be my father. And, I found new family, Jewish family. They identify both as culturally and religiously Jewish, although they practice to varying degrees. So far, it’s been an emotional, challenging, sad, happy — all of the things really — journey.
I’ve met my half sister in person, and that was amazing. I’ve added new social media connections. I’ve texted. Since my biological dad is Jewish and not my mom, it depends on who you ask whether or not I am considered truly Jewish — but given that I didn’t know any of this until the age of 35 — I consider myself half Hispanic and half Jewish. My son is a quarter Jewish. We’re on the journey together and he knows everything I do, for better or worse. (If this ever happens to you, you’ll realize there is no playbook.)
When it all started, I was going to dive deep into learning about Judaism and its history. Could I still be Christian while learning about this new, rich culture and faith? Realizing this is a marathon and not a sprint, I’m taking it slow.
Initially, I didn’t take into consideration what a jolt to my system this would be — and still is, every day. My focus now is on making sure I’m OK, mentally and emotionally. As a mom, my son’s emotional and mental health is my priority as well. So, I am getting to know my newfound family members who are comfortable with getting to know me, too, while still balancing and appreciating my family of origin and amazing friends.
I’ve done some online searches and asked some questions. When I’ve found my center a bit more, I will do more research. I plan to remain a Christian, but I’d also like to have basic knowledge of this side of me too — for my son and myself. So far, I know that during the holidays, we’ll be placing a menorah alongside the Christmas tree.
Besides that, like every journey worth taking, it’s one step at a time. JN
Michelle Talsma Everson is a local editor, writer and PR pro. Her work can be seen at mteverson.com.