Sunday mid-morning and we were anxiously checking the live tracker to see if the Air Canada flight from Vancouver was going to arrive on time. It did.
Then, a good 20 minutes before the minicab we’d arranged to collect our guests from Heathrow could possibly get to my sister’s house, we were standing by the window in her living room. ‘Suppose we don’t like them,’ I said. ‘Suppose they don’t like us,’ she replied. ‘Too late now,’ we giggled nervously in unison.
‘In unison’ pretty much sums up the relationship between me and my sister. We’re different in personality, but alike in values and the importance we place on family, and we live in harmony in close proximity, just streets away from one another. It’s about as good as it can possibly get between sisters.
But now, in the year that Susan has turned 70 and me 67, thanks to a seemingly innocent spit of saliva into a test tube, suddenly another sibling was rolling into town: 79-year-old Tony (progeny of our father), the half-brother we didn’t know we had until this year, accompanied by Pat, his partner of the past 40 years.
Linda Kelsey, 67, and her sister Susan, 70, discovered their half-brother Tony, 79, (pictured) who lives in Canada using Ancestry
‘You must be mad,’ said friends, when they heard Tony and Pat were coming to stay at my sister’s place (she has more room than me), and that we were going to spend every moment with them for a whole fortnight. ‘A few days, perhaps, but not two weeks!’
Then there were the only half-joking conjectures about the kind of people they might be, ranging from axe-murderers to con artists to grumpy old dodderers who wouldn’t have the strength to leave the house and had endless dietary restrictions for which we’d be forced to cater.
Perhaps it was naive of us to expect it would all work out. But over the course of the past few months since we’d made our discovery, lengthy emails had been batting back and forth so often, we already felt we had a good idea of the kind of person Tony was.
As the sprightly, smiley couple practically hopped out the car —seemingly immune to the nine-hour flight and the eight-hour time difference — and opened their arms to greet us with a welcoming hug, we knew it was going to be, at the very least, OK.
There stood our now-dead father’s son, so similar to our dad that not even the most hardened sceptic would dispute his heritage, even without the analysis and matching of our DNA to back it up. Our adventure in the company of this intimate stranger had begun.
‘Be careful what you wish for’ may be a cliche, but it is probably the best piece of advice to give anyone who blithely buys themselves a ‘spit kit’ from a company such as ancestry.com or gives one as a birthday or anniversary gift.
For every happy ending, there may be shocks you hadn’t bargained for — like discovering your biological parent isn’t who you thought and leading to a disorientating, destabilising sense of no longer knowing who you are.
Linda (pictured with her dad Sam) and Susan had no desire to do a DNA test but their first cousin once removed, Simon, got in touch after doing the test himself
Susan and I were a happy, fulfilled family unit. We certainly weren’t looking for any new siblings. We had no desire even to do a DNA test.
It was a first cousin once removed, Simon, who got in touch to say he’d found out something we might want to follow up on.
Having done a test himself with Ancestry, hoping to find something more exotic than his 100 per cent Jewish lineage, he’d been linked to someone suggested as a first or second cousin, which was far more significant than the distant, partial matches which most discover and which can run into hundreds or even thousands of people.
The match was with a chap called Tony in Canada, who, having done the test himself a couple of months earlier for a bit of a lark, had been astonished to discover he was 47 per cent Ashkenazi Jewish of Eastern European origin.
To have inherited this gene, there could be only one explanation. One of the two Christian parents who brought him up was not who he thought.
Tony and Simon began to correspond and the story was slowly pieced together.
It turned out Tony had been born in Essex in June 1940, at the start of the war, close to where my dad, Sam, and a number of his eight siblings were living at the time.
My dad, only 24 at that point and not yet married to my mum, was working as a manager at a family business in the garment industry.
Tony’s mum, Marge, 30, herself already married for ten years but not having produced a child, was working as a machinist there.
Linda and Susan discovered that their dad, Sam, (pictured with their mother) was also Tony’s father after taking a DNA test
The plot was thickening and continued to do so until Susan and I (alongside another cousin of ours) did a DNA test. The results were incontrovertible. Our dad, Sam, was Tony’s dad, too. And Tony was our half-brother.
When Tony was seven, just after the war, he emigrated to Canada with his parents and has been living there ever since.
To some extent, the past will always remain a mystery.
Did Marge get pregnant deliberately because she was unable to have children with her husband? When, years later, Tony’s dad had died and for the first time Marge went back to England to visit family, did she seek out the true father of her son, by now happily married with two daughters? Did they meet again? Did they always stay in touch, or did our dad never even know of Tony’s existence?
