My Brother John and My Other Brother John

heart swirlMan, life can really throw you some twists and turns, especially if you’re a genealogist with genetics thrown into the mix.

You see, things don’t always go as planned, nor are they always as they appear to be.  Not every family is the American epitome of the little white house, the picket fence, the station wagon and the collie dog.  Ok, maybe I should update that to an SUV and an electronic fence, but you still get the idea.

In my case, I was born with one sibling…that I knew of.  That was my half-brother on my mother’s side, John.  I obviously knew this man from the literal day that I was born.  In one of the few surviving family pictures, and only one of two with John and I together, John is holding me in a Christmas photo at my grandparents with our first cousins, the year I was born.

john me as baby

John was 13 years older than me, so it’s not like we were ever close.  He was married when I was 5 and really not an active part of my life, so functionally, I grew up an only child.

But I actually had three more half siblings and maybe a fourth, who turned out not to be.  That fourth would be my brother Dave, who was my brother of heart but not my brother of DNA.  I loved him intensely although I only knew him for a few very short years.

So now we’re up to 5 total, with one being not genetic.  We know, for sure that John, my mother’s son is hers, and that my sister Edna is genetically my half-sister.  Lee, we’ll have to assume is accurate because he is gone and there are no children to test, and I have another alleged half-sister that has not been located.

Then, I acquired a step-brother, Gary, when my mother remarried who I also referred to as my brother and in actuality, I acquired a step-sister too, but she had already passed away.  I’ve never thought of her as my “sister Linda,” but technically, I think she was.  I don’t know for sure.  Is a step-sibling who died before your parent married your step-parent your step-sibling????

So, if you need a score sheet.

  • John – half-brother by mother
  • Dave – half-brother by father, who wasn’t genetically
  • Edna – half-sister by father, proven genetically
  • Lee – alleged half-brother by father, you decide based on the photo
  • Sister – alleged half-sister by father, not found
  • Gary – step-brother
  • Linda – step-sister deceased before becoming step-sister

So, my perception of being an only child wasn’t exactly right.

Now, let’s make this next part easy – they are all dead now, with my brother John being the last to go 22 months ago.  Yes, those wounds are still fresh – I lost both of my brothers in 2012, my sister Edna in 1990 and my brother Gary in 1999 tragically.

Yep, every last one of them is gone.  So, I am truly an only/orphan child now.

So, you ask, where did my other brother John come from?

Well, now that’s a story about southern families, and cousins, and love, and why we genealogists are always confused.

You see, I met John, my “other brother” John, several years ago – and yes, via DNA. No, he’s not genetically my brother, although I’m always prepared for a here-to-for unknown sibling to pop up at one of the testing companies.  My father was very much the “ladies man,” extremely handsome and a bit of a rogue and scoundrel.

My “other brother” John’s family and mine are from the same areas of NC – and John and I share a common bond in both the culture and our Native heritage.  And John and I are both Scots-Irish.  John and I both moved away from home for our career.  John and I are both genealogists.  John joined the Cumberland Gap group and became a regular contributor…making suggestions…helping with fundraising ideas for DNA testing…and more.  In fact, “other brother” John and I have way more in common than half-brother John and I did.

We e-mailed back and forth about our research adventures and I did a DNA report for John, so I know his DNA inside and out, pardon the pun.  My half-brother John declined to DNA test.  Over the months and years, my “other brother” John became a close friend, then my cousin, then my brother.

“Other brother” John has been very kind to me in many ways – a very giving soul.  He would take the photos of my ancestors published in my blog articles and “fix” them for me, remove scratches, colorize them, all without being asked.

One day I went to the mailbox.  Inside, there was a box from Japan with beautiful cotton and silk fabrics.  I’m a quilter, and I was just speechless about his generosity – partly because I know how much shipping costs from Japan – not to mention that these fabrics aren’t available here.  He hoped I could make quilts to raise money for DNA testing.  The fabrics were so beautiful that I couldn’t bring myself to cut them.


Then, one day John dropped out of the Cumberland Gap Yahoo group.

I was surprised and worried.  I missed John and e-mailed him and asked him why.

John, it seemed, was experiencing some issues, and those issues would eventually manifest themselves into a cancer diagnosis.

John’s cancer diagnosis was a personal blow, to a friend, to someone I had become very close to – my “cousin,” John.

Now Judy Russell talked the other day in her blog about collecting cousins.  I never realized it, but I’ve done the exact same thing over the years.  Since I was raised as an only child – not finding my half siblings by my father until I was an adult – I began researching my genealogy and collecting cousins when I was 22.  I don’t know that I meant to, but it was such a wonderful adventure for me to meet someone I was related to.  I was always in awe that I had relatives and some of them even looked like me, and like my father who had died when I was young.

