Mistress of the Mix: DNA Part 2 … The Barn

We sat there, dumbfounded, looking at my husband’s DNA test results. At the top of the list, was a woman who – according to science – is my husband’s first cousin. We didn’t recognize her name. As first cousins, they’d share the same grandparents.  We clicked on her family tree. We didn’t recognize any of her grandparents names either.

If you’re just tuning in, before you go any further you should probably take a few minutes to back and read the last installment of the Mistress of the Mix – DNA Part One – where I began sharing my husband’s journey to find his father. It’s an incredible and touching story. But it’s also gonna get real sad, real quick.

So back to Eddie and I, sitting in front of the computer. We didn’t recognize the cousin’s name. We didn’t recognize the names of her parents or grandparents, either: Doyle, O’Farrell, Boren and Willis.

“These people are your grandparents, Eddie. Do you recognize anything about their names?”  He stared at the screen and shook his head. But I did. Somehow, I did. I couldn’t tell you why my eyes kept going back to one particular name. I knew I’d come across it somewhere before, but it was stuffed so far back into the file cabinet of my brain, that I knew it would be impossible to ever retrieve the mental information.

So I picked up the phone and Facetimed the one person I knew would have the answer. Laura, Eddie’s  middle sister.

I said, “Hey, Eddie and are sitting here looking at his DNA test results, and I have a question for you. Does the name Boren sound familiar?”

Laura started jumping up and down and shouted, “I knew it! I knew it! I knew it! I told you all along! It was the neighbor! That was the last name of the man mom used to disappear into the barn with! He was grandpa’s next door neighbor!”

Indeed, as we looked into it further, we realized that the theory we had initially laughed off was correct. When Eddie’s mom Margaret and her first husband Buddy split up, she and her two daughters went to stay with her parents, who lived in a duplex for Weyerhauser employee families in the little unincorporated community of Allegany in a very rural part of Coos County. On the other side of the duplex lived Ed Boren and his family.

Ed. His name was Ed.  My husband carried a last name that didn’t really belong to him, but he had his father’s first name. We’ll never know if Margaret intentionally named Eddie after his biological father, or if Ed even knew that their tryst in the barn had resulted in creating a life, just like we’ll never know if it was just a one time roll in the hay, or an affair of the heart that lasted years.

That’s because they’re all gone.

Margaret’s remains are buried next to her grandmother in a little pioneer cemetery overlooking Emigrant Lake outside of Ashland. She passed two years ago when she tripped and fell while helping a friend up a short flight of stairs and hit her head.

Ed Boren’s wife of 50 years, Faye, is also dead. We don’t know for sure where her remains are located. But the funeral home that performed the cremation told me that they’d released them to Ed & Faye’s daughter Vana who claimed that her intent was to bury her mother’s ashes in a small cemetery behind their house, and they told me there’s no reason to believe that she didn’t follow through on that plan.

Except that Vana was arrested shortly after that and charged with murder. The story is so sad, so unbelievably awful, that I really don’t even want to share it. I mean, we are talking about my husband’s newly discovered half sister. So I’ll try to be brief. But the murder she was charged with was her own mother’s.

That’s why the last name seemed somehow familiar. I’d read the headlines in the Coos Bay newspaper two years earlier, when Vana was in court pleading guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter for neglecting her bedridden mother until the bed sores rotted away her flesh, exposing ribs and the metal of her hip implants. The medical examiner said it was the worst case of elder abuse he’d ever seen.

The article in the newspaper started out like this. “Emotionally shaken and weeping throughout the proceeding, Vana Boren stood before Coos County Judge Martin Stone and admitted that she contributed to the death of her mother last year.” Vana, in a jail issued red jump suit and metal shackles, threw herself on the mercy of the court, and is now serving a pretty light sentence, all things considered. She’ll serve less than seven years.

And of course, there’s Eddie’s biological father, Ed. We know where he is too. Ed died fifteen years ago, and was laid to rest in the Allegany cemetery. I found his newspaper obituary that told us he had been a log truck driver for Weyerhauser. He left behind a wife, a daughter, and a dog named Dude. The obit said he took pride in helping his daughter show her horse in 4-H, and Ed looked forward to fishing on the Snake River every summer.

Over the next few weeks, we found out a lot about Eddie’s real father. I used the names in the obituary to start looking for cousins and aunts that I eventually tracked down on Facebook. We wrote to his half-sister in prison. She still hasn’t written back. But one of the cousins accepted my friend request. She admitted to stalking Eddie’s Facebook page (its not as if we hadn’t done the same to hers), and said she could totally see the resemblance between Eddie and her favorite Uncle Ed.

That was the first time Eddie broke down and cried. When she wrote the words Uncle Ed.

