We Are Family: Adopted Maui Woman Discovers 8 Siblings through 23andMe
December 25, 2020, 8:19 AM HST
* Updated December 25, 11:18 AM
In June 2019, Maui resident Lynn Mendelsohn decided to spit into a tube and ship it to 23andMe, the popular genetics testing and analysis company.
Mendelsohn always knew she was adopted. It was not a family secret. But being adopted was never part of her identity. She didn’t even tell her second husband Ed this part of her past for more than a decade.
While she knows it may seem strange to many, through the years she never developed a curiosity or desire to find her birth parents. And, at age 68, that was still true when she sent her DNA to 23andMe, and waited for the results.
She was not searching for long lost family. Mendelsohn, who was raised Jewish, thought it was about time to learn her ethnicity.
When the email came from 23andMe, she found out she is 49 percent Italian, “which explains why I talk with my hands,” she said.
And, she discovered, she has 8, yes 8, siblings – and that is just on her birth mother’s side.
There’s Joann, Joe, Albert, John, Angela, Robert, Gina and Richard, and they all live in South Jersey.
That sibling discovery didn’t happen instantly. Mendelsohn looked at the immediate genetic test results and was fascinated to see the start of her lineage in Africa, going through Europe, England and America. This was the information she was seeking.
It was not until two days later that she got an email from a 32-year-old woman named Annemarie Young, who wrote: “I think you may be my aunt.”
It went on to say: “Can you tell me something about yourself?”
Mendelsohn wrote back that she didn’t have much information to provide other than the facts she was adopted at birth and born on March 28, 1951 in the Philadelphia Hospital.
Annemarie said she would check with her father and get back to Mendelsohn. And a few days later she did: “Yes, my dad confirmed it. You are his sister. The family only found out about you about three years ago.”
Annemarie proceed to tell Mendelsohn to sit down: “You don’t just have one brother, you have eight brothers and sisters.”
It sunk in when Mendelsohn looked at a group photo filled with relatives she never knew existed: “I was shocked.” All the siblings, who were alive and well, were the children of her birth mother, Alberta Cappolina, who had died about 25 years earlier.
Finding long lost relatives, especially through online ancestry companies, does not always turn out happily ever after. Mendelsohn was more than a little apprehensive. But she soon would learn that two of her sisters had been searching for her.
Lynn and Ed Mendelsohn happily related the story recently from their lanai in Kihei, hoping a heartwarming story would bring joy at the end of a difficult year. Discovering a loving family, even if separated by thousands of miles and an ocean, is precious. “And it means I now spend a fortune in holiday cards,” Lynn said.
The Mendelsohns met and lived in South Florida, where Ed worked as a vice president for a Fortune 500 company and Lynn worked as an administrative assistant. After years of coming to Maui to vacation in a timeshare unit, they decided the island was the relaxing place they would retire. They bought a ground floor condo and moved here permanently three years ago.
Lynn said the family who adopted her at birth were wonderful, and the reason she never needed to find her birth parents. But one by one her family dwindled. Her grandparents died. Her father died, when she was just 20. Her only sibling, an adopted brother, passed away in 2013 from a stroke in his mid-50s. And her only child, a son with model looks, tragically died at age 34 in 2009 after long-term complications from an assault on Miami Beach.
“When we moved to Maui, all I had left was my mother, so we dragged her with us,” she said.
“Mom loved it here. She had two wonderful years before dying just a few weeks shy of 97. She was sharp and beautiful to the end.”
Two days after her mother’s death, Lynn decided it was time to send in the 23andMe kit with DNA that could provide some answers about her ethnicity. Mendelsohn explained that looking for biological family was so far off her radar that she never told Ed, her soulmate of 15 years at the time, that she was adopted until she was about to open the email with her lab results.
When Mendelsohn finally told Ed she was adopted, he smiled and responded: “No you are not.” It was about the same response Mendelsohn gave Ed when he revealed on a date that his birthday also was 3-28-51 – the exact same day she was born. Some things are just meant to be.
In South Jersey, there also was apprehension mixed with excitement when word got out among the Cappolina siblings about the discovery of an older sister. The adoption of their mother’s first child had been a big family secret.
The five brothers were more skeptical while there was pure excitement among the three sisters, who took 23andMe genetic tests to confirm the findings.
But Joann Cappolina said she didn’t need the results to know Mendelsohn was her sister: “When I saw a photo of her, I knew it was true. I think she looks more like my mother then we do.”
Cappolina, who works at a casino in Atlantic City, said there had been rumors that “my mother, our mother, got pregnant as a teenager in the ‘50s and of course you didn’t hear anything like that back in the ‘50s.”
Cappolina said she learned this information from her stepfather before he passed away. Her mom had died years earlier and there was no one else still alive to ask. She and her sister Gina tried to track down this mystery sibling though adoption agencies and other sources but got nowhere.
The siblings likely would never have found each other if not for Annemarie’s desire to learn more about her genetics. Annemarie did not know anything about the rumor surrounding her grandmother.
23andMe has a DNA Relatives feature. According to the website a person can identify relatives on any branch of their family tree by taking advantage of the autosomal chromosomes — the 22 chromosomes that are passed down from their ancestors on both sides of their family — and their X chromosome(s).
The vast majority of relatives found by DNA Relatives share a common ancestor within the last five to ten generations. A few may be more distantly related. And, it warns, “There is, however, the possibility of finding a much closer relative” — as Mendelsohn found out.
Cappolina and her siblings began piecing together information that now made sense. Her mother had taken a night class to get here GED. The family thinks that Alberta left high school for about five months to live with an aunt while pregnant. She delivered Lynn when she was 17, nine days shy of her 18th birthday.
“Knowing my grandmother, I don’t think Lynn’s biological father even knew,” Cappolina said. “My grandmother was tough, really, really tough.”
The sisters all were thrilled immediately, FaceTiming, exchanging emails and phone calls. Within a few months, a family reunion was planned in New Jersey, which coincided with a trip for Ed’s 50th high school reunion in New York.
Lynn Mendelsohn told her siblings they could learn more about her and Ed by watching Season 13, episode 13 of Hawaiʻi Life, on which they were featured searching for a place to live in retirement on Maui.
Lynn and Ed pulled up to the home of her youngest sister Gina Johnson in Ocean View, NJ. A big banner said: “We are Family.” Sister Sledge’s song by the same name also was blaring. Lynn and Ed were met by the Cappolina clan that included all eight siblings, their spouses and Uncle Jerry. There were tears of joy and hugs before they could even get through the door.
“It was emotional for all of us,” Cappolina said. “And it’s probably more difficult for her. She was alone except for Ed (and his family). She lost her mom, her dad, her brother, her son. Now she has our dysfunctional family. And she’s keeping us. And she’s happy she’s keeping us.”
They gave Lynn a memento from the birth mother she never met, her engagement ring from her second marriage.
Cappolina said she is pleased that Lynn, now three months shy of 70, has taken over as family matriarch. The siblings are aged 68 to 50. “But I still have the title as the family’s best cook,” she said.
Cappolina traveled to Maui to visit her sister. Sister Gina also came to Maui with her husband AJ to visit and have the Mendelsohns present at a ceremony to renew their wedding vows.
Gina and Joann already have booked tickets to Maui for another visit, in April.
“We really are family,” Lynn said.
Now, is Lynn curious about her birth father and any relatives from his side? She responded: “This is enough to deal with for now.”