What matters now, though, is not so much the past, but the present.
With the information we do have, and with similar data which countless others will be in possession of once they submit their saliva for DNA testing, the issue is how to respond to that information.
Tony has a lot more to contend with than Susan and I do. Not just the knowledge of a father he’ll never meet, but two siblings when before he had none, and a vast extended family of cousins.
million people have taken a DNA test to find out their heritage
The response of all three of us has been to view the situation as serendipity and see where it takes us.
Having spent two weeks getting to know Tony and his delightful partner Pat, talking, eating, drinking, laughing, being together every moment from breakfast to bedtime and sharing our life histories, we know we made the right decision.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of it all is the way that in certain lights, from certain angles, Tony brings our dad back to life.
There is a photo of me and my dad on my mantelpiece, which Pat walked by the other day — it made her gasp when she looked at it. She actually thought it was Tony in the frame.
There are gestures, too. We thought our father was of the last generation of men to use handkerchiefs rather than tissues, but Tony is a hankie man, too, and he has a way of brushing it lightly across his skin, between his upper lip and his nose, in exactly the same way our father did.
He shares his warmth and openness, but Tony’s humour is softer than our dad’s. He seems a kind and gentle soul and I know he and our father would have revelled in one another’s company.
Since discovering that Sam (pictured on his wedding day in 1947) is also Tony’s father, Linda and Susan have dedicated themselves to showing Tony around London with his partner, Pat
I’m not always comfortable with new people, but there hasn’t been a single moment when I’ve felt awkward or had to grasp for something to say. The conversation has been seamless, the balance between listening and talking just right. Is it genetic or just happenstance that all our personalities gel so well?
It’s as if there’s a strange alchemy at work in our shared DNA, one I can’t articulate but which seems, at least in part, to contribute to how we are with one another.
Over the course of their stay Susan and I have downed work tools and dedicated ourselves to our guests.
We have taken on the role of tour guides, as Tony and Pat have only ever visited London once, and that was for a few days 25 years ago.
We’ve spent the day at Kew and toured the Houses of Parliament. We’ve been to see Evita at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and enjoyed the artworks of Old Masters and modern artists at various galleries and museums. We’ve walked for miles, been to cathedrals and open-air food markets, and lazed in the back garden for hour after hour. Tony and Pat’s energy and enthusiasm is boundless.
Our festivities culminated on Bank Holiday Monday with a lunch party for 15 at which we introduced Tony to four of his first cousins, who are as closely related to Tony as they are to us, and also to Simon, who first helped to make sense of our DNA overlap.
I decided to say a few words and make a toast. What I said was this: ‘Over the past few months, as I would tell our story to people we met, I would always describe Tony as ‘THE’ brother, in a way that made it sound as if the word ‘the’ was in large capital letters and had inverted commas around it.
Linda (pictured with Tony) says she’d love for Tony and his partner Pat to move closer as she doesn’t want him to slip away
‘But since his arrival I’ve dropped that. I don’t even think of him as a half-sibling or a half-brother any more. He is quite simply our brother now, and that’s all there is to it.’
I looked at Tony through my own misty eyes during this speech and spotted a tear in his, so it was clear he felt the same.
If we were innocent as to how badly this could have turned out, we were equally innocent of how wonderfully it might go.
At the end of the two weeks, Tony and Pat returned to Vancouver and their own lives, and we returned to ours.
We’d love for Tony and Pat to move in down the road so we could see them all the time. But since that’s never going to happen, we will keep in touch in other ways, because having found Tony after all these years we’re certainly not about to let him slip away.
It’s a funny thing getting used to the idea of a big brother after a lifetime without one.
Susan jokes she’s now the middle child and has lost a certain status, whereas I can still revel in being the baby of the family.
So far our new brother hasn’t invited us to go and visit in Vancouver. Susan and I, though, have already decided we’re going, and next year is on the cards. Or rather our cards.
When Tony took on two sisters at this late stage of life, he may have taken on more than he bargained for.
Tony Weall, 79, lives in Vancouver with his partner of 40 years, Pat Cryder. He has a daughter from an earlier marriage and Pat has three sons. Between them they have five grandchildren.
When I sent off for a DNA test last year, it was just for a bit of fun. There are adverts for the Ancestry service on TV constantly in Canada and my partner Pat said she wanted to do it. She thought she had some Swedish heritage so was curious to find out more.
