Father, daughter find each other on genealogy site

Published 6:04 am Monday, July 9, 2018

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Almost a year ago, Laura Barnes sat down to write what was perhaps the most important email she’s ever sent.

“I don’t really know where to start, other than that I noticed we matched based on our DNA profile,” she began. “My name is Laura Kristi Barnes and 19 years ago, I was born and adopted. I’ve always known my biological mother, but never knew who my biological father was. Based on our DNA match, you could be my biological father.”

The man on the receiving end of the message that had undergone multiple revisions was Tuscaloosa dentist John Bennett, a married father of two sons who are now 25 and 10. Barnes, now 20, found him after her DNA profile on ancestry.com indicated him as a “very strong match.”

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“I know this is probably a lot of information for you and it’s a lot to process,” she wrote. “If you would like to do further DNA testing, talk or meet I would be fine with that — and if you don’t I’m still fine with that.”

It was around 11:30 at night when she hit send, not knowing what kind of response she’d get or whether she should expect one at all. Whether that email would drastically change her life or ruin his. Within hours, a response appeared in her inbox.

“WOW,” it began. “Give me a minute. I had no idea.”

The two began a conversation, with Bennett quickly realizing the young woman who grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, was indeed his daughter, now a University of Alabama student living just 2.3 miles from his home in Tuscaloosa.

They intended to take their relationship slowly, first meeting at the Starbucks on Veterans Memorial Parkway in Tuscaloosa just two days after their initial exchange. But their connection was instant, and they quickly settled into a comfortable, easy father-daughter relationship.

“I believe in a higher power, and I believe that’s what’s brought us together,” he said. “I do. I believe God brought us together. We were supposed to meet.”

The path to re-connecting

Barnes is proof of what parents have been telling their teenagers for ages — that “it only takes one time.” Bennett, now 47, was in dental school in 1997 when his daughter was conceived with a woman who moved home to Louisiana shortly after. He had heard from friends that she was pregnant, but it never occurred to him that he was the father, he said.

Bennett reached out to the woman on Facebook after meeting Barnes, and learned her brother and his wife had adopted the baby. She had assumed the father was a previous boyfriend who signed over his parental rights before the adoption, Bennett said. Barnes grew up in a happy home with a much older brother and sister, and when she was 12 or 13, eventually figured out that her aunt was her biological mother.

“I felt apologetic because I hadn’t participated in her life. I didn’t know she was alive, but I felt guilty for not participating,” Bennett said. “I felt like I owed her adoptive parents an explanation and almost an apology because they had raised a child that was mine, but I had no knowledge of it.”

Barnes wasn’t looking for her father when she submitted the DNA sample to ancestry.com. She was working at a church daycare gym in August 2017 when she opened the app to show a friend the DNA profile and was surprised to see that it had matched her so strongly with Bennett.

The app also showed 526 matches with distant cousins with small amounts of shared DNA. Her biological mother’s other daughter showed up high on the list, so she was confident the results were accurate. The report showed the two shared 3,485 centimorgans, the units that describe the difference between chromosome positions. In other words, the results left no doubt the two are father and daughter.

“I felt connected to her, even though I didn’t raise her,” Bennett said. “We finish each other’s sentences. We’re family, we can tell we are. It’s not something we’ve forced at all.”

“It’s easy,” she said.

Of course, they each pored over the other’s Facebook photos, looking for similarities in their features. They did the same during their first meeting at Starbucks, noticing the similar shapes and colors of their eyes. The dentist even checked her teeth to see if she had the same anomaly with a lower bicuspid that he and his oldest son both share. She did.

They quickly discovered shared quirks and interests. Both love lemons and sour cream — so much that they each would sneak bites of it straight from the container as midnight snacks when they were kids. They’re both good at math, which Bennett majored in at the University of Alabama. They both went through the lengthy process of applying and being accepted at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy, but ultimately chose other paths.

Both love sports and discovered that they sat within 30 to 40 feet from one another at all the 2016-17 UA basketball games.

Welcomed with open arms

Bennett said his wife, sons and parents welcomed Barnes into the family with open arms.

“It was a shock for all of us,” he said. “It’s almost like they have to pinch themselves about Laura. It’s helped that we’ve all been honest about it.”

Barnes visits with the family around once a week, to watch football games or have dinner. Bennett’s learning how to be a father to a daughter. He went shopping for a cross necklace that she now wears, takes photos with her and walks her to her car as they’re leaving restaurants.

“It’s been a weird thing, but it’s been neat, it’s been a really great experience,” he said.

“There’s a book on how to get through a break-up and a book on how to get through a divorce, but there’s not a book on how to meet your dad,” she said. “It’s gone so well, when it could have gone so many other different ways.”

Barnes said when she was around 10, she announced to her mother that she wanted a younger brother.

“I prayed and prayed and prayed for God to give me a little brother,” she said.

“The way we figured, that’s around the time Jackson was born,” Bennett said of his youngest son, who turns 10 today.

“It just took me a while to find him,” she said.

They’ve looked through old photos and found one that shows a striking resemblance between facial expressions of Bennett’s mother and daughter.

“This picture is what really did it for me,” Barnes said, showing the photo of her grandmother when she was 16. “I sent that picture to my mom and she was like, ‘I’ve gotten that look from you before.’ “

Barnes compiled an album with photos of her through the years that she gave her father for Christmas. Both teared up a little when talking about the gift that highlights the years they missed together.

“The only regrets I have are when I see a picture of her when she was maybe 9 years old,” Bennett said. “I would just love to hug that child, one time.”

“We’ve had to embrace it. I think this is the way it was supposed to happen. There were 19 years that we didn’t have together, but we’ve got the next 19. That’s the gift,” he said. “This is an amazing story, to us. You talk about how you make your own story. God gave us this story, we just tell it. It’s something we’re going forward with and that we’re grateful for.”