See, that’s what everybody calls my husband. Uncle Ed. Not just his sister’s kids. Not just my nieces. But all of the kids in the families that my husband has adopted over the years. His buddy’s kids, the neighbor’s kids that he babysat, they all call him Uncle Ed, and he prides himself on being everybody’s favorite uncle. He’s the one that buys the most enormous Christmas presents every year. He’s the one that walks into the house, opens the fridge, and says, “Come on kids, let’s go to the store and get some food to put in that thing.”

He never knew where that kind of care-taking gene came from, because it certainly didn’t come from the people he thought were his parents. But somehow, Eddie had become the fierce protector of those he thought were incapable of defending themselves, which has not always ended well for him. But that’s another story that will probably have to wait for that book I’m slowly writing.

The misty Millicoma River, near Allegany Oregon.

A few Saturdays ago, while my husband was up in Coos Bay visiting his sister Laura for the weekend, I called him and asked him what he was doing. He said he was sitting in his car, watching a tugboat hauling its freight across the bay. I said, “Why don’t you go meet your father?”

We still hadn’t seen even a photo of Ed. All we had was a description of him and a rough idea of where he was. There was no street address, only GPS coordinates of the Allegany cemetery. We knew it was up the Millicoma River near a little cluster of houses just past the old store, where the road forks. I texted Eddie a Google map aerial shot of the community pointing out where I thought the cemetery might be located, and he started driving up the river.

The screenshot I texted Eddie showing the tiny community of Allegany at the fork in the road.

I told him once he got to the fork to look for a road that went up the hill past the houses, and to start looking for the graveyard. Maybe it was by the church. Then the phone connection went dead, and I didn’t hear back from him again for hours.

I waited for an eternity before he called me back, with the news of an incredible experience. He said that when he turned off the road, he found the little cluster of houses and the church. But no graveyard. He got out, looked around, and saw nothing moving except for a few dogs. He was ready to give up looking and was heading back to the car, when a man exited one of the homes to calm his dogs, and called out to Eddie, gently confronting him about why he was there.

Eddie said, “Well, funny story… my wife bought me a DNA test for Christmas to find out who my father is, and as it turns out, he’s supposedly buried in a cemetery up here, only I can’t find it. I was hoping to visit his grave. His name is Ed Boren.”

The man just stared at Eddie. Not the stare down of a suspicious man protecting his home any longer, but the stare of a man taking him in, and recognizing the shadow of his old neighbor in my husband. The man opened the door, and invited him in. They sat down, and introduced themselves. Blaine Messerle began introducing Eddie to Ed Boren through his memories. He told him about the time the motor on the boat quit working while they were fishing on the river, and they had to break off branches from trees on the bank to paddle back up stream. He shared more information about the family tragedy that had ripped apart the community. He explained that Ed had been sort of the commander in chief of Allegany. He was a man who never raised his voice, but didn’t tolerate drugs or troublemakers. Then after Ed passed, it was his own daughter who brought drugs and trouble into the family home. Things that would make Ed roll over in his grave.

Eddie at the top of hill next to the cemetery, overlooking the Allegany valley.

When they parted ways and Eddie started back towards his car, the neighbor pointed out a  green house up at the top of the hill, with a gate beyond it.”That was your dad’s house,” he told him. Now it belonged to someone else who was in the process of saving it from disrepair. It had been sold, along with Vana’s horse, to pay the defense attorney. “Go through that gate, and on up to the top of the hill. You’ll find the cemetery. That’s where your dad is buried. It’s on private property, but I’m giving you permission to go up there. And after you’re done, go down to the road, take a right, and visit Roger Lott. First house on the left.” Eddie said he didn’t want to bother another neighbor, but the man told Eddie that he really should go talk to Roger, who had lived in Allegany all his life and knew everyone. He was certain to have more  information that could help, he said.

Eddie thanked him, saying “I hope its okay that I come up here from time to time and ask questions to find out information. I just never even met him, so I don’t know anything about him.”

Blaine smiled. “Well, you can get to know him through us.”

Eddie finally made his way through the gate, up the road, and parked his car next to the small Allegany cemetery. He scanned the 84 graves, wondering where to start looking for Ed’s. When Eddie had started looking for his great grandmother’s grave ten years earlier, he had started on the left (and of course hers was the very last grave on the right), but old habits die hard. So he tromped through the spongy mixture of tree needles and moss over to the far left, and there it was. The first stone he walked up to. Edward Boren. US Army. Sep 15 1927 – Nov 23 2002. A hunter and fisherman. Eddie, meet Ed.

I don’t know what Eddie said as he met his father for the first time, kneeling at his grave, wiping away fallen leaves and moss creeping through the engraved letters on his gravestone, but I know he talked to him. That’s so Eddie. I know he felt an incredible sense of peace and closure, finally having the answer to the biggest question of his life. And yet, there was a sense of loss for a man he never knew, and most likely never would have been given the opportunity to know. The tears that flowed from Eddie over the discovery weren’t in anger towards his mother for keeping his father’s identity a secret his entire life, and not for the confusion of realizing he wasn’t at all who he thought he was, but rather for the missed opportunity to have a father who might have taken him camping, fishing or trudging through the woods looking for a legal buck. He never had that.

