The DNA Surprise

What’s in a NAME.
Well, I’ve known since I was a little kid that being a “Wilgoren” is an exclusive club. We’re all related. Anyone with that name. It’s unusual. Restaurants always used to get confused:

host: how many
dad: four
host: name?
dad: Wilgoren

ten minutes later

host: party of four for Goren, Will Goren

It happened so often that my parents would just say our last name was “Goren” when we went to restaurants or needed to give reservations.

I always assumed it was some sort of Ellis Island mixup.


immigration: name?
family: Will Goren
immigration: Wilgoren. Done.
Welcome to America.

So THAT is how I grew up- the Wilgoren family with a side of cousins also from the northeast that we knew about but didn’t talk to so frequently with because of a rift in the family so many years ago. But we all knew of each other. The Wilgorens.

My dad was Paul Wilgoren.
He was related to our cousin, also Paul Wilgoren. We lived just a few miles apart.

One was a teacher.
One was a youth baseball coach and more.

It made it VERY confusing when my dad died when I was just 14. Both sides of the family got condolences.

When my sister and I heard my father had died, my mother arranged for a meeting with the Rabbi at our temple the very next day. Jewish funerals happen very quickly. We THOUGHT this was the only reason for the meeting. But it turned out my mom had a secret. Actually my DAD had the secret.

As we sat there absorbing the fact that our father had suddenly died, absorbing the fact that we were suddenly without a dad, we needed to absorb another fact too: that we weren’t his ONLY family.

Well, or so they thought.

You see, the day after my father died, in a Rabbi’s office filled with tears and Kleenex, my mother confessed that my dad had been married and divorced BEFORE he ever married her. Before they ever had us. My dad didn’t have kids with his ex. But he had another set of in-laws, and friends, and of course his ex-wife, and apparently a backstory we never knew anything about. And my mother wanted to make sure we knew because she didn’t know just WHO would show up at the funeral that week. Would his ex-wife be there? Other family members? She said he always felt embarrassed about that failed marriage. And that’s why it was buried in the past- until it couldn’t be.

For kids in high school dealing with the loss of their dad, THIS was a mind bender.

We never did meet that other family (if they were at the funeral I didn’t know it). Over the years, just a few other mentions of that conversation, and at least once, a picture that surfaced of the former wife.

When my mom died twelve years ago, many stories from the past died with her. I’ve always wondered about the Wilgoren name and the mystery second family. What if. What if.

Which brings me to this year’s birthday. I mentioned to my sister I was always curious about our name and our background. I’d love to do one of those Ancestry tests. And so she got me one.
I read the booklet, spit in a tube, sent it off in the mail. The process is super easy.

And then my email pinged the other day saying my test results were in. Boom.
The test found I am 97% Eastern European. No surprise there. For a minute I was thinking “Ok that’s cool, but I may have wasted my sister’s money”.

Then another ping.
“View all DNA matches”

At the top of the list, someone without the last name Wilgoren. Or Goren.

Actually, his last name is Houston. And he’s from Tennessee.

And Ancestry says it isn’t just likely we’re related. They say it’s “extremely likely” we are not only related- but at least first cousins.

HOW. I know all my first cousins. We all know each other. All of us. Or do we.

Then this weekend, another ping.

It was J Houston from Tennessee saying Ancestry had gotten in touch with him also.. saying it was “extremely likely” we were first cousins.

So we’ve messaged each other:
J tells me he’s in his 50’s and from the Nashville area. He and his wife have two college-aged kids. Oh and one other thing: J is adopted. He doesn’t know where his birth parents are.

Is J a mystery Wilgoren?
Is he from the other side of the family?

Or do we need to go on Maury for another look at the DNA tests and their accuracy?

J was born in the 1960’s.

His adoptive parents, both have passed away.

And Ancestry says it is “extremely likely” that we are closely related.

A mystery indeed that J and I are just beginning the process of unraveling. He said I could share information in hopes that someone in the family might be able to fill in these missing pieces.

PS thanks to my sister for a great birthday gift and an unusual treasure hunt.




About Pete Wilgoren

Author of Dadmissions. Pete Wilgoren is an Emmy winning journalist, blogger, and author writing about parenthood, life, and other stuff
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