My dad always sensed it, but he was never quite sure. He didn’t look like his brother or his sister, nor did he act like them; but that isn’t uncommon among siblings. So he wavered between certainty and doubt, like a tree bending in the wind. The only thing he knew for sure was that his mother would never tell.
There were whispers that she had been pregnant before she married; rumors about a sailor named "Thompson" with whom she had a liaison in 1936 in San Francisco, when in the midst of teenage rebellion she ran away to live with her stepfather. But Mary Jane died in 1966, taking the truth of his birth to her grave, and my dad resigned himself to never knowing who his real father was.
Until April 20, 2014.
Mary, Mary quite contrary
On June 22, 1920 Mary Jane was born in Nectar, Alabama. Mary Jane was barely a year old when Ethel Abel, her mother, married John Charles Schnell and they moved to San Francisco, California. Ethel later divorced John Charles, but Mary remained close to her stepfather.
So at the age of 16 she decided to spend some time with him in San Francisco. He was working as a barber at the Alder hotel which gave her plenty of time to meet and mingle; and mingle she did…
A Harry situation
Meanwhile in Kolomea, Ukraine, Hersch A. Schmerzler was born to Chaskel Schmerzler and Rojza Rauchwerger on May 28, 1912. At the age of 8, Hersch immigrated to New York with his brother Mendel, age 13, and sister Mariam, age 16, on March 19, 1921 aboard the ship Aquitania.
After arriving in America the boys changed their names; Hersch Schmerzler became Harry Smiley, and Mendel Schmerzler became Max Smiley.
By 1930, Mariam (Mary) had married Henry Uffer and Mendel (Max) was boarding with a Goldstein family. But Harry was nowhere to be found.
Objects in the mirror may appear closer than they really are
The first DNA test that I ordered (back in 2008) was a Y (surname) test for my dad. He spit and sent it in, and I crossed my fingers. In a few weeks, his closest match still had a genetic distance of 3 at 67 markers, which implied an MRCA at about 5-6 generations when averaged.
While I did not learn my surname because the match was too far back, I did discover that all his close matches were of Jewish descent from Eastern Europe. So now I knew I was looking for someone who was likely of Ashkenazi descent.
Then autosomal DNA came on the market, and I ordered kits for both my dad and I at Family Tree DNA. It wasn’t long before my dad had thousands of matches, but none of them were close enough on the paternal side to narrow anything down. I was able, however, to sort through the matches and figure out which belonged to his mother and which were likely his father's side. This has been extremely helpful on all my other lines.
But without closer results, it wasn’t helpful enough to give me his surname. So I had him tested autosomally with 23 and me and Ancestry.com as well.
Unfortunately people with Ashkenazi heritage are difficult to trace because of name changes, lost records, etc… To add to the complexity, Ashkenazi Jews were an endogamous population which makes relationships appear closer than they really are.
So the techniques that I successfully use to triangulate everyone else in my trees don’t work as well when trying to sort through Ashkenazi matches.
I was notified at 1:45 on a Saturday morning that my dad’s results were posted at Ancestry.com, which drove away any hopes of sleeping that night. When I opened his match list and saw a match that said “close family” I got excited. I quickly scanned trough the names, but because I did not see a Thompson I figured it was on his mom’s line.
The match listed his parents as “Private” and Mildred Mae Bossart. I carefully combed the names of Mildred Mae Bossart but couldn't find any names that fit into my pedigree. Further back in her tree a few of her names appeared to tie in with some of my other matches so I focused on those, but I did not find an immediate connection. Certainly nothing that would indicate a "close family" designation.
His next closest match at ancestry.com had a predicted range of 1st to 2nd cousin, and also showed Mildred Mae Bossart , but “private” was revealed to show “Harry Smiley”. I realized that it was the son of his previous match. This made sense and fit so perfectly that I knew I was onto something, but I didn’t recognize what was staring me right in the face. I was still looking for a Merchant Marine named “Thompson”.
Frustrated, I put my computer away and tried to get a couple of hours of sleep.
23 and me
I was in the car on the way home that afternoon when I received an email that said
“… Our predicted relationship is 2nd cousins, which means my father (Richard Smiley, born Schmertzler) and one of your parents were first cousins… “
Suddenly I didn’t care about anything else. I just wanted to get home and crunch the numbers.
When Harry met Mary
We can only speculate about what attracted Harry and Mary to each other. Harry, a handsome 24-year-old Merchant Marine was probably irresistible to pretty, spirited 16-year-old Mary Jane. Their relationship didn’t last, however, and by November 1936 when it was discovered that Mary Jane was pregnant she was sent back to her mother.
In mid-December she attended a dance where she met William Schrepfer. They were married a few weeks later on December 31, 1936. Seven months later Mary gave birth to my dad and they named him William Louis Schrepfer, Jr.
It’s unknown at this point when Harry arrived in San Francisco, but since he was naturalized on February 13, 1937 at Fort McDowell (Angel Island), it places him at the right place near the right time. I have yet to do an exhaustive search for other military records that might be able to fill in the gaps.
Harry was next found on the 1940 census stationed at Fort Armstrong in Oahu, Hawaii as a medic in the Army. From there he moved to Washington where he lived the remainder of his life.
2 + 1 = Grandpa
By the next day I was having the first of what will be many conversations with my new favorite cousin, Melinda (who could not have been any sweeter!). As we collaborated together, the family structure began to emerge.
Turns out that Richard Smiley is the son of Max Schmerzler, who is Harry Smiley’s brother, which makes Richard Smiley Harry Smiley’s nephew. So the daughter of Richard Smiley would be my dad’s 1st cousin, and his first match at ancestry.com is his half-brother, while the 2nd match is his half-nephew.
The numbers were consistent. It was so easy! I had found my paternal grandfather!
Now I can officially say that I am a Smiley Schmerzler - and that just makes me smile.