My DNA results are in and Errol Flynn swings past unexpectedly…

ancestry-kit3For those of you who are new to this story, I originally posted about the long search to find my father, who disappeared when I was an infant. I know quite a bit about my mother’s family, thanks to their Hollywood legacy, but his side of the family tree remained a mystery. To learn more, I decided to take an AncestryDNA test and then I waited, and waited, and waited…

A couple of weeks ago I excitedly posted that my results had finally arrived! When the notification pinged on my mobile I dropped everything — literally.

I was so excited that my phone somehow ended up airborne. In fact, anyone looking on would have thought I suddenly decided to play ‘my phone is a hot potato’. I spent a second or two grasping for it in mid-air before it finally clattered to the floor. Nothing broken, thank goodness.

I signed into my AncestryDNA account with no idea what to expect but I did assume the results would clear up a question or two. At this stage, nothing could be further from the truth, which is why it has taken a while to provide this update.

dna-matches-jpgWhen you log into your AncestryDNA account your dashboard has two primary sections: your ‘Estimated Heritage’ graph (see mine below), which you can click on to reveal more detailed information, and your ‘DNA Matches,’ people who the system automatically links you to due to a shared ancestor.*

Unfortunately, I may have to face the fact that I’ve become a DNA stalker (that’s not a technical term, I just made that one up). I have now sent three messages to a newly discovered very close relative who appears to hold the key to some crucial parts of my heritage, but who may also have decided I am a fruitloop and it’s best not to encourage me by replying. Great…

What is so important about this person is that the DNA match tells me he’s a first cousin. Just let that sink in: he is a child of an aunt or an uncle. When your parents have just one sibling each, and there is a grand total of four first cousins – three on my mother’s side and just one on my father’s side – this status is a huge mystery.

[UPDATE: I have now established this person is my uncle! He was an unknown half brother of my father. Through this process I also now have a previously unknown aunt. I will write more about these discoveries in early 2018.]

What is equally confusing is that none of the family names associated with his profile are names I have ever heard of, and because he is definitely not related on my maternal side, I have an inkling of what this might mean. Maybe you do too… In my messages to him I’ve tried to sound casual, intelligent, and sane, but so far the silence has been deafening. The anticipation is making me antsy.

[UPDATE: The upshot is that I essentially discovered my dad’s father was not his father and it was through this process I learned the true identity of his biological father and their family name and line. More soon…]

Thanks to AncestryDNA, here’s what I now know about my heritage:

alicia's updated dna estimate sep 2018 pt 1alicia's updated dna estimate sep 2018 pt 2

The high percentage of European Jewish was a no-brainer: both my mother’s parents were Jewish, so that is basically half of my DNA figured out. So what about the other half – my dad’s side?

One huge chunk, essentially a quarter, is Native American but is that held in one ancestor or across several? I had heard my father’s grandfather, Jose, was a Tara Humara Indian from the high mountains of northern Mexico; still, it seems unlikely he was 100% indigenous. I can also confirm that I did not inherit any of their legendary running prowess.

iberian_peninsula_antique_mapRegarding Spain and Portugal, these ancestors were most likely Sephardi Jews.

The other recent progress I can now confirm is that my father’s maternal grandmother is indeed Ruth Roche! Of course, this also means the tiny handful of very sad facts about her life I revealed in my last post are also true: she did die at just 23-years-old in San Francisco in 1929 leaving Jose a young widower and my grandmother, Consuelo (Connie), motherless at just three. But what part of the DNA is Ruth’s? Google tells me Roche is both Irish and German, and yet other than trace Irish amounts, that is not reflected in the DNA results.

oakland-tribune-ruth-roche-death-notice-jpgBy the way, solid confirmation that Ruth is my great-grandmother, which I had gleaned from clues found in and, did not come from using state of the art testing to reveal my chromosomes and hundreds of related strangers, but from a phone call with someone I already know: my dad’s sister.

My Aunt Sandy and I had a long conversation, and while our family tree is not something she is all that interested in, and her mother Connie was very secretive, she did know more than I thought. It just goes to show that in so many areas of life, it pays to just pick up the damn phone.

Not only did my chat with my aunt confirm key familial connections, I did also learn that Jose was an identical twin but wait, there’s more… His last name was not Herrera! Evidently, he took his stepfather’s last name while his twin, Maximilian, stayed an Acosta. They both crossed the border from Mexico into the US at some point in the 1920s. Without this new name I would have been very confused when Max Acosta and his descendants popped up on my family tree.

The Acosta connection brought another special gift. I now know the name of another great-great grandparent: Antonia Rubalcaba, mother to my great-grandfather Jose  and his twin brother Maximillian. This surname does appear to have Iberian Peninsula connections…This brings up the subject of ‘Crypto Jews,’ essentially Jewish Portuguese and Spanish traders, who traveled to Mexico and the other parts of the Americas, and over the generations forgot they were Jews. Could this be Antonia’s Iberian Peninsula connection?