When I was a child, I used to ask Santa for a baby brother or sister…every year.  That was, of course, before I understood the mechanics of such things, as my father was deceased.  Still, as a child who wanted a sibling, it didn’t matter and Santa of course, being who he was, could deliver anything.

My heart hurt for John, as my heart hurts for any of my cousin collection when they or their family is sick or hurting.  One of the things I do to express my love and concern are “care quilts,” because that’s what quilters do when we don’t know what else to do.

So, I made John a care quilt…and I cut the Japanese fabric to do it. What better person to use it for?

john quilt

John underwent multiple biopsies, flew from Japan to Massachusetts, underwent surgery, suffered an incorrect diagnosis, became even more ill, was finally diagnosed correctly, and began chemo.  John and his wife are gardeners at their home in Japan.  Clearly, that wasn’t going to happen this year.

I planted pots of plants for John and every day, I take pictures of John’s flowers and post them to Facebook for him.  I know it’s not the same, but it is all I can do.  His miscellaneous “mixed seed” packets have performed amazingly for him.

john flowers

And then, John’s mother died, right in the middle of John’s chemo.  Just when you think things couldn’t get worse.

One day, in the midst of all of this pain, the days and weeks of chemo torment and the emotional trauma, John became my brother.   I can’t tell you exactly what day, but I realized that I love him as a brother, and he, me as a sister – and we simply made it so.  It already was, we just acknowledged it.  Isn’t this was family does? Support one another, especially in times of need?

So yes, I now have my brother John and my other brother John.  Why, you ask, does this matter to you?

Well, because in another generation or so, my granddaughters will tell their kids, “Yes, my grandma had her brother John and her other brother John.”  And then they might chuckle to themselves.  They may not think to mention that one wasn’t my biological brother, and then to add which one wasn’t my biological brother?  And even if they did, they could get it backwards, especially since they are too young to have known my now deceased older brother John.  Aha, a family mystery in the making.  Not a mystery today, but in another couple generations, it may well be – and all the information may be garbled.

Recognize this pattern in any of your family stories?

But it gets worse, because I’m from a southern family on my Dad’s side.  Yes, indeed, I also have Uncle Buster who is not my uncle but my first cousin once removed, and his brother Uncle George.  However, his sister is not Aunt anyone.  No, I don’t know why except I was close to both George and Buster and not the sister.

In the south, any older relative and sometimes non-relatives are called “Aunt” and “Uncle” as a sign of respect, without respect to race.

Furthermore, I also have quilt sisters.  I have Mary who is my sister.  Here we are playing in a mud puddle after gardening in the rain.  Isn’t that what sisters do?

I’ll let you guess from the t-shirts which one is me!

mary puddle

Now Mary has other biological sisters who don’t live here so aren’t my Quilt Sisters.  She’s also from a southern family and has sistens, which are cousin/sisters – cousins who function as sisters.

So in essence, both sisterhood and cousinship are applied selectively and without consistency.  Furthermore cousin can mean anything from literally 1st cousins to “we’re kin but I have no idea how” to 14th cousins 3 times removed.  In other words, it implies some kind of real or fictive relationship – and you, the listener, have no idea what that relationship actually is and there is no standardized gauge to judge by.  Worse yet, the speaker may not either.  Does this make sense?

Ok, here’s a much better picture.  Mary and I have a wonderful time no matter what we are doing.  Here we are at Mary’s son’s house.  I introduced her son to my friend who became his wife about 15 years ago, so I think I have some kind of honorary relationship to them too. When my mother was alive, our family always had Christmas on Christmas Eve at her house, but now, we spend Christmas Eve with Mary and her family.

me mary quilt

Mary and I aren’t blood sisters, although Mary has not DNA tested (yet) so we might be cousins.  In this picture, we’re hemming my original brother John’s care quilt that I made for him when he received his cancer diagnosis in 2010.  This is what sisters do.

However, my other Quilt Sister, Kathy, is indeed my cousin. Yes, for real, genealogically and biologically and genetically, all three.  So she’s my cousin and my sister.  But you see, I didn’t know any of that when I first met her quite by happenstance through our careers.  Talk about serendipity!  We discovered that we shared Brethren ancestors, quite by accident, sitting at a conference room table waiting on late meeting attendees one day.  It was after that she became a Quilt Sister.  Here Kathy and I are holding Mary’s 50th anniversary quilt that we helped to make.  This too is what sisters do.

kathy mary quilt

Is it any wonder as genealogists that we are constantly trying to figure out why the DNA of family members doesn’t fit exactly as we think it should?  Maybe some of the “undocumented adoptions,” or NPEs, non-parental events, aren’t really.  Maybe they are just the much loved “other brother” John – the brother by choice, or the quilt sister, or maybe Uncle Buster or my other “Cousin George” (not to be confused with Uncle George) who isn’t my blood cousin at all but my good friend Anne’s cousin.  But since Anne is another sister of heart, then Cousin George is my cousin too, pictured with his quilt, below, given as a thank you for his supportive role in the Lost Colony Research Group and DNA projects.  This is how relatedness works in southern families.  Bless all our hearts!


