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How a DNA test solved the biggest mystery in one man's life

A composite image shows Paul McLister, left, and a black-and-white photo of his biological mother, Gloria. (Paul McLister) A composite image shows Paul McLister, left, and a black-and-white photo of his biological mother, Gloria. (Paul McLister)
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Over a breathless two days in late 2020, Paul McLister, 76, learned the family he'd grown up with had kept a massive secret from him all his life. He also found answers to questions he'd pondered since childhood, and gained a whole new family — all because of a DNA test kit.

When McLister, a Sarnia, Ont., resident, sent his DNA sample to 23andMe, he was prepared for a revelation or two.

"I've always known that I was adopted, right from the get-go," he told CTVNews.ca in an interview over Zoom.

McLister was raised by loving adoptive parents who had two older daughters – one adopted and one biological. While his parents were reluctant to discuss the facts of his adoption, they'd told him his biological parents were a French Canadian couple who'd placed him for adoption as an infant.

However, he couldn't have known the results of his DNA test would lead to the unravelling of an elaborate story concocted and maintained by the people closest to him. He also couldn't have known how much joy those test results would bring him.

An answer in plain view

McLister's three adult children gifted him a 23andMe DNA test kit in 2020, knowing he was curious about his origins.

Paul McLister as a baby. McLister was raised knowing he'd been adopted as a baby. (Paul McLister photo)

"I've always wanted to know who my biological parents were for a number of reasons – one, for health issues, and the other, I guess, to give me an identity," he said.

So he sent out his sample, waited for the results and, "Lo and behold, it came back that I had a half-brother."

At first, the brother and his four siblings, all located in the United States, were a little wary of the stranger claiming to be their secret Canadian brother.

"We didn't know which parent we shared, whether it was mom or dad," McLister explained. The uncertainty made things a little awkward at first, he said.

But then, a major piece of the puzzle fell into place. McLister's eldest sister, Gloria, had four children. The oldest of those, McLister's niece Beth Snyder, had a photo she wanted to show him. The photo showed a pregnant Gloria in late 1946 or early 1947 — around the time McLister was born. 

"It turns out that who I thought was my sister was in fact my birth mother," McLister said, "and my niece was my sister."

And the parent he shared with those five siblings in America? His birth father.

Peeling back the layers

McLister believes his birth parents, who were both active people, met shortly after the Second World War through some sort of athletic activity in either Ontario or Michigan.

"She lived and grew up in Windsor, and he grew up and lived in Detroit," he said. "So, you know, back in the 40s, going across the border was like going to downtown Sarnia."

The relationship was short-lived, and McLister believes his father was never made aware of his existence. For some reason McLister may never fully understand, Gloria's parents decided to fabricate a story about French Canadian birth parents and pass Gloria off as McLister's sister. "They had concocted this whole thing to try to make it real, when in fact, it was just a bunch of lies," he said.

"One of the most amazing things about this whole thing is how this was kept secret, how people on my grandparents' side were able to keep it secret."

McLister has since learned that not only were his maternal grandparents and birth mother in on the secret, but once she married, so were her husband and in-laws. Even his biological sister Beth, who he'd believed was his cousin, had her suspicions.

"My sister on my mother's side, when we first discovered this, her first words to me were, 'For 50 years, I always thought you were my brother.'"

The only person in the immediate family who never suspected Gloria was his mother was McLister.

'Like we knew them forever'

Now McLister understood he was actually related to his adoptive family, that his biological mother had never been far away, and that her children were, in fact, his siblings.

There was also the matter of the siblings he shared a father with. Once he'd uncovered the secret of his birth mother's identity, he sent those American siblings a photo of himself. That settled it.

"Once my half-sister on my dad's side saw the picture, she wrote me back and said, 'I was very suspicious…but once I saw your picture, I had no doubt that you were my brother,'" he said, "because I looked so much like my birth father."

After only two days of sleuthing, McLister had learned he had four siblings in Canada and five in the United States – three sisters and two brothers spread out among South Carolina, Ohio and Michigan.

Pandemic restrictions in effect at the time meant the siblings couldn't meet, so they settled for getting to know each other from a distance until the summer of 2021, when his sister, Mary Beth, and brother, Jim, came to Sarnia to visit.

"That was quite an emotional experience," he said. "But it was easy. It was like we knew them forever. There wasn't any awkwardness. It was amazing."

Then, in March of 2022, McLister was driving home from a trip to Florida when he asked Mary Beth, who lived just outside of Detroit, if he could pop in for a "quick visit." Mary Beth agreed, and then quickly organized a surprise for her long-lost brother.

"Unbeknownst to me, she had arranged for two of my brothers, my other sister and their families — so nieces, nephews, great nieces, great nephews — all to be there," McLister said, "and it was amazing. There's no other way to describe it. It was incredible."

McLister has met four of his five American siblings and says they've made him feel like a welcome member of the family. He's gained 1,500 new connections — mostly third and fourth cousins — and has made contact with many of his first and second cousins over Facebook.

He's also learned a few things about his biological father, like how he endured a difficult childhood growing up "very, very poor" in Detroit, before serving in World War II, earning a university degree and becoming a successful business man with a wife and five kids — plus a son McLister is certain he never knew about.

'The hardest thing'

McLister's journey to unravelling the biggest secrets of his life hasn't been entirely positive.

For one thing, McLister grieves not having known his parents while they were alive. While he did know Gloria — as his sister — he never had a chance to think of her as his mother while she was still alive.

All the years McLister knew Gloria, he said, she'd been deeply unhappy. Her relationships with her husband, in-laws and children were strained, and it seemed like she was often at her mother's beck and call.

"The hardest thing I am still having to come to grips with is how she was and, had I known, how I might have been able to make it better for her," McLister said, struggling through tears. "I wasn't able to do that."

Paul McLister as a child, right, and his biological mother, Gloria. (Paul McLister photo)

McLister also feels some resentment toward his maternal grandmother — his adoptive mother — who he believes orchestrated the adoption and the elaborate lies that obscured the truth of his parentage. McLister believes her actions were motivated by the desire to protect him and avoid a scandal.

"I can see her fingerprints all over this without question," he said. Despite the secrecy, McLister said he was well-cared-for and always felt loved growing up. 

In the end, he doesn't regret unravelling the biggest mystery of his life.

"It was something that I always wanted to know, and it took me 72 years to find out, but I finally did."  

CTV News asked readers to share their discoveries after using 23andMe, Ancestry, MyHeritage and other genealogy websites. These websites surfaced stories of uncovering family secrets, locating long-lost relatives and exploring family trees. More than 100 people responded to our callout.

Visit CTVNews.ca Monday mornings to read the latest in our DNA Diaries series.

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