Tony (pictured with Linda) says completing a DNA test was a sudden way of learning that his family was not what he always thought
I thought, if Pat’s doing it then so am I — although I already knew all my relatives were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants from England.
The test kits sat around the house for eight months before we finally sent them back, in October. The results arrived five weeks later. Pat’s were exactly as she’d expected, but mine held a massive shock: I was half-Jewish.
I was stunned. I had absolutely no clue as to how that could be: both my parents were Christians. It was a brutally sudden way to learn that my family was not what I’d always thought.
I didn’t do or say much about the test result for quite a while.
Pat and I talked about it, but I didn’t tell anyone else. It was something I tucked away for later. You simply can’t process something like that straight off. But in quiet moments I thought: ‘What the hell?’ I felt very confused.
Six weeks later, I looked at my report again. That led to an email from a gentleman in London, Simon, who said it looked like we were cousins. We emailed for a while and I shared my family history, that my parents were both English and had moved to Canada in 1947 when I was seven.
I knew my mother was definitely my real mother because we looked so alike, everyone was always commenting on it. So it seemed likely that my father was, in fact, one of Simon’s great-uncles — and not the man who had brought me up.
The test was a bit of fun — the results a brutally sudden way to learn my family was not what I’d always thought. I felt very confused – LINDA’S BROTHER TONY
Although I’d never had any inkling that my dad wasn’t my biological father, I didn’t feel upset by the revelation. Both my parents died decades ago, in their 60s, so nobody was going to get hurt and nothing was going to change my relationship with them.
Of course, if this had happened when my parents were alive, it would have been different.
I’m pleased my father never knew I wasn’t his biological child.
I have letters he wrote to my mother after my birth and it’s absolutely clear he believed himself to be the father; he’s happy and delighted and proud.
I can only guess about what happened between my mother and Sam; that was 80 years ago and there’s absolutely nobody to ask.
My parents had been married for ten years, but it was just as World War II broke out and there was a lot of stress around. I’m not in any way upset or resentful: I was happy with my parents, I had a happy relationship with my father and I don’t feel differently about them or myself.
Tony was pleased to discover that he has siblings and shocked by his resemblance to his father, Sam (pictured)
My main reaction was excitement, as Simon said it meant I would have some half-sisters. I’d grown up as an only child.
Simon worked out that my father was probably a man called Sam, who had two daughters — Susan and Linda, whom he put me in touch with. In one email they wrote: ‘We really want you to be our brother.’ I had a bit of trouble getting my head round that! It was so generous, so welcoming. Of course, I hoped they’d be my sisters, too. So we were all thrilled when the results of their DNA tests showed we were siblings.
It was a huge shock when my soon-to-be sisters sent me a picture of their father — our resemblance was incredible. Seeing that photo of Sam was jawdropping.
At that point, Pat and I decided we needed to tell people what was going on. Everyone’s reaction was of joy and delight. Our children are really into it; they think it’s wonderful and want to meet Linda and Susan.
It also felt time for me, Linda and Susan to talk properly, so we arranged a Skype video call. I was nervous beforehand and Pat and I both got dressed up. But we had an immediate connection.
We were on the phone for over an hour and the time flew by. From then on, we emailed almost daily. Then Susan and Linda invited us to Britain to stay with them.
Travelling to Britain was nerve- racking. I kept thinking: ‘What will we talk about? What surprises am I going to have?’
Tony says meeting Linda and Susan felt natural, they’ve been together constantly without running out of things to say
But when we met, it immediately felt completely natural between us. We all simply said ‘Hello’ and had a hug. That felt really good.
I didn’t cry then, but I have tears now when I think about it because it was so joyful.
When Susan and Linda invited us over for two weeks, both Pat and I thought: ‘Wow, that’s a long time to spend with somebody you don’t know.’
But we’ve been together constantly and haven’t run out of things to say. We’ve been comparing noses and habits and laughing at each other. I feel so comfortable around them. It’s been the most wonderful, happy experience.
Their family and friends have all been extremely welcoming, too — we’ve been treated like royalty.
I also met Simon, who made all this possible. I owe him so much and feel incredibly grateful. He has given me this new future; I’ve got a whole new family!
Sam was the youngest of nine children, so I have 19 cousins, and they’ve got families, too.
Since my parents died I have been totally alone in the world, in terms of blood relatives (my daughter was adopted), so to go from that to having this whole bunch of relatives — what an amazing gift.