And I haven’t given you the entire “family” list – there are more.  I am so fortunate to have many members of my family and family of heart.  I’ve gathered many to love.

Aren’t we lucky that love is the one commodity we can give as humans that is only limited by the size of our heart.  Giving more doesn’t diminish what others receive, and it enriches us.  Why, we can collect and add to our family our entire lives!!!

What a confusing legacy we’re leaving for future genealogists:)  Just thinking about that makes me laugh!

And as for my brothers John….all I have to say is that I’m so glad their names weren’t Derrell, because I already have my cousin Daryl and my other cousin Derrell, and they are both females.  Nope, not kidding!

Welcome to the family John.  Had no idea what you were getting into did you:)  All I can say is, well, bless your heart!

john 1



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27 thoughts on “My Brother John and My Other Brother John

  1. Goodness, I relate to this. I have one blood sister, an adopted sister, a step sister and a step brother. My blood sister has a step brother that I don’t have. Kind of. I will, genetically, only match one of the bunch of siblings. My son has ‘southern aunts and uncles’ that are entirely unrelated – technically close friends of the family. He has a step sister who I am unrelated to. He has step grandparents who are more kin to him than some blood family. He has genetic relatives who he has never met. I am much closer to my ‘chosen family’ than I am my blood family. You’re right! These are the family connections that become mysteries later! I am sure the flowers and the quilt will help your brother John conquer cancer. 🙂

  2. Roberta,

    I cried and I cried reading this. I am an only child but not really.
    I am the first child (that survived)
    The second child (my birth order)
    And the last child (that survived)
    My mother had 3 pregnancies. My sister before me died at 3 months. My brother after me was full term stillborn. My adopted brother after me from whom I am estranged.(His choice not mine) So maybe this hobby to collect family is not so strange after all. And flying to the center of the country to spend the weekend with 2nd and third cousins I did not know a year ago makes a lot of sense.

    I wish your brother peace and you many more cousins and siblings. Can we ever have enough?

    • I’m right with you. I cried writing it and several times since. It’s hard to be the last one standing, but it makes the loving relationships regardless of how we label them so very important and to be cherished because we know all too painfully well what it’s like not to have them.

  3. Loved your story, Roberta. It’s been said already, but your story could be mine and my family’s. To add to our confusion, there were multiple brothers who married sisters in my Livesay/Testerman Cumberland Gap lines, presenting double first cousins who are very hard to keep straight. Don’t know if that was a Southern thing, or just the result of too few available partners, but it makes genealogy a real hoot!

  4. I too love the story. Brought tears to my eyes. And those beautiful quilts, just lovely. I also grew up as an only child, lol! Lost contact with my father’s family many years ago but found them again through . Anyway, went to visit my aunt, my father’s sister, and lo and behold, the stories and photos came pouring out. My dad was a lot like your dad I guess…a few marriages, a few relationships, and voila, I have 5 half-siblings I didn’t know I had, most of them from different women. Every time I check back to FamilyTreeDna or 23andme, I have expect to see another sibling. I wouldn’t be surprised. So, you are not alone.

  5. Your story is so beautiful, it made me cry! I, too, collect family, hoping they will all feel as I do, but I am now losing them to time. I was an only child until I was 7, cried for the baby my mother lost when I was 4, and begged for a sister or brother until I finally got her! Got my Southern family through my husband, they’re the best, Love to see the DNA results come in, I’ll be cousin-hunting again!

  6. What a fun read! Roberta, you are a master at literary entertainment. Since I have southern ancestry that goes back to early Jamestown, VA before 1620, I think I’m qualified to say you nailed for us southerners.

    Since no one else has ventured to do so, I’ll answer your question, “Is a step-sibling who died before your parent married your step-parent your step-sibling????” What does death have to do with it? At a Utah genealogy conference in 2008, my wife got a t-shirt that says, “I Seek Dead People”, a phrase only a genealogist would appreciate.

    We don’t let death get in our way when seeking out our ancestors. We spend great lots of time and money to document all their spouses and children, not just the ones we share DNA with. So why would we let someone’s death before our parent married a step-parent keep them from being our step-sibling?

    Ahh, do I detect a tiny bit of fishing in your question. Knowing how eager many of us to “claim” others as relatives, you aren’t that serious with the question, are you?

    Thanks again for having the most entertaining and most informative genetic genealogy blog on the web.