Eventually he left the cemetery, planning to skip visiting Roger Lott and just heading back home, reluctant to show up unannounced on another stranger’s doorstep. But Blaine had been so sure that Eddie should visit him, that he found himself pulling up to the Lott house. He walked up to the porch, knocked on the door, and went through the awkward, yet almost identical experience of presenting himself to Roger. The door opened partially, and he was greeted initially with some suspicion. As soon as Eddie explained who he was, the old man squinted at Eddie, and then he nodded, and said, “Yep, I can see it. You’re his. Well come on in,” and the door opened the rest of the way. They ended up talking for three hours.

Roger Lott had known Ed Boren for about 50 years. Not only that, he also knew Eddie’s grandfather on his mother’s side, back when the two families lived on opposite sides of the duplex. Back when Eddie was conceived. He remembered the day Weyerhauser’s yarder tower tipped over and landed on Eddie’s grandfather as he tried to make a run for it, breaking his back. He told Eddie the history of Allegany and how the Lott family operated the dairy boat that not only dropped off milk in the mornings, but picked up kids and delivered them to school. Roger said that Ed was a heavy smoker, and had been diagnosed with lung cancer, but a massive heart attack had killed him before the cancer could.

Roger also addressed Vana’s neglect of her mother that led to Faye’s death, and how it impacted the community. He said that after Vana was arrested, people began to break into the abandoned family home and had stolen pretty much everything that wasn’t nailed down. It was then that he got a funny look on his face, and said, “You know what? I have something for you.”

As the community had come together to try to save the house from ruin when it became vacant, someone had grabbed an item off the wall from Ed’s house and brought it to Roger, the self-appointed historian of Allegany. Something that had no value to the tweakers and vandals, and seemed a shame to throw away. Roger had held on to it since there didn’t seem anyone left to give it to. Until Eddie came along.

Roger went across the room and picked up a large homemade frame that had been fashioned out of a couple of tree branches and some fishing lures, and fastened together with common nails and twine. He handed it to Eddie, and said, “I think you should have this, if you want it.”

The homemade frame.

In the frame were five photos in a collage that displayed the life and career of Ed Boren. A man in a blue checkered shirt, jeans and an orange hard hat. A man who had the same hairline, the same belly, the same stance, the same proud, extroverted smile as my husband. In one photo he stood in front of his logging truck. In others, he was in the truck. The last photograph was older, a black & white from 1960. It was a panorama of the Weyerhauser logging operation up the river that showed not only Ed’s logging truck, but standing tall in the distance was the yarder tower Eddie’s grandfather had operated back in the day, before his accident.

Did he want it? Oh yeah, he wanted it.

It might seem strange that my husband found such great comfort in this artifact from a man he never met; a man who’s only connection in his life was to provide the sperm that fertilized an egg. It might also seem odd that a man whom he never met, and will forever be separated from by six feet of dirt became a father figure simply by finally identifying who he was. However, when you consider that for 52 years Eddie thought that the sperm donor responsible for half of his DNA was either a wife beating spiteful kidnapper, or a terror inflicting heroin addict who died in prison, this new information indicating his DNA came from a pretty regular guy was a huge relief.

Although Eddie’s creation story involved a man who sneaked into the barn with the neighbor lady when his wife wasn’t looking, there are some striking similarities that made so much sense to Eddie. Ed loved his family. His sibling was his best friend. He was a fierce protector of his community. He was a man who loved to wear a hardhat and work in the forest. He played hard, and enjoyed hunting and fishing, taking his boat out on the river, and telling boisterous, exaggerated stories. He loved life, and was everyone’s favorite uncle. These things are also the core of Eddie. As if it was in his DNA.

Eddie drove home with the frame on the seat beside him, feeling a great sense of closure that he never thought he’d have. Eddie was finally getting the chance to shut the barn door on the life he believed he was destined to be shackled to, and open a new door to living the life he had created for himself.

When I shared the first half of Eddie’s DNA journey, I created a DNA playlist. I received a lot of additional great song suggestions from readers that I was fortunate to be able to incorporate into the DNA – Part 2 Playlist, along with a couple of songs about hooking up in the barn. And if you’ve got more songs or DNA journeys or questions of your own, please share them in the comments section below. Maybe I can even help you solve your own family history mystery.

Valerie Ing

Valerie Ing has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for 14 years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She and her husband are parents to a couple of college students and a pair of West Highland Terriers, and Valerie can’t imagine life without them or music. The Mistress of the Mix wakes up every day with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.

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