Constable: With stunning DNA test results, sisters build new definition of family
Oh, this will be a lark, figured Julie Lichtman of Vernon Hills and her sister Susan Dubin of Buffalo Grove. Two Ashkenazi Jews sending saliva to 23andMe to get the skinny on their genetic roots.
Dubin's DNA test came back 99% Ashkenazi Jew, which made sense, considering she has the same curly red hair as her mother and her grandmother. The test for Lichtman, who has a thick, dark mane, came back just 49% Ashkenazi Jew, which made sense as "I thought I just had dad's hair," Lichtman says.
That she does. Just not the dad she thought.
Lichtman didn't realize that the DNA test, which showed evidence of Spanish, Portuguese, Native American and other traits, meant that the man she's known as dad for all of her 54 years is not her biological father. When the sisters phoned their dad in West Chicago with their results, he realized the DNA test's implications and said he'd drive right over.
"What? What are you talking about?" Lichtman stammered.
"Julie, the results show you are a half-sibling to Susan," her dad said.
"I'm hysterical. I'm crying," remembers Lichtman, who insisted that she still go to her sister's house to celebrate the birthday of her brother-in-law, Bill Dubin. "We went, and I was in another world."
Lichtman recalled all those times when strangers thought she was Greek, Italian or Mexican, and store clerks spoke to her in Spanish she didn't understand. "My whole world was turned upside-down," she says. "I'm not who I thought I was."
Her father, Scott Sommers, was just as shocked. Even though he and the girls' mother, Marcia, divorced when their daughters were 9 and 7, the couple, who both remarried, remained close and even celebrated Jewish holidays together with the daughters until Marcia's death in 2013.
"My dad is very different from me. I'm emotional. My dad is very bright and analytical," Lichtman says. She always loved him, but he wasn't always a warm and cuddly guy.
"The funny part about this is that day my dad walked up the driveway and hugged me and my sister so hard," Lichtman says.
"I love you so much," he told them both.
Stunned by the news, her dad opened up in a way he hadn't while raising his daughters.
"I'm not overly affectionate. I've never had the right words," says Sommers, 80, who made his career as a federal investigator for the IRS, the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "For some reason, whatever I said in this situation turned out right."
Just to make sure, Lichtman insisted on a more exact paternity test, to which her dad willingly agreed.
"It said there is zero chance that he was my dad," Lichtman remembers.
"There are feelings you thought you couldn't have. I was crying all the time," she remembers, wondering if her mom ever looked at her and knew. "I didn't do anything wrong, but I felt guilt and shame."
While 23andMe offers a support group, Lichtman found a Facebook group dedicated to people with NPE (Not Parent Expected) discoveries. It started a few years ago with a few dozen members. Now it serves more than 7,000 individuals and their families in more than 40 nations, and also has a npefellowship.org website. Knowing she was not alone gave her comfort. But she had questions.
"My mom was very in love with my dad," Lichtman says. Everybody said so.
"They were together since they were 15. She was gaga for my dad," Dubin says, noting the admiration continued after their divorce. "Our parents were good friends. They never said a bad word about each other."
Maybe Lichtman really was switched at birth, which became a family joke because of her dark hair. "There's a Hawaiian family celebrating somewhere with my redheaded daughter," her mother used to say in jest.
"We asked everything," Lichtman says. Did they have trouble conceiving and use a sperm donor? Could there have been a mistake at the hospital? Were they swingers?
Nope to all of those possibilities.
"Your mother had a very good friend at work who was Mexican," her dad told her.
"If it was him, he's a really great guy," Dubin remembers her dad adding.
Lichtman just couldn't wrap her head around the possibility that her mom had sex outside of marriage.
"She wasn't a drinker or a partyer. She was the most conservative, honest. She didn't even swear," Lichtman says of her mom. "I was devastated at the time. I had the best family, the best sister in the world. Our mom loved us."
When they first signed up for 23andMe, which was a gift from their father's current wife, the sisters saw warnings, which included, "Though uncommon, unexpected relationships may be identified that could affect you and your family."
"We literally were cracking up. What could you possibly find out?" Lichtman remembers thinking.
In November, Lichtman phoned the man her dad had mentioned. His number was still in her mom's old phone book.
"What I'm about to tell you is very shocking, but I have reason to believe you are my biological father," Lichtman told him, explaining that she just wanted to know the story. "I don't want to ruin your life. I don't need your money. I don't need a kidney."
The man, in his 80s, remembered Lichtman's mom.
"Your mom was a wonderful person. She was such a lady. She used to bring you into work," he told her. "Your mother and I were very good friends, but there was nothing romantic."
He invited her to call him back later if she wanted to discuss it further. After the holidays, she phoned him and didn't get an answer. "I looked him up in the paper and saw his obituary," Lichtman says.
Lichtman says she doesn't think her mom ever told anybody and might not have even known her firstborn was his. "They both took it to the grave," Dubin says.
But Lichtman talked with the man's son, who also wanted some answers. He took a DNA test that proved he and his sister were half-siblings to Lichtman. He and his sister met Lichtman and Dubin at a Panera Bread in February, before coronavirus restrictions.
"It was like a soap opera," Dubin says.
"We met. We talked. They were amazing," Lichtman says. "They were so kind to me. I was crying. I didn't want to hurt someone else."
Her new half-brother texted her that night to make sure she was OK.
"He's the nicest guy ever," Dubin says.
"We've had a couple Zooms," Lichtman says, envisioning a post-pandemic time when they can get together as a family. "We all text. Hopefully they'll come in the backyard and just hang out."
Lichtman looks almost identical to one of the cousins, and her new half-brother's daughter looks very similar to Lichtman's 21-year-old daughter, Rachael. Lichtman also has a 19-year-old son, Brent, and a good relationship with her ex-husband, she says.
Dubin, who has a 17-year-old son named Andrew, and Lichtman hold hands, finish each other's sentences and say there is nothing halfway about their bond as sisters. Life would have been easier had they never known the truth, but Lichtman says she's happy.
"The DNA may not be the same, but that love is in your heart, not in your DNA," she says. "My dad is my dad. I'd never want him to think for one second that I didn't think of him as my dad. Truly, I've never felt more loved by my dad since this happened. I've never felt more loved."
Her dad, however, does have "one request," says Lichtman. "He said he wants Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood to play him in the movie."