    • I’m reminded of one time years ago when I was in an archives someplace. The only sounds were of papers being shuffled from time to time and books being taken and replaced on shelves. Normal library/archives noises. Then, from somewhere behind the stacks of books, came this shrill squeal, followed by a triumphant “a chicken, he stole a chicken.” Everyone in the place began to laugh, because we all knew just how happy that person was, finally finding her long elusive ancestor! So yes, things only genealogists understand.

  7. Roberta, you so remind me of my mother. You have a rare combination of super intelligence, rare common sense, a loving heart, empathy for your fellow man, the ability to communicate so beautifully. I am sorry for your pain. I am so envious of your both your writing and quilting skills. You touch a lot of hearts. Thank you.

  8. LIke many others with a southern family. it took years to sort out aunts who were mom’s best friends that were really 2nd cousins especially as they favored nicknames. Loved reading your documentation of cousins/brothers

    • In looking/ following for a “DAR ancestor ” I found a Estes- Roland Via marraige at age 70 then Via- McDowell link in Hickman Co Ky 1846 that I want to share with Roberta Estes

  9. It is evident from all these lovely comments that this story really struck a chord with many, as it did with me, and it is so true. I am glad to see that I am not the only cousin collector around. Had another Cousin Bob turn up recently. I have more Cousin Bobs than I can count and I love my dear cousin/friends. My relationships with my immediate blood family members has been fraught with difficulties and I can’t seem to make it work no matter how I try. I have cousins that call me “Aunt” because my nieces and nephews do. I have mother’s friend for whom I was named who I was taught to call Aunt but she isn’t. Wonder what happened to those thank you notes that started “Dear Aunt Anne,”? My great-aunt has become like my mother and my father’s first cousin has become like my second father. All of my uncles are gone now except one and he is still my uncle. I consider my uncle’s wife to be my aunt but I don’t like to claim his brother’s widow who married their first cousin by the same surname or her two daughters, my first cousins, who are closer to my mother than I and have basically estranged themselves from me. Several of my great-aunts are “second mama aunts”. I had to write a caption for the “Camden County” book and I had to yell for my Cousin/Dad to help me get it straight. So Polly was a Burgess Burgess? No, Polly was a Burgess Burgess Burgess. “Polly Burgess, born in 1880, was the daughter of Sarah Burgess and Wilson Bartlett Burgess and married Willie Jasper Burgess. She is sitting on her front porch visiting with her brother. Hezekiah Burgess was born in May of 1875 to Elizabeth Burgess and Wilson Bartlett Burgess and married Sophia Forbes. Hezekiah died in 1961 and Polly in 1967.” Polly’s brother was actually her half-brother. She and Hezekiah had the same father, Wilson Bartlett Burgess, but their mothers Sarah and Elizabeth were sisters. Does that make their aunts their stepmothers? Bless their hearts!

  10. Such a beautiful story and one that we all seem to relate to on some level. I was in my teens before I realized that my most beloved aunt was not related through blood or marriage. That tickled my mother! Aunt B was actually the attending nurse when I was born. She and my mother bonded and became life-long friends. Sometimes you really can choose your family.

    There are some folks who will ask me of my sister-in-law, “But is she his REAL sister?” I always reply, “YES, she and my husband share the same mother.” And they will come back with, “Oh, but she’s not his REAL sister.” Gah! She’s the sister he was raised with, unlike some of his full-siblings. Some people act as if being a half-sibling is “less-than”. My grandmother referred to her own half-siblings as step-siblings, and usually said that as if it was distasteful to her. She didn’t believe in adoption, either. It seemed a strange attitude to have, but I know she wasn’t alone in this thinking. Cultural changes have resulted in increasingly common half-sibling relationships in families, so I expect the stigma attached to it will eventually die out.

    I just looked up Sibling on Wikipedia, and there’s more to be said on the issue than I would’ve thought! I’m not even sure if I’ve ever heard the term three-quarter siblings before, but there are actually several instances of the horizontal kind in my own tree.

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  12. I totally get it! I had a friend I worked with in the scouting movement when our kids were youngsters. We were shocked to learn we were genetic cousins. My father and his mother were first cousins, so we were second cousins, right?

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  15. Reading thru, I forgot the reason for me being here (on this page, i mean ), I still dont recollect why, Such is ur story, our story. I’m a guy all of 35, seemed till now to know my roots and all my cousins… but now, i doubt my dad’s nature… or seriously want to ….did he? does he… do i have a… ? Well, dad’s no more, and mum she’s with me and i know she’as just me and my baby bro. Hey, but you… arent you collecting cousins? and do u need a DNA report to prove to you that I’m ur cousin? well, dont we share the same Adam and Eve legacy? U R My sisten… (I’ve forgotten your name after i read thru… 🙂 but shud it matter?) Loved ur words and loveeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee ur Quilts… the one u sewed with cloth and the other with these mesmerizing words!

    PLz keep writing…

    – Ur long lost brosin Mr. Snl

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