So I now have the names of several sets of great-great-grandparents. On my maternal grandmother’s line: Sarah Meltzer and Jacob Mayer, and Leah Alpirovich and Isaac Komiensky. I don’t know any of the great-great grandparents on my mother’s father’s side – I need to spend some time going up that family tree. On my father’s side, I have the name of just one great-great grandparent, Antonia Rubalcaba. A looong way to go…

Going down a generation, I am still working on clarifying my great-grandparents – with absolutely no certainty about my father’s father’s side. I believe this hinges on Mr Silent First Cousin. However, on my mother’s I know of Ida Mayer and Louis Kaminsky (maternal grandmother’s parents) and Samuel Fingerman and Faygele Becker (maternal grandfather’s parents). At least on my father’s mother’s side, I can now be sure about Ruth Roche and Jose Acosta (Herrera).

The fact is, the further you climb up your family tree, the more branches there are, and the more you uncover, the less you know. You become your own anthropologist following faint footsteps into the distance.

Before we hung up, Sandy shared a story about my grandmother’s life that gave me chills – it was a sliding door moment for her life and mine. In 1943, when Connie was 18-years-old, she worked as a nanny for a wealthy family in Los Angeles. Evidently, they all loved Connie so much they wanted to adopt her. The little girl she looked after was four and absolutely adorable, the wife was a pianist, and the husband, well, this is where it gets crazy: he worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Stephen Rowland_0010
The Mayer/Cummings/Rowland families mid 1930s. Location most likely my great-grandmother’s home.

Yes, he worked for my great uncle on my maternal side, Louis B. Mayer. As such, it is very likely he worked and socialized with very close family members of mine, my grandmother Mitzi, her brother Jack Cummings, and her sister Ruth Rowland. Perhaps he made films with my grandfather Sol Baer Fielding?

Who knows…? Unfortunately, who this man was, the role he played at MGM, is lost forever. Connie either never said, or the names had no context for Sandy, so this potential connection to the other side of my life is gone with the wind…Pun intended.

However, Sandy did remember one name: Errol Flynn. Apparently, the dashing Australian actor was a frequent guest at the family’s home, and when he telephoned, Connie would play it cool, as if that was a normal part of any young woman’s life. Of course, for women across America of any age, taking phone calls from Errol Flynn would have been the stuff of fantasy.

Australian actor Errol Flynn in full color by famed Hollywood photographer George Hurrell.

Hearing this story gave me an immediate visual of my grandmother standing in the hallway of a grand mansion, holding the phone to her ear. In one direction she glimpses a breathtaking living room with vaulted ceilings, filled with expensive furniture and swagged curtains, and in the  other, a large covered patio leading out to a sparkling pool, bright sunshine, and lush gardens. She listens to Errol’s interesting accent, perhaps twisting the cord with her finger, while the little girl tugs at her dress, begging for the two of them to go for a swim. Connie puts a finger to her lips, shushing the child, and with her other hand, swiftly jots down the star’s brief message on a notepad, monogrammed with the initials of the man of the house. Maybe she has already memorized Errol Flynn’s phone number…

We can never know why, but Connie did not stay with the family; they did not adopt her. She certainly never saw Errol Flynn again, except perhaps on television. Maybe she never forgot his number. Two years later, she would give birth to my father, a man who would disappear days after I was born but whose DNA is captured in my genes. He would also be responsible for five half siblings, who would become the most significant aspect of my long search to find him.

My metaphorical family tree at a stunning beach here in Sydney.

Now I have embarked on another search – up the tree, but I cannot see the branches for the leaves.

What have I learned from this experience so far? I love this process. It fascinates and energizes me. I feel so blessed to live in a time with so many remarkable resources at my fingertips. Just a generation or two ago, AncestryDNA would have seemed like science fiction. I may have more questions to answer right now, but I also have more means than ever to track down the information. I mean, Iberian Peninsula, right??

I have also learned that life doubles in on itself like an infinity symbol and that’s okay. Even if we could time travel, we can never reveal it all. That is the grand mystery of life, and ultimately, what connects us all back through time to our shared ancestors. If only we could all acknowledge we have far more in common than differences, and even our differences are universal.

On a more prosaic note, as soon as I hear from Mr Silent First Cousin I will report further news. I have a feeling the man formerly known as my father’s father was one of Connie’s secrets. In looking back, though, there can be no judgment.


Copyright Alicia Mayer 2016.

* Those at the top of the match list are the most closely related, and then list trails off over several pages, at least in my case, to include hundreds of distant cousins. Their connection is so far back on the family tree that working out your connection could be nearly impossible. You can click on each individual’s account and see their estimated connection (i.e. parent, sibling, aunt, first cousin, second cousin, third cousin, etc.), as well as their family tree (if it is public), and the familial connections they share with you; these are the other Ancestry accounts you are related to. In settings, you can choose how much of you and your information. Unless you know me very well, you won’t recognize my account name and my family tree is set to private, but I can choose to share it with other individuals.