Teresa Foley grew up knowing that her 83-year-old father, Herbert, who now lives in Idaho, had never met his own father. The family history was so complicated, so shrouded in silence through the decades, that Herbert Foley has never even known for certain who his father was.
After several years of online research and a fair amount of DNA testing of cooperative strangers the Winters woman located the name of her father's father and two long-lost biological half-siblings, who live in Arcata and Texas.
In doing so, she solved a family mystery going back more than 80 years: Who were they?
"I wanted to do something for my dad before his time comes," said Foley, 59, a former law enforcement officer and cemetery manager. "At last, he knows who his father was."
Aided by the Internet, genealogical research has become a well-established rite of middle age: When people are finally old enough to have a sense of who they are, they want to find out who they came from, too.
"You're looking for what makes you you," said Sandra Benward, 65, president of the Sacramento Genealogical Society.
"A lot of people don't get into it until they're almost at retirement because of the time it takes. That's the biggest thing. Life just gets in the way."
In the past, tracing family trees required writing to faraway courthouses for birth and death records and taking trips to visit old cemeteries. It could be an expensive, time-consuming process. But online genealogy databases have revolutionized the search for roots.
Experts today think 19 million Americans are actively exploring their genealogy and another 88 million are interested in doing so. One popular site, www.ancestry.com, already has more than 1.6 million subscribers, says spokesman J.P. Canton, who foresees a huge and growing market for family research.
Teresa Foley known as Teri to her friends had long been told that her grandmother was an unmarried teenager in Humboldt County when she got pregnant in 1927. The family whisked her away to Willows, where she married a distant cousin when she was six months pregnant. She died in 2000.
"We were never allowed to bring the subject up with her," said Foley. "It was hush-hush."
Even so, Foley started her research the old-fashioned way: She asked relatives in Willows, where she was raised, what they knew about her father's father.
Three possible names surfaced. She located the offspring of two of them and sent their DNA swabs to a private testing company, only to learn they weren't related to her father after all.
Only one name was left on the list: George Cross.
"I started calling and calling people named Cross whose names I found on the Internet," Foley said. "I was so exhausted with all these names. Then someone I called said, 'George Cross was my father.' "
That was Jerry Cross, now 80, a retired grocer who lives in Arcata.
"She called me and asked if she could do a DNA swab, and I said, 'Why not?' " Cross said. "Everything's possible."
Foley drove to Arcata to take a DNA swab, but she knew even before she got the test results that she was related to Jerry Cross. They look alike, and old photos of George Cross and her father show striking similarities.
"We're the spitting image of each other," said Herbert Foley, a retired logger. "I look just like my dad."
As it turns out, George Cross died at age 41 in 1949 in an explosion in Oregon, where he lived after marrying his second wife. He and Jerry's mother split up before Jerry and his sister Gloria Johnson, now 81, who lives in El Paso, Texas were even school age.
"It means the world to me that Teresa did this," her father said. "It's fantastic."
Soon, he plans to drive to Arcata for a reunion with the brother he's never known.
"There will be a get-together," said Cross. "I thought I'd have him down to introduce himself, and we'll have cake and coffee and talk things over."