What seemed like a fun family project led to a shocking discovery for Dave and Debi Brundage of Roanoke.
Like many others have done, they decided to look into their family history. In doing so, the couple — who are in their 60s — learned through DNA testing that for each of them, the men they had spent their entire lives believing were their biological fathers were not.
Debi was actually raised by the man she thought was her biological father. Dave’s thought-to-be biological dad had long since separated from his mother when Dave was young, but it was still nonetheless a stunning revelation for him and Debi.
“I was in disbelief. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the story was behind this finding,” Debi recalled. “I grew up in a very close and loving family. My two sisters and I spent many days crying and looking back trying to find any clues. I’m not sure to this day that the story my bio-father tells me is all true.”
Dave, while shocked, said he was happy with the discovery, given the relationship — or lack thereof — he’d had with the man he had believed to be his biological dad.
“The man I thought was my bio-father did not raise me. He was not a very good human being,” Dave said. “I’ve not had any relationship with him since I was 17 years old.
“As far as I can tell no one knew but my mom. She kept her secret until I was 63 and she was 82. I believe her intention was to take that secret to her grave.”
However, something didn’t add up after Dave went on Ancestry.com about five years ago. So, at Debi’s 60th birthday party he asked his mom, “Is there a possibility that Andy is not my bio father?” Dave said she emphatically answered “NO!” Then, he explained to her that, according to Ancestry.com he is 36% Italian and that she had zero Italian heritage.
“That means my bio father had to be 72% Italian,” he said, adding that he then asked, “Mom, Andy is Swedish/Danish? He isn’t 72% Italian.”
After some moments of silence, she told him, “Well, there was this guy named Ralph ...”
Finding their real dads
Determined to find his real father, Dave tracked down a man who lived in San Antonio. Dave learned he had died in 2009, but Dave noted you only have to look at pictures of him and his late half-brother Richie to verify it.
“Richie is nearly a carbon copy of me,” he said.
Ralph had served in the military and retired from the bank industry as a vice president, he said.
Just like Dave and Andy, Ralph served in the Marines. Dave was born in a Naval hospital in San Diego and grew up in Vegas.
Debi’s task was more challenging. The parents who had raised her — including her late stepdad — had died. Still, with the help of her family, she was able to find her biological dad, Bob, who was in Bakersfield, California, but now lives in San Antonio.
“He said it had nothing to do with me. He has family in San Antonio,” Debi said.
Among the things Debi learned was that Bob was actually a friend of some other folks in her family’s life as she was growing up in Orange County, California, folks she said she remembered well. She said she was also told by his wife that he carried a photo of Debi as a baby in his wallet for many years.
After much trepidation, Debi worked up the nerve to speak with Bob. She said the conversations didn’t lead to any sort of fairytale reunion, however.
“We talked off and on for about two years, but unfortunately it was not always a joyful situation. My parents raised me to always be respectful to others, so I was determined to be kind to this stranger,” she said. “I decided I had to create some boundaries. We haven’t spoken in about two years now.”
Debi said Bob told her he last saw her when she was 3 months old. She said he told her that George, the man she thought was her real dad, told him to stay away from the family and threatened him.
“He had no idea why my mom didn’t tell me. I think it was the late 50s, a very different time, and my folks were very Catholic. Crazy, huh?” Debi said. “My two sisters and I think there was a time when my mom was near the end that she wanted to tell me. She called for me and said she needed to talk to me right away. But I think she decided against it before I got there.
“It would be hard to drop that bomb on the three of us girls just as she was leaving us. She just talked about something random instead.”
A good thing that did come out of it, though, Debi found a new half-sister and they became very close. In fact, it was Sheri who connected Debi with Bob.
“She was very skeptical about chatting with me because she had already had some experience with our bio-father,” Debi remembered. “Sheri took a chance on me, which I am very grateful for. She was able to confirm his name and also had an address from years ago. Within 24 hours, I had a phone number and called.
“Just the opposite of my bio-father, she and her family have brought so much joy and love to my entire family.”
Debi added that her daughter was curious and spoke with Bob initially, but quickly decided to eliminate him from her life.
As for Dave’s bio-father, he said his kids and grandkids never knew Andy and had no connection to him, but they became very interested in Ralph’s story.
“We now have a catchphrase when talking about this issue, ‘Well, there was this guy named Ralph,’” he said with a smile.
Of course, with the discovery came a reshaping of their family trees. “We are Italians!” Dave said gleefully. “I gained a deceased brother and a deceased sister, and one living sister. I was able to go to Missouri and meet her. Unfortunately, she passed several months after we met from cancer that had metastasized throughout most of her body.
“I have developed relationships with a niece and a nephew.”
Debi said Sheri and her family coming into her life “filled a place in my heart that I didn’t completely realize was empty. It is the best thing that came from this whole experience.
“Unfortunately, due to finding out about this story so late in life, everyone who knew my parents is deceased. Many older cousins and such too, could not even believe it. If it wasn’t for DNA proof, I think we all would have laughed this away.”
Advice for others
Debi said there is still a huge sense of wonder about how the story goes from the perspective of her mom and the dad who raised her — something she’ll never learn. Still, she said she feels a sense of completeness now that is hard to explain.
“It’s like I knew something was always missing or different about me. You can see the obvious physical differences in pictures of my sisters and me,” she said. “I definitely warn people now when delving into their DNA to be prepared for anything.
“Of course, you feel the gamut of emotions. Sadness for my parents that they carried this to their graves. Grateful to my dad for being the ‘best dad in the world.’ Curious, who knew and what they knew. Forgiving my mom for being a possibly ‘imperfect human.’ Also, grateful for finding this news late in life with the maturity to accept it. Elated for finding my new sister.”
Dave said he has advice for anyone interested in doing their own ancestry-search.
“The same advice I gave my younger sister, Kerry — same mom as mine.”
He told her to think long and hard about how it would affect her if she found out her dad was not her biological dad.
“She has decided not to get the test.”