Finding Family: Ancestry DNA test reunites brothers and sisters after 60 years

In an era when DNA-testing technology enables us to find out the racial and ethnic makeup of adopted children and help us determine the breed of a rescue dog, test results also run the risk of revealing rather compelling stories.

Sixty years ago, while his mother was in a Harlem hospital, giving birth to his baby sister, 2-year-old Lewis Thompson was stolen by his babysitter. His mother went on to have two more children, but Thompson, who grew up not knowing he was one of eight kids, was never seen by his family again.

Until her death in 1985, their mother, Betty Jones, kept her lost son’s name ever-present in her family.

Sixty years later, at his wife’s urging, Thompson, who now lives in Melbourne, Australia, decided to do an AncestryDNA test. After discovering a match in February, he emailed the man he believed might be his cousin. Percival Lammie, who owns Percy’s Pies in Marina on California’s Monterey Peninsula was stunned.

“I’m not your cousin,” Lammie responded. “I am your brother.”

Lammie asked his older brother if he’d like to learn more.

“I’d spent 90 bucks,” Thompson said. “I decided I might as well go for it. That’s when Percy told me I have seven brothers and sisters. I don’t have seven friends.”

Thompson, who was told his entire life by the couple who raised him that he’d been adopted, grew up a block from his family and attended the nearby public school. His birth mother worked overtime to put her other kids in a private Catholic school to keep them off the streets of Harlem.

“I lived on 138th, and my family lived on 139th,” said Thompson. “When I was 8 or 9 years old, a friend asked me if I had a sister. He said he’d seen a girl ‘round the corner at Miss Susie’s candy store, who looked just like me. I saw her one time, too, and agreed. But it didn’t occur to me that we might be related.”

That girl was his older sister, Wanda.

Lewis Robert Thompson felt clear about his name; it was right there on his birth certificate. Even if it had been written in above a crossed-out “Lewis Kelvin Jones.” He thought it was just because he’d been adopted. No one ever questioned it, so he didn’t either. Until he got older and tried to get a job, using a tainted birth certificate.

“The couple who raised me were nice enough people, not loving or affectionate, but not abusive, either,” said Thompson. “They were older than my friends’ parents, which was embarrassing, and they were strict. When the street lights came on, I had to be inside.”

Thompson remembers, as a kid, when his adoptive parents argued, hearing one say, “I’m going to tell him right now,” and the other saying, “Don’t.” He always wondered what they weren’t telling him. But, since they weren’t yelling at him, he let it go.

The man he called Dad died when Thompson was 14, and the woman he knew as his mother was soon committed to an asylum.

“After my dad died, I was in my room, crying. I could hear my mom downstairs,” he said, “full of life, laughing with friends. I didn’t understand that deep inside, she was dying. Within four months, she was full-blown psychotic and had no idea who I was. Turns out, I didn’t either.”

Thompson became a ward of the state, spending the rest of his teenage years in foster care, a few blocks from his birth family.

On the morning of his 18th birthday, Thompson was presented with a $500 check and directions to his apartment, a walkup with a convertible couch and a refrigerator. He had a place to sleep, but without family, he couldn’t call it home. He got a job as a teaching assistant in childcare. Eventually, we went into retail, selling shoes.

Thompson met his wife, Christine, while attending a shoe conference in Las Vegas. She was there, on vacation. The couple were married in 2009 and moved to her native Australia. Although he has three children, the youngest of whom looks just like Uncle Percy Lammie, he didn’t have the anchor of his extended family to keep him from moving to Melbourne.

“I’ve been married four times,” Thompson said. “I’ve always had a hole in my heart, have spent my life unsure of who I was and what I wanted, always seeking something. I always felt something wasn’t quite right about my life, something—or someone—was missing.”

Seven someones. It’s one thing to do a DNA test and discover a sibling, says Thompson. But to find seven, all living and excited to reunite, is extraordinary. So far, he has been having phone conversations and sharing visits with his brothers and sisters via Zoom. While they wait for the ban on air travel out of Australia to be lifted, they are planning a family reunion.

“We’re going to gather the whole family for a photograph,” said Lammie, “and we will leave a space in the middle, where our mom would have been. Then, our youngest sister, Dottie, who is an artist, will paint a portrait of the photograph and include our mother, who remains at the heart of all of this.”

Thompson, who is still trying to process what he now understands about his life, while anticipating the reunion with his siblings, says he’s not angry. But he is envious of his brothers and sisters, who got to grow up together, building a bond that has connected them for 60 years.

“I remember lying in bed as a kid,” he said, “wishing I had someone. Growing up, if it gets tough at school, or your parents are driving you crazy, you’ve got other kids in the house who can commiserate. I don’t have the relationships I would have had I been there, but we’ll start building something now.”