UNRAVELING A DNA MYSTERY by Donny Levit
Updated: Mar 22, 2019
How a genetics test helped to grow a Maplewood-South Orange family tree.
On a late Friday afternoon in May, South Orange resident Patty Ballew stands outside of her Raymond Avenue home. She dances towards Alain Babineau, a man she was meeting for the first time. While two percussionists play traditional African drums on her front lawn, Ballew and Babineau share a deep embrace. Moments later, Maplewood resident Sandra Bartlett takes Alain’s arm and gently escorts him down a red carpet.
The sisters, Ballew and Bartlett, usher Babineau, along with his wife, Ann-Marie, into Ballew's home. The house is festooned with balloons. Food and drink are prepared. Family and friends grin and applaud. “People are stopping in the street and saying, ‘Where are we – in Wakanda?'” says Bartlett, referencing the movie Black Panther. “Today, we are filled with unspeakable joy.”
Just months before, Bartlett, 68 and Ballew, 66, learned of the existence of their uncle, 57-year-old Alain Babineau. They wanted to welcome their new family member with an unforgettable celebration.
As Babineau and Bartlett tell it, their story begins with a strange coincidence. In November 2017, both decided to get their DNA tested. “At first, I thought, what difference does it make? I know who I am when I look in the mirror. I know my ethnicity,” says Bartlett, the retired welfare director of Maplewood. “But then there was something gnawing at my spirit. I don’t have any children, but I do have nieces and nephews. They may be interested about their history sometime.”
Babineau, who grew up in Québec and currently lives in Ottawa, Canada, chose to get his DNA tested at his daughter’s suggestion. “I was adopted when I was 6 months old, and I didn’t know anything about my biological father or mother,” he explains. “You always have questions about where you came from, although this wasn’t something that has been on my mind all the time.”
When Bartlett and Babineau received their results in January, each began their genealogical research. Bartlett urged her sister to get her DNA tested. “I had to convince Patty to take the test,” recalls Bartlett. “She wasn’t happy about giving up her personal information. But I convinced her.”
In mid-February, Bartlett received an email from Babineau. “He told me that his mother had Canadian roots and that his father had roots in Georgia and other areas down south. And he asked me if I was related to the Zieglers. I told him that I don’t know about any Zieglers in my past. But this gave me a jolt to my soul when I started to think about these people who were so close to me,” she says. “My grandfather’s name was Thomas Benbow. He was my mother’s father and I knew he used to go to Canada a lot. So, my antennae went up. I can remember talk by my mother and her sisters that they thought maybe my grandfather had fathered a child in Canada.”
Bartlett and Ballew's grandparents divorced years before their grandfather would meet another woman who gave birth to Babineau. This would explain why Uncle Alain was younger than his nieces, Sandra and Patty.
Both Bartlett and Babineau recall a strong connection when they first spoke on the phone. “I just knew instantly that he was related to me. He had to be my uncle – my grandfather’s son. I told him that his sisters knew it was a possibility that they had a brother. They wanted to find you. I said, ‘Alain, they loved you and they didn’t even know you.’”
The name Ziegler was the final piece in their genealogical puzzle. Easter Ziegler was Bartlett's great grandmother. She also was Babineau's biological grandmother, who gave birth to his father – Thomas Benbow. “Thomas Benbow was my grandfather, the man who had traveled to Canada. I didn’t know my great grandmother’s maiden name was Ziegler,” explains Bartlett.
After learning details about his biological father, Babineau’s curiosity inspired him to seek out a social worker who could look into his adoption documents to provide details about his biological mother. “I thought she was probably dead,” he says. However, the social worker’s research uncovered another surprise. “[I learned that] my biological mother is 91 years old and living in a senior citizen home,” says Babineau. The social worker relayed further genealogical news. “My biological mother remembers everything and was able to confirm that my father was Thomas Benbow,” explains Babineau. “And I was able to trace his lineage back to slavery. Before emancipation, we were just numbers.”
The celebration at Ballew's home is building to a crescendo. Singer Jacqueline Slappy and keyboardist Arthur Jones – who perform under the name “A Class Act” – have played a set of classic soul and R&B songs. As the band works through a cover of “Respect Yourself” by The Staples Sisters, Ballew is dancing side-by-side with Ann-Marie, Babineau's wife of 32 years. The entire room sings along with every word.
The celebration culminates with a prayer by Reverend Porsha Williams, youth minister at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark. She wraps a piece of African cloth around the arms of Bartlett, Ballew, Babineau, and Ann-Marie and then leads them in a call and response prayer: “Now, we will grow together, love together, forgive together, learn together. No matter what happens, we must keep in contact. While not perfect, we promise – no matter what – to be our best, to be family, one family. Now. Forever. And for always.”
During a quiet moment after the festivities, Ballew sits at her kitchen table to discuss her reaction to the gathering. “Since my mother’s generation is all gone, having him makes me feel more connected to that generation,” she says. “I’m feeling overwhelmed, amazed, and the fact that he’s a good person, too...it’s like a gift that you didn’t realize you had.” During their visit, Babineau and his wife will stay in a room once occupied by Ballew and Bartlett's mother. “She lived with me for 15 years, and now our new family can sleep there,” says Ballew.
Before Babineau and Ann-Marie return to Ottawa, Bartlett bestows a gift. “I gave him his father’s hat. I had it cleaned and blocked for him,” she says. “That hat is older than Alain, and it’s his exact size. And Alain is a hat collector! I know, it’s hard to believe. This fills me with unspeakable joy.”
After returning to Ottawa, Babineau will await another powerful meeting. “My biological mother inquired about me after giving me up for adoption,” he explains. “She was told that I was dead. Next week, I’ll be meeting her for the first time.”
Throughout the weekend, Bartlett mentions her desire to spread the word of her story so that others may be inspired to have their DNA tested. “I’m hoping our story will motivate someone to find their kin. I know two people who have been adopted,” she says. “It’s nice for us to have a celebration and see our picture in the paper, but maybe this can motivate other families to find each other.”
In a few weeks, Bartlett and Ballew will visit Babineau and his wife in Ottawa. “We just can’t wait,” she says, and then pauses for a moment. “I always start to cry when I tell this story. But it’s a good cry.”
Donny Levit is a journalist, writer, and author of Rock ’n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. He is the editor of newpulpcity.com, an arts and culture website. Follow him on @